There comes a time in a person’s life when he realizes that he is collecting the complete novels of Milan Kundera, and he decides to embrace it as a conscious decision. The local bookshop has two more (the two that I haven’t pursued as steadily because I read them first, fifteen years ago), and then it’ll be off to find the either more elusive or more recent books. When you shop primarily in used bookshops, recent novels are rather elusive.

Kundera didn’t publish any novels until he was about the age I am now, and this one, the second, still has a strong focus on youth. It seems a little allegorical, and I wonder if it might not be a little autobiographical as well. It’s about a young poet who comes of age during the Communist Revolution. While there are several important characters, they’re only named according to their function in the poet’s life, so while he is Jaromil, they are the janitor’s son, the artist, the redhead, the cinematographer, the silver-maned poet, etc. The janitor’s son becomes a policeman and a reminder of how far Jaromil is from the stereotypical adult masculinity he wants to achieve, but he only gets called the janitor’s son, even though his father isn’t in the story. This is indicative of Jaromil’s extreme self-centeredness. The ending makes the Narcissus metaphor explicit, but long before that I was sickened by Jaromil’s contempt for other human beings.

In some ways this book feels like a rewrite of Sons and Lovers – Jaromil’s mother is a little too close to him, and he has a relationship with a shopgirl that he knows she will disapprove of. Maman is imaginative, in the sense that she creates a mental reality when the perceived reality is unpleasant, but not in the sense that she is in any way unconventional. Jaromil (Communist poetry) was conceived by an engineer (the educated working class) out in nature, according to his mother, but it was more likely in a disgusting bachelor apartment borrowed from the engineer’s friend. Indeed, nature as landscape or unenclosed space has very little place in this book at all. Nature exerts itself over Jaromil as weather or as disease, or the idiosyncrasies of human biology. Maman was never that crazy about her shotgun husband, so she liked to pretend that a figure of Apollo (classical influences) conceived the boy without the father’s intervention, despite the obvious limitations of such a fantasy. This reading might seem facile and forced, but issues of artistic inspiration, expression, and responsibility are at the center of the book.

World War II figures largely in twentieth-century Czech history. German occupation and redrawing of boundaries is big on a national scale, but in the daily lives of people, particularly children, it seems to have had little effect. Jaromil’s father was killed in a concentration camp because he was having an affair with a Jewish girl, but his father was mostly absent anyway. This lack of a strong masculine presence in his life, coupled with soft delicate features, leads to his preoccupation with his inferiority as a male human. He does have an art teacher, but the teacher is concerned about the philosophy of art changing under Communism, and Jaromil tries to assert his independence by disagreeing with him, which damages their friendship. Jaromil never tries to build up the rest of his body, so he’s a spindly little artist who isn’t brave enough to talk to girls. Eventually he does find someone, and losing his virginity is a huge milestone for him, but his masculinity has turned toxic by this point. A sexual relationship doesn’t relieve his insecurities; it makes them worse. It leads to sexual violence, which brings up some unpleasant memories for me, and reading this part might explain why I’ve been so anxious and angry these last few weeks. Partially, at least – I have good reasons in my real life, too.

The book reaches a crisis at the end of the fifth section, and it seems like Kundera is about as sick of this kid as I was, because there’s this violent wresting of the narrative at the beginning of part six.

Just as your life is determined by the kind of profession and marriage you have chosen, so our novel is limited by our observatory perspective: Jaromil and his mother are in full view, while we glimpse other figures only when they appear in the presence of these two protagonists. We have chosen this approach as you have chosen your fate, and our choice is equally unalterable.

Still, every person regrets that he cannot live other lives. You, too, would like to live out all your unrealized potentials, all your possible lives. (Alas, unattainable Xavier!) Our book is like you. It, too, yearns to be all the other novels it could have been.

That is why we are constantly dreaming about erecting other observatories. How about putting one in the middle of the artist’s life, or perhaps in the life of the janitor’s son or that of the redheaded girl? After all, what do we really know about these people? We hardly know more than does foolish Jaromil, and he knows precious little about anyone. What kind of novel would it be if we followed the career of the janitor’s son, and Jaromil would appear only once or twice in the course of brief episodes about a poet and former schoolmate? Or we could follow the artist’s story and learn at last what he really thought of his beloved Maman, whose belly he had used like a piece of canvas.

And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was so great to get away from Jaromil for a while, even if only for twenty pages. There’s a middle-aged man, widower, who likes to have a sex life but doesn’t like to get attached, so he sees a girl only once in a while, and he has several girls. One of them is Jaromil’s girl, and they discuss him briefly, but this section is a few years after Jaromil’s death, so he’s seen at a great distance, as one who ruined the girl’s life but now has no more power to hurt her.

