Celeste Ng: Everything I Never Told You (Penguin, 2014)

“How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.”

On June 26, I showed up at Longfellow Books (my Fiercely Independent Local Bookseller) within 10 minutes of opening to pick up this book as soon as it was released. “I’m so excited, it’s my friend’s first novel!” I told another customer and the store manager. Except… I’ve never met Celeste Ng. We’ve never been in the same room – or the same city, or the same state, for that matter – but we “met” when she somehow found my comments on her Pushcart- winning short story, “Girls, at Play” (which remains one of my all-time favorite short stories). I’ve been following the progress of this novel since then via Twitter, and she’s always been so gracious, natural and generous to me, a total stranger with no literary standing whatsoever, I’ve come to think of her as a friend. So of course, I was excited about her book being published, but also, nervous – what if I didn’t like it?

I should’ve had more faith. It’s a beautiful book, a sad, sweet read, and I enjoyed it greatly.

I put off reading it for a couple of months, because I was dealing with a fresh batch of MOOCs, and I really didn’t want to read it while my head was cluttered with Calculus and Mythology and the French Revolution and Music Theory. I avoided reading the reviews and interviews that scrolled through my Twitter feed (lots of talk about this book), wanting to form my own impressions, even after it showed up on list after list – Boston Globe‘s Summer Reading List, Amazon’s Best Book of July 2014, O Magazine’s “16 Books You Must Pick Up this August”, Vogue‘s “Summer’s Buzziest Beach Reads”, etc. etc. It was worth the wait.

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.

That’s quite a striking opening to a novel. It raises so many questions – Who is Lydia? How, when, why did she die? Do I, the reader, care? Am I sad, relieved, vindicated? – we can’t help but read on. It was also, perhaps, the shortest opening sentence strung from the ceiling at this year’s One Story Literary Debutante ball (Celeste earned her spot at the annual event with “What Passes Over” in Issue #86).

As Celeste explains in her interview with One Story, this wasn’t always the opening line; it took a while to emerge:

That first sentence didn’t click into place until the last draft. Up until then, every draft had begun, “At first they don’t know where Lydia has gone”—a very different tone, one that withholds information rather than revealing it. But I felt that readers needed that information right up front. Otherwise, the focus is on whether Lydia is alive or dead, when what exactly happened—and why—is really the point of the novel. And I liked the bluntness of the opening, that sense of putting the narrative cards right on the table.

~~Celeste Ng, Interview with One Story

I love the thoughtfulness of this, the writerly consideration of the impact on readers and the overall purpose of the book. And I love the line.

Celeste told Kate Tuttle of The Boston Globe the inspiration for much of the plot came from a story her husband told her, about a boy pushing his sister into a lake. From there, the Lee family was fleshed out. In a charming video interview with Chris Schluep on Omnivoracious, Celeste talks about the other inspiration, her own childhood in the highly planned suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, including an amusing observation about the town’s fondness for hiding garbage and collecting it with golf-cart sized trucks; it seems this will serve as the central image for a future story. I can’t wait, already.

For me, the book was about the assumptions we make, the secrets we keep, and how we can all drown in the deep lakes they become. Chapter 4 knocked me out by weaving together a network of these assumptions (as Celeste puts it in her interview with Kirkus Review: “… the different ways that people interpret the same conversation or the same event or the same scene”), a web imprisoning the whole family as the narrative dances with the characters: Marilyn, a mother who put her dreams on hold, until, in the wake of her own mother’s death, she discovers a cookbook that becomes for her a symbol of her own wasted life; Lydia, the daughter who, eager to please, takes on the burden of her mother’s ambitions though they don’t mesh with her natural interests and abilities; James, a Chinese-American man so
desperate to fit in, he becomes a history professor specializing in cowboys; Nath, the son who regularly deals with racism at school and can’t tell who’s friend and who’s foe; and Jack, the neighborhood scapegoat bearing the stigma of his working, and divorced, mother. The stage is set for the development of these characters, as they continue to circulate around each other for the next ten years, acting in ways the assumptions and secrets of this scene dictate. Add in Hannah, the “lost child,” born a few years later, who sees all but doesn’t yet have the life experience to understand.

Hannah, as if she understood her place in the cosmos, grew from quiet infant to watchful child: a child fond of nooks and corners, who curled up in closets, behind sofas, under dangling tablecloths, staying out of sight as well as out of mind, to ensure the terrain of the family did not change.

I found much that felt – something beyond identification with a character, more intense, as if Celeste read my mind, knew my life, and wrote in some things for me personally. Take Hannah’s attempts to make sense of what she sees, or her acceptance of the family code: “Don’t ask questions.” She learned this in the family cauldron; her parents’ adherence to the principle is starkly seen in Marilyn’s reaction to her own mother’s death: “So when James came home that night, she said simply, ‘My mother died.’ Then she turned back to the stove and added, ‘And the lawn needs mowing,’ and he understood: they would not talk about it.” I don’t know why so many of us think not talking about something will make it go away, but we do. My mother died when I was 9; she was never mentioned again, and I thought that meant it was something to be ashamed of. I understand Hannah.

Then there’s Lydia, willing receptacle for her mother’s deferred dreams but unsuited to the role, watching her brother preparing to leave for college, desperately afraid but unable to talk about it directly. So she plays Paul Simon’s “Only Living Boy in New York” over and over. I played the same song for the same reason, along with “Why Don’t You Write Me,” from the same album. I cried when I saw a line from that lyric in chapter 9. Like Lydia, it was the only way I could say, “Don’t go! I will miss you terribly!” since we didn’t talk about things like that. By the way, I uncovered something interesting in the course of googling around for this post (this is why I blog, it’s an excuse to research things I’d never waste time on otherwise): Simon wrote that song when Art Garfunkel (they were early on known as Tom & Jerry, hence the name Tom) flew to Mexico to appear in a movie. Turns out these guys couldn’t talk to each other, either. That may be why the song has such power. And now the book has the same power. This not-talking thing hits a deep chord for a lot of us.

Marilyn had given Lydia her first diary the Christmas she was five, a flowered one with gilt edges and a key lighter than a paper clip. Her daughter had unwrapped it and turned it over in over in her hands, touching the tiny keyhole, as if she didn’t know what it was for. “For writing down your secrets,” Marilyn had said with a smile, and Lydia had smiled back up at her and said, “But Mom, I don’t have any secrets.” … It will tell her, she thinks. Everything Lydia no longer can… The first page she sees, April 10, is blank. She checks May 2, the night Lydia disappeared. Nothing. Nothing for May 1, or anything in April, or anything in March. Every page is blank.

I found so much in this book to identify with, I’ve thus far neglected to mention a crucial sub-character: the constant presence of racism. But of course it would be a different book without the interracial marriage between Marilyn and James. A nasty comment made by Marilyn’s mother at their wedding resounds over the decades; James hears echoes of it regularly, along with echoes of a childhood spent being different, and of course it affects him. He doesn’t realize Marilyn’s dissatisfaction with her life has little to do with him, and nothing whatsoever to do with his race. But because no one in this family talks, he’s stuck with his assumptions, she with her secrets. For the entire family, every incident of racism they encounter becomes another confirmation of their fears. Celeste discusses this angle at length in her Code Switch interview with Arun Rath on NPR; it’s a topic that’s never far from the center of American life, but is particularly acute right now.

I felt a beautiful shift in tone in the last chapter, a lifting, a stirring. Maybe it wasn’t even in the text; maybe it’s just what I wanted to feel, following a particularly intense scene. It brought to mind a metaphor: Lydia surfacing instead of drowning, breaking into the air and taking an exuberant breath, a shift from the crushing pressure of the water, imprisonment, darkness, silence, to upward motion, freedom, release, the possibility of healing, even of joy. In looking for an image to express this (another good reason for blogging: looking for strange art) I realized, this is the inverse of the glistening surface of the water seen on the book’s jacket, on the title page. Instead of the surface being still and hiding what is beneath, as the family has for decades, the spirit of Lydia erupts from the water in an effervescent flurry, giving them all a new direction in the final chapter as they come to terms with what their family has become. Hannah’s revelation of a particular symbol begins this shift I felt – she doesn’t explain what it means, he doesn’t understand the significance, but it’s communication of a secret: someone’s talking, someone’s listening, and for this family, that’s a very good start.

Mohsin Hamid: How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia (Riverhead, 2013)

Image from PBS Interview with Mohsin Hamid

Image from PBS Interview with Mohsin Hamid

Like all books, this self-help book is a co-creative project. When you watch a TV show or a movie, what you see looks like what it physically represents. A man looks like a man, a man with a large bicep looks like a man with a large bicep, and a man with a large bicep bearing the tattoo “Mama” looks like a man with a large bicep bearing the tattoo “Mama.”
But when you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on pulped wood or, increasingly, dark pixels on a pale screen. To transform these icons into characters and events, you must imagine. And when you imagine, you create. It’s in being read that a book becomes a book, and in each of a million different readings a book becomes one of a million different books, just as an egg becomes one of potentially a million different people when it’s approached by a hard-swimming and frisky school of sperm.

When this book showed up as the June selection for my library’s monthly reading group, I remembered I’d already read “The Third-Born”, an excerpt of the first chapters in The New Yorker (available online). While I appreciated several things about it, I wrote at the time: “Do I want to read more about this little boy, how he grows up to obsess about wealth? Not really; at least, not right now. But I’m very glad I read this story-chapter-essay. It was very interesting – and that’s sincere praise.” So given the opportunity to read it – and knowing it was a fairly short book – I figured I might as well go ahead and read the rest of it.

I had much the same reaction to the novel as I’d had to the excerpt: I appreciated many things about it, but it didn’t reach me.

I like unusual approaches, and framing a pretty standard rags-to-riches-to-fall life story as a self-help book is a clever idea; I liked that. I liked that there are no names in the book, yet we always know exactly who is who; people are identified by their relationship to the narrator. I liked that it dips into metafiction from time to time, talking about the purpose of writing a book and the process of reading. I liked that the narrator, and The Pretty Girl, are on similar trajectories, and end up in similar circumstances. In short, I liked the way the story was told. I just didn’t like the story all that much.

In some ways, I think that’s the nature of the beast. We have a narrator who seems to have intense emotions from all he says and does, but they remain deep inside him. For example, The Pretty Girl. She first appears in the self-help chapter about not falling in love if your objective is to become filthy rich. It’s pretty clear that he would’ve rather had her than wealth at that point; her departure, instead of being the regret of his life, becomes a lucky break. That’s the sound of a broken heart, trying to make the best of things.

Lots of interesting ideas came out during the group’s discussion. No names are used in the book, not a place name or a person’s name. The setting is left open: when I’d read the excerpt, which was titled differently, I’d thought of Northern Africa or the Middle East; most readers thought Pakistan or Afghanistan; one woman was surprised, as she’d vividly envisioned it in China. Another reader mentioned it’s not at all about getting filthy rich in Asia, bringing up the point: it’s about everything else, and maybe that’s a key to the narrator. In the closing chapters, he is finally united with his lifelong love, a woman on a similar trajectory – first up, then down – and only then perhaps is he filthy rich.

Another reader raised the question: could the son be the author, writing about his father? That idea appeals to me, though it’d be hard to see how the son would have access to the information about the early years. This leads to another observation: periodically, the narration shifts to reveal the inner thoughts of one character or another; are these actual thoughts, or are they the imaginings of the writer? In that case, is it possible this is penned by the son, who has imagined and pieced together his father’s early life from family stories he’s heard? This becomes a stronger possibility as I re-read the opening:

Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author…
None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one. And slippery can be good. Slippery can be pleasurable. Slippery can provide access to what would chafe if entered dry.

The more I think about it, the more I see this book as written by someone not the narrator. It could be a son’s – not memorial, exactly, maybe imagining would be a better word – of his father. A way for him to come to know the man he never knew, the man who kept his feelings deep inside where they wouldn’t betray him. But I have a different idea.

The one place where the narrator’s feelings are explicit and extreme are in Chapter Seven, Prepare to Use Violence, when he fears gang reprisals; the terror was palpable to me as I read, as opposed to his love and even lust for the Pretty Girl; or, for that matter, his drive to become Filthy Rich. The son was not yet born at this time. But the narrator was married; his wife, at 20, was studying law, and per their agreement, she would postpone childbearing until her education was complete. I wonder if the wife, later ex-wife, wrote this. One of the most prominent features is the narrator’s distance from his wife; she just appears out of the blue, in this chapter on violence, in fact, and she’s a muted character throughout. I wonder if she’s writing his biography, and the fear is so exposed because it was her fear.

Interesting book. I’m glad my library book group selected it.

Italo Calvino: The Cloven Viscount (1952)

Still from the video “The Cloven Viscount” by Maria Felix Korporal

There is never a moonlit night but wicked ideas in evil souls writhe like serpents in nests, and charitable ones sprout lilies of renunciation and dedication. So Medardo’s two halves wandered, tormented by opposing furies, amid the crags of Terralba.

What is the relationship between good and evil? Do they both exist, or is one the absence of the other? Religious theologies use a variety of concepts: evil as the absence of good; one as the default until usurped by the other; or a constant battle between two opposing forces.

Calvino looks at the question by dividing his titular Viscount in half. The fable is set in feudal medieval Italy and begins in a time of war “between Christendom and the Turks”. It was published in 1952 (and a decade later included in his heraldic trilogy Our Ancestors) when Calvino was just 30 years old, and is considered born of his experiences in fascist Italy during WWII, and of the artistic tumult afterwards.

Our unnamed narrator is a child, the Viscount’s nephew, though we later learn he’s from a less than honorable branch of the family, more of an adopted stepchild. In most interpretations (and I’ll get into one in depth) he’s considered to be a symbol of Calvino, and of his view of the Modernist role art in the world.

The story begins when the Viscount goes to war.

Art by Naomi Bardoff

Art by Naomi Bardoff

“Why all the storks?” Medardo asked Kurt. “Where are they flying?”
…”They’re flying to the battlefields,” said the squire glumly. “They’ll be with us all the way.”
The Viscount Medardo had heard that in those parts of flight of storks was thought a good omen, and he wanted to seem pleased at the sight. But in spite of himself he felt worried.
“What can draw such birds to a battlefield, Kurt?” he asked.
“They eat human flesh too, nowadays,” replied the squire, “since the fields have been stripped by famine and the rivers dried by drought. Vultures and crows have now given way to storks and flamingos and cranes.”

The initial chapter is loaded with grisly details of the horrors of war, painted as matter-of-factly as possible by the Viscount’s Squire. The Viscount is made a Lieutenant, in spite of his lack of military knowledge, on the basis of his social status. That very inexperience leads to him walking in front of a cannon, something even I, who have never been near a battlefield, would know enough not to do, and he’s literally blown in two; but, in an artful play of plot, Calvino temporarily convinces us only half survived.

He returns to his fiefdom a half a man – the right half, in an interesting twist on the usual symbolism of right and left – but it becomes evident it’s the “evil” half. He imposes death sentences for petty crimes, he destroys property, and he banishes Sebastiana, the village Nurse, a woman who took care of him (and the rest of the village) all his life, to a leper colony.

She knew that her fate was sealed; she must take the road to Pratofungo. Leaving the room where she had been kept till then, she found the passages and stairs deserted. Down she went, across the courtyard, out into the country; all was deserted, everyone at her passage withdrew and hid. She heard a hunting horn sound a low call on two notes only. On the path ahead of her was Galateo with the mouthpiece of his instrument raised to the sky. With slow steps the nurse advanced. The path went towards the setting sun. Galateo moved far ahead of her. Every now and then he stopped as if gazing at the bumble bees amid the leaves, raised his horn and played a sad note. The nurse looked at the flowers and banks that she was leaving, sensed behind hedges the presence of the people avoiding her, and walked on. Alone, Galateo a long way behind, she reached Pratofungo, and as the village gates closed behind her harps and violins began to play.

Some of the Viscount’s evil deeds are downright ingenious, reminding me a bit of the way Seth Fried created a “list of massacres” for his magnificent story “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre”; I wonder if Calvino made such a list. Late in the story we discover his other half, the “good” half, did in fact survive, though the two halves were unaware of each other until the “good” half arrives in the village; they coexist for a time until a duel over a woman leads to reunification; then everyone lives happily ever after, except for our narrator, whose fate it is to tell this story.

That’s just the surface mechanism, though; the story is far more interesting than that on both thematic and storytelling levels.

It turns out that being too “good” isn’t always appreciated either. Although this aspect is mentioned in every source I’ve checked, I think the story makes a very weak case against the “good” half. Sure, he scolds the lepers for their licentious partying, and it’s true that the Hugenot farming community, the very picture of corrupted religion (they’ve turned it into oppression and exploitation), gets annoyed at the suggestion that they lower the prices they charge for their grain so the starving may eat (tell me this doesn’t bring to mind the recent reaction to the Pope’s comments about capitalism). Still, those brief incidents don’t seem terribly compelling to me as an indictment against the “good” viscount, given the lengthy, varied, and highly detailed account of the “bad” one’s behavior.

Perhaps the true problem with the “good” half is the painful awakening of conscience in the town. Pietrochiodo, saddle-maker turned execution expert, is a fascinating character; I kept thinking of Robert Oppenheimer; in the same way he was torn between scientific curiosity and horror over his development of a new kind of weapon, Pietrochiodo marvels at the increasingly elaborate gibbets he designs and builds, yet is distraught that they are used against the innocent. The “good” viscount only exacerbates this conflict.

The carpenter was beginning to doubt whether building good machines was not beyond human possibility when the only ones which could function really practically and exactly seemed to be gibbets and racks. In fact as soon as the Bad ‘Un explained to Pietrochiodo an idea for a new mechanism, the carpenter found a way of doing it occurring to him immediately; and he would sit to work and would find every detail coming out perfect and irreplaceable, and the instrument when finished a masterpiece of ingenious technique.
The torturing thought came to the carpenter, “Can it be in my soul, this evil which makes only my cruel machines work?” But he went on inventing other tortures with great zeal and ability.

And there is a core issue: the “good” Medardo runs around repairing damage done by the “bad” Medardo as best he can, but he is restricted by his own code of kindness from harming anyone, including the embodiment of pure evil; thus he lets it go on, infuriating the villagers who bear the brunt of it with his empathy for the most evil man on earth. It’s an honorable thing to be a pacifist, to view all life as sacred, but are there perhaps circumstances when a little violence is called for? Who gets to decide, and how?

The evil the Bad ‘Un does goes beyond the surface effects. Of course it’s horrible that he tries to poison his nephew with mushrooms, and that he capriciously executes prisoners. But it’s more than that: he makes his victims, and the bystanders, complicit in his crimes. Dr. Trelawney, for example. Originally a doctor on Captain Cook’s ship, he was left behind after a shipwreck. Some doubt is cast on his actual expertise in medicine, as he shows no interest in the illnesses of patients or in healing – he avoids such things, in fact, unless forced – but prefers to study will-‘o-the-wisps, the mysterious lights that appear above wet, swampy ground. As it happens, the graveyard of the fiefdom provides the best opportunity for his study, and when the lights run short, the “bad” viscount does him the favor of executing more innocents to aid his studies. Like Pietrochiodo, Dr. Trelawney feels bad about this, but continues his studies nonetheless. Again, I can’t help but make connections with WWII, and the doctors enlisted by concentration camps… and doctors enlisted recently to help with the Guantanamo hunger strike, something all American citizens are complicit in, since it is done by our government and thus in our name. Chew on that next time you think politics doesn’t have anything to do with you. For Dr. Trelawney, the “good” Viscount provides something of a path back to medicine, and he becomes a healer again; redemption is possible.

Pamela, the love interest of both halves of the Viscount, makes another interesting character; while she’s not given to deep thought, she’s perhaps the most brilliant character overall: she refuses to be implicated into evil. Her scenes are hilarious as first one half, then the other, woos her, but neither provide any evidence of, um, what they have to offer a wife. Calvino hints at, but does not mention, the issue of just how physically “split” the Viscount is (a terrific writer’s choice; my speculation on the practical ramifications of their respective half-penises was far more amusing than any concrete rendering could have been). Pamela does not suffer fools in any way, shape, or form. It is Pamela, in fact, who sets up the solution to the entire situation in a deceitful plot worthy of the finest Italian opera: she offers to marry both separately, then waits to see who shows up.

It’s almost cinematic comedy, in a Princess Bride sort of way, with Pamela adding her perfect last word:

Just then from the end of the nave, supporting himself on his crutch, entered the Viscount, his new velvet suit slashed, dripping and torn. And he said,” I am Medardo of Terralba and Pamela is my wife.”
The Good ‘Un staggered up face-to-face with him. “I am the Medardo whom Pamela has married.”
The Bad ‘Un flung away his crutch and put his hand to his sword. The Good ‘Un had no option but to do the same.
The Bad ‘Un threw himself into a lunge, The Good ‘Un went into defense, but both of them were soon rolling on the floor.
They agreed that it was impossible to fight balanced on one leg. The duel must be put off to be better prepared.
“Do you know what I’ll do?” said Pamela. “I’m going back to the woods.” And the way she ran from the church, with no pages any longer holding her train. On the bridge she found the goat and the duck waiting, and they trotted along beside her.

But eventually they do meet in a duel, after the saddle-maker-turned-gibbet-maker-turned-adaptive-engineer Pietrochiodo fashions “a kind of leg in the shape of a compass” for both the men. They are both wounded along their missing sides, and Dr. Trelawney uses his recently rediscovered medical expertise to sew them back together. The header art above, created by video artist Maria Felix Korporal for a Calvino exhibit in Rome in the summer of 2012, was inspired by that very concept: “I made a first version of the video but I was not satisfied with it, and I was about to leave the project, when at the last moment I got the solution of the red thread, with which I am really happy.” Me, too; I’m delighted to share her work, and a video she sent of this part of the exhibit, which begins with the performance of a poem by Efisio Cadoni. It’s in Italian, but it’s easy to get the idea from the repeated droning of “Bene Male Bene Male” throughout.

It’s interesting that both Medardos see their halving as a good thing. As the Bad ‘Un explains to his nephew, and the Good ‘Un to Pamela:

“If only I could have every whole thing like this,” said my uncle, lying facedown on the rocks, stroking the convulsive half of an octopus, “so that everyone could escape from his obtuse and ignorant wholeness. I was whole and all things were natural and confused to me, stupid as the air; I thought I was seeing all and it was only the outside rind. If you ever become a half of yourself, and I hope you do for your own sake, my boy, you will understand things beyond the common intelligence of brains that are whole. You will have lost half of yourself and of the world, but the remaining half will be a thousand times deeper and more precious. And you too would find yourself wanting everything to be have to like yourself, because beauty and knowledge and justice only exists in what has been cut to shreds.” Then the good Medardo said, “Oh, Pamela, that’s the good thing about being halved. One understands the sorrow of every person and thing in the world at its own incompleteness. I was whole and did not understand, and moved about deaf and unfeeling amidst the pain and sorrow all around us, in places where as a whole person one would least think to find it. It’s not only me, Pamela, who am a split being, but you and everyone else too. Now I have a fellowship which I did not understand, did not know before, when whole, a fellowship with all the mutilated and incomplete things in the world. If you come with me, Pamela, you will learn to suffer with everyone’s ills, and tend to your own by tending theirs.”

The writing occasionally gets a bit funky – at one point the narrator refers to himself as having been “a small child” when Medardo was a boy, yet he’s 7 or 8 when Medardo returns from the war; I’m not sure if that’s a translation issue or a differing view of age and what constitutes small-childhood. There’s a section ending in Chapter 7 that puzzles me greatly; it seems to just end in the middle of a conversation with Sebastiana regarding the lepers among whom she lives. I can’t imagine material was omitted, but it reads oddly. Those minor quirks, however, don’t detract from how much fun this is to read, and how much meaning there is to it, once you suspend disbelief and let the story take you where it goes.

Both viscounts employ a kind of bizarre symbolic language system in the village, and somehow, both manage to communicate perfectly well with it. The Bad ‘Un” (as he’s eventually called in the text) woos Pamela with these messages:

A cock was tied on a branch by its wings and was being devoured by a great hairy blue caterpillar; a nest of evil insects that live on pines have settled right at the top.
This was another of the Viscount’s ghastly messages, of course. Pamela’s interpretation was: “Tomorrow at dawn in the wood.”

That wouldn’t be my reaction, but Pamela is a special kind of girl. And later, the town communicates with The Good ‘Un in similar symbolic fashion:

We would go around the country lanes and find the signs of my uncle having preceded us. My good uncle, I mean, the one who every morning not only went the rounds of the sick, but also of the poor, the old, or who ever needed help.
In Bacciccia’s orchard the ripe pomegranates were each tied round with a piece of rag. From this we understood that Bacciccia had a toothache. My uncle had wrapped up the pomegranates lest they fall off and be squashed, now that their owners ills were preventing him from coming out and picking them himself but it was also a signal for Dr. Trelawney to pay the sick man of visit and bring his pincers.

In one instance, there’s a mere phrase that had me dancing around in delight: “Medardo leapt to his foot” – how wonderful is that! Calvino resisted for the most part the urge to turn this into an outright farce, but he couldn’t resist that little twist of phrase (assuming it’s not an artefact of translation).

I’m sure all of the characters are symbolic of various aspects of WWII: not only the scientists who built the atom bomb, but the industries that profited from conventional warplanes and tanks, the workers that made the munitions, the partisans who hid out in the woods, the Church that stood by and watched. I don’t have the detailed historical knowledge (particularly of wartime Italy) to pull off a specific one-to-one correlation, but these characters stand out as representatives of various facets. The overall issue of the coexistence of good and evil, however, strikes me as more universal; perhaps it’s made more manifest in certain times, but it’s always there, every time we read a news story, cast a vote, leave a tip in a coffee shop, do our taxes: what are the limits of our conscience? When does loyalty to the whole of humanity supersede self-interest? Is it a matter of “good” and “evil” at all, or more of where we allow that limit to fall? And I come back to where I was a couple of weeks ago: the Dow has hit new record highs, and the minimum wage doesn’t support survival so we’ve cut food stamps to families with children to keep tax breaks for job creators; why is it again we are we not rioting in the streets?

One of the joys of reading Calvino is the wealth of material it’s generated in response. In addition to the art already listed, I found a marvelous commentary on the novella in the form of a comparison between it and the 1998 Brazilian play Partido by Cacá Brandão. In his 2001 paper “Calvino’s Cloven Viscount from Page to Stage”, Professor of Comparative Literature Julio Jeha describes the play (using Dante’s “fourfold” methodology, a lesson in itself: “For the purposes of this essay, I will say that the literal level gives us what happened; the allegorical refers to a character or concept taken symbolically; the tropological provides a moral truth, and the anagogical indicates a level ‘above’.”) as not merely translating the fable to stage, but reconceptualizing it for a new era: Brandão converted Calvino’s fable from “the epistemological perspective that characterizes modernism” to “the ontological bias that marks postmodernism.” I’ve been wrestling with the distinction between Modern and Post-Modern for much of the past year, and I’m still not completely clear about it, but with Jeha’s help I can see how the difference is rendered in the narrative point of view, and the symbolic referents:

Calvino’s novel turns out to be a Bildungsroman for the narrator who, ultimately, would stand for the Italian artists and intellectuals during the national rebuilding. Brandão’s play, conversely, brings the Viscount, who would take the place of a contemporary audience in its need to learn about its condition, to a central position. Both texts lead us to examine the means by which we experience the world and the role that we, shattered and incomplete, can have in it and in its constitution.

Ah, so Calvino focused on the story the nephew would tell, as a parable for post-WWII artists – the tellers; the play looks at the unification of the divided self from a subjective position, allowing the audience – the be-ers – to participate more directly in the Viscount’s experience. Maybe? I’m going to be chewing on this a while.

I’d always planned to check out Calvino’s fiction after our read of Six Memos for the New Millenium last year, but way leads on to way and I never got back. I’d expected it to be If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler (I’ve always been too intimidated by Invisible Cities) given my fondness for structural play. But that was before I took my latest Philosophy MOOC.

One of the side benefits of taking MOOCs has been the ability to hang out under some pretty fancy banquet tables and catch the crumbs as they fall from some very smart people (I’m speaking metaphorically, of course; I should watch that, there are those who would start spreading rumors that MOOCs involve weird dining rituals). It’s amazing what you can pick up just by paying attention to very educated people talking / posting / tweeting about things they love to talk / post / twitter about. So when Alasdair Richmond, the stand-out star professor of my recent Introduction to Philosophy course out of the University of Edinburgh, mentioned a wish to teach this particular novella with RLS’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I had to check it out. I’ll have to put the Stevenson on my list as well; it’s been so horribly popularlized I preferred to start with the less well-known Calvino. But I’ll get there. And when I do, I’ll find more wonders, I’m sure of it.

The book ends with a little tidying up of loose ends, mostly in happily-ever-after mode: Medardo has many children (presumably with Pamela), Pietrochiodo builds mills instead of gibbets, Dr. Trelawney ignores will-‘o-the-wisps for easing the pains of humanity. The only down side is the narrator, still unnamed. He finds his calling telling himself stories in the woods, but is at the same time ashamed of this. One day while he’s storytelling, Captain Cook’s ship returns to the shores and takes away Dr. Trelawney:

I had seen nothing. I was deep in the wood telling myself stories. When I heard later, I began running towards the seashore crying, “Doctor! Doctor Trelawney! Take me with you! Doctor, you can’t leave me here!”
But already the ships were vanishing over the horizon and I was left behind, in this world of ours full of responsibilities and will-‘o-the-wisps.

I know exactly how he feels, every time I close the cover of a good book.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: The Little Prince (1943)

… I should have liked to begin this story in the fashion of the fairy-tales. I should have like to say: “Once upon a time there was a little prince who lived on a planet that was scarcely any bigger than himself, and who had need of a sheep . . .”
To those who understand life, that would have given a much greater air of truth to my story.
For I do not want anyone to read my book carelessly. I have suffered too much grief in setting down these memories.

I have let far too much time go by without The Little Prince in my life; I’ve always said everyone should read this book once every decade (more often would turn it into patter). It needs to be read with a certain wisdom that comes from accumulated experiences, and ten years seems to me to be about the right amount of time to take a look back so as to see where you’ve drifted off course.

This seemed like the moment to read again, and I found, instead of a course correction, a kind of affirmation. My life, by most standards, is a mess, but if I can see the sheep in the box, I must be doing something right. I need to keep in mind: what would the Little Prince notice about me, should he visit? Would he think I am obsessed with trivial matters, that I’m overlooking what’s important?

By coincidence, as I was getting ready to tweet quotes from the book, one a half hour, throughout the day (I hope I didn’t annoy anyone), a link came through my Twitter feed from three different sources: Matt Damon delivering the Howard Zinn speech which includes: “Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience…. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.” The consequences of seeing what’s important go far beyond a children’s book.

I love the reminder that everyone sees the world in a particular way – including the Little Prince himself, who keeps forgetting he is on a planet much larger than his home. It’s the hammer problem: if all I’ve got is a hammer, I can be forgiven for considering everything a nail, but maybe I’ve just forgotten about the screwdriver and the wrench and a hacksaw – or maybe I’m just too lazy to dig them out, so I go on with my ineffectual thwacking.

I’m more familiar with the structure of the Hero’s Journey than I was last time I read. The story is a blending of two Hero’s Journeys, and switches back and forth between “Young man sets out” and “A stranger came to town” points of view. But I’m not that interested in detailed analysis; I just breathed the book.

“My life is very monotonous,” the fox said…. But if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow. And then look: you see the grain-fields down yonder? I do not eat bread. Wheat is of no use to me. The wheat fields have nothing to say to me. And that is sad. But you have hair that is the color of gold. Think how wonderful that will be when you have tamed me! The grain, which is also golden, will bring me back the thought of you. And I shall love to listen to the wind in the wheat . . .”

Saint Exupéry was a pilot, and had a deep love of flying. It is said his wife was the model for the rose of this story – difficult, yet beloved. They had, by all accounts, a tumultuous marriage; both of them committed various indiscretions. Consuelo de Saint Exupéry wrote her own story of the marriage in The Tale of the Rose; I haven’t read it, because I prefer to leave the Prince and his Rose in the fictional setting. I think his love for her comes through in this book. I’m not sure it’s enough, but it wasn’t my life, so I couldn’t say.

He died a year after the The Little Prince was published, which tinges things with a special poignancy. He’s the author of one of my favorite quotes: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” The more MOOCs I take, and the more students – and exceptional teachers – I come in contact with, the more convinced I am that this is something that should be recited every morning by every teacher in America. If you can get someone to want to build a ship, believe me, they’ll learn the necessary skills.

The uncertainty we’re left with at the end of The Little Prince is among the many things that raises this from just another kid’s book to a real treat:

Here, then, is a great mystery. For you who also love the little prince, and for me, nothing in the universe can be the same if somewhere, we do not know where, a sheep that we never saw has–yes or no?–eaten a rose . . .
Look up at the sky. Ask yourselves: is it yes or no? Has the sheep eaten the flower? And you will see how everything changes . . .
And no grown-up will ever understand that this is a matter of so much importance!

I know at least one grown-up who will.

Jostein Gaarder: Sophie’s World (FSG, 1994)

Is there nothing that interests us all?… What is the most important thing in life? If we ask someone living on the edge of starvation, the answer is food. If we ask someone dying of cold, the answer is warmth. If we put the same question to someone who feels lonely and isolated, the answer will probably be the company of other people.
But when those basic needs have been satisfied – will there still be something that everybody needs? Philosophers think so. They believe that man cannot live by bread alone. Of course everyone needs food. And everyone needs love and care. But there is something else – apart from that – which everyone needs, and that is to figure out who we are and why we are here.

Do you remember the film The Gods Must Be Crazy? It’s a movie so poorly made, with such an absurd plot, that the only thing it had going for it was its own bumbling charm – and that was plenty to make it a beloved favorite for anyone who’s ever seen it.

Sophie’s World is a bit like that. It’s a surface gloss over the history of philosophy wrapped in a peculiar mystery with a writing style that varies from fourth-grader to ridiculously pompous – not to mention a plot that should come with a warning label, “Kids, Don’t Do This At Home” – yet it’s one of those books that simply propels you to read the next page because you must find out. First, you must find out what’s happening, and then, once you know what’s happening, you must find out how it resolves, and when you’ve read the last word and closed the cover, you’re left projecting into the future and maybe recalling Sophie and Alberto the next time you open any book.

Oh, did I mention it’s a YA novel? A Norwegian YA novel? A Norwegian YA “novel about the history of philosophy” as the subtitle assures us?

I chose to read it now for intertwined reasons (much like Sophie’s world is intertwined in… well, you’ll have to read the book). First, I’ve been bumping into Norway a lot lately. In July I read The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas for a class. In August, One Story‘s offering was a story (by an American with strong cultural ties to Norway) set in Norway. I also ran into Norway via some Wittgenstein readings; he there hid from philosophy for a while. Earlier this month, I read Bill Roorbach’s Life Among Giants which featured a Norwegian ballerina and taught me the first Norwegian word I’ve ever retained, firfisle (lizard – you’ve got to read the book to know why that word). When I ran into Scandinavian logic characters in a math class, I knew something Norwegian was going on (this is just getting weird: the day after I posted this, the Short Story Thursday offering arrived: a story by Norwegian author and 1903 Nobel laureate Bjornstjerne Bjornson), so I went with it, and dug out the only Norwegian reading I had heretofore done, this crazy, delightful, engrossing story of Sophie’s world.

A month before her fifteenth birthday, Sophie finds a couple of postcards in her mailbox: “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?” That’s enough to get her wondering, not just how the postcards got there and who sent them and why, but about how she would define herself and where the world came from. She soon finds out the card was from a man named Alberto Knox when he sends the opening chapter of a History of Philosophy course that starts with Thales of Miletus wondering the same things about existence. Over the course of the month, Alberto’s History of Philosophy chapters move her forward through Classical, Christian, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Modern philosophical movements from Socrates to Augustine to Copernicus to Descartes etc., etc., etc., with dozens of stops along the way.

But while this is going on, something else is happening, too. Sophie also finds a postcard meant for one Hilde Knag, with whom she apparently shares a birthday. With no idea who Hilde is, Sophie wonders how she’s supposed to find her to give her the card. This begins the mystery that propels the plot – at least, initially. It’s fascinating to me that this mystery – who is Hilde, who is her father, what do they have to do with Sophie, where does Alberto fit in? – is resolved about halfway through the book, but another narrative drive takes over, which for Sophie took a specific form (I won’t reveal in the interests of avoiding spoilers) but for me, was: How on earth is the writer going to get out of this?

A lot of people experience the world with the same incredulity as when a magician suddenly pulls a rabbit out of a hat which has just been shown to them empty.

In the case of the rabbit, we know the magician has tricked us. What we would like to know is just how he did it. But when it comes to the world it’s somewhat different. We know that the world is not all sleight of hand and deception because here we are in it, we are part of it. Actually, we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat. The only difference between us and the white rabbit is that the rabbit does not realize it is taking part in a magic trick. Unlike us. We feel we are part of something mysterious and we would like to know how it all works.

That’s the magic of the book. Just as Sophie’s curiosity was aroused by that initial postcard, the reader’s curiosity is piqued, and, in an unusual move, a “second wind” of sorts comprises the second half of the book. I wonder: would a book like this find a publisher in the US today? Even though I’ve been reading and re-reading it for the past 20 years, a novel for teenagers about the history of philosophy, sans zombies, vampires, or a love interest, is not something that screams “best-seller” or “movie rights.” Yet, it was an international best-seller and there was a (Norwegian) movie, a computer game, even a (German) musical, not to mention multipart TV adaptations in various countries. Sometimes, things just catch on.

I read, obviously, a translation; I’m not sure how good that translation is, but I have to admit that some of the narration is painfully childish in style – more for an eight-year-old than a teenager (“Sophie looked at her watch. It was a quarter to three. Her mother would not be home from work for over three hours. / Sophie crawled out into the garden again and ran to the mailbox. Perhaps there was another letter”), though Alberto’s philosophical teachings are more age-appropriate. Another issue for me: when I was a kid, I would feel stupid after watching a mystery or spy show, or even Star Trek, because everyone in those shows seemed to know, if not the answers, exactly the right questions to ask. Sophie is like that; when she’s not doing smart-ass teenager snark during Alberto’s lectures, she asks the perfect question to lead into the next point. I suppose that’s a silly complaint, lack of character depth and inauthentic dialogue, considering the book. It’s like the terrible overdubbing or the horrible camera work or amateur acting in TGMBC (or for that matter, the original “A Charlie Brown Christmas” which was likewise technically abysmal yet immediately became a permanent part of the soul of everyone who saw it, and has been beloved for three generations now): it’s part of the experience, and the experience is terrific, in spite of (maybe because of) the flaws.

Here’s the strange thing about re-reading this book: The ending is always brand-new to me. The first few times, I didn’t remember at all what “happened” beyond the philosophy course. Then I remembered some of it, but not the resolution. This time, I knew the midpoint resolution, and knew the direction of the struggle from middle to end, but I still did not remember exactly how things finished up. This fits perfectly with the plot, by the way, a plot that raises some issues about what happens when you close the cover of a book and put it back on the shelf. Is it possible the book itself changed as it sat there between All Our Secrets Are The Same and Winds of War (an odd place for it, to be sure)? Or is there something about the story itself that’s self-erasing from my memory, like the e-books I download from the library for two weeks? It’s a speculation worthy of Sophie and Alberto.

Sophie found philosophy doubly exciting because she was able to follow all the ideas by using her own common sense.… She decided that philosophy was not something you can learn; but perhaps you can learn to think philosophically.

Gaarder wrote this book fairly early in his career. He’s written books for both adults and children, as well as nonfiction, and a 2006 op-ed about the Middle East that got him into a great deal of trouble (he’s since apologized and reframed his comments). By the way, another touchstone of my re-reads: one of the characters in Sophie’s World is a UN observer in Lebanon, and every time I re-read the book, there’s some kind of mess going on in the Middle East. I suppose there’s been a more or less continuous mess going on in the Middle East for a long time.

In a 1995 interview, Gaarder said he wrote Sophie’s World because, while travelling in Athens, he was told there was no book about philosophy for kids, since “they’re too young to understand it.” He wanted to make it understandable. The book was a NYT best-seller and has been translated into 53 languages. I’d say he succeeded.

Bill Roorbach: Life Among Giants (Algonquin, 2012)

Our secrets gave us power.
And then they took our power away.
From whom had we learned that?

I was destined to read this book.

I first became aware of it earlier this year, when Maine writer Bill Roorbach talked about it at the “FLOODED” benefit for our little Portland bookstore damaged by superstorm Sandy. At around the same time, Cliff Garstang (an acquaintance of mine from Zoetrope Virtual Studios of years past) chaired a panel at the Virginia Festival of the Book that included this book; he was quite enthusiastic about it. But one thing led to another and I never got to it… you know how it goes. Then last month, David Abrams (of FOBBIT fame) announced this his weekly Friday Freebie; I entered the drawing, and won (thank you, David).

When a book comes at you from three very different directions – one of them plopping it, free of charge, in your hands – you begin to think there might be a reason. It wasn’t until I read the book, though, that I realized how foretold-in-the-stars this was for me.

All the conversation I’d imagined had simply disappeared. In its place, memory pressing on memory. My dad waiting at the bus stop with me. My mother’s face reacting to him, that cross face she’d make. She’d put a lot of pressure on the guy. That was something I hadn’t thought of before, all the pressure she put on him to be anything but what he was. Then again, what was he?

About two-thirds of the novel is set in Westport, CT. I spend a couple of years as a grade schooler in the early 60s on Briar Oak Drive in Weston, Connecticut, the town next to Westport – and it was in Weston itself that the idea for the novel took root in a very young Bill Roorbach’s mind after a near-brush with the greatness that was Led Zeppelin. In 1963, my family moved to Miami where the middle of the book is set (we later moved to Miramar, about 15 miles north), and though for the ten years I was forced to live there I swore I’d move back to Connecticut as soon as I turned 18, I was for some time a Miami Dolphins fan. Everyone down there was in 1970, 1971, and especially 1972, the Undefeated Season, followed by the 1973 Super Bowl. Seeing familiar names in this book – Bob Griese, Don Shula, and, my favorite of them all, Garo Yepremian, whose designer neckties I bought in absurd quantities for every male member of my family – made me smile. One fictional scene in particular brought me back forty years to that very real, very ridiculous blocked-punt-that-turned-into-an-intercepted-pass that still lives in my memory. In fact, I wonder if it served as inspiration for the fictional event.

I then got the hell out of Florida (it took a whole 5 months after I turned 18) not to Connecticut, but to Boston, where, in the mid-80s, I was, like the character Kate, a guest at McLean Hospital for some time, several times.

Midnight, two o’clock, four o’clock, four-thirty, five, each ghost returning for her hour: Emily, Kate, Mom. And of course Perdhomme and Kaiser, and my completely vincible dad.

And now I’ve ended up living in the same state as author Bill Roorbach (who got here by a circuitous route himself, including Boston and Connecticut) and his book set in those other two places I’ve lived. This is, by the way, the third – the third, for pete’s sake – Norwegian-related work I’ve done in the past 3 months. Come on, when was the last time you read a book or story with even a single Norwegian word in it? My father was from Sweden, but it’s Norway calling me; maybe I’d better go check out some Ibsen or something.

At a soirée for her foundation I waited almost an hour, got to study her as she posed a couple of risers up on the grand stairway, finally had my moment, kiss-kiss. Anyone watching would have thought she didn’t know me, that she only greeted a fading sports figure, the up-and-coming restauranteur, but they couldn’t see how I slipped the speckled stone into the bodice of her tight, strapless dress, couldn’t feel how she let my fingers linger a moment against her breast, couldn’t hear when she whispered my name in my ear, and then a familiar Norwegian phrase, something from our time together, something we’d said over and over again, something a little shy of love, which was how she wanted it: jeg ar ohso glad I deg – “I am so very fond of you.”

I haven’t said much about the actual book yet, have I? Well, it’s very, very good, and very, very readable. When I’m seriously enjoying a book, I read slower and slower as the pages dwindle down. The last chapter of this one took a full day.

No matter what you’ve heard, or will read in reviews, it’s not about football (though there is football and there are football players); it’s not about ballet (though there is ballet and there are ballet dancers); and it’s not about murder (though there are murders and the who-done-it serves as the plot engine). It’s about crossing between dream and reality, between the world of the ordinary and the world of the giants; and about what happens to a giant who doesn’t really want to be a giant. It’s about who we love, and why, and what we do – or don’t do – about it. Like many really good books, it’s about the people within it, and how they get tangled up in themselves. Revenge is not always a dish best served cold; sometimes it’s a dish best not served at all, but so often we serve it anyway, don’t we.

And, oh yeah, it’s about food.

I have a thing about last meals…. Whatever’s coming, there’s going to be that last thing we eat. My folks, for example. They did pretty well in the last-meal department, beautiful restaurant, family all around them, perfect sandwiches made by someone who truly cared about food. Lunch, as it happened. Their last meal, I mean. For my sister it was breakfast, but that was years later, and I’ll get to that. The point is, I like to eat every meal as if it were the last, as if I knew it were the last: savor every bite, be there with the food, make sure it’s good, really worthy. And though it’s an impossible proposition, I try to take life that way, too: every bite my last.

In the first chapters, you’ll want a BLT; no, you’ll crave a BLT, one with “thick, flavorful bacon…slices of tomato thick as steaks, crisp, fresh-picked lettuce from the garden” served with “china-lavender ramekins of house-made mayonnaise….” Later, you’ll want wild mushroom sausages. I hope someone marketed this book to chef-types and serious foodies, especially vegetarians, because I don’t even like mushrooms, but I want to make those mushroom sausages (and there’s enough detail in the writing to make that possible; at least one reader made the lentil stew otherwise described, and I may do that as well). Be aware, however: in the later chapters of the book, your appetite for mushroom sausages may wane.

One of the engines of my crush, of course, was that Emily wanted nothing to do with me. Sophomore year, she’d written a series of anti-establishment opinion pieces for the school paper, in one of which she attacked me as the leader of the football team, called me “reptilian.” I’d been kind of hurt, found myself almost agreeing with her. The other guys immediately started calling me Lizard.