But who is this unattainable Xavier? Jaromil dreamt of becoming this guy, young and smart and strong and sexy, like a younger Czech James Bond-Indiana Jones hybrid, but there’s more than that. Xavier only exists in dreams – things get tough, he falls asleep and is instantly in another, equally real reality. He works through problems from one reality in the next, possibly nesting several dreams like in Inception (oh, how I love this film), and ultimately wakes back up to solve his problems and escape, even if only as a dream hiding in dreams. Xavier is Jaromil’s ideal self. But much as the poet dreams of freedom, he is continually caged in by his mother’s vampiric love. This is a trope I see in media a lot, and I suppose is relevant to my own life as well, the mother that wants her children to be strong, brave, confident, and successful, but constantly shelters them from experiences that will allow them to develop strength, bravery, self-confidence, and the other qualities that lead to success. Yes, it’s important for parents to show love to their children, but it’s also important for parents to know when their children can handle things on their own, and to sit back and let them do it. I have a lot of animosity built up toward The Ex, but I admit freely that she is an excellent mother, and I see my children growing up as intelligent, confident, capable boys. I know that living with her is the best choice for them. Perhaps not for always, and I keep hoping that I will be geographically close enough to have an emotionally close relationship with them, but for now they are having their best possible life, and I wouldn’t take that from them.

Today is Mothers’ Day in the United States, and while I have some animosity built up toward my mother as well, it’s the day that I pretend that doesn’t exist and call her. Sometimes she feels abandoned, which Jane Austen would call “the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning”; my mom was emotionally unavailable during my childhood because she was coping with the divorce and her own anger issues, and the work of repressing all that kept me at a distance. In my roving life I often regret the type of relationship we have, and I wish I could be closer to my biological family, but the bottom line is that I don’t miss them, the actual people that they are, very much. There’s a big family thing this summer that I’ve been planning to go to, but these days I’m thinking of skipping it. I miss my kids, and I’d rather put my time, energy, and money into seeing them rather than into seeing people that I’m really angry about.

Art and revolution. Poetry seems to have been at the forefront of the Communist Revolution, at least in Czechoslovakia. The arts were bent toward propaganda, which leads the artists in the book to ask the question, How do I adequately express myself? In modern abstract experimental forms, or in the more mimetic forms that will appeal to the uneducated masses? With the Party taking a strong interest in the arts, the question also becomes, How do I adequately express myself without getting arrested? A lot of artists and thinkers seem to have been sent to do manual labor on farms (I’m thinking forward to the guy in Slowness, as well as back to the teacher from The Joke), and while there is value in that sort of life, it’s not the life that they chose for themselves. So, it’s either follow the unstated, unacknowledged rules of the establishment, or be forced to give up art altogether. It’s a dangerous gamble/game.

This was a hard book for me. I’ve got my own issues with mothers, though, and with governments, and this troubled relationship with the idea of being a writer and whether or not that makes me an artist, so it may not be for you. Happy Mothers’ Day.

This week I had a student preparing to enter a course of study that I felt was completely wrong for her, so we took the Myers-Briggs personality test, and that helped steer her in a better direction. It reminded me of a lot of truths about myself that I don’t often think about, or that I think of as pathological when they’re really not, like my aversion to conflict. It made explicit the fact that an aversion to conflict and a strong desire to help people can make me popular to others, but that it’s very hard for me to trust them. The doors of my heart are made of heavy steel, and once shut they do not open easily. It’s unfortunately sort of easy to shut them – don’t do something you say that you will, lie to me, don’t try hard at your job or schoolwork, don’t finish things that you start, treat my relationship with my children as if it were unimportant simply because I don’t see them very often, take delight in the conflicts of others, tell me not to trust someone close to me, use the phrase ‘the gay lifestyle,’ that sort of thing. The high standards I have for friendship sometimes makes it seem miraculous that I have any friends at all, and truthfully I don’t keep many people close to me. Those people I do don’t always realize how close they are to me, or how few people are as close to me as they are. I was interested at the way www.16personalities.com added a fifth element, so now I’m INFJ-T, the T meaning Turbulent. This refers to my habit of second-guessing all my decisions and actions, which has a strong effect on the way my Counselor/Advocate personality expresses itself.