I was surprised at how down-to-earth and grounded main character David “Lizard” Hochmeyer came across, when he is, in fact, a football star, an A student in school, and a nice guy as well. How do you write that without going stereotype? Beyond that, how do you write a star so that the reader doesn’t even realize he’s a star until pretty well into the book, and then is surprised? One way is to have him doubt his specialness, see it as no big deal. He may be 6-foot-8, but he’s surrounded by giants, after all – and giant ghosts.

I don’t know why I’m so dismissive of my National Football League years. Regret, perhaps, a kind of mourning, what might have been. Though when you think about it, the whole thing is pretty impressive, history few can claim. I guess I just of actually think about it much…. there were some five million kids playing high school football, some fifty-five thousand playing NCAA college ball, but only some twelve hundred in the NFL, only about two hundred draftees each year, of which at most ten were quarterbacks. I’d barely made it, was my only observation.

But the character who finally in the last pages drew my tears from me was his sister Kate – with just two words. No, I won’t tell you what they are. They wouldn’t mean anything out of context. I try so hard not to cry over every book I read, and I thought I might make it this time, but that scene was an arrow straight to the tenderest regions of the heart.

I wish I’d paid more attention to the speckled stone as it was passed back and forth between David and the dancer; I suspect it’s something of a harbinger, but I realized its importance too late to notice if it’s associated with the possessing character’s troubles or triumphs, offense switching to defense. That’s ok, I’ll pick it up on the reread – yes, there will be a reread. I think I’d like to re-read Gatsby, and maybe learn more about Les Sylphides as well, before then, as well.

Roorbach names The Great Gatsby – specifically, Nick – and the ballet Les Sylphides, among his inspirations for the book; they’re both easy to spot. It’s got almost a spiral structure, presenting events then curling around in time to present more detail about them, or to fill in blanks. It’s told in what my buddy Marko Fong calls “Memoir Voice,” that first-person-past looking back, occasionally interjecting hints at what is to come, and what has been learned between the events being narrated and the time of narration. It’s marvelously effective.

Roorbach’s Self-Interview at The Nervous Breakdown is a hoot; the official book site site has more interviews, as well as traditional reviews.

Across the pond the High Side was dark. Dad’s rowboat was still on the shore. I sometimes got in it under moonlight, rode back and forth.

This is the book I expected Beautiful Ruins to be; oddly, it reminds me bit of Ghana Must Go, as both trace the past and the present through the future, and culminate in a denoument that’s even more powerful than the climax. I admire a book that uses the word “vincible” in a natural fashion. I admire a mystery that’s really about the inner workings of people, the ultimate mystery. I admire the cover: I liked the original hardcover design, but this paperback was extraordinary; I swear that velvet finish adds a luminescent glow, and I’ve said before how much I love the feel of it in my hands (yes, I sit around caressing books, you got a problem with that?). It was a delicious read on many levels, and I admire that. After all, I was destined to read it.

Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary (1857)

Before her marriage she had thought that she had love within her grasp. But
since the happiness which she had expected this love to bring her hadn’t come,
she supposed she must have been mistaken. And Emma tried to imagine just what
was meant, in life, by the words “bliss,” “passion,” and “rapture.” Words that
had seemed so beautiful to her in books.

Once again, I find a tragic French novel to be hilarious. This time, however, I think the author might’ve intended it that way, at least a little.

When I read Manon Lescaut a few months ago, I found des Grieux quite unbelievable in his naïveté and somewhat pathetic in his willingness to find excuses for Manon’s faithless ways. I read Madame Bovary for a different Coursera class – this one, philosophy, specifically “The Modern and Post-Modern” taught by Michael Roth of Wesleyan – but had the same urge to giggle throughout. Not, however, over Charles Bovary’s unawareness of his wife’s carryings-on, but of the juxtaposition of high romance and boring banality. What’s more, Flaubert planned it this way: “This will be the first time, I think, that a book makes fun of its leading lady and its leading man,” he wrote in an 1852 letter to his mistress. Academia calls it irony; I call it hilarious.

It is, of course, one of the most analyzed books around, and Lydia Davis’ recent translation caused a new stir of interest. I’m not going to attempt any scholarship; I’ll just make note of what those with far more smarts than I have to say, and mention my own reaction. I have two sources of analysis, besides the book itself: A.S. Byatt’s July 2002 article published in The Guardian (which includes some of Flaubert’s comments on the writing of the book), and an hour of lectures (on amateur video) by the now-familiar Prof. Arnold Weinstein.

Wasn’t it a man’s role, though, to know everything? Shouldn’t he be expert at
all kinds of things, able to initiate you into the intensities of passion,
the refinements of life, all the mysteries? This man could teach you nothing.
He knew nothing, he wished for nothing. He took it for granted that she was
content, and she resented his settled calm, his serene dullness, the very
happiness she herself brought him.

Emma Bovary is, as Prof. Weinstein underlines, a woman misled by books. A farmer’s daughter educated in a convent, she’s grown up with this romantic vision of the world in which marriage leads to bliss and love is ecstasy. It’s complicated by her taste for the finer things, a taste intensified by a brush with “the good life” early in her marriage. She spends the rest of her short life desperately searching for this bliss, this elegance, heedless of the cost; when the bills come due, literally and figuratively, she takes the romanticized cure: suicide. This is the cost of romanticism unbridled by reality.

The scenes where romance and reality are intertwined are frequent and memorable. Emma and her various romantic targets are constantly being separated, interfered with, interrupted by, the mundane business of ordinary life. This may be unavoidable; Flaubert admits in another letter: “There are in me, literally speaking, two distinct persons: one who is infatuated with bombast, lyricism, eagle flights, sonorities of phrase and lofty ideas; and another who digs and burrows into the truth as deeply as he can, who likes to treat a humble fact as respectfully as a big one, who would like to make you feel almost physically the things he reproduces.” He gets this onto the page time and time again. In Part II, Chapter 3, Emma has run into Leon on her way to visit her child at the wet nurse’s house, and is rather eager to get back to him, not out of any grand passion or any concrete idea but merely to hold onto his arm; the wet nurse keeps interrupting, preventing their leaving with requests for soap, coffee, and – most likely her goal all the while – brandy, driving Emma into greater and greater impatience. In Chapter 6, she tries to talk to the priest about her growing unhappiness, but he’s paying attention to a group of students and begins to instruct her on the troubles of poverty, certainly a greater concern than a housewife’s boredom, but not of much help to her at that moment.

But the two ultimate examples of this juxtaposition technique take place at the Agricultural Fair, and later, in Rouen. At the Fair, Rodolphe woos Emma, declares his intentions to seduce her and begin an adulterous affair, against a backdrop of an agricultural auction and the awarding of prizes. The scene, a brief clip I’ll show here (italics and indents added for clarity), is a complete scream:

He took her hand, and this time she did not withdraw it.
                       “First prize for all-round farming!” cried the chairman.
“Just this morning, for example, when I came to your house . . .”
                       “To Monsieur Bizet, of Quincampoix.”
“Did I have any idea that I’d be coming with you to the show?”
                       “Seventy francs!”
“A hundred times I was on the point of leaving, and yet I followed you and
stayed with you . . .”
                       “For the best manures.”
“. . . as I’d stay with you tonight, tomorrow, every day, all my life!”
                       “To Monsieur Caron, of Argueil, a gold medal!”
“Never have I been so utterly charmed by anyone . . .”
                       “To Monsieur Bain, of Givry-Saint-Martin!”
“. . . so that I’ll carry the memory of you with me . . .”
                       “For a merino ram . . .”
“Whereas you’ll forget me, I’ll vanish like a shadow.”
                       “To Monsieur Belot, of Notre-Dame . . .”
“No, though! Tell me it isn’t so! Tell me I’ll have a place in your thoughts,
in your life!”
                       “Hogs, a tie! To Messieurs Leherisse and Cullembourg, sixty francs!”
Rodolphe squeezed her hand, and he felt it all warm and trembling in his, like
a captive dove that longs to fly away. But then, whether in an effort to free
it, or in response to his pressure, she moved her fingers.

The fact is: love and hogs coexist; passion and manure are sometimes useful and sometimes distasteful, but they nonetheless are and they are in the same world. The bathos in this scene may show the cheapness of romantic claptrap, but it also shows reality. And don’t forget: Emma’s later undoing is not her infidelities, but in her disregard of reality, particularly financial reality (a disregard encouraged by the greedy and scheming Lheureux), in favor of romance.

In Part III, the same type of scene is played out, with Leon now pursuing Emma and the verger of the Cathedral at Rouen the constant intrusion. This blends into the cab scene, in which the coach driver becomes the point-of-view character, instructed by occasional cries from the back of the coach: “Straight on!” “Drive on!” It’s a great stylistic choice, to show passion’s consummation without showing it at all:

At a certain moment in the early afternoon, when the sun was blazing down most fiercely on the old silver-plated lamps, a bare hand appeared from under the little yellow cloth curtains and threw out some torn scraps of paper. The wind caught them and scattered them, and they alighted at a distance, like white butterflies, on a field of flowering red clover.
Then, about six o’clock, the carriage stopped in a side street near the Place Beauvoisine. A woman alighted from it and walked off, her veil down, without a backward glance.

That’s exquisite writing. I wish I read French well enough to appreciate the original; here is where the rhythm of the language would be most important.

This split-screen technique continues through Emma’s demise. Her little girl is brought to her on her death bed, and the scene is reminiscent of New Year’s; as the blind beggar sings, Emma dies; Homais and the priest debate religion and science while making funeral arrangements. Then we have the potatoes, which are only mentioned twice in the novel, yet still echo the theme. I must say, Flaubert isn’t afraid to go there, and when he goes there, he really goes there.

I’m a bit disturbed by yet another depiction of a shallow, flighty woman undone by her own love of pleasure, but here, the blame gets laid at the foot of romantic literature; it is in those stories she learned her map of the world, and she merely tried to negotiate what she thought was a reasonable path, and discovered too late she’d sold a bill of goods. Nothing could have measured up to her expectations.

No matter, she wasn’t happy, and never had been. Why was life so
unsatisfactory? Why did everything she leaned on crumble instantly to dust?
But why, if somewhere there existed a strong and handsome being . . . a man of
valor, sublime in passion and refinement, with a poet’s heart and an angel’s
shape, a man like a lyre with strings of bronze, intoning elegiac epithalamiums
to the heavens, why mightn’t she have the luck to meet him? Ah, fine chance!
Besides, nothing was worth looking for. Everything was a lie! Every smile
concealed a yawn of boredom. Every joy, a curse, every pleasure, its own
surfeit. And the sweetest kisses left on one’s lips but a vain longing for
fuller delight.

She’s looking for something that doesn’t exist: objective happiness, literally an object or a man who will make her happy. Prof. Weinstein points out in his lecture: It’s not just romance books, it’s the marketplace that has created her appetite, as it even more deliberately creates ours today; corporations spend a great deal on marketing to be sure we develop a “need” for their product.

Emma suicides by “eating” poison, a phrasing I found odd (shouldn’t it be “taking?”) but that serves a thematic purpose: finally, an appetite she can satisfy. Then, the most tragic and poignant moment in the book, the moment that for me is the point of it all: Charles realizes she’s deathly ill, and asks, “What did you eat?” “And in his eyes she read a love such as she had never known.” If she could have lived her life in the throes of suicide, she might have been happy.

Emma Bovary is said to be inspired by Flaubert’s fascination with two “fallen women”: Delphine Delamare, the unattractive but sexually provocative wife of an unsuccessful small-town doctor, a woman who had “expensive tastes, a gullible adoring husband, a procession of lovers, and a secret festering pile of debts”; and Louise Pradier, whose marriage to the star sculptor of the day was destroyed by her promiscuity and financial irresponsibility. A lot of that going around mid-19th century France.

One more real-life tie-in: Flaubert received from his own mistress, Louise Colet, a cigarette case bearing the words “Amor nel cor”; Rodolphe uses a seal bearing exactly that phrase to prepare his kiss-off note to Emma. It just so happens Louise was married to artist Hippolyte Colet – and the name of the stableboy Charles maims with inept surgery is also named Hippolyte. Writers settle scores in many ways, sometimes unfairly.

One of the (many) hallmarks of the work is the use of free indirect discourse, a sort of blending of character and narrator to the point where it’s uncertain where one stops and the other begins. Jane Austen first used this type of narration, but only sparingly; Flaubert developed it into an art form, one we somewhat take for granted now. Pericles Lewis of Yale gives a particularly interesting footnote to this: Flaubert was brought to trial for “outrage to public morals and religion” after publication, and the prosecutor claimed Flaubert, not Emma, was speaking in favor of adultery in the “I have a lover!” scene. It may be the first time in history a literary technique has been considered legal evidence.

[Rodolphe] Why preach against the passions? Aren’t they the only beautiful thing in
this world, the source of heroism, enthusiasm, poetry, music, the arts,
everything?”
“But still,” said Emma, “we have to be guided a little by society’s opinions.
We have to follow its standards of morality.”
“Ah! But there are two moralities,” he replied. “The petty one, the
conventional one, the one invented by man, the one that keeps changing and
screaming its head off, that one’s noisy and vulgar, like that crowd of fools
you see out there. But the other one, the eternal one . . . Ah! This one’s
all around us and above us, like the landscape that surrounds us and the blue
sky that gives us light.”

So what does all this have to do with philosophy? I have no idea; that’s why I’m taking the class. Flaubert follows Hegel/Marx on the syllabus (I’m reading in advance again), and the lecture, which will go up next week, is titled “Modernism: Art for Art’s Sake.” I guess I’ll find out. I keep taking philosophy and history classes: I’ve always found that, no matter how well I think grasp the material, when I run up against it from a different angle, I don’t recognize it. Most of the academic analysis I’ve found talks about Romanticism vs Modernism, and the book contains a few discussions on these points and a number of others – arts, sciences, passion, morality, religion – but no one in this book, and thus no viewpoint, comes out looking good; the characters are various combinations of foolish, cruel, greedy, and bumbling. I wonder if that could be Flaubert’s point.

J. M . Coetzee: Disgrace (1999)

Portrait of J. M. Coetzee by Adam Chang

Portrait of J. M. Coetzee by Adam Chang

He is in good health; his mind is clear. By profession he is, or has been, a scholar, and scholarship still engages, intermittently, the core of him. He lives within his income, within his temperament, within his emotional means. Is he happy? By most measurements, yes, he believes he is. However, he has not forgotten the last chorus of Oedipus: Call no man happy until he is dead.

This is the last of the readings for the Coursera Fiction of Relationship class with Arnold Weinstein of Brown University. In all cases, I’ve done the reading and blog posts well before the lectures were available, so that I could form my own impressions and see how my view shifted after viewing the course material; to “pre-test” so to speak, see how much I missed. I nearly missed this one entirely. The first seven chapters of David Lurie, intensely narcissistic misogynist, snob, and all-around bastard, made me want to take a shower. But I suppose that was the point: to introduce a disgusting protagonist, put him through the wringer, and get him to eventually, finally, learn something.

I think I was misled by the book blurbs. “This is a novel about the new South Africa, about the political as well as personal, and it describes a society in a state of violent metamorphosis,” says the first. “Inextricably linked with Lurie’s personal story is Coetzee’s exposure of a South Africa where all codes of behavior for people, both black and white, have become perverted and twisted,” the second. I was expecting something more overtly political. I was a little slow to grasp the obvious: David Lurie is the narcissistic, racist, misogynistic Old Guard of South Africa, and this is how it crumbles – painfully, unwillingly – and starts over post-Apartheid.

As a typically ethnocentric American, my view of world events is limited in great part to what’s dramatic enough to make the news: wars, revolutions, natural disasters. But I should have been able to extrapolate from American history; after all, post-Revolutionary America was a chaotic mess, and post-Civil-War Reconstruction was a nightmare, the effects of which continue to this day. To consider that South Africa would be fine the day after Apartheid was ended would be naïve. No, more like downright stupid. Yet, if I thought about it at all, that would’ve been what I thought. I’m glad literature gets through to me where world news does not.

I was fortunate to find some guidance in Professor Weinstein’s book, Morning, Noon, and Night Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books. One of his books, I should say, but one that deals explicitly with Disgrace. He notes:

One’s response to Disgrace has much to do with one’s age. My undergraduates are greatly exercised by the teacher coming onto his student, but they showed little interest in the meditation on aging. (Time will teach them to read otherwise, I suspect, should they happen to pick up this book again in their later years.) For David Lurie is beginning to note the temporal treadmill he is on.

~~ Arnold Weinstein, Morning, Noon, and Night (Random House, 2011)

I was amused by this; I seem to be in a middle-ground in that I found Lurie to be a poor excuse for a human being on both counts. With the student, it was his attitude, and the abuse of academic power, the bestowing then withdrawing of academic favors, that disturbed me far more than the idea of a professor having an affair with a student in itself. I was able to see how a different viewer might wonder what the big deal is; she’s over 18, and students and teachers have been getting it on for centuries (or so I’ve heard; I have no personal experience in this matter). It’s only recently, as in within a generation or so, that it’s been seen as outrageous. I can understand how some might view his expulsion from academia as harsh; I can also understand how some might feel criminal or civil charges should have been filed. I’m on the cusp of that generational divide. On the behavior presented in the novel, I’m not convinced any leniency is warranted, but that’s probably influenced by his attitude. His firing is, however, essential for the plot of the book in order to deliver the theme. Without that action, the rest of the book would not exist.

Yet the old men whose company he seems to be on the point of joining, the tramps and drifters with their stained raincoats and cracked false teeth and hairy ear holes – all of them were once upon a time children of God, with straight limbs and clear eyes. Can they be blamed for clinging to the last to their place at the sweet banquet of the senses?

I take an even more jaundiced view of his dis-graceful aging (and I just realized, that may be an intentional spin-off pun, though the title – a fall from the grace of privilege – is rich enough in itself), having had actual experience at aging myself. I vehemently object to the notion that youth, vigor, and attractiveness are the only coins of the realm, and Lurie’s stubborn refusal to consider other possibilities until they are (quite brutally) forced upon him is repugnant, as is his pride in his own stubborn, self-aware incorrigibility. Yet that is the story; that is the book. And I get, now, how that is the story of the South African white power structure as well. More than any other work in this course, I think, I learned something here, something important, and that has value to me.

He has not taken to Bev Shaw, but dumpy, bustling little woman with black freckles, close cropped, wiry hair, and no neck. He does not like women who make no effort to be attractive. It is a resistance he has had to Lucy’s friends before. Nothing to be proud of: a prejudice that has settled in his mind, settle down. His mind has become a refuge for old thoughts, idle, indigent, with nowhere else to go. He ought to chase them out, sweep the premises clean. But he does not care to do so, or does not care enough.

Lurie’s misogynism goes beyond his dismissal of unattractive women. He feels it is their duty to be visual ornaments. What’s interesting is that even as he makes these crazy claims, he realizes how they sound, what impression they create. Yet, he believes it anyway. He will decide for women what they must and must not share.

“Because a woman’s beauty does not belong to her alone. It is part of the bounty she brings into the world. She has a duty to share it.”….Smooth words, as old as seduction itself. Yet at this moment he believes in them. She does not own herself. Beauty does not own itself.

Until his daughter is raped. Then, in keeping with the theme of our course, David Lurie becomes “the other.”

Experiencing abusive power from the other side tends to make one realize its brutality and unfairness. I’m reminded of the fuss when Republican Senator Rob Portman bucked the party line and endorsed marriage equality because his gay son had shown him the light; some commentator mentioned , but what about the lawmakers who don’t have gay sons? How do they come to realize inequality is wrong? Here is the same thing: What about the rest of the white power structure in South Africa? What about the white people in the US who don’t know the proverbial “really nice black person”? Do we have to be forced to become “the other” to put aside our privilege and fix the inequities? Is that going to work at all, or is that just going to create a vicious cycle of oppressed becoming the oppressor? Can’t we all just get along?

The goat with the infected balls in Chapter 10 makes another powerful symbol. Bev knows the goat will not survive; her offer to “help him through” is rejected; they will not give him up. This wonderfully parallels Lurie’s refusal to give up his lifelong privilege (and it’s no accident it’s Bev who delivers this message, as he also refuses to see her as a person of value since he “does not like women who make no effort to be attractive”). He is the goat, of course, in a wonderful twist of goat symbolism; he just doesn’t know it yet. Bev does, over the course of the book, help him through, and when he returns to her in the final chapter, he is ready to be helped through. His final words, the final words of the book: “Yes, I am giving him up.” The symmetry of Chapter 10 and Chapter 24 is quite exquisite.

“Normally I would say,” he says, “that after a certain age one is too old to learn lessons. One can only be punished and punished. But perhaps that is not true, not always. I wait to see.… In my own terms, I am being punished for what happened between myself and your daughter. I am sunk into a state of disgrace from which it will not be easy to lift myself. It is not a punishment I have refused. I do not murmur against it. On the contrary, I am living it out from day-to-day, trying to accept disgrace as my state of being. Is it enough for God, do you think, then I leave in disgrace without term?”
… [Mr. Isaacs] “But since you don’t pray you have no way to ask God. So God must find his owns means of telling you. Why do you think you are here, Mr. Lurie?”

In twelve-step terminology, there’s the notion of “hitting bottom” and the truism that the bottom is much farther down than anyone ever dreams it could be. For Lurie, he feels the unpleasant publicity over his affair, losing his academic credential, is bottom. He sees recovery as an easy matter: he’ll just take some time, and work on his opera about Byron (does he have the musical training to write an opera? Not analyze a libretto, but compose a score). The problem is, he hasn’t hit bottom yet. You have to be able to plant your feet on the bottom in order to push off and rise up again. This book ends with his statement, “Yes, I am giving him up.” That is the planting of the feet. The pushoff, the rise, is left to the future, and to the reader’s imagination.

Lurie’s relationship with his daughter also changes. He starts out the parent; not authoritative, really, since he’s pretty much been a hands-off parent, but smug and self-righteous in his superiority. He ends up learning from her. That’s real progress.

I was a pretty disgruntled reader for much of this book. In his NYT book review at the time of publication, Michael Gorra said: “I could note the way Coetzee makes us understand but not sympathize with Lurie’s intellectual arrogance and incorrigible desire, and could then compare him to his child: each is beyond stubborn, but the daughter is marked by an integrity that her father knows he cannot claim for himself.” Lurie was for me, even in his deepest woes, an unsympathetic character until perhaps the final paragraphs. “My dogs don’t jump” began to show me that maybe something was different; he was taking ownership of the dogs, and while ownership may seem a negative thing, in this case it was a distinct positive. It took me a few days to get some distance, and reading the section in Weinstein’s book helped (if you google carefully, you will be able to find most of it online, though your local library is a far better source). I’m eager to hear the lectures, as the course has a different focus and is likely to cover other aspects of the book. I can’t say I enjoyed the book, but I learned a great deal from it, and I found much to appreciate. Like Lurie, I came around.

What the dog will not be able to work out (not in a month of Sundays! he thinks), what his nose will not tell him, is how one can enter what seems to be an ordinary room and never come out again. Something happens in this room, something unmentionable: here the soul is yanked out of the body; briefly it hangs about in the air, twisting and contorting; then it is sucked away and is gone. It will be beyond him, in this room that is not a room but a hole where one leaks out of existence.

This is the last book of the Fiction of Relationship course. It’s been a delightful twelve weeks; I highly recommend it, and I hope it will not only be re-run, but that Prof. Weinstein will conduct additional classes on other works. I like his focus on common themes in novels; many literature classes group works by author or time period (“The Nineteenth Century Novel”) or possibly by general category (“Adolescent Literature”) but this multi-faceted thematic approach linked books that might not have otherwise been considered similar. Borges and Jane Eyre? Kafka and Abbe Prevost? Yes, in fact – it made sense, and I find the relationship approach highly valuable in all my reading.

Thank you, Professor Weinstein!

Toni Morrison: Beloved (1987)

“Beloved Guardian” by contemporary American artist Dread Scott

Sethe was trying to make up for the handsaw; Beloved was making her pay for it. But there would never be an end to that, and seeing her mother diminished shamed and infuriated her. Yet she knew Sethe’s greatest fear was the same one Denver had in the beginning – that Beloved might leave. That before Sethe could make her understand what it meant – what it took to drag the teeth of that saw under the little chin; to feel the baby blood pump like oil in her hands; to hold her face so her head would stay on; to squeeze her so she could absorb, still, the death spasms that shot through that adored body, plump and sweet with life – Beloved might leave. Leave before Sethe could make her realize that worse than that – far worse – was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but you dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children.

As we’ve progressed through the Fiction of Relationship course I’m taking, I’ve noticed the books have become more complex in the scope of the relationships they examine. Where we started, we were looking at love relationships, then family relationships, then the social relationship of a community and even the relationship to reality. In this second half of the course, each book has encompassed all of these in interrelated ways. Or maybe, could it be, I’m just reading better, seeing this web of relationships more clearly. That’s the point of classes, isn’t it?

I read Beloved a couple of decades ago, I see now, as a better reader, that I missed it. It isn’t “about” a mother who kills her baby, though that alone makes it the most compelling reading since Jephthah slew his daughter. It isn’t even about slavery, not exactly: it’s about the effects of slavery, what it means to not own your own body, your own child. In this summer that’s been rife with defenses of “common sense” racism, it’s startlingly contemporary. And it’s about a town – not a black town or a white town, just a town – that turns on a jealous pivot against its own, about a woman out of place, and a girl who, just maybe, survives it all.

It’s a novel inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who did in fact kill her child when faced with recapture under the Fugitive Slave Act. But Sethe is not Margaret Garner; there are significant differences in the stories. Garner’s story is told, however, in a contemporary opera by Richard Danielpour, for which Morrison wrote the libretto.

It’s a book too big for a blog post – it may be the biggest book I’ve ever read – so I’m going to focus on three topics: how it fits the core “Fiction of Relationship” concepts Prof. Weinstein has built into his course; the biblical symbolism in the climactic chapter, and how terrifying it was to read it today and recognize attitudes and beliefs from 150 years ago still passing as common discourse.

The Fiction of Relationship

In all of Baby’s life, as well as Sethe’s own, men and women were moved around like checkers.… What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children.

This is the fundamental evil of slavery. It goes beyond beatings and deprivations, beyond even enforced labor; it’s more than injustice. To not own your own body, to watch your children sold at a whim. Baby Suggs considers Sethe blessed because she had six years with Halle on Sweet Home. Not that they were married, of course; Mrs. Garner’s reaction to the notion of a slave wedding made it clear she saw Sethe and Halle as not really human. I think it’s a requirement: to enslave someone, you must see them as sub-human; to allow human ritual is to acknowledge that you have denied them humanity, to look at what you’ve done. Once the “peculiar institution” (what a benign name for it) was entrenched and relied upon, slaveholders needed to maintain this view, to remove the last vestiges of humanity from the people they enslaved.

[Baby Suggs] Sad as it was that she did not know where her children were buried or what they looked like if alive, fact was she knew more about them than she knew about herself, having never had the map to discover what she was like.
Could she sing? (Was it nice to hear when she did?) Was she pretty? Was she a good friend? Could she have been a loving mother? A faithful wife? Have I got a sister and does she favor me? If my mother knew me would she like me?

It’s a bizarre concept, to not have a map of yourself, to see yourself as someone else’s instrument, with no more personal agency than a pencil or a car. When Baby Suggs’ freedom is bought by Halle, she’s hit by a sudden revelation: “These hands belong to me. These my hands.” Then a moment later, she says “My heart’s beating” and is struck by the profound truth of that statement: my heart. How powerful this recognition is – it reminds me of the agnosia Oliver Sacks describes in his 1982 article, “The Leg.” Except agnosia is a medical condition, caused by a brain abnormality; Baby Suggs was, prior to her self-recognition, suffering from a kind of socially imposed agnosia; the institution of slavery mimicked a brain tumor. Now there’s a metaphor.

But just as Baby Suggs has this realization and laughs, as she’s making arrangements for the freedom Halle has bought, her slavemistress asks, “What’s funny, Jenny?” This is magnificent writing, to include this negation of Baby Sugg’s freedom in this scene. “Jenny” is only the name some former “owner” gave her and put on her bill of sale. It’s hard for me in 2013 to get my mind around that: a person having a bill of sale, being named by it. Morrison shows how it works, makes me feel it at a visceral level.

And on that note: I’m always fascinated by naming, both the names an author uses (or chooses to not use), and the acts of naming in a story. After all, the first thing God told Adam to do in the Judeo-Christian creation story was to name the animals. Naming is power. An author must necessarily name characters (or not, but an omitted name becomes its own signal); parents necessarily name children. Those in power name those who are “owned.” As a writer “owns” characters in a story, as parents “own” their children (think how hard it would be to never refer to your kids as “my kids” again), slaveowners named their slaves. One more power symbol, if the chains and bills of sale weren’t enough.

Look at the names in this novel: three Pauls (maybe after the apostle?), interchangeable parts to the slaveowners, yet Sixo, Baby Suggs, Sethe and Halle have real names, their own names; black people invented screen names before white people invented screens. And don’t forget – it’s Morrison who ultimately decided on the names, including the use of “Garner” (remember Margaret Garner, the real-life inspiration for this story?) for the slaveowners – the “good” slaveowners, which is as oxymoronic a phrase as ever existed. It’s great that some slaveowners weren’t overtly cruel. That makes them a little less evil, not good.

But back to naming: Stamp Paid is another character with a fascinating name and a story to go with it:

Born Joshua, he renamed himself when he handed over his wife to his master’s son. Handed her over in the sense that he did not kill anybody, thereby himself, because his wife demanded he stay alive. Otherwise, she reasoned, where and to whom could she return when the boy was through? With that gift, he decided that he didn’t owe anybody anything.… So he extended this debtlessness to other people by helping them pay out and off whatever they owed in misery. The runaways? He ferried them and rendered them paid for; gave them their own bill of sale, so to speak. “You paid it; now life owes you.” And the receipt, as it were, was a welcome door that he never had to knock on…

At another point in the novel, Paul D thinks, “When he looks at himself through Garner’s eyes, he sees one thing. Through Sixo’s, another. One makes him feel righteous. One makes him feel ashamed.” I don’t think it’s by accident that Sixo is one of the characters who has chosen his own name; in fact, even as he is burned alive, Sixo names himself anew – “Seven-o! Seven-o!” (having left behind a pregnant Thirty Mile Woman) – and thus retains ownership of himself, even as the slaveowners murder him. That’s a hard level of hero to reach; I think most of us would come up wanting using that yardstick.

One more note about naming: we never know what Beloved was named at birth. She only became Beloved after she died (and yes, I’ll get to the religious symbolism of that); she must’ve had a name beforehand. When the “new” Beloved arrives, Sethe isn’t shocked by the name; she doesn’t seem to connect the name Beloved with the baby she killed. I’m a bit perplexed by this; I’m hoping the class lectures or discussions will help me sort it out.

Then we have the community relationship, another crucial aspect of the book. The black community in the outskirts of Cincinnati of 1873 is a tricky one, but most communities are in one way or another. This particular community is so essential for survival, that when it turns its back on Baby Suggs out of envy, catastrophe ensues:

She was accustomed to the knowledge that nobody prayed for her – but this free-floating repulsion was new. It wasn’t whitefolks – that much she could tell – so it must be colored ones. And then she knew. Her friends and neighbors were angry at her because she had overstepped, given too much, offended them by excess….
And about the party too, because that explained why nobody ran on ahead… to say some new whitefolks with the Look just rode in. The righteous Look every Negro learned to recognize along with his ma’am’s tit. Like a flag hoisted, this righteousness telegraphed and announced the faggot, the whip, the fist, the lie, long before it went public. Nobody warned them, and he’d always believed it wasn’t the exhaustion from a long day’s gorging that dulled them, but some other thing – like, well, like meanness – that let them stand aside, or not pay attention… Maybe they just wanted to know if Baby really was special, blessed in some way they were not.

In some ways, this is exactly the same pattern as slavery: a group creates a situation, then points to the situation they’ve created as justification for their behavior. The slaveowners: Look how ignorant these people are, this is why we don’t teach them to read. Look at what an animal this woman who murdered her child is, this is why we treated her like an animal. And now, the community: Look what this woman did. We were right to be suspicious of Baby Suggs that day. It’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy, not exactly; it’s more like the sociological version of backwards causation.

Morrison knew how to work these dehumanization markers into her story seamlessly, so they float by as undercurrents or overtones while we’re looking at something else, paying attention to the story. That’s why it’s such a big book: every sentence has layers of meaning. When Sethe ties her son in the yard by his foot to keep him away from the smoking fire she was required to tend: what does it take for a slave to tie up her child to keep him safe? And how does this relate to her notion of keeping Beloved safe in the terrible, incomprehensible fashion she later uses?

Biblical Symbolism

Whenever I read a story or novel set in a time and place with customs unfamiliar to me, I’m constantly aware of how much I’m missing, how many symbols are floating by that I just can’t recognize because I’m unaware of the significance of, oh, owls as a death motif or the raven as a trickster. But thanks to my misspent youth as a Southern Baptist, I have an advantage when it comes to Christian symbolism.

In the climactic scene in the first chapter of Part III, with its dramatic convergence of multiple unrelated events – Edward Bodwin just happens to be arriving, wearing a hat, to pick up Denver for her first night of work; it just happens to be a dreadfully hot and humid day; Sethe just happens to be hacking at a block of ice to cool down Beloved’s fever; the community just happens to be standing outside Sethe’s house in some kind of exorcism attempt – the Christian allegory flows hot and heavy. It’s a breathtaking chapter just on the face of it, but add in:

~ Thirty women make their way towards 124, echoing the thirty pieces of silver Judas was paid to betray Jesus. This is, after all, the community that eighteen years prior didn’t warn 124 of the approach of schoolteacher.

~ The scene takes place at three o’clock on a Friday, by tradition often considered the hour and day of Jesus’ crucifixion.

~ Beloved has “vines of hair” all over her head: the crown of thorns.

~ The thirty women from the community fall to their knees in prayer: “They make a hill. A hill of black people falling.” This is the Calvary on which Beloved will again be sacrificed.

~ Beloved was two years old when she was killed; the gospel of Matthew tells of the Slaughter of the Innocents, also equating death (“going down to Egypt” as well as the literal [in the gospel at least; this event is only mentioned in Matthew, and is widely considered ahistorical] death of thousands of babies two years old and younger) and safety in a horrific way.

~ The name Beloved, present throughout: from the “Dearly Beloved” of a funeral service. But first, there was the gospel of Matthew 3:16-17: “When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He[a] saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him.17 And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (NKJV)

~ The baby who is killed doesn’t become Beloved by name until she is buried; she doesn’t become Beloved in the flesh until she is resurrected.

This all starts to circle itself like a snake eating its tail; I’m hoping the week we spend on it in class will help me sort it out a little better, through lectures or discussions. But it’s clear that Christian symbolism, particularly of the crucifixion, plays a pivotal role in the novel, deepening its already overwhelming impact.

Contemporary Reach

What struck me the hardest as I read this novel – published in 1987, set in the mid-19th century – was how contemporary it all was. Not just the themes: the actual scenes and conversations.

Let’s start with something easy: Sethe, Paul D and Denver go to the Carnival. When Paul D first brings it up, Sethe hesitates and says no – she has work, after all – “but even when she said it she was thinking how much her eyes enjoyed looking in his face.” That’s a line out of any current story with a love relationship. Hey, most of us have probably said something like that; some things never change, and some experiences are universal. At the Carnival, Denver starts out playing the ultimate and eternal disaffected teenager: “But Denver was not doing anything to make this trip a pleasure. She agreed to go – sullenly – but her attitude was ‘Go ‘head. Try and make me happy.'” You can’t tell me your teenager hasn’t ever done just that – that we haven’t done just that. This carnival chapter, ending with the shadows holding hands, is one of those moments of total joy in this book. It’s Morrison’s artistry that the story then introduces the resurrected Beloved.

Then we have the much darker contemporary touches.

Because there was no way in hell a black face could appear in a newspaper if the story was about something anybody wanted to hear. A whip of fear broke through the heart chambers as soon as you saw a Negro’s face in a paper, since the face was not there because the person had a healthy baby, or outran a street mob. … it must have been hard to find news about Negroes worth the breath catch of a white citizen of Cincinnati.

Just last night, Chris Hayes and Cord Jefferson did an extraordinary satire of the different ways black and white crime is covered. If the piece strikes you as silly, just try substituting the word “black” for “white” and see how it sounds then; I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been lifted nearly sentence-for-sentence from a collection of recent news rants. I wouldn’t have heard about the Huntington Beach riot following a surfing championship if it hadn’t been for this kind of comparative reporting; it wouldn’t have been a big deal out of the local area. Yet had a single black person thrown as much as a wadded up paper ball after the Trayvon Martin verdict, it would’ve been on continuous loop for weeks. And, by the way, the fact that there was absolutely no violence was not widely reported, other than by omission.

Even the educated colored: the long-school people, the doctors, the teachers, the paper-writers and businessmen had a hard row to hoe. In addition to having to use their heads to get ahead, they had the weight of the whole race sitting there.

I wonder if Morrison wrote this out of her own experience. Any scandal involving a prominent black person automatically becomes about race. In the spirit of the previous satire, I wonder why, in this year of Bob Filner, Anthony Weiner, Mark Sanford, and Eliot Spitzer making political comebacks (some more successfully than others) after sexually-related scandals, we aren’t talking about the problem of the white man’s lack of sexual self-control. By the way, no woman in elected office has ever been involved in a sex scandal. I already feel sorry for whoever will be the first one. That’s one glass ceiling nobody wants to be credited with breaking.

[T]he schoolteacher beat him anyway to show him that definitions belonged to the definers – not the defined.

And here I reveal my own ignorance: I was surprised to discover “History is written by the victors” is attributed to Winston Churchill (albeit without a specific citation). I’d assumed it went back to ancient Greece. The above quote is Sethe remembering how Sixo explained to schoolteacher why he “stole” a shoat (I learned this from Sixo: a shoat is a baby pig). Maybe this is what all power struggles are about: who gets to write the history, the definitions. Who gets to say what’s a science experiment and what’s a felony. What’s “reasonable” and what isn’t. When lynching became more prosecutable (and the history of lynching extends into the 1950s), you can define a “Stand your Ground” self-defense strategy.

Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside. But it wasn’t the jungle blacks brought with them to this place from the other (livable) place. It was the jungle whitefolks planted in them. And it grew. It spread. In, through and after life, it spread, until it invaded the whites who had made it. Touched them every one. Changed and altered them. Made them bloody, silly, worse than even they wanted to be, so scared were they of the jungle they had made. The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.

If you don’t believe this is still true – you haven’t been paying attention to how the President of the United States has been treated with unprecedented disrespect and vitriol. And this isn’t just by the anonymous Twitterverse or the unfairly stereotyped “Southern racists.” It was an elected official of the Orange County, CA Republican Party who emailed the President’s face superimposed on a chimpanzee and then denied it was racist. It was the elected mayor of Los Alamitos, CA (again, Orange County; is Orange County they new Mississippi?) who emailed an image of watermelons growing on the White House lawn. A New York gubernatorial candidate emailed, among other things, a photo of the President and First Lady photoshopped as pimp and prostitute. Public racism towards the President has become far more acceptable, as shown by the huge collection of examples put together by blogger Def Shepherd. We see every day where the baboon lies: in all of us, every one. It’s just that it makes a funnier picture when it’s a black face, and those who don’t mind letting the baboon out are willing to exploit that for a laugh.

Part of the power of this book is its ability to reach from slavery and reconstruction all the way to 2013. Morrison has said in several venues that she admired and was influenced by Faulkner; though Beloved covers some of the same ugly territory as Light in August, where I found that book oppressive I find this one urgent and plaintive; where I found his time distortions and jumbled points of view unreadable, I find them poetic here. Scenes of joy are mixed in with those of tragedy; I found villains who could at the same time be heroes; I found an ugliness that could, in its own way, be beautiful, and a beauty that transformed the surrounding ugliness. I found what might be the biggest book I ever read.

There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding on, this motion, unlike the ship’s, smooth and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind – wrapped tight like skin. Then there is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from afar-off place.

Down by the stream in back of 124 her footprints come and go, come and go. They are so familiar. Should a child, an adult place his feet in them, they will fit. Take them out and they will disappear again as though nobody ever walked there.
By and by all trace is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what it is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather. Certainly no clamor for a kiss.
Beloved.

Tarjei Vesaas: The Ice Palace (1963)

Norwegian National Ballet

A young, white forehead boring through the darkness. An eleven-year-old girl. Siss.

How does a child experience the world? The Ice Palace shows us one way an eleven-year-old girl, right on the brink of puberty without much in the way of experience or emotional vocabulary, might navigate her way through love, grief, and the unknown.

Yes, of course this is another of the works covered in the “Fiction of Relationship” class taught by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University through Coursera. He’s something of an evangelist about this book, “finding a way to include it in virtually every course that I teach” as he explains in Morning, Noon and Night: Finding the Meaning of Life’s Stages Through Books (he also covers it in his book on Scandinavian literature; nothing like free access to a class taught by the guy who literally wrote the book). I can see several reasons it would fit into this particular course: the nuclear interaction between the two girls, of course; the relationship between each of them, separately and together, and Nature; and also, says none less than Doris Lessing in her Guardian book review, the relationship of the community:

The sense of mutual responsibility is so strong it is like another character in the story, as if, at any time you liked, you could appeal to some invisible council of collective decency. There are few things in literature more touching, more admirable, than the way this community of adults and children care for Siss…

~~ Doris Lessing, The Guardian book review, 4/17/93

Siss and Unn – they sound like beatbox syllables, don’t they; what struck me right off the bat was how opposite the names are. The girls are opposites, too: Siss is a known quantity, a leader in her class, outgoing, whereas Unn is the new girl, an orphan who just moved to town to live with her Auntie. She’s a bit shy and standoffish, not really interested in meshing into the social fabric of her class at school: “She had no parents, and it put her in a different light, an aura they could not quite explain….They looked at her critically and accepted her at once. There didn’t seem to be anything the matter with her. An attractive girl. Likeable. But she stayed where she was.” She refuses Siss’ overtures to join the group, with no explanation other than “I can’t.”

Norwegian National BalletHow interesting that the group accepts this. In my school, you were in trouble if you wore the wrong skirt. Maybe kids in Norway in the 60s were more accepting of different strokes. Siss: “Unn was strong in her lonely position in the schoolyard, not lost and pathetic.” Alone by choice; aloneness as independence.

Siss isn’t quite as sanguine about it, not at first; she realizes Unn has a kind of power in her solitude, and that’s what the kids respect and honor, and to her it feels like “two combatants, but it was a silent struggle….It was not even hinted at.” But this quickly gives way to a different feeling:

After a while Siss began to feel Unn’s eyes on her in class. Unn sat a couple of desks behind her, so she had plenty of opportunity. Siss felt it as a peculiar tingling in her body. She liked it so much she scarcely bothered to hide it. She pretended not to notice but felt herself to be enmeshed in something strange and pleasant. These were not searching or envious eyes; there was desire in them – when she was quick enough to meet them. There was expectancy. Unn pretended indifference as soon as they were out of doors and made no approach. But from time to time Siss would notice the sweet tingling in her body: Unn is sitting looking at me.
She saw to it that she almost never met those eyes. She did not yet dare to do so – only in a few swift snatches when she forgot.
But what does Unn want?
Some day she’ll tell me.

Now, don’t get your hopes up: this isn’t pornography, and it isn’t about a couple of eleven-year-old lesbians. Today we’d call it a girl-crush, a mixture of curiosity, admiration, and random eroticism focused on Unn. Siss wouldn’t have had that vocabulary, though. She just knew that she and Unn must meet. I’ve been trying to figure out some particle physics on this (I’d love some expert, or even just educated, input here) – it seems a collision between a proton and an electron can have different results, depending on the “energy.” One explanation of one possibility reads “The electron wave function (cloud) and the proton wave function overlap. That is, they both become fairly intense in the same spatial regions.” And this is exactly what happens when they do meet, and together look into a mirror:

Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. I don’t know: gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, from me to you, and from me to you alone – into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is, never an explanation. Those pouting red lips of yours, no, they’re mine, how alike! Hair done in the same way, and gleams and radiance. It’s ourselves! We can do nothing about it, it’s as if it comes from another world. The picture begins to waver, flows out to the edges, collects itself, no it doesn’t. It’s a mouth smiling. A mouth from another world. No it isn’t a mouth, it isn’t a smile, nobody knows what it is – it’s only eyelashes open wide above gleams and radiance.

During this same meeting, Unn tells Siss she has a secret, but she never reveals what that secret is. I haven’t a clue what it might be, even whether it’s a routine kind of secret (she was angry at her mother the day she died, for instance, and feels responsible for her death) or something more supernatural (maybe she hears voices; there’s something about Unn that reads off, whether it be an emerging psychosis or a belief in a spirit world). Writer Shani Bianjiu (I loved her TNY short story, “Means of Suppressing Demonstrations” from a year ago) describes, in an NPR article, how she was particularly impressed by this aspect of the book when she read it as a child: “This book expanded my childish understanding of what a book can be and do. It showed me that not every secret needs to be revealed. Not every seed of a connection blossoms. Not every child grows up, or is freed of her demons. Not every loss or pain has a purpose, or can be put in exact words….Reading it did not make reality less fragmented and random, but it made it seem worthy, inexplicable as it may be.”

The story takes a turn here.

Norwegian National BalletThe next day, in the next chapter, Unn becomes the third-person point-of-view character and for the first (and last) time we see what’s in her head. We discover she’s as affected by Siss as Siss is by her. She skips school the next day – some combination of embarrassment and a desire to savor what’s happened – and heads to the Ice Palace, a frozen waterfall. I won’t even try to capture the scene; it’s exquisite reading as she travels from one “room” to the next, each with a different experience: the sound of roaring water, a hostile petrified forest, a sad room of tears, a green room, a small dripping room. And the cold… until it isn’t cold any more.

End Part One. Because it’s not a novel of addition, about two girls; it’s a novel about subtraction: one girl minus one girl.