Rereading this book, I was a little surprised to see how strongly my life and especially my bloglife are influenced by it. Unlike some of my colleagues, I see the value in people like this:

The common reader, as Dr Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

Notice the reflection of my reading habits here. Yes, I get into these high-culture moods sometimes, but I mix Thomas Hardy with Christopher Moore, and French Enlightenment thinkers with mid-twentieth century sociologists, and it’s all a big mishmash of words. I may impart some knowledge, but I’m more interested in receiving it; I have little interest in correcting the opinions of others if those opinions are thoughtfully considered. That both gives me some value as a teacher and keeps me from realizing my full potential in the field – I refuse to become an authority figure (an INFJ trait).

This book came about because Woolf was writing reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and other periodicals, which means that to some extent she and I are engaged in the same pursuit. However, she would probably not have approved of how very personal I get.

Once again we have an essayist capable of using the essayist’s most proper but most dangerous and delicate tool. He has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr Beerbohm the man. We only know that the spirit of personality permeates every word that he writes. The triumph is the triumph of style. For it is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of your self; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist. Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.

Woolf was still looking for essays that say something universal about the human condition. While there is some possibility of that in the way that I write, if people want universality from me they usually have to be able to extrapolate the message from my relation of my experience. I understand that my experience is unique to me, composed of the intersections of all my different identities, and while some experiences are common to certain groups of people, there’s no guarantee that I will have anything in common with another former academic/gay man/ex-Mormon/addictive personality/emotionally abused person.

Though Woolf keeps her experience away from her reviews, there are some qualities and preferences that become clear. A somewhat academic adherence to factual accuracy, as seen in her scathing review of a biography of Mary Russell Mitford, where she refers to the author as Mendacity (with a capital M). She also derides the author’s lack of passion for her subject:

What considerations, then, had weight with Miss Hill when she decided to write Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings? Three emerge from the rest, and may be held of paramount importance. In the first place, Miss Mitford was a lady; in the second, she was born in the year 1787; and in the third, the stock of female characters who lend themselves to biographic treatment by their own sex is, for one reason or another, running short. For instance, little is known of Sappho, and that little is not wholly to her credit. Lady Jane Grey has merit, but is undeniably obscure. Of George Sand, the more we know the less we approve. George Eliot was led into evil ways which not all her philosophy can excuse. The Brontës, however highly we rate their genius, lacked that indefinable something which marks the lady; Harriet Martineau was an atheist; Mrs Browning was a married woman; Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, and Maria Edgeworth have been done already; so that, what with one thing and another, Mary Russell Mitford is the only woman left.

I believe that the homophobia and slut-shaming and elitism in the above quotation are qualities that Woolf ascribes to Miss Hill, not attitudes that she herself embraced.

Woolf also had a good value for solitude, as when she describes Elizabethan drama:

But gradually it comes over us, what then are we being denied? What is it that we are coming to want so persistently, that unless we get it instantly we must seek elsewhere? It is solitude. There is no privacy here. Always the door opens and some one comes in. All is shared, made visible, audible, dramatic. Meanwhile, as if tired with company, the mind steals off to muse in solitude; to think, not to act; to comment, not to share; to explore its own darkness, not the bright-lit-up surfaces of others. It turns to Donne, to Montaigne, to Sir Thomas Browne, to the keepers of the keys of solitude.

Sir Thomas Browne, though unknown to me, is one of her heroes, like Max Beerbohm of the above quotation. This volume is arranged roughly chronologically, but there’s some fracturing and avoidance toward the end. We go from Chaucer to the Elizabethans and through the eighteenth century to Jane Austen, but then there’s an essay on modern fiction (compared unfavorably to the novels of the past) before she goes on to the Brontës, George Eliot, and the famous Russians (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, of course, but there are others), but then she jumps back to the Romantic-Era Miss Mitford and a few other earlier writers before she gets on to talking about writing itself for a bit, and only ends with an evaluation of the writing current at the time. Of her contemporaries, Beerbohm gets some special attention:

But if we ask for masterpieces, where are we to look? A little poetry, we may feel sure, will survive; a few poems by Mr Yeats, by Mr Davies, by Mr de la Mare. Mr Lawrence, of course, has moments of greatness, but hours of something very different. Mr Beerbohm, in his way, is perfect, but it is not a big way. Passages in Far Away and Long Ago will undoubtedly go to posterity entire. Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster. And so, picking and choosing, we select now this, now that, hold it up for display, hear it defended or derided, and finally have to meet the objection that even so we are only agreeing with the critics that it is an age incapable of sustained effort, littered with fragments, and not seriously to be compared with the age that went before.