What’s it like to lose someone at the very start, the incandescent start, of a relationship? What’s it like to have promised to keep a secret – not even a secret, really, just a secret that there is a secret? What’s it like to not know, to know you may never know? Now – what’s it like for an eleven-year-old to deal with all of this?

Readers of this book experience this state of uncertainty. We don’t really know what’s going on much of the time. I wasn’t sure until the very end – and I’m still not sure, in fact – if there was a supernatural or magical reality element, or if it was all the metaphor and emotion of the eleven-year-old psychic landscape.

Siss seems to “become” Unn in some ways – she becomes more standoffish at school, and another girl takes over as leader. Unn’s desk is left vacant in the classroom; when a new student joins the class, Siss defends the desk when the teacher tries to reassign it: “‘And if her place isn’t there, she’ll never come back!’ exclaimed Siss – and at that moment her wild assertion did not seem absurd. A quiver passed through them all.” I understand that. I was in a therapy group once, and after a suicide (that happens sometimes in therapy groups), the chair was left vacant until the group moved to another room. I can see how an eleven-year-old, whose friend went missing months ago, might well feel that way. In fact, I’m a little baffled that the teacher even considered giving the desk away, but that may be my own eleven-year-old speaking.

The novel moves on with the story of Siss’ healing. She visits Unn’s Auntie, who’s moving away: “I’m certain now that there’s nothing more to wait for.” Seeing Unn’s room cleaned out, talking with Auntie, who assures her she is released from her promise – these become a turning point of sorts for Siss, who, for the first time since Unn’s disappearance, plans an outing for her class – to the Ice Palace, the very symbol of faith, of love, of Unn, before the thaw brings it down.

Structurally, though certainly not stylistically, I’m reminded how Lena’s pregnancy in Light in August – the inevitable birth present from the very first page – gave that novel its overall structure and forward motion. More directly, I’m reminded of Speak, a truly wonderful contemporary YA novel by Laurie Halse Anderson which also uses the rhythm of the seasons – the school year – to trace a girl’s injury, withdrawal, and recovery. It’s quite effective, to link winter with grieving and spring with healing; it also provides a framework that gives the novel an intrinsic momentum.

I’d never heard of this novel or this author; I haven’t read any Norwegian literature besides Sophie’s World, a YA “novel of philosophy” (and don’t pick on me because I read YA novels; I learned a lot from that book, and I’m pretty impressed with what is considered YA fiction in Norway). I’m very glad I encountered it here, and I’m looking forward to the class lectures to discover all the (many many) things I missed.

William Faulkner: Light in August (1932)

Willem de Kooning: “Light in August”

Man knows so little about his fellows. In his eyes all men or women act upon what he believes would motivate him if he were mad enough to do what that other man or woman is doing.

Here’s a hint: Don’t start this book the week a famous southern white lady-TV chef gets caught planning a plantation wedding complete with slaves dressed up in nice dinner jackets to serve the white folk, and don’t try to start a post about it on the day the Supreme Court decides we aren’t racists any more, and don’t finish up as the latest trial-of-the-century begins and a white lawyer tries to humiliate a shell-shocked nineteen-year-old black girl whose friend was killed in front of her ears, while she was on the phone with him.

Because nobody has that much ironic distance.

This is another of the works covered in the Coursera “Fiction of Relationship” class taught by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University. Though I’ve posted on the eight books/stories I’ve read for the class so far, this is the first assigned work I’ve read and posted on since the class began; I now have a better idea of what “the fiction of relationship” means in the context of the class and I can see why this is part of the course: we’re all isolated, outsiders, unable to see others without our filter, unable to see ourselves at all, and our relationships, even (especially) with ourselves, are all created out of part reality and part hope/fear/expectation. It’s a great class and I’m enjoying it tremendously.

This book, however, is another matter.

Now, I’ve read some fairly complicated books and stories in my life, some in bizarre narrative styles, some set in places that don’t exist, some about people I’ve never imagined exist. But I can usually figure out the basic plot, even if I miss the symbolism or the implications. In fact, I can only remember once I been defeated: by Ben Marcus’ “The Moors” (the guy went to get coffee, and after that, who knows).

Until now.

For example, it took me most of Chapter 1 to figure out that:

She had lived there eight years before she opened the window for the first time. She had not opened it a dozen times hardly before she discovered that she should not have opened it at all. She said to herself, ‘That’s just my luck.’ The sister-in-law told the brother. Then he remarked her changing shape, which he should have noticed some time before

meant Lena was pregnant. Is it obvious to everyone but me? It took me even longer to figure out she hadn’t been raped by someone climbing in the actual window, or by the brother who noticed her changing shape, which I saw as burgeoning womanhood. I’m not obtuse; I can handle metaphorical windows just fine, but dammit, I need a fighting chance. Also, I can’t add twelve – the age she moved in – and eight – the years it took her to open the damn window. I have to admit, when I figured out what was going on, I rather admired the way that scene was played. But it got me off to a bad start, comprehension-wise, and I never really recovered.

Often I had no idea, for pages at a time, whose head I was in, or what time period. I’ve never worked so hard to grasp the basics: who, what, when, where. I felt like I’d suddenly lost my brain cells as I swam around in sentences and paragraphs. But hey, that’s what Shmoop and Sparknotes are for, right?

It was a challenge beyond the plot. Racism, the violence and injustice, were of course part of 1932 Mississippi; I expected as much going in. The timing was extraordinarily bad. I had a couple of very bad days, and I had to put things aside a few times.

That said: there’s some gorgeous prose in here, and some extraordinarily well-tuned scenes of insight and horror: Joe Christmas’ orphanage years, the standoff with his foster father, the rage and violence literally beaten into him from the day he was born. Reverend Hightower’s tenuous grasp on reality, his retreat into isolation. The scenes between Christmas and Joanna Burden. Even the humor.

Wait, humor? What humor? No, I didn’t read the Quentin Tarantino version, I read a section of Ordered by Words: Language and Narration in the Novels of William Faulkner by Judith Lockyer (Southern Illinois University Press, 1991, and if you’re careful, available online):

The joke in LIA is significant first of all because the same idea is reworded to fit four different circumstances in the novel. The crux of the joke rests on the subject’s inability to know a situation beforehand, or to read “correctly.” At its first telling, the joke lends a comic tone to Lena’s pregnant predicament… Lena remarks on her struggle to climb through the window that had earlier provided her escape to Lucas: “‘If it had been this hard to do before, I reckon I would not be doing it now'”. The next time the joke appears it takes on a much darker tone. When Byron recounts to Hightower Lucas Burch’s story of moving Joanna Burden’s body, he includes the following ghoulish detail: “The cover fell open and she was lying on her side, facing one way, and her head was turned clean around like she was looking behind her. … Laughter is possible because we do not at this point know Joanna, but the joke also uncovers a bit of truth. If Joanna had understood herself and Joe Christmas perhaps she could have saved herself.
The same rueful awareness of possible misreading lies behind Joe Christmas’ comment to Joanna: “If I’m not [black], damned if I haven’t wasted a lot of time'”. Joe’s joke reveals a momentary insight that his convictions otherwise erase, but his words reiterate the potential for alternative readings that threaten complete resolution. The joke appears a final time in the furniture dealer’s narration of Lena and Byron…. The dealer observes, “‘Old boy, if you’d a just done this last night, you’d a been sixty miles further south than you are now… and if you’d done it two nights ago, I reckon I wouldn’t ever have laid eyes on either one of you.'” But both the dealer and Byron have misread the situation, and Lena is not to be conquered by masculine assertiveness. The language takes some of the edge off the fact that the dealer and his wife are chuckling over an attempted rape.
In all four situations, the joke undercuts, however briefly, the solemnity of a serious scene, as if to catch us before we invest the situation with too exclusive an interpretation. The jokes embody perfectly the doubleness of language that [LIA] desires to exploit. The joke is about the hazards of not knowing and the power of language to facilitate comprehension. [LIA] makes the process of articulation a complicated and necessary human concern precisely because it explores its varied dangers.

~~ Judith Lockyer, Ordered by Words (SIU Press, 1991), p. 97

I always enjoy a good rape joke, don’t you? Hey, I never said I lacked all ironic distance. Though I do get a bit impatient with the Todd Akin view of rape held by Joe Christmas: “But it was not woman resistance, that resistance which, if really meant, cannot be overcome by any man for the reason that the woman observes no rules of physical combat.” Maybe I had trouble understanding the book because so much of it was truly repugnant to me. And yes, I do understand that was the point.

On the plus side – I keep trying to go there, and I keep getting distracted – are terrific passages that, if I were a person who memorized passages to drag out when I wanted to appear impressive and learned, I’d put on my list. I gave up trying to appear impressive and learned a long time ago, but fact remains, the opening of Chapter 6 is just beautiful:

MEMORY believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes a corridor in a big long garbled cold echoing building of dark red brick sootbleakened by more chimneys than its own, set in a grassless cinderstrewnpacked compound surrounded by smoking factory purlieus and enclosed by a ten foot steel-and-wire fence like a penitentiary or a zoo, where in random erratic surges, with sparrowlike childtrebling, orphans in identical and uniform blue denim in and out of remembering but in knowing constant as the bleak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears.

This trope of memory gets repeated several times – opens chapters 7 and 10, in fact, plus many other sprinklings. Memory is, after all, why so many people hate so many other people they’ve never met who’ve never done them any harm. And people have long memories.

While hunting for commentary, I did find a treasure: a Q&A session Faulkner gave at the University of Virginia in 1957, helpfully recorded (audio only) and, thanks to the internet machine, available online, Faulkner presents himself as just simple folk who don’t know nothin’ ’bout stylistics:

Q: Mr. Faulkner, most people are very struck by your change in style in Light in August. For example, you use present tense to tell the story in rather than the past. Was that — did you mean something by that or were you just using a new form for dramatic import?

Faulkner: “No, that just seemed to me to be the best way to tell the story. It wasn’t a deliberate change of style, I don’t know anything about style, I think a writer with a lot pushing inside him to get out hasn’t got time to bother with style, if he just likes to write and hasn’t got anything urging him then can become a stylist. But the ones with a great deal pushing to get out don’t have time to be anything but clumsy, like Balzac, for instance.”

~~ William Faulkner, audio

I don’t believe the aww shucks routine – he knew exactly what he was doing – and the time swapping is what more than anything else makes this novel incredibly hard to read, so I can’t agree it was the best way to tell the story – but he’s the one with the Nobel and Pulitzer and I’m… not.

I am fond of a few other stylistic elements used here, to wit, compound words (I’m also fond of the idea of oddball punctuation, of course – the commadash, the semidash, the codash [“For Faulkner they were simply in his received punctuational repertoire, and may be read as usefully combining a grammatical signal of partial completion of a sense (the colon, semi-colon, or other stop) with an elocutionary signal imposing a pause (the dash) – moments when a speaker or narrator, concluding one train of thought, pauses to gather up the next thread before proceeding” says John Lennard in Reading William Faulkner: Go Down Moses and Big Woods] – but I couldn’t find any examples in LIA so I can’t really find a way to squeeze them in to this particular commentary, can I). I like a writer who isn’t afraid to play with words.

But Faulkner’s compounds do more than assert his power as an author; they also open language to the possibilities for new, more precise meanings. The effect of words like “sootbleakened” “sparrowlike childtrebling,” and “grassless cinderstrewnpacked compound” is to strike us with the amplitude of ordinary experience and with the language that brings us its fullness…
We have to stop to be sure that we understand what the words are saying. And when we do and then read the story of Joe’s past, we witness how precisely Faulkner has orchestrated his themes by means of languages.
While the character’ stories unfold to disclose the dangers and falseness of language, the sum of the novel’s many voices celebrates the power of its languages and allows Faulkner to restructure our assumptions about reading and thus about language.

~~ Judith Lockyer, Ordered by Words (SIU Press, 1991), p. 95

Now that’s what I’m talking’ about: language that creates meaning simply by being language. Incomprehensibility is a small price to pay.

Anecdotes about Faulkner’s resistance to editing are widely available but often weakly documented (if documented at all); however, none other than Shelby Foote, noted Civil War historian and personal friend to Mr. Faulkner, substantiates the attitude in a 1986 interview with the Chicago Tribune: “I saw a galley proof of a book where some officious fool had taken it upon himself to make corrections in the margin,” says Foote, “and Faulkner had scratched it out and written underneath, ‘Goddamn you, let it alone.'” Multiple editions exist, of course, including an online photographic PDF of the first edition (oops, not any more) and various “corrected” versions, one by Random House in 1991 and another by Library of America in 2012, that purport to return the text to Faulkner’s intended version based on the original manuscript. Publishing is more complex than you might think; ask any Biblical scholar.

Like many works of art, LIA has generated partner creations in other media. Specifically, in 2012 guitarist Doug Wamble created a suite of works titled Yoknapatawpha (“sound portrait of the fictional world of William Faulkner”) which includes “Christmas’ Burden” (and yes, of course it’s available on Youtube):

Chamber Music America awarded Wamble a grant to explore, in his words, “the dichotomy of being an intellectual who is rooted in the down home elements of the South.”
In embracing and wrestling with the “dichotomy” between folksiness and erudition, Wamble created a “sound portrait of the fictional world of William Faulkner.” Its track “Christmas’ Burden,” a superb bit of banjo blues seen in this live performance here, gives voice to Joe Christmas of Light in August. By playing on the notion of “the white man’s burden,” Wamble considers Joe’s mixed heritage and its impact on his body and soul. On the run, Christmas sings:

And I know that it’s true
something’s gonna happen to me
And I know God loves me too

“[Faulkner] saw the southern past as a burden on his people, carrying with it sins so profound that the past constituted a curse that hung over the land, inherited by one generation after another.”

Wamble performed this piece here in Portland just last year; my local public library held a “Faulkner and Music” program to supplement.

So what does any of this have to do with the Fiction of Relationship class? I haven’t yet correctly anticipated the professor’s angle on any work we’ve covered so far (that’s a good thing, btw; why bother to take a class if you’re not going to discover a new way of looking at a work?) so I don’t expect to do so now. I think it has to do with knowing, or being unable to know, other people, the overarching theme; creating our own fiction of every relationship. In this case, Joe Christmas doesn’t even know who he is, as Faulkner himself emphasizes in the 1957 lectures mentioned above:

Q. Sir, in Light in August, the central character Joe Christmas had most of his troubles and persecutions and in his search to find himself was based on his belief that he was part Negro and yet it is never made really clear that he is. Was he supposed to be part Negro, or was this supposed to add to the tragic irony of the story?

Faulkner: “I think that was his tragedy: he didn’t know what he was, and so he was nothing. He deliberately evicted himself from the human race, because he didn’t know which he was, that was his tragedy, that to me was the tragic central idea of the story, that he didn’t know what he was, and there was no way possible in life for him to find out. Which, to me, is the most tragic condition a man could find himself in, not to know what he is, and to know he will never know.”

~~ William Faulkner, audio

This week, which saw the overturning of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act (followed two hours later – two hours for god’s sake – by changes in Texas voting laws), and saw a woman stand up, literally – and legally – for what she believed in, for eleven hours, only to be called a terrorist, which saw an uncertain nineteen year old black girl who speaks three languages bullied and mocked for her English word choice while a 66-year-old white TV-chef/multi-millionaire was embraced for “I is what I is”, a week which saw joyous celebration and heartshattering defeats, which brought the dream a little closer and pushed it a little further away: this week I thought of a single sentence in chapter 11. I hear Joe Christmas ask, when Miss Burden tell him how her grandparents’ graves were hidden to prevent the locals from digging up the Northern intruders and expurging them from Southern soil, “Just when do men that have different blood in them stop hating one another?”

I’ll let you know, Joe. I’ll let you know.

Bennett Sims: A Questionable Shape (Two Dollar Radio, 2013)

Image by WORD Bookstore, Brooklyn/Two Dollar Radio

Image by WORD Bookstore, Brooklyn/Two Dollar Radio

What we know about the undead so far is this: they return to the familiar. They’ll wander to nostalgically charged sites from their former lives, and you can somewhat reliably find an undead in the same places you might have found it beforehand. Its house, its office, the bikeways circling the lake, the bar. ‘Haunts.’ …*Could it be that each time a place leaves a powerful impression on us, it deposits into our unconscious these mineral flecks of nostalgic energy?

How the hell am I supposed to intelligently write about a zombie novel that references Wittgenstein, Kobayashi Issa, Thomas Hardy, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Alfred Hitchcock (not to mention Hamlet via the title)? A book that’s dedicated to David Foster Wallace and borrows from Nicholas Baker? That sees analogues to the undead in, among other things, chess, art, footnotes, and the green power light on a speaker? That wrings more out of the flashing “Walk/Don’t Walk” street signs than some books get out of a multigenerational war saga? A zombie novel where subjects like memory, perception, reality, being, and knowing are far more prevalent than actual zombies?

Screw “intelligently;” I’ll have to settle for “enthusiastically.” An analogue to the undead, perhaps? It’s infected my brain, and now I want to infect yours?

Since the outbreak, I have often reflected that the footnote is the typographic mark most emblematic of undeath. By opening up a sub adjacent space on the page, the footnote digs a grave in the text, an underworld in the text. The words that are banished there are like thoughts that the text has repressed, pushed down into its unconscious. But they go on disturbing it from beneath, such that if the text were ever infected, they are the words that would guide it. Footnotes are a text’s phantom feet. [Page 16, in a footnote, for god’s sake]

I didn’t expect to read this book. I loved Sims’ “House-Sitting” from the Summer 2012 issue of Tin House – “seriously fine, seriously literary, psychological horror,” I called it – and I knew back then he had a book coming out, but it isn’t the kind of book that’s likely to wind up in the Maine library system (though it should, but small presses get short shrift when funds are scarce), and given the cutbacks to my own book budget, I wasn’t willing to take the risk for a zombie novel, no matter how great the first story or how promising the reviews.

Then two things happened. First, I read the Manuel Gonzales collection The Tiny Wife, and discovered the immense possibilities of zombie stories – and werewolf stories, and unicorn stories – in the hands of a certain kind of writer. Then, in a stroke of luck, I noticed a tweet about Roxane Gay giving away books (thank you, Roxane) early enough to get in on it. This was one of the books offered, and I jumped. I wasn’t disappointed.

I seem to be using phrases like “the plot is simple” over and over again lately. Maybe that’s something to tuck away in a back pocket: a complex book doesn’t need a complex plot. And this is a complex book, it’s just that it’s ideas-complex, not story-complex. Each day makes up a section, comprised of unnumbered chapters. It’s all very linear, with the exception of a couple of seriously high-voltage flashbacks. And: there are very few zombies. In fact, technically there are none: Michael makes a distinction between the undead he is dealing with (officially known as “the infected” in a stroke of civic political correctness) and zombies, “those hypothetical thought-experimental monsters from the mind-body philosophy.”

Michael Vermaelen, the first-person protagonist, and his friend Matt Mazoch spend a week looking for Matt’s father, who went missing a few weeks ago; he’s presumed caught in the months-old undead epidemic. While there was panic and chaos at first, life has settled into a remarkably calm “new normal” now that the epidemic has been bureaucratized. There’s nothing like a government agency to make even zombies seem routine.

The undead return to places with some emotional content, leading to interesting speculation about the nature of memory and the possibilities that occur when we try to figure each other out. Consider your closest loved one: spouse, parent, child, friend, sibling. Now consider: what place is most emotionally significant to him or her? How would you feel if you discovered, upon her death, that it was a place, a memory, that did not include you?

Michael was a philosophy major, his girlfriend Rachel studied art history, and Matt’s from the literature department, so between those three threads, plus a smattering of anthropology and science, we get a full workout as Michael takes a tour of the human soul. And if you really want zombies, insist on zombies in your zombie novel, Michael’s recollection of his first view of an undead is astonishing. It features the winds and leaves and shadows more than rotting flesh, though:

Above me a breeze passed through the oak trees’ leaves, and I watched as a current of rustle traveled up the block, live oak by live oak, in a line of thrashing branches. Eventually they reached the infected’s far white figure, overtaking him. As the branches between us swayed, their shadows swished atop the intervening concrete, and I could see that all of the street leading up to the infected was shaded: the pavement roiled with movement – with black turmoil – as if being buckled by an earthquake of shadows. Down at my feet some of its tremors swished over my shoes. And raising my eyes from my feet, moving my eyes slowly along the length of the street, one patch of thrashing shadow as a time, I could almost believe that I was following just a single tremor in motion, one black seism traveling up the block. This shockwave, beginning at my shoes, seemed to ripple outward, breaking over itself in crests and troughs until it broke over the feet of the infected. Is quite shape stayed in place, being lapped at by the blackness. I lifted my arm at him, as if in a wave, and actually waved both arms. He didn’t respond, and I let my arms drop to my sides. The tree shadows continued cascading toward him, in flurries of movement that threw his motionlessness into relief.

I’m a big fan of interiority; it’s a good thing, because Michael lives in his head, constantly questioning. Matt, in contrast, lives in his body and in action; he knows exactly what the undead think and feel (nothing) and wants to exterminate them, and Rachel, heart-focused, reacts to them compassionately as victims of an illness. It’s vaguely Freudian, with Matt as the id, Rachel the superego, and Michael as the ego trying to keep everyone happy, while figuring out the nature of undeath.

Or rather, a range of metaphors. I started writing “AGAIN!” in the margins as I encountered instance after instance of his discovery that “oh, yes, undeath is really like correlative conjunctions,” followed a few pages later by “it’s also like Vertigo” only to continue into “and it’s like the letters spelling out ‘Baton Rouge’ on the levee, too”:

Every time that a storm’s white spume gushes from the letters’ downspouts, it looks as if the words are hemorrhaging meaning… For isn’t this the effect that the infection has on language? Whenever the undead bite people, their victim’s speech is soon reduced to moaning….it’s even almost tempting to think of the epidemic, of the undead in general, as having been sent to serve just that purpose, like some tidal wave of aphasia returning speechlessness to the earth: first to puncture words, installing sluiceways in the language, then to wash through them with the white spume of that moaning, rinsing the alluvia from their letters.

There’s some seriously fine, seriously literary satiric humor as well, particularly via an infection-control pamphlet issued by the Louisiana CDC titled “FIGHT THE BITE” that includes advice on what to do if confronted (“A Knock to the Head Will Stop ‘Em Dead”). Michael ponders the very illustrations thereof, the emotional blankness: “Like the passengers in aircraft manuals, who seem to suffer plane crashes apathetically, reaching for oxygen masks as calmly as for a ceiling light’s dangle-chain, the characters in FIGHT THE BITE are curiously underwhelmed by the epidemic….. portraying a world in which the imperiled meet death like stolid pod people.” The drawings of the undead are distinguished by the absence of pupils. This kind of detail doesn’t grow on trees; it takes serious work to come up with this stuff. I wonder if Sims has a mock-up of the pamphlet sitting around somewhere.

Then there are the defamiliarization exercises: Husbands practice not recognizing wives, mothers their children, “the better to damp down recognition when they see each other undead.…” The idea is to practice seeing your loved ones as undead, as infected, as sources of contagion; as threats. That way, if they should be infected, “A Knock to the Head Will Stop ‘Em Dead” – though it’s illegal to “kill” an undead except in “close-quartered combat.” I mildly regret this isn’t explored more: either Sims’ Louisiana has no “Stand Your Ground” law, as the real Louisiana does, or it was suspended for the undead, who “have the same citizen status and legal rights as, say, coma patients or the mentally ill.”

Michael spends a good part of Wednesday trying to convince Rachel to practice these defamiliarization techniques – to get used to being strangers at will. Deliberate estrangement. She’s reluctant. “It’s hateful,” she says. She doesn’t know the half of it; Michael has already considered his options:

‘What would I have to do,’ I would ask myself, ‘if this creature, asleep on my chest, woke and was monstrous?’ There was never really any question: I would have to throw the comforter, verdant and spring-patterned, over her head, not only to keep her from biting me but also to keep me from seeing her face; then I would have to beat her to death with the baseball bat that we stow under the bed. The trick, I thought, was to be beating on a mound beneath the covers. To be beating some soft writhing green thing, rather than Rachel, nude and recognizable. And to drag her body, still bundled in its blankets, out to the street without ever once actually looking at her face, which would have to be as forbidden to me as Eurydice’s, or Medusa’s. I didn’t like to think about it.

How do you think that might affect your marriage? Michael meditates at length on the effect this has on his relationship with Rachel. Early in the epidemic, when he was at his most paranoid, he had some trouble hugging a woman who sometimes felt like a rabid dog. But he’s better now.

I lost a little steam around Thursday (the chapter, not the day), but the first three chapters more than made up for it and gave enough momentum to keep the book engaging until the end, where Michael faces a decision. All in all, it’s a pretty anticlimactic ending, but the read was so good, I didn’t care.

The description of going with Rachel to check her father’s grave – early in the epidemic, when no one knew exactly what was happening, she was afraid he might have reanimated in his coffin – has a heartfelt gentle intimacy about it despite the hyperanalysis. Their day at Tunica likewise has an emotional fervor to it, though Michael’s account of it uses little in the way of emotive language. It’s a neat trick. I suppose I could be bringing the emotional content in myself, but I think instead it’s just a very talented writer evoking emotion in a different way.

Take the story of her father’s death. When she narrates this to me in bed at night, what she’s doing is putting it into play in our relationship… The reason she’s even sharing that memory to begin with is that she wants me, as her lover, to know that about her. It’s a biographical experience she considers so fundamental to her sense of self that I couldn’t properly love her – couldn’t know her as my beloved – without first having incorporated it into my own personal sense of who she is. The subtext of any memory that the lover shares is, ‘I want you, my lover, to know this about me, because this is the facet of myself I want you to love. When you say, “I love you,” mean by “you” the subject of this memory.’

In various interviews (and I was relieved to find them; when I read “House-Sitting,” I couldn’t find anything about him online other than the briefest bios), Sims names his influences. In his interview with Shane Jones of HTMLGiant he explains the footnotes that provide so much of the novel are not an homage to David Foster Wallace as I’d assumed (Sims studied with him; he tells Two Dollar Radio it’s hard to talk about) but to Nicholas Baker’s The Mezzanine (Late addendum: I wonder if he’s read the Millions article Aphrodisiacal Footnotes…; I myself feel the need to correct Dr. McWilliams’ opening sentence, as Bennett Sims also writes footnotes very much worth reading). He wrote his college thesis on zombies, including the aspect of “social death” which he talks about at some length with Gameological. This is why it’s more than a horror novel; there’s serious thought in this.

If I could ask Bennett Sims some questions (besides if he has a draft of FIGHT THE BITE on his computer; someone’s got to design one), I’d ask the silly stuff that isn’t included in those (excellent and highly recommended) interviews. I’d want to know about the way practical information is, or isn’t, revealed. We don’t know Michael’s name, for instance, until well into the book; for a while I thought he’d go unnamed throughout. Am I the only one who wants to know a narrator’s name? There’s no lack of clarity, since there are only three characters to keep track of (four, if you count the omnipresent idea of the missing Mr. Mazoch). But once Rachel calls him “Michael,” it’s as if the floodgates open; his name is mentioned over and over, and we eventually even get a last name. Why the delay? Is it related to Rachel noticing he only uses her name when he’s angry? Is it coincidence, or a deliberate choice, to tease the reader a little with the same unknowing state Michael’s in vis a vis the undead?

I’d also want to know if there are deliberate nods to the early days of AIDS, the ground covered by Shilts’ And the Band Played On (I remember the jokes, the nasty comments… and more than anything else, the paranoia) in some sections, and to Katrina in others. The hurricane is mentioned (and mass escapes of the undead from quarantines are called “spills” for another eerie evocation of reality), and the upcoming hurricane season is a source of tension throughout the book, but it strikes me that the confusion, incompetence, the bad information, the hysterical atmosphere dying down to a new normal that’s anything but normal, mirrors history, if 2005 can be called history.

If things were going well and I wasn’t wearing on his patience, I might get into silly stuff like whether these people had jobs. Obviously with a zombie apocalypse going on, most businesses are closed (though Michael goes out for milk and he and Matt stop for lunch at a diner, and public safety is in full swing), but if there’s a reference to the jobs they held before this started, I missed it. Even if they’re on the university on summer hiatus, I’d think they’d mention co-workers, bosses, or at least money, in passing. I suppose in a zombie novel that should be the least of my worries, but other than the undead, it’s quite realistic, right down to the configuration of the barges on the Mississippi acting as temporary quarantine overflows.

Mazoch likes to appose Robert Hass’s version of the famous Issa haiku (‘In this world/we walk on the roof of hell/gazing at flowers’) to something that we heard a preacher say on talk radio one morning (‘When there’s no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth’): the dead and the living are sharing roofspace now, and it’s nothing like so simple as it once was to take a walk.

I’m amazed at how much a couple hundred pages can contain, the places it can take me – and the things I can learn (I’m now obsessed with anamorphic art – I knew about it beforehand, I just never knew what it was called and often mistakenly referred to it as trompe l’oeil; I stand corrected).

Sims joins Seth Fried and Manuel Gonzales on my “magnificently weird” list. It’s a great list, getting better all the time.

Taiye Selasi: Ghana Must Go (Penguin NY, 2013)

[Kweku] How could he have known? That a life that had taken them years to put together would take weeks to break apart? A whole life, a whole world, a whole world of their making: dinners, dishes, diapers, deeds, degrees, unspoken agreements, outgoing answering machine messages, You’ve reached the Sais, we’re not here right now. Beep. And won’t be here ever again. Leave a message. Until nothing was left but the statue of the mother in the trunk of the Volvo and the painting, two forms. Oil on canvas. Kehinde Sai, 1993. Signed by the artist. The Bigger Person.

It’s archeology, this book: a dig through the levels of this family, through the lives of these six people. You think you’ve got the picture, then you read on and find out you didn’t know the half of it. You see things through multiple sets of eyes, and you get a sense of who these people are by the things they do and don’t see.

Last March, on the day it was published in the US, I requested it from my library, having been awed by Selasi’s short story “The Sex Lives of African Girls” in BASS 2012. I was the first borrower when it (finally!) arrived. Within a half hour of finishing that library copy, I ran to my Fiercely Independent Local Bookseller, my face still puffy from the crying I did during the last three pages. I told the bookstore guy that I’d just finished my library copy and knew I had to own it. “It’s that good?” he asked. “Yeah,” I told him, “it’s that good.” And then some.

[Taiwo] It occurs to her suddenly how stupid she must look to this driver from Ghana in his sensible coat as he watches her, waiting to see that she gets from his cab to her building and safely inside. She teeters up the stoop in the platform stilettos and turns to look back at the driver, the snow.
Downward it dances and lands on her shoulders and nose and his windshield, the hush of a storm, with the street emptied out of all seekers of warmth and a wind blowing gently. She holds up a hand.
They are angels in a snow globe, both silent and smiling, two African strangers alone in the snow: kindly man in a cab in a bulky beige coat waving back as he pulls from the curb and honks once and a girl on her steps in a short white fur coat crying quietly watching him go.

The language is exquisite. I was reading To the Lighthouse for a class at about the same time, and I kept thinking that both Woolf and Selasi really know how to use nontextual material – sections, chapters, division, and above all, punctuation (I so love a writer who isn’t afraid of the outer edges of the keyboard). I’m also a big fan of non-standard syntax. The sentence fragment. Nested clauses. All the stuff they tell you not to do in English class. I ended up dictating what may be a quarter of the book into a Word document – just to hear it out loud, though I told myself it was to have quotes readily available for a post. I really didn’t need seventeen pages (!) of quotes for this post. And I had a terrible time whittling them down to just these few.

[Kehinde] His siblings and their parents belong to a People, bear the stamp of belonging.
He and Taiwo do not. Their features are a record, yes, but not of a People, the art history of Peoplehood, constant and strong, but the shorter, very messy, lesser history of people, small p, two at least, who one day happened to make love. As children they’d decided they were aliens, or adopted.… It wasn’t until later, at thirteen, in Lagos, just arrived at Uncle Femi’s, ushered into the lounge, that they’d see, from the threshold, standing frozen with wonder, the face that theirs came from, there, white, on the wall.

Given the title, I’d expected the book to be about the 1983 expulsion of Ghanaians from Nigeria, but it’s barely mentioned; the Sai family is in the US in 1983. Leaving, however, is the lens through which everything is seen. “We were immigrants,” says Fola towards the end of the book. “Immigrants leave.” Leaving – and what remains – permeates the story.

Fola Savage and Kweku Sai are the immigrants, she from Nigeria, he from Ghana, who meet in Pennsylvania in the early 70s, marry, and over twenty years build professional success and beget four children: Olu, the twins Kehinde and Taiwo, and the baby Sadie. Selasi has helpfully provided a little primer in the front of the book with pronunciations and translations for these and other names, as well as a family tree. The “present” of the story is fairly simple (sixteen years after abandoning his family, Kweku dies, and the scattered family gather for his funeral, bringing with them the echoes and effects of past events), but it’s told in fairly complicated fashion: the POV jumps from character to character, the timeline zigzags and includes “remembered past” in the present as well as flashbacks told from the perspective of the characters at the time, the “archeological” effect that involves multiple passes over crucial events in increasing depth and from different points of view. That may be one of my two faint complaints (the other is the parade of epiphanies in the final chapters): it’s a bit more complicated than it needs to be, I think. Still, that’s pretty much a reality check – I loved this book, so I need to be sure I still have some perspective by finding some flaw, no matter how small.

[Taiwo] There was the other one, the first one, the one they’d deleted, the one who backed down a sunset-lit drive while she watched from the window obscured by darkness, having played with the lights to bid Kehinde inside: first off, then on, then off, then on: just sufficiently dark now to see in the car, the man’s face through the windshield, soft, narrow eyes narrower, fighting: then filling with, tears – but resolute.
He would know, too, she thought… She would find him and tell him. He was somewhere in Ghana (according to Olu); she’d go there and wait. She’d be seated on his stoop when he came home from work, in a Volvo as she saw it, the sunset full swing. He’d seen her from the driveway and slow to a stop with that look on his face for that seen in such films when a man on the run returns home before dark and the hit man is waiting, at ease, in plain sight, with his boots on the railing, a gun in one boot where the man in the driveway can see it. Like that. He’d stop, kill the engine, and stare from the car with his eyes meeting hers, hers unblinking, his wet, for he’d see in her face that the light had gone out and would know without words that his daughter was dead, that the girl he had left on a street in North America was not the one sitting on this stoop in West Africa, with boots propped on the railing and pistol in boots, that she’d died because no one would save her.

I think it needs to be that complicated, to tell the intertwined stories, to show them in various combinations, to show events from multiple points of view. It’s necessary to spiral around, getting closer and closer to the truth (I came up with a little graphic, combining this spiral structure with Fola’s tendency to “feel” the well-being of her four children in separate quadrants of her abdomen, to know when something’s wrong by physical sensation). That’s how we live, after all, going through things over and over, thinking about seminal events at various points in our lives, and, with a little luck, learning more about them, more about ourselves, along the way. That’s how these characters progress.

[Fola] She touches her stomach as she does when this happens, when fear hovers shyly, not showing its face yet, when something is wrong but she doesn’t knowo what or with which of the offspring that sprang from this spot. And the stomach answers always…
Fine.
Sadness, tension, absence, angst – but fine, as she birthed them, alive if not well, in the world, fish in water, in the condition she delivered them (breathing and struggling) and this is enough. Perhaps not for others, Fola thinks, other mothers who pray for great fortune and fame for their young, epic romance and joy (better mothers quite likely; small, bright-smiling, hard-driving, minivan-mothers), but for her who would kill, maim, and die for each child but who knows that the willingness to die has its limits.

It’s a pretty audacious choice, to start a book with the death of a main character, but it provides a road map of where the story’s going, and given the complexity, I think provides a degree of orientation. In the first section, Kweku shows us his life from his perspective. In the second, as his ex-wife Fola and the four offspring are notified, we see how he has affected them, particularly his leaving. In the final section, the family gathers for the funeral, for a gripping round of “force your characters up against each other where they can’t escape and see what happens.” Kweku’s absence from the family is the origin of the story; it’s also the axis around which the rest been spinning for decades, so it’s fitting the book should start – and end – with his literal exit from life.

[Olu] For all his life when he looked for his father, like this, scanning quickly to spot Kweku’s face in the bleachers at meets or the seats at recitals, he’d scanned for the contrast, first and foremost for brown. A bluish color brown appropriately likened to chocolate and coffee, the complexion that he had himself – and that no one else had, no other father in Boston. He could always pick out Kweku in an instant by the color. Here at the airport his eyes, as conditioned, scanned quickly for contrast and blinked at the shock: they were all the same color, more or less, all the fathers…

We find out more about Olu, who walks in his father’s footsteps with trepidation; Taiwo, who sees father figures everywhere without realizing it; Kehinde, the artist, entwined with his twin Taiwo in an unspoken bond of guilt and shame; and Sadie, with the privileges and disadvantages of being, at age twenty, “the baby.” At the center is Fola, an unspeakably strong woman who can’t make up for a mistake borne of self-doubt, and Kweku, whose leave-taking is the center of everything.

So much symbolism: Kweku’s imaginary cameraman, carried forward in Taiwo’s mental movie. Fola’s flowers. Sena, who fixes things, who gets people out – or brings them back in. Mr. Lamptey and the mango tree he would not chop down. Slippers, oh god, the slippers, the slippers that protect, that cover the bruises… it was the slippers that undid me at the end.

It’s a very visual book. I can see the portrait of Somayina (and the generation-spanning hatred Femi directs towards it); the basket of slippers by the door; the statue of the Mother of Twins, “iya-ibeji;” the night of uncharacteristically playful, joyous sledding Taiwo mentally edits over time to remove Kweku after his departure; Kehinde’s art, the canvas he signs then gives his father, unaware of the moment as it happens; the photograph that so puzzles Sadie, until she realizes its significance. And the battered brown leather slippers.

[Sadie] She wants to tell Fola that she loves her, that she’s sorry, that she didn’t for a moment mean to say those horrid things, and that however it appears from that apartment in Coolidge Corner, whatever Fola may think, that she isn’t alone – but can’t: for two of the four things aren’t true, and she doesn’t have Fola’s new number.

What she couldn’t tell Fola is how much less hurtful it is not to belong to a family not her own than to sit there in Boston, just the two of them smiling, rehearsing all the reasons that no one comes home.

Death, separation, shame, otherness, betrayal, rage, connection, need: it’s all in there, in these people with their strengths and flaws. And some beautiful reading; the individual sections and chapters are wonderful little stories in themselves, and make more sense, deeper sense, as you continue to read. For most of us, it’s a multi-read book. On first read, Taiwo’s comment on pg. 41 – “Relief that she knew, that she’d gotten it right, tinged with terror at what might happen were she one day to be wrong” – only meant what it said. On second read, it leapt off the page. I barely noticed the mention of the scar on Fola’s abdomen the first time through; that, too, had new significance later. I love a book with a good second read – and I suspect this one will have good third, fourth, and fifth reads as well.

In 2005, Selasi (then writing as Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu) wrote “Bye-bye Babar,” an article about the “Afropolitan” – the descendents of educated African 1960s emigrants to Europe or the US, grown up now, globally comfortable, who bear the imprint of Africa yet struggle to answer the question, “Where are you from?” Her earlier story, and this book, are continuations of that thought. I still have a hard time wrapping my head around “African-ness” since Africa is a big place, a diverse place. But so is the US, so is Europe, so is Latin America, and I don’t have trouble wrapping my head around those concepts. I’ll have to try harder.

[Kehinde] he can’t read her thoughts.
For years he had. Read – or more accurately heard – them. As if they were words in her voice in his head, only snippets but clear ones, and clearer the feelings that went with the thoughts; he could feel what she felt.
He still doesn’t know when he lost good reception. It wasn’t in Nigeria, for all the horror. After college for the last time he saw her or earlier? He doesn’t trust his memory when he tries to think back. The wrist-slitting scrambled his memories, rearranged them. The archives remain but are all out of order. He can’t tell what age he was when such-and-such happened; couldn’t say in which country he was in which year. He knows that at some point the line filled with static, then little by little went properly dead. He senses his sister – still experiences her presence like the space between magnets to a finger passing through – but can’t hear, so he doesn’t know, her now.
Radio silence.
“He’s gone” made her laugh, and he couldn’t hear why.

As silly as it sounds, the book smells good (oh, my, I’m really smitten, y’think?). I’ve become quite enamored lately with the sensory aspect of reading material. Tin House remains my best-smeller, with What the Zhang Boys Know and the 2013 Madras Press collection of four teeny tiny books taking first prize for the warm, diffused matte cover I so love. Ghana Must Go is right up there, with a pleasant smell and a wonderful dust jacket: slightly parchment-textured on the outside, high-gloss on the inside, the embossed title written in Selasi’s own hand (really: the two a’s and the two G’s are different; it’s not a handwriting font, though it probably should become one). I’m a little concerned I’m developing some strange book fetish.

Selasi is multi-faceted: she’s a screenwriter, photographer, essayist, and, by the way, pianist (Rachmaninoff to Coltrane) and cellist. But she can’t add, which fully endears her to me. Interviews can be found all over the ‘net: I already referenced Melissa Harris-Perry‘s wonderful sit-down with Selasi last Spring in a previous post (“this is the white woman’s privilege. Wet hair.” MHP turns hair into sociopolitical gold every time). She also spoke with Diane Rehm on NPR (there is autobiographical material in the book – Selasi’s father is Ghanaian, her mother Nigerian, she was born in London, has a twin sister, her parents separated when she was young, after which she grew up in Brookline and went to Yale before Oxford – but “the hurts, shames, loves, motivations arose from the fictional world”), and Ellah Allfrey of Granta (she lives in a “cd-shuffle” of New York, Delhi, and Rome).

To him, who could name grief by each one of her faces, the logic was familiar from a warmer Third World, where the boy who tails his mother freshly bloodied from labor (fruitless labor) to the edge of the ocean at dawn – who sees her place the little corpse like a less lucky Moses all wrapped up in palm frond, in froth, then walk away, but who never hears her mention it, ever, not once – learns that “loss” is a notion. No more than a thought. Which one forms or one doesn’t. With words. Such that one cannot lose, nor ever say he has lost, what he does not permit to exist in his mind.
Even then, at 24, a new father and still a child, a newly motherless child, Kweku knew that.

In the Granta interview, Selasi says, “Somehow I would have to earn my family’s forgiveness for not being a doctor.” Yep, I think this should do it.

Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse (1927)

There is a code of behaviour, she knew, whose seventh article (it may be) says that on occasions of this sort it behoves the woman, whatever her own occupation might be, to go to the help of the young man opposite so that he may expose and relieve the thigh bones, the ribs, of his vanity, of his urgent desire to assert himself; as indeed it is their duty, she reflected, in her old maidenly fairness, to help us, suppose the Tube were to burst into flames. Then, she thought, I should certainly expect Mr. Tansley to get me out. But how would it be, she thought, if neither of us did either of these things? So she sat there smiling.

I sleptwalked through this story when I was in high school in the early 70s (it was a really bad year for me) then encountered it in the late 80s in college (yeah, it took me a while to get there). I have to admit, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to find it on the syllabus for Prof. Weinstein’s Fiction of Relationship MOOC. But I’m glad I had the opportunity to dig into it again, this time when I’m in the mood to do so rather than worrying about a grade. That’s the great thing about these Coursera classes – you don’t get anything out of them but understanding, so why bother unless you want to learn something?

And whaddya know – third time’s the charm. I finally “get” it. I’m not saying I’ve become a huge fan, but I can recognize and appreciate the techniques.

It’s one of those novels in which very little happens: a woman beginning a painting is the height of the action. What really works is that Mrs. Ramsey dies halfway through, in the short second section, yet is still a presence in the third part of the book. The pacing does exactly what it’s supposed to do: it focuses our attention, in this case, on what is being thought rather than done, and how those two things sometimes don’t match.

I’m very fond of writers who actually use punctuation, sections, paragraphs, extratextual devices in the service of their work. I’m reading a book right now that does this. I love it. Punctuation – not just the period and comma and quotes, but all of it, the semicolon, the colon, the dashes – is, after all, there to be used, and not haphazardly, but for a purpose. I also appreciate what’s done here with stream-of-consciousness and irony. So I “get” it – I see technique – but it’s still not a book I particularly enjoy – I don’t “get into” it.

As usual, I went looking for some informed discussion, and found an NPR interview from “The State of Things” between Frank Stasio and Duke Professor Reynolds Price. It’s an odd interview, but does contain some great moments, to wit:

Also the sea tosses itself and breaks itself, and should any sleeper fancying that he might find on the beach an answer to his doubts, a sharer of his solitude, throw off his bedclothes and go down by himself to walk on the sand, no image with semblance of serving and divine promptitude comes readily to hand bringing the night to order and making the world reflect the compass of the soul. The hand dwindles in his hand; the voice bellows in his ear. Almost it would appear that it is useless in such confusion to ask the night those questions as to what, and why, and wherefore, which tempt the
sleeper from his bed to seek an answer.

[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his
arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before,
his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]

Frank points out Mrs. Ramsey dies “after a comma.” It’s not just a comma, it’s a comma in a bracketed sentence tucked into the quick little second section. It’s an interesting technique, given the “waves of time” and the constancy of the lighthouse and how omnipresent Mrs. Ramsey still is in the third section, particularly to Lily, to minimize her actual death in this way.

Prof. Price, in fact, considers Lily the protagonist of the book. He’s an exceptionally distinguished professor, but my first reaction was to argue with him; it seems to me Mrs. Ramsey gets that claim, even though she’s a memory for half the book, because she still has the most influence. Yet, I see what he means: the climax of the novel belongs to Lily, and my favorite passage, the sum of the whole book to me, as quoted up top, is said by Lily. I find it interesting that he does not consider Lily to be a representation of Woolf – she was far more accomplished and well-read than Lily – so he disagrees with the fairly standard interpretation. I like that, a voice of dissent. He does accept the Ramseys as stand-ins for Woolf’s parents, however. There’s a definite passing-of-the-torch going on, so even though Lily is not Mrs. Ramsey’s daughter, she reads like she is.

Immediately, Mrs. Ramsey seemed to fold herself together, one petal closed in another, and the whole fabric fell in exhaustion upon itself, so that she had only strength enough to move her finger, in exquisite abandonment to exhaustion, across the page of Grimm’s fairy story, while there throbbed through her, like a pulse in a spring which has expanded to its full width and now gently ceases to beat, the rapture of successful creation.