When it comes to the past, scholars are seldom entitled to publish their own opinions. No one wants to be the Victorianist who says that Dickens was nothing special. The monoliths of the past are monolithic in that we can’t disagree with them. Shakespeare was the greatest dramatist in the English language, but that’s because people decided he was a couple of hundred years ago, and few playwrights have even tried to compete. We don’t have different opinions on that now. When it comes to the present, the experts in the past can disagree and be extreme in their devotion or antipathy and it’s all right. The thing is, though, that even scholarly fads change. Walter Scott was once considered one of the most important early nineteenth-century poets who wrote some very influential historical novels, but now he’s largely ignored. Or at least he was when I was getting my degrees ten or fifteen years ago. The trend for the last forty years or so is to look away from the white men and recover works by women and minorities; after all, Byron felt seriously threatened by Mrs Hemans’s popularity, and the first American bestseller was a classic fallen-woman narrative written by a woman. Conrad is held at a distance because of his subhuman portrayal of Africans and Asians, even though in Woolf’s time he was beloved both by the masses and by the critics. And those writers considered obscure or nonacademic in Woolf’s time (evidenced by the fact that they’re included in this book), many are now canonical, like Austen, Brontë, and Eliot. This book focuses on biographies and volumes of letters, so those who only published letters or journals are not as easily embraced by academia. We like poetry and fiction, so this passage about journal-writing is itself a little dated:

Should you wish to make sure that your birthday will be celebrated three hundred years hence, your best course is undoubtedly to keep a diary. Only first be certain that you have the courage to lock your genius in a private book and the humour to gloat over a fame that will be yours only in the grave. For the good diarist writes either for himself alone or for a posterity so distant that it can safely hear every secret and justly weigh every motive. For such an audience there is need neither of affectation nor of restraint. Sincerity is what they ask, detail, and volume; skill with the pen comes in conveniently, but brilliance is not necessary; genius is a hindrance even; and should you know your business and do it manfully, posterity will let you off mixing with great men, reporting famous affairs, or having lain with the first ladies in the land.

Woolf seems most interested in those who refrain from these last three. She assumes her readers to have read the canonical works, and she introduces us to the less frequently taught.

Gently, beautifully, like the clouds of a balmy evening, obscurity once more traverses the sky, an obscurity which is not empty but thick with the star dust of innumerable lives.

Circling back, it’s not just that she’s writing for a general audience, showing them less-known literature, she’s also writing about the general audience. The essays in this volume tend to champion the lives of the not-so-great, the ordinary people who get passed by and whom few consider great. [Perspective: I once read a book that conducted a detailed scientific analysis of nineteenth-century prose styles, counting the ratio of words of dialogue to words of narration, the number of words per sentence, average number of adjectives per noun, that sort of thing. The author, Karl Kroeber, actually felt like he had to apologize for using Austen, C Brontë, and Eliot, because they were clearly inferior to Dickens, Thackeray, and Hardy. The analysis was interesting, he found that Mansfield Park is empirically the most boring Austen novel because it uses dramatically less dialogue and more narration than the others, but the patronizing misogyny was upsetting.] The message seems to be, obscurity does not imply triviality. It’s hard to find anything about me through a Google search, but my friends and family love me, and there are many ways in which my life matters, and has mattered to many different people.

And of course, my favorite essay about writing is here, “The Patron and the Crocus,” with my favorite quotation about writing,

To know whom to write for is to know how to write.

Here on this blog I have several dozen followers, but I don’t deceive myself about their actually reading what I write. There’s a small group of four or five people who read and comment occasionally, and those are the people I write this blog for. If other people read and enjoy it, great. Little bit of trivia: most people who find my blog through an internet search are trying to find out whether Hesse’s Demian is about a gay relationship or not.

It seems a bit odd to acknowledge to myself that even though my favorite book is Ragnarok and I went through four-year obsessions with As I Lay Dying and Mansfield Park, that this is the book that seems to have shaped me the most, the book whose philosophy vibrates in tune with my own heart, one of the most important books to me, even though I haven’t read most of the material she’s reviewing. I love Woolf’s novels, but I love her nonfiction even more – the way that her voice reaches out to me and holds me gently, the way she affirms much that I had already believed, the polite manner in which she sometimes disagrees with me, the way that I feel her to be speaking in my own mind, across the abyss of years, gender, and mental illness. When I read Woolf’s novels, I love her writing and her characters; when I read Woolf’s nonfiction, I love her.