Frank mentions that in most passages, the sentence structure is such that Mrs. Ramsey’s thoughts are the primary part of the sentence, while her actual actions – reading a book or brushing her hair – are contained in subordinate clauses. It’s a book about thoughts, not actions, so they get the more dominant role; the actions reflect or contrast with the thoughts.

One of them notes that “She is writing a book which cannot be read adequately when one is planning tomorrow night’s dinner for four guests.…” That’s very true. It takes a great deal of concentration, and even then, it’s very hard to follow, just because of the number of characters introduced. Even on my third read, I had to keep a list of who’s who. Prof. Rice thought that was appropriate, since “she was a woman who always found it hard to do two things at once”

“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs. Ramsay. “But you’ll
have to be up with the lark,” she added.

They pay special attention to that first line. It starts with “Yes,” pretty dramatic, and of course the promise of the lighthouse, but what I found enlightening was Frank’s further comment: “we can get there but you can’t be skittering around on terra firma, you’ve got to be up there flying around with the larks.” That’s interesting to me because it’s somewhat opposite of what is expected: terra firma should be the place where things get done, but for the Lighthouse, that symbol of dreams, a different approach is required. This meshes with the reversal of sentence structure as well. Which is another point the Professor makes: the unity of theme, content, and form.

I’d already noticed the stabilizing, uniting effect Mrs. Ramsey had – it’s hard not to, when Lily expressly mentions it in the third section – but they comment that Mr. Ramsey is all about analysis, breaking things into pieces, fragmentation, whereas Mrs. Ramsey is about synthesis, bringing things together.

I also found the original NYT review from May of 1925, which was reprinted online in June 2008.

I’m looking forward to the class on this novel; unfortunately, it’s one of those things that other people seem to get more out of than I do, but I’m glad I at least get to listen in.

Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre (1847)

Rebecca Brown: “String”

Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.

These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ. There is—I repeat it—a difference; and it is a good, and not a bad action to mark broadly and clearly the line of separation between them.

~~ Charlotte Brontë, Preface to the Second Edition, 1847

I’d managed to avoid this novel until now; all I knew was that it involved a Mr. Rochester and a madwoman in the attic, and that Wide Sargasso Sea was intended as a feminist prequel to change the perception of that madwoman. I’ll admit, I wasn’t particularly pleased to see it on the syllabus for this upcoming Fiction of Relationship class. On reading it, however, I was pleasantly surprised.

Sure, the language is a bit much, particularly the “Dear Reader” addresses, and some of the story is absurd to modern sensibilities; still, I was drawn into things. The suspense, the drive of “what happens next,” of “I know she’s going to get out of this, but how?” often spurred me into reading a chapter or two more than I’d planned at a given time. That’s a very good sign. When I watched the 1996 Franco Zeffirelli movie on YouTube, I was disappointed at all that had been left out. The long speeches – “talking heads,” they’d call them now in writing workshops that worship clean prose and action – are essential to the overall work. (On a side note, one Eyre enthusiast – from Chile, no less – has gathered the proposal scene from four different movie versions onto one page.)

I found much of it psychologically astute; interesting, given that psychology as any kind of discipline didn’t exist in the mid-19th century. I felt a genuine connection between Jane and me. I confess that I once told someone it was as if we were connected by a rubber band, and when he moved away from me, the elastic snapped painfully back against me. Ok, I was young (well, not that young, but young enough), but I was surprised to see the “string” image used here, and by Rochester, of all people – who does not have the excuse of youth. Maybe I wasn’t quite the sap I thought I was.

Jane’s period of unrequited longing for Mr. Rochester – her pain at watching him court Blanche Ingram, her torment as she tries defeat her heart with her head – was pitch perfect; those who think it maudlin have never been in that space, caught between hope and despair by an emotional longing beyond control, and considering Jane has substantial emotional control, that’s saying a lot. Then I cheered for her as first Rochester, then St. John, tried to bully her into a relationship on their terms, terms she found disagreeable – as Rochester’s mistress after the revelation of the presence of his wife, and as St. John’s wife in a marriage devoid of love or passion, undertaken for the sake of appearances and utility. They argued very effectively to get their respective ways – diametrically opposite ways, as they represent opposite forces – and though she wavered, she didn’t fold.

I very much enjoyed the way religion was incorporated. The pacing also struck me: the eight “happy” years at Lowood, after the reforms but before Miss Temple married and left, were omitted. That’s the longest stretch of time in the novel, in fact, but it’s unnecessary. I’m reminded of Steve Almond’s admonition, “Slow down where it hurts.” My sense of Jane’s return to the charred ruins of Thornfield is that far more than a year has passed, but in fact, that’s the amount of time involved – chronological time, at least, since much has happened in that time, and it is like a different century.

One largely irrelevant note for documentation’s sake: because I’ve been having some trouble with eyestrain lately, I “read” this (as I did “Benito Cereno” and “Bartleby”) by listening to the Librivox dramatic reading, marking up a download of the Gutenberg online version as necessary. I was surprised at how well it worked, and in some cases, I learned a few things (like the pronunciation of “St. John” as “Sinjin” for instance). I think it increase my enjoyment greatly; the readers, particularly Jane/the narrator, were excellent.

But the only way to really understand Jane Eyre is to realize that the episode in the red room – a visit from phantoms and fairies and imps, sound in the ears, rushing of wings, eventuating into a scream that comes from her without her knowing it, but then goes “quite through” all those around her – sets the stage for the entire novel, gets replayed throughout Jane’s life, is ultimately the scream that goes through the house.

~~ Arnold Weinstein, A Scream Goes Through the House (Random House, 2003)

In my search for auxiliary materials for the work, I happened across A Scream Goes Through the House by Arnold Weinstein, who will be teaching the course I’m reading for. I would imagine his older work, titled The Fiction of Relationship, would be more specific (and seems to cover most of the readings in the course), and I’ve requested it, but it may take a while, whereas I have Scream in my hand, at least for six weeks thanks to my local public library. I also have Maggie Berg’s Jane Eyre: A Student’s Companion to the Novel from Twayne’s Masterwork Studies.

Both (though I’ll rely more on Weinstein here) provide support for the apparently-now-taken-for-granted interpretation that Bertha, the madwoman in the attic, is a double for Jane: the passionate, wild, “libidinous” and creative side that must, in Victorian times, be kept locked up at all times.

Much to ponder here: for more than a century, it never occurred, even to the boldest critics, that the “mad, bad, and imprinted” Bertha could be understood as Jane’s “other”… The animal is nothing less than libido itself, i.e., the energy system that drives bodies, a view that Victorian thinking proscribes with all its might.
We will never know how much of all this Brontë intended – it is the first question my students ask when I suggest this libidinal interpretation of a book many of them have red in much more innocent fashion – and my only answer is: can we know what any author intends? What we ourselves intend? Novels are not subject to prove or disprove, like evidence in a courtroom… I’d say that some overdue nineteenth-century bills are being paid in this text. What other kind of map could possibly show us these things? I can think of few literary examples that display more perfectly why art matters, what it is good for, what it enables us to see and hear.

~~ Weinstein, A Scream Goes Through the House

This fits in with other characters as well. Helen Burns, for example: she doesn’t burn at all, she dies, void of anything resembling passion for anything but God. St. John, who likewise burns with ambition, but the ambition of the do-gooder; not the worst kind of ambition to have, but doing good needs to extend to one’s partner as well, and that’s where he fails. Addendum: I’m just now, nearly a week after writing this, filling in this doubling, seeing St. John as the adult version of Helen: passionless, good, focused on heaven. While Helen was a great model for Jane as a new student at Lowood, St. John is not what she wants as an adult, now that she’s known passion, i.e, Mr. Rochester. She reacts to them differently – both help her, but she ultimately rejects the path they offer.

I still don’t quite understand the logic of Bertha’s madness, or why Rochester felt justified in hating her. He was tricked into marrying her, she wasn’t well, but still, the venom heaped upon her, and the sympathy and, later, forgiveness heaped upon him, seems out of proportion. But then, I’m talking from a time and place where arranged marriages are uncommon (or at least less sneaky), where madness is (usually) seen as illness, where divorce is easy to arrange.

I notice that yet again, as in Melville’s “Bartleby” and “Benito Cereno,” the use of doubles in literary symbolism. I wonder if this a nineteenth-century thing, a shared theme of the works selected for this class, or if it’s a nearly universal literary technique and I’ve just been missing the point in everything I’ve read.

In any event, I’m surprised how much I enjoyed the book. Now that I’ve got Jane Eyre under my belt, I may have to read Wuthering Heights and find out what all the fuss is about Heathcliff.

Herman Melville: “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853)

But I waive the biographies of all other scriveners for a few passages in the life of Bartleby, who was a scrivener of the strangest I ever saw or heard of. While of other law-copyists I might write the complete life, of Bartleby nothing of that sort can be done. I believe that no materials exist for a full and satisfactory biography of this man. It is an irreparable loss to literature. Bartleby was one of those beings of whom nothing is ascertainable, except from the original sources, and in his case those are very small. What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him, except, indeed, one vague report which will appear in the sequel.

~~ Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener”

Ah, Bartleby: a longish short story, printed in two consecutive issues of Putnam’s in November and December 1853 and later included in Melville’s collection The Piazza Tales, to good response (“It touches the nicer strings of our complicated nature, & finely blends the pathetic & ludicrous” [Richard Henry Dana, Sr.]; “One of the best bits of writing which ever came from the author’s pen” [Berkshire County Eagle]). It’s been made into several movies, plays, and operas, and serves as the go-to story for every junior high school English teacher in the US, not to mention what must be hundreds of thousands of term papers, dissertations, and theses.

Yes, this is another item on the syllabus for the upcoming “Fiction of Relationship” class taught by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University via Coursera.

Since it’s also one of the most analyzed stories in the Western canon, I’ll bypass a great deal of very interesting symbolism (Bartleby the Inscrutable, a collection of essays edited by M. Thomas Inge, served as a primary source for me) and just focus on the relationship aspects.

Or, I should say, on the possible relationship aspects. One of the fun things about this story is that anyone can read anything into it – or nothing at all. As it happens, a great many scholars have read a great many things into the relationship between the unnamed Lawyer and Bartleby, and seen in them reflections of a variety of relationships.

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity; then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment. Even so, for the most part, I regarded Bartleby and his ways. Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence; his aspect sufficiently evinces that his eccentricities are involuntary. He is useful to me. I can get along with him.

~~ Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener”

One of the (to me) more obscure and thus more interesting interpretations, put forth by Egbert S. Oliver in “A Second Look at ‘Bartleby’” is that Bartleby represents Thoreau, with Melville as the Lawyer. He starts off discounting his own thesis – Melville never wrote anything about Thoreau, never discussed him, never met him, and may never have read “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” (he did borrow Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers from a friend in 1850, three years before Bartleby was written but that’s it). But he knew a guy who knew a guy – in this case, he knew Hawthorne, who had a collection of essays including “Civil Disobedience.” That’s pretty thin. Oliver’s essay has been debunked by several other scholars.

However, I’m always intrigued by someone who swims upstream.

Thoreau says with a defiance which Melville must have admired: “I was not born to be forced. I will breathe after my own fashion.” Bartleby’s associates, his neighbors, his jailers even, did not know what to make of him, and Thoreau had found the same reaction of bewilderment. “They plainly did not know how to treat me… for they thought that my chief desire was to stand the other side of that stone wall”… This is the kind of challenge which intrigued Melville and set his mind to working out the implications. Here is a man who lives in society, certainly to a real extent dependent on it, yet withdrawing, aloof. Bartleby, when asked to join in cooperative tasks, replies, “I would prefer not to.” He gives no reasons. He simply wishes to refuse. Thoreau’s advice is explicit. He is encouraging a withdrawal from life, even an attaching of one’s self to others, as he had built his cabin on Emerson’s land.… Melville quietly writes the satire to show that one cannot afford such a boast: to squat somewhere and live within yourself is to refrain from living.

Oliver equates Thoreau’s “I declined to pay” and the resulting wish “to withdraw and stand aloof” with “I would prefer not to.” The diarist becomes the scrivener, the green trees of Concord with the green screen the Lawyer uses to keep Bartleby out of sight but within easy reach; “Bartleby, too, simply wished to refuse. He stood aloof. He never gave reasons. He never argued. He embodied passive noncooperation.” Of course, Thoreau did give reasons for his refusal to pay the tax, and during his time of aloof withdrawal in the woods, he showed up at Emerson’s house for dinner regularly and sent his laundry out to his mother. Not that it matters, since Walden is a different book.

I don’t have the knowledge of either man, or either writing, to support or defend Oliver’s theory. The notion of passive resistance and civil disobedience is obviously central to both texts, which may imply a causal link but certainly does not require one. It may be more likely that Melville had read Thoreau’s essay and incorporated those ideas into the story without specifically intending there to be a symbolic relationship between the two people. Or he may have chosen the idea for a different reason.

Leaving the Thoreau connection behind, as academia has done, as more of an interesting diversion than a serious theory, we come to the more popular interpretation of Bartleby as the artist vs. society. Here I rely on Richard Chase’s “A Parable of the Artist” from Herman Melville: A Critical Study (1949).

The short stories of this period of Melville’s life are personal and introspective. Melville was thinking of himself as an artist and trying to understand the artist’s relation to his society. Bearing this in mind and on the internal evidence of the story, there seems no doubt that Melville was consciously writing a parable of the artist… Bartleby is a scrivener – that is, a writer. He insists on writing only when moved to do so. Based by the injunction of capitalist society that he write on demand, he refuses to compromise… The other scriveners, Turkey and Nippers, represent what we might now call “middle-brow” culture. They have sold out to the commercial interests and suffer from the occupational diseases of the compromised artist in a commercial society – neurosis, alcoholism, and ulcers.… They maintain a grudging and suspicious attitude toward Bartleby, their acknowledged superior as a scrivener – the attitude of the uneasy middle-brow toward the genuine artist.

Just a few weeks ago I went off on a rant about the relationship between Art and Commerce, so this piqued my interest. Things get even more interesting when family gets mixed in, since not only were two of Melville’s brothers lawyers, so was his father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, and all contributed to the support of the Melville family during the lean years. I think it’s as if Melville is reassuring himself he has made the right choice, for to do otherwise would be to abandon the Artist in favor of Commerce, and look what would happen to both of them.

Chase heads in the direction of family connections as well.

I am a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence, at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace. I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds. All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man.

~~ Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener”

In fact, there’s a wealth of analysis out there describing the story as a depiction of Melville as Bartleby and either his brothers or his father-in-law as the Lawyer; in “Melville, Lemuel Shaw, and ‘Bartleby'” John Stark goes so far as to cite a specific legal opinion, Brown v. Kendall (establishing “ordinary care” as the standard in tort law), which Shaw as judge adjudicated. Writers frequently – always? – use writing to work out their own complicated feelings; I think Steve Almond says something in This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey to the effect that it’s why writers become writers. Looking at the family through the lens of Bartleby provides an interesting view. I wonder: did they recognize themselves? Did they care? Did they, for that matter, even read the story? Consider this: today, how many people know the name Allan Melville, or Lemuel Shaw?

In vain I persisted that Bartleby was nothing to me—no more than to any one else.

~~ Melville, “Bartleby the Scrivener”

But relationships with others aren’t the only relationships we have; what about our relationship with self? We might say, “I’m so proud of myself” or, for that matter, ashamed, when we do something we thought was beyond us. We surprise ourselves all the time, wonder where some feat (or craven act of cowardice) came from. I think it’s pretty common to look back on our younger selves and wonder what we’d think of the person we’ve become, and at least now, it’s almost a parlor game to write a letter to the “you” who will be some number of years from now; even in business, there’s the variation, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” We’re very capable of evaluating ourselves as somewhat, if never entirely, separate from ourselves, even if we can’t quite admit it – or if we often don’t want to.

It’s a common interpretation that Bartleby is the double for the Lawyer, a part of himself he’s not sure he likes, a part that just isn’t cooperating. To pick one, Mordecai Marcus, in “Melville’s Bartleby As a Psychological Double”:

Evidence that Bartleby is a psychological double for the lawyer-narrator is diffused throughout the story, in details about Bartleby and in the lawyer’s obsessive concern with and for Bartleby. The fact that Bartleby has no history, as we learned at the beginning of the story and in a later dialogue, suggests that he has emerged from the lawyer’s mind.

The professional friends represent the rationality of the “normal” social world, an external force which recalls the lawyer from his tentative acceptance of the voice of apparent unreason represented by Bartleby….The last action which suggests identification of the two occurs when in the prison yard Bartleby behaves as if the lawyer is responsible for his imprisonment and perhaps for his hopeless human situation as well.

I can see this easily: the Youth confronting the Adult he has become, particularly in the prison scene when the Lawyer visits and is rebuffed: “”I know you,” he said, without looking round,—”and I want nothing to say to you.” This is perhaps the clearest point, for me, of the double interpretation, the artistic Youth wanting nothing to do with the practical, commercial Adult who first demands, then abandons, then imprisons him and lets him die. Of course, the Adult did none of these things directly to Bartleby, but it must seem that way to the Youth inside, betrayed following peer pressure, whose promise, needs, desires went unfulfilled in favor of what turned out to be a rather trivial life. It’s an accusatory look back on what could have been.

I’m interested in Marcus’ observation that “The lawyer is not visibly changed after a struggle with his double.” This echoes Chase’s comment about the father/son nature of the pair here and in “Benito Cereno” in that the son-figure dies but the father-figure remains unenlightened. I do see a similarity in the two stories: the main character is baffled by the odd behavior of a second character, yet is unable to resolve the problem which eventually comes to a messy end. And there’s the ambiguous utterance in both stories: Benito Cereno’s last words, “The negro,” is as intriguing as “I would prefer not to.”

Without any symbolic interpretation, the relationship is just as interesting. The Lawyer is baffled, alternates between private rage and tolerance, and seems to feel some strong connection to Bartleby. It’s highly unusual; under no circumstances would an employer permit such an employee to remain past the first refusal to perform an expected part of his duties. It’s the sort of reaction I recall from some hidden-camera scenarios, where people will tolerate incredible strangeness, possibly out of fear that they are misunderstanding or overreacting. But this tolerance lasts past the credible stage for Bartleby; yet it remains a credible story. Puzzling, perhaps, but not farcical or outlandish.

The “I would prefer not to” line gets all the attention, but there are others: “I know where I am” speaks volumes to me.

If Melville had published this story today, say, in The New Yorker (it has the proper elements of the classic TNY story: urban setting, ambiguity), he’d have done a Page-Turner interview and answered questions about exactly what he meant by every puzzling phrase. When the story ended up anthologized in a prize volume (wouldn’t it?) he’d do more interviews, end notes, and explanations, and by the time I got to it, I’d be able to determine exactly what he was thinking. Perhaps there’d be some commentary, a few people who would go past what was offered, link what was said to a theory about short stories or psychology or lawyers that they hold near and dear, but we wouldn’t have hundreds of books and tens of thousands of essays putting forth ideas.

I think we would’ve lost something very special. There’s a lot to be said for each of us reading the text and creating a story unique to us, a story that includes episodes from our pasts and hopes for our futures, instead of looking at the story as something with a definitive answer that could appear on a midterm in multiple-choice form. Ah, humanity.

Herman Melville: “Benito Cereno,” 1855

Robert Shore: “The San Dominick”

…Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good-nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man. Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.

I’d never read “Benito Cereno” before; I’m not sure I’d ever heard of it, in fact. That’s a shame, because Melville does some very interesting things here, and does them very, very well. It’s another tale I read in preparation for the upcoming “Fiction of Relationship” class taught by Arnold Weinstein of Brown University, offered free online through Coursera.

It’s a difficult novella to read, and not just because of the usual 19th century verbiage. The story is designed to expose slavery, and the racism that is the basis of slavery, as malignant, dangerous, and downright stupid, and to do that, of course, it must be loaded with racism. But though the skin crawls at some of the comments (the animal imagery in particular), thematically it’s worth a read, because it packs a punch, landing squarely on racism’s nose.

However: it belittles racism by belittling the mid-19th-century version of the “white liberal.” As a 21st century white liberal, I have to take into account that what to me seems like a worthy psychosociological message might read very differently to someone of African heritage, particularly to those African-Americans who are descended from slaves. I don’t want to mimic Captain Amasa Delano’s tunnel vision.

In fact, like most men of a good, blithe heart, Captain Delano took to negroes, not philanthropically, but genially, just as other men to Newfoundland dogs.

The text is available online in several formats of both audio and print. It’s based on an historical incident, written up by Captain Amasa Delano himself in Chapter 18 of his volume A Narrative of Voyages and Travels, in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. An edition of this chapter of his work is available online, following the fictional story.

The interplay between fiction and reality is always interesting; sometimes real life plays out in narrative fashion, and sometimes it needs a little help. In many respects Melville remains very true to fact: in his essay “Israel Potter: Common Man as Hero,” pre-eminent Melville scholar Hennig Cohen states: “When he wrote “Benito Cereno” he evidently saw undisguised adherence to the facts of his source as an asset, and not simply to document. He had long since discovered the usefulness of authentic fact to embody symbolic significance…”

Yet there are differences, and they’ve been enumerated by many researchers, helpfully enumerated by Henry Hughes in “Seeing Unseeing: The Historical Amasa Delano and his Voyages” available online at the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society (Captain Delano having been from Duxbury).

To give a few specific examples, Margaret Y. Jackson’s research of the differences are well-enumerated and expanded upon in “Subversive Dialogues: Melville’s Intertextual Strategies and Nineteenth-Century American Ideologies” by Moonsu Shin. While he kept the names of the two ship captains intact, he changed the names of the ships, from the Spanish ship Tryal to the St. Dominick, and the year of the event, possibly to evoke the Black Friars of the Dominicans and/or associate the character Babo with the slave revolt in Haiti led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. For that matter, Babo was merely a name in Delano’s source account, the ringleader who was killed during the retaking of the ship; it was his son, Mure, who stood at Benito Cereno’s side through the day. Melville seems to have merged these two characters into his fictional Babo.

No wonder that, as in this state he tottered about, his private servant apprehensively followed him. Sometimes the negro gave his master his arm, or took his handkerchief out of his pocket for him; performing these and similar offices with that affectionate zeal which transmutes into something filial or fraternal acts in themselves but menial; and which has gained for the negro the repute of making the most pleasing body-servant in the world; one, too, whom a master need be on no stiffly superior terms with, but may treat with familiar trust; less a servant than a devoted companion.

I find the most fascinating aspect of the story to be the way Melville presents events with multiple interpretations, without tipping his hand audiobook coveras to what is actually going on. The reader sees events through Captain Delano’s eyes, and so is fooled along with him. Yet at the same time, the reader – this reader, at least – wants to distance herself as far as possible from Delano throughout. While Delano thinks, at first, that Cereno is merely depleted by the horrible circumstances of his voyage – disease, lack of provisions, calms – he repeatedly entertains other ideas: Cereno is an imposter, not a captain at all; Cereno is a murderous maniac and is figuring out how to murder him and take over his ship. He keeps changing his mind. I find a similarity to the protagonist in Bartleby, who wavers over and over between compassion and frustration. The constant here is how Delano sees Babo: the faithful servant, helpful, always at his master’s side, when in fact it is Babo who holds the knife.

Yet, it’s obvious on second reading what’s going on, that Delano blanches when he doesn’t know how Babo wishes him to react to a situation; that Babo is directing him, keeping him from being alone with Delano at any time, insisting he “needs rest” whenever Babo wants to convey how to handle a situation. Babo is, in every important way, the author of the tale, Cereno is the narrator (who is always under the control of the author, whether the author admits it or not), and Delano, along with us, is the reader.

Several scholars have taken on the task of analyzing exactly how Melville managed to pull this off. Johannes D. Bergman, in “Melville’s Tales” refers to this as “a complex non-dramatic third-person narration,” apparently used by Melville in only one other story, “The Bell Tower,” which also deals with enslavement. He reveals the technique was not an unqualified success:

The tale’s unreliable, even deceptive, narration led some readers to think it an ‘artistic miscarriage,’ as Newton Arvin called it. For Arvin the atmosphere of the tale is built up tediously with a silly portentousness; Melville is too tired to rewrite. George William Curtis, commenting on the story for Putnam’s in 1855, said “[Melville] does everything too hurriedly now.” Curtis was particularly concerned that the “dreary documents” at the end had not been worked into the proper narrative.

– Johannes D. Bergman, “Melville’s Tales” in A Companion to Melville Studies, ed. John Bryant, p. 265

It’s interesting that the documents of the trial appearing at the end of the story may not have been originally what Melville intended; according to “Melville Biography: A Life and the Lives”
by James Barbour, Melville “sent Putnam’s the completed portion along with legal documents pertinent to the narrative. The reader for the magazine failed to see that Melville may have intended the documents as an outline of the conclusion, and, though complaining about the lack of continuous narrative, recommended that the story, ‘Benito Cereno,’ be printed.

Willliam B. Dillingham looks at the narration in detail, finding four separate narrative voices: the Official, Individual, Authorial, and Reportorial. Merton M. Sealts, in his Critical Review of Dillingham’s Melville’s Short Fiction from 1977, gives an overview: “Three of these represent aspects of the vision of the common and ordinary world with which Melville was almost constantly at odds. The most important view is, as always, the submerged one, underlying and undercutting the others.”

For more information on Dillingham’s four voices (I can’t find the original), I rely on Darren Hughes, who looked at the work in his paper, “That First Comprehensive Glance

The “official” voice is that of the deposition section, which serves as the “legal stamp” that officially settles the affair. However, like Cardwell, Dillingham identifies Melville’s rhetorical use of irony here, claiming that he “transforms the deposition [into] . . . a commentary on the vanity and foolishness of ordinary mankind who cannot see or will not see the sameness of all.”

The “individual” voice is Delano’s, distinguished from the others by its literalness and by its simplistic figures of speech. According to Dillingham, because Delano is blunt-thinking and incapable of irony, his perception is likewise limited, provoking juvenile similes like his description of the negresses as “unsophisticated as leopardesses; loving as doves.”

Dillingham’s is a subtle, but important, distinction, as it necessarily attributes all of “Benito Cereno”‘s complex metaphoric language to the “authorial” voice. “Its style,” Dillingham writes, “is a metaphor for its message. . . . Melville depicts what Delano sees, but the terms of that depiction, that is, the figures of speech that make the correspondences necessary for the idea of similitude, are usually not Delano’s” (244-45). Instead, the story’s trademark irony — which deliberately targets Delano and, therefore, could not represent his own point of view — is clearly “authorial.”

Finally, Dillingham identifies a fourth narrative voice, the “reportorial,” which is distinguished from the “authorial” by its neutral tone and informational function. Dillingham cites the story’s opening paragraph as an example of the “reportorial” voice: “It embodies no worldview or any character’s viewpoint. It furnishes facts and is nonevaluative.”

– Darren Hughes, “That First Comprehensive Glance”

In “More Apparent Than Real,” Dane Barca creates his own vocabulary for this effect: the Ocular Fallacy: “The assumption that the gaze accurately reads what it actively misreads is a condition I call the ocular fallacy.” He credits this to not only racism, but to imperialism, and uses the “Gordian Knot” scene to support his view (on the digressive side, I’m quite fond of his paper, not only because it’s a great term, but because Barca sounds like a fascinating person: English PhD, law student, elite bartender).

Melville set himself a tough task: with whom do we, as the reader, identify? Sympathize? Do we stick with Delano in spite of his horrific view of slavery and race? Do we feel sympathy or disgust for Cereno? What about Babo, who never tells us his side of the story, who is robbed not only of his freedom but of his voice? Yes, in the story he commits atrocities against Cereno’s sailors as he leads the slave revolt. Yes, two wrongs don’t make a right. But when you’ve been kidnapped, enslaved, and degraded, is there anything that makes a right? And is it not possible Babo is acting in the best traditions of the South American slave owners, from whom he learned his vicious cruelty? Do we not reap what we sow?

The ending reminds me a bit of Bartleby, which, now that I think of it, also has a title character who is not the protagonist, and also deals in ambiguity. Edward H. Rosenberry, in “Melville’s Comedy and Tragedy,” notes: “In Benito Cereno (‘The Negro’) and Bartleby (‘I know where I am’) occur moments of tragic illumination.” To me, Cereno’s final exclamation, “The negro” is right up there with “The horror.” To what is Delano referring? I don’t really know; see, ambiguity is not a recent invention of TNY. Perhaps that his worldview has crumbled with the realization that a mere slave could take power over him. Perhaps that he’s seen what slavery is like.

But this class is, after all about relationships. I have no idea which relationship will be considered for this work: Cereno and Babo? Cereno and Delano? Delano and Babo? The reader and the text? The real people vs fictional characters? I’ll have to see; in the meantime, I’ve just been enjoying the story as a story, as an opportunity for the kind of literary archeology I haven’t done in a long time.

[References not linked to an online source were found in A Companion to Melville Studies, edited by John Bryant, Greenwood Press 1986]

Antoine François Prévost: Manon Lescaut (1731)

“Abbé Prevost reading Manon Lescaut” 1856, Joseph Caraud

She struck me as being so extremely beautiful, that I, who had never before thought of the difference between the sexes, or looked on woman with the slightest attention — I, whose conduct had been hitherto the theme of universal admiration, felt myself, on the instant, deprived of my reason and self-control. I had been always excessively timid, and easily disconcerted; but now, instead of meeting with any impediment from this weakness, I advanced without the slightest reserve towards her, who had thus become, in a moment, the mistress of my heart.

And the rest, as they say, is history, or at least a short novel that to modern sensibilities seems almost comical in its implausibility. No, I take that back: no almost about it. Are the scholars sure this wasn’t a spoof?

There’s a reason I read mostly contemporary, or at least 20th century, fiction. I have trouble taking the older stuff seriously.

Nevertheless, I read the Abbé Prevost’s “Manon Lescaut” – the last of seven volumes of Mémoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité and the only thing by Prevost anyone ever bothered to read – in preparation for a Coursera class beginning in June, The Fiction of Relationship taught by Prof. Arnold Weinstein of Brown University. That’s a great title for a course, to begin with, since it can be read a couple of different ways: is it a psychology course, indicating the notion of “relationship” a fiction? Or a fiction course about relationships in fiction? It is, in fact, a fiction course. Or at least that’s how it’s billed. (addendum: it seems the course is no longer on Coursera’s schedule; if you search Youtube for Arnold Weinstein, you’ll find some of his lectures)

“Manon Lescaut” (which, in addition to being painfully long and overcomplicated, has a painfully long and overcomplicated title to match, “L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut”) was published in 1731; it’s been used for two major operas. And it’s quite a slog, through paragraphs like:

My only regret on quitting Amiens arose from parting with a friend, some years older than myself, to whom I had always been tenderly attached. We had been brought up together; but from the straitened circumstances of his family, he was intended to take orders, and was to remain after me at Amiens to complete the requisite studies for his sacred calling. He had a thousand good qualities. You will recognise in him the very best during the course of my history, and above all, a zeal and fervour of friendship which surpass the most illustrious examples of antiquity. If I had at that time followed his advice, I should have always continued a discreet and happy man. If I had even taken counsel from his reproaches, when on the brink of that gulf into which my passions afterwards plunged me, I should have been spared the melancholy wreck of both fortune and reputation. But he was doomed to see his friendly admonitions disregarded; nay, even at times repaid by contempt from an ungrateful wretch, who often dared to treat his fraternal conduct as offensive and officious.

(After a while, I just start screaming at the page: “Get on with it!” but that isn’t helpful.)

In other words: our narrator and protagonist, the Chevalier des Grieux (apparently the rich get titles instead of names) has a best friend Tiberge who’s going to give him sage counsel throughout the story; if he’d listened to him, instead of running off with Manon, maybe his life wouldn’t have turned into a train wreck. But sage counsel doesn’t stand much chance against love.

So instead, on his way to the seminary with Tiberge, the 17-year-old Chevalier falls in love at first sight with Manon, a lower-class girl on her way to the convent, sent there by her family to keep her from screwing everyone in her home town:

‘You may probably answer, that the proposed end, the promised reward, of virtue, is infinitely superior to that of love? No one disputes it, but that is not the question—we are only discussing the relative aid they both afford in the endurance of affliction. Judge of that by the practical effect: are there not multitudes who abandon a life of strict virtue? how few give up the pursuits of love!

He’s got a point there.

The Chevalier and Manon run off together, and he discovers she has a small weakness: she loves stuff. She’s never had any, you see, so when she’s around stuff, she wants it. And she’s pretty much willing to do what she needs to in order to obtain it. First she “visits her favors” upon an older gentleman, surprising the hell out of the Chevalier when he catches them. She later visits those same favors upon the older man’s son for the same purpose. Each time, the Chevalier is shocked, and each time, he finds ways to talk himself into forgiving her. I know all about not being able to let go, but he seems downright delusional:

Never had mortal a greater contempt for money, and yet she was haunted by perpetual dread of wanting it. Her only desire was for pleasure and amusement. She would never have wished to possess a sou, if pleasure could be procured without money.

It is true Manon doesn’t want money, per se. She wants a lovely house and a fully-appointed carriage to take her to the theatre and a toilette bursting with beautiful garments and ribbons for her hair and the finest wine with her dinner, that’s all. If those things were free, she wouldn’t care about money at all.

In commentary, she’s often called a courtesan. But they’re being polite. I happen to have some oddball nascent opinions on the legal view of prostitution, namely that it was aeons ago stigmatized mainly to restrict the financial freedom of women; they’d otherwise have an asset that would give them power over men, and that wouldn’t do at all. So when I start calling Manon a slut, I contradict myself, which bothers me. But not much, since in this context it’s too farcical to take seriously.

The Chevalier descends to cheating, lying, stealing, and eventually, murder, in order to provide his Manon with the pleasure she loves so much and keep her at his side, when she’s not off supplementing their income. It’s quite pathetic. The Chevalier’s father kidnaps him for detox, but that doesn’t work; they’re both arrested, but he breaks out and rescues her and they get by, killing a guy along the way, until they’re arrested again. They’re exported to New Orleans, which, in the early 18th century, was “nothing more than a collection of miserable huts…. inhabited by five or six hundred persons…. surrounded by some earthen ramparts, and a deep ditch.” There, he actually tries to marry her, something they’ve just not bothered with so far, and in a twist of irony, that leads to her doom.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on her. Maybe she truly is a sweet, simple poor country girl who falls in love with the Chevalier independent of his wealth, and when his father cuts him off, she simply doesn’t understand that he won’t appreciate her helping out with finances in the ways she does. But I don’t think so.

The book is prefaced by a quick segment to introduce an outside observer, a man who sees the couple on the eve of their transport to the wilds of America. I’m not sure if this is a stylistic requirement of the time, an early attempt to start in media res (the novel was still being born in 1731), but the main effect is to require that the rest of the story, all 88 pages of it, be in quotation marks. The envelope doesn’t even close at the end. I don’t know much about the literature of the era, but it’s annoying as all get-out.

I got a strong religious message from this story. Prevost was, in fact, a priest at one point, and biographies hint at a few somewhat scandalous adventures (Dave on the Madame Pickwick Art Blog put it this way: “First Abbé Prevost, a sometime cleric, wrote his famous story, then set out to live it.”) To me, the message is clear that ever since the Garden of Eden, Woman has been leading Man astray. And, if you weren’t paying attention in church, the love of pleasure dooms everyone within a hundred yards. At least if you’re a poor woman.

But the class I’m taking is about relationships, so I tried to focus my attention there. The three primary characters of the Chevalier, Manon, and Tiberge, form a classic addictive triangle. The Chevalier loves Manon, and she claims over and over to love him and just be screwing around to earn the money to live in the manner to which she wishes to become accustomed, if only he weren’t so frugal, and later, thanks to the devastation he wreaks upon himself as he follows this downward spiral of declining morality, so penniless. His friend Tiberge seems to love him; it was pretty clear to me there was some serious bromance going on, though the Chevalier ended up using Tiberge just as Manon used the Chevalier in a cute little chain effect of charming evil.

To put it another way: the Chevalier is the addict, Manon is the drug, and Tiberge is the enabler. The Chevalier’s father and Manon’s brother are accessory characters who echo the roles of their primary attachees: the father wishes to save his son, even kidnaps him at one point to rescue him from Manon and the depravity he’s engaging in on her behalf, and the brother helps the couple in their schemes.

A relationship that interests me far more is the one between the father and son Manon services. She takes up with the father during her first period with the Chevalier; the son appears during the second, and the father assists the Chevalier in ending the son’s dalliance. I’d love to be a fly on the wall at their family dinner.

In the category of irrelevant but irrepressible: long ago, a voice teacher assigned me “Adieu, notre petite table” from the Massenet opera. I always had the impression the table was a metaphor as she left her lover, but now that I’ve read the story and am convinced she is as emotionally attached to her lovely furniture than to any person, I think she is in fact singing a tearful goodbye, at repossession, to an object she can no longer afford, a lifestyle that is again out of her reach.

‘Love! love!’ cried this grave magistrate as I went out, ‘thou art never to be reconciled with discretion!’

You said it. But damn, that was a long 99 pages to read through to come up with that. The good news: Bartleby, which isn’t half bad for the 19th century, is next. The bad news: Jane Eyre, which I’ve been able to avoid in 58 years of reading, looms ahead. I’ll try not to giggle.

John Green: The Fault In Our Stars (Dutton Books, 2012)

Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying. (Cancer is also a side effect of dying. Almost anything is, really.)

Terminal illness books are sort of a specialty of mine. I typically stick to non-fiction since I’m more interested in the gory details than in writing quality or an emotional story, but a few weeks ago I saw a passionate review of this book by Janet Potter on The Millions. Many of the comments made about it during the recent Tournament of Books resonated with me as well: dark humor, devastating wit. I haven’t been reading a lot of YA fiction (at least not since I was a YA), but I loved Speak and I’m not opposed to broadening my horizons so I impulsively (back when I was reading impulsively) placed it on my library request list.

Hazel is your basic outrageously precocious teenager. At 16, she’s already got her GED so she’s taking classes at the local community college, she thinks about the infinite numbers between 0 and 1, she’s memorized Prufrock. She’s the sort of character that made me feel terrible when I was 16, because I didn’t rise to that level of sophistication. She’s the sort of character I wished I was. I wouldn’t mind being her now, in fact. Except for one thing: her tenuous life revolves around her oxygen tank and the occasional-miracle drug called Phalanxifor.

Her mother forces her into a support group:

This Support Group featured a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven unwellness. Why did the cast rotate? A side effect of dying….
The Support Group, of course, was depressing as hell. It met every Wednesday in the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church shaped like a cross. We all sat in a circle right in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been.
I noticed this because Patrick, the Support Group Leader and only person over eighteen in the room, talked about the heart of Jesus every freaking meeting, all about how we, as young cancer survivors, were sitting right in Christ’s very Sacred Heart and whatever.

Green gets a lot of mileage out of the “heart of God” metaphor, as Hazel shares one of my pet peeves: the faulty use of the word “literal” as an intensifier. But the Support Group serves as a home base for the story: it’s where Hazel meets Augustus who becomes the star-crossed love (I’m a little concerned about the blended star metaphors, but not unduly) of her short life-so-far.

The backbone of the plot, besides dying teenagers, is a fictitious book titled An Imperial Affliction by a fictitious author named Peter Van Houten (“the only person I’d ever come across who seemed to (a) understand what it’s like to be dying, and (b) not have died,” says Hazel). Apparently, Green gets a lot of questions about AIA and its author, Peter Van Houten (“a pretty well-known journalist once asked me how Peter Van Houten felt about my depiction of him”), but it doesn’t exist, though the concept of it is based on Infinite Jest (as is most imagined-but-not-written fiction, I suppose) and, more directly, perhaps, The Blood of the Lamb (which I may have to add to my terminal-illness-books reading list).

I love this technique of hiding an imaginary book inside a real book. I especially love Hazel’s feelings about the book:

My favorite book, by a wide margin, was An Imperial Affliction, but I didn’t like to tell people about it. Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.

I’ve felt that way about books (and music). They almost become a test of intimacy: Is this person someone I can imagine telling about this book? Will s/he “get” it, and if not, what becomes of this relationship? It’s the perfect book for an outrageously precocious teenager, particularly an outrageously precocious teenager with cancer, to love:

But it’s not a cancer book, because cancer books suck. Like, in cancer books, the cancer person starts the charity that raises money to fight cancer, right? And this commitment to charity reminds the cancer person of the essential goodness of humanity and makes him/her feel loved and encouraged because s/he will leave a cancer-curing legacy. But in AIA, Anna decides that being a person with cancer who starts a cancer charity is a bit narcissistic, so she starts a charity called The Anna Foundation for People with Cancer Who Want to Cure Cholera.

An Imperial Affliction‘s ambiguous ending (it sounds like a great book; too bad it doesn’t exist) allows for much of the action of the plot, as Hazel and Augustus begin a quest to find out “what happens” after the book ends. Oh, how many discussions of TNY stories head down this path. It gives the book solid momentum, and delivers us to the turning point of the actual novel. No, I won’t reveal it. But it shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Pretty much everything you expect to happen in this book, happens. That’s not a complaint; it’s comforting, in fact. It’s nice to read something a little predictable once in a while. And it’s very nicely done, with, indeed, dark humor and devastating wit, if a book about teenagers with cancer can be imagined that way.

A central theme in the book is the idea that relationships have the potential to hurt. That’s what relationships do, of course: it’s almost inevitable that someone in a relationship will be hurt at some point. Some day those little things that seemed so sweet in courtship will become major annoyances, or one will change and the other will not be able to keep up, or after a long and perfect harmony, someone will die, barring the improbable coincidence of simultaneous passing. It’s human nature to crave relationships anyway. We’re fools that way. But we’re the ones who are still here, after all, so the evolutionary advantages of emotionally attaching yourself to another person are indisputable.

For Hazel, of course, there’s a whole other level to the potential hurt of relationships.

“I’m like. Like. I’m like a grenade, Mom. I’m a grenade and at some point I’m going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?”…
“I’m a grenade,” I said again. “I just want to stay away from people and read books and think and be with you guys because there’s nothing I can do about hurting you; you’re too invested, so just please let me do that, okay? I’m not depressed. I don’t need to get out more. And I can’t be a regular teenager, because I’m a grenade.”

For me, the take-home of this book lies here, on the other side of that fear: “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world… but you do have some say in who hurts you.”

Yes, there’s a movie in the works. It’s the Love Story of this decade. For those with grey hair only: raise your hand if you still have your tattered copy of Love Story. Thought so. It was a terrible book. This one is much, much better.

As a side note, the acknowledgements include Vi Hart, the creative genius whose math videos like the recently posted Reel frequently obsess me. I’m not sure why that came as a surprise: everyone seems to know Vi Hart (I think I was the last person in the western hemisphere to discover her) and John Green and his brother Hank have a rollicking YouTube channel themselves at VlogBrothers.

It’s a good book, with a lot of great elements. It’s funny (unless you are, have, or know a teenager with cancer), it’s tragic (yes, I cried through the whole last third, which may be why I strongly preferred the first half), it’s smooth reading with a great rhythm and enjoyable style. It didn’t rise quite to the heights of what I was expecting, given the buzz, but I’m glad I read it. Then again, terminal illness books are my specialty.

Jess Walter: Beautiful Ruins (HarperCollins, 2012)

[F]issures have appeared in this philosophy – faith proving to be not nearly enough – and it was in the run-up to his divorce that his soon-to-be ex-wife (So tired of your shit, Shane) dropped a bombshell: the Bible phrase he and his father endlessly quoted, “act as if ye have faith…,” never actually appears in the Bible. Rather, as far as she could tell, it came from the closing argument given by the Paul Newman character in the film The Verdict.

Everyone loved this book. The New York Times called it a “surprising and witty novel of social criticism that …offers so much more than just entertainment in terms of scope, emotional range and formalist invention.” NPR said, “The verdict here is an emotionally satisfying ‘snap.'” The Washington Post praises the “lively prose, sharp transitions and an entertaining cast of characters” that “delicately… suggests a difference between public ruins and private memory.”

I wanted to love this book, since I so loved Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets.

But, no. Maybe it was the cover illustration, but all I could think of was a more sophisticated, more literary version of Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight which someone a lifetime ago pawned off on me as a good book.

No, come on, it’s not that bad. It’s quite good, in fact. Walter does have some great characters and he gets them into intertwined, emotionally challenging situations. It’s a bit like a wind-up alarm clock, where the individual threads twist tighter and tighter around each other, then spring loose at the perfect moment. Despite the seven major plot threads and numerous time jumps along each of those threads, I was never left feeling confused about who or when I was reading about. He incorporates several accessory media pieces – a chapter of a character’s novel, another character’s play, yet another’s memoir, as well as songs and several movie treatments. Everything relates to everything else quite cleverly. It’s extremely well-done. It’s admirable.

I just didn’t… care.

Some characters started out strong for me – Shane, disillusioned by writing (no, really?), and Claire, by movies, the fields they have pursued all of their, what, 20-something years, which is why they faded out so quickly. How disillusioned can a 27-year-old be? But in their introductions was a hint of the bite I so loved in Poets. It wasn’t sustained, though, and they quickly turned into the least memorable characters. Pasquale Tursi, on the other hand, grew on me over time, and became my favorite character. But even he followed a predictable path, as does the entire book, once you get past the cowboy cannibal movie.

There’s a lot of good stuff in the book: appearances vs. reality, the hundreds of ways we fool ourselves into believing our own narrative (I’m big on narratives lately), and always that sense that each character is, as Steve Almond puts it, “forced up against her deepest fears and/or desires.” But none of it really mattered to me; I kept reading because I kept thinking it’d explode on the next page, but it never did. And, though I’m probably mistaken, I have some doubts about some of the writing on the sentence level – often enough that I noticed, but not enough to be an annoyance.

In the end, I recognize what people are talking about; I just don’t feel it. I’ve never been that big on Hollywood stories, and the whole Liz Taylor fascination mystified me (to me, she only became great when she stood up for people with AIDS before it was cool to do so). But I’m still looking forward to Walter’s short story collection, because I do have faith.