 

Several years ago, I took Gallup’s Strengths Finder Quiz, and one of my strongest points is what they call Deliberative, which means that I take a long time to decide things. I spend a lot of time foreseeing problems, and while many people see it as a sign of morbid anxiety, it can actually be considered a strength. Bring me a decision, whether in personal or public life, and I can tell you all the ways it can go wrong so that you can prepare for every eventuality. More spontaneous people could get frustrated at my reluctance to commit to any course of action until I have all the information necessary to decide, and I need more information than most.

Paula Power, ingénue, is just such a person. Her father’s preacher gets angry because she won’t become a Baptist, but she needs something more than “It’s my dead daddy’s church” to make the commitment. Similarly, when she meets George Somerset, she likes him, but she won’t let him know how much. It’s kind of important at that time, because back then people got married within a few weeks of kissing someone. A girl meets a charming boy, and she may not know that he’s an alcoholic gambler until she’s made a lifetime commitment and given him all her assets. But throughout the book, people try to force Paula to do and be what they want, and she has to keep fighting for her right to make her own informed decisions.

A lot of this perspective comes from having finished the book – for most of it, she’s enigmatic because she won’t commit herself in words. Most of the book comes from the point of view of the men around her. The first is Somerset, a young architect who comes around to study her castle. Her father is a railroad millionaire who bought the castle shortly before he died. The hereditary family is still in the area, and Miss Charlotte De Stancy becomes Paula’s best friend. Her brother is the second suitor. Captain De Stancy finds his desires for women irresistible, so he generally shuns female company. Back when he was eighteen or twenty-one, he produced a bastard whose mother died, so he’s had the boy raised in secret. The kid is now eighteen or twenty-one himself, and determined to see his father married well. True to the tradition of literary bastards, William Dare uses all the dishonest means at his command to advance his plans, and his lack of ethics leads to his plans’ frustration. As the Captain tells him later, it would have been successful if he had just left things alone.

The heterosexual pairings in this book seem kind of odd, because at the beginning, Hardy seems to push for homosexual possibilities. Somerset sees Paula for the first time by peeking in a church window, which he only does because he’s distracted by the boys fetching water. And, when he first meets Captain De Stancy,

He was in truth somewhat inclined to like De Stancy; for though the captain had said nothing of any value either on war, commerce, science, or art, he had seemed attractive to the younger man. Beyond the natural interest a soldier has for imaginative minds in the civil walks of life, De Stancy’s occasional manifestations of taedium vitae were too poetically shaped to be repellent. Gallantry combined in him with a sort of ascetic self-repression in a way that was curious. He was a dozen years older than Somerset: his life had been passed in grooves remote from those of Somerset’s own life; and the latter decided that he would like to meet the artillery officer again.

And on the part of the ladies as well:

“You are her good friend, I am sure,” he remarked.

She looked into the distant air with tacit admission of the impeachment. “So would you be if you knew her,” she said; and a blush slowly rose to her cheek, as if the person spoken of had been a lover rather than a friend.

But these homoerotic possibilities are ignored as we get pressured into the heteronormative narrative. It feels like the story gets squeezed by Victorian narrative constraints. I may be thinking that because Hardy himself was constrained at the time; he was ill when he wrote this story, and believed himself to be dying. Most of the book was dictated rather than handwritten by the author. This leads to a certain clarity of style he doesn’t often adopt. Shorter, more intelligible sentences. But he didn’t die; he lived another forty or fifty years, so this is not even close to the end of his career. I’ve got five or six more novels to read, then a boatload of short stories and poems.

I know that I generally have a lot more to say about the books I read, but I’m nervous right now. I’m starting to apply for jobs, and it reminds me of being an adjunct professor who applied for full-time work and doctorate programs for four years without any success. One does what one must, but I make myself too vulnerable, and I take rejection hard.

This was Kundera’s first novel, and in some ways, it explains his habitual themes more clearly. It’s like The Joke is a key to help understanding his entire oeuvre. While most of his other novels that I have read focus on the Prague Spring or other anti-Communist movements, this one predates all that. It starts with the generation that became Communist after World War II.

I have become such an inveterate skeptic that whenever someone starts listing his likes and dislikes I am unable to take it seriously, or to put it more precisely, I can accept it only as an indication of the person’s self-image. I didn’t for a moment believe that Helena breathed more easily in filthy, badly ventilated dives than in clean, well-ventilated restaurants or that she preferred raw alcohol and cheap, greasy food to haute cuisine. If her words had any value at all, it was because they revealed her predilection for a special pose, a pose long since outdated, out of style, a pose going back to the years of revolutionary enthusiasm, when anything “common,” “plebeian,” “plain,” or “coarse” was admired and anything “refined” or “elegant,” anything connected with good manners, was vilified.

I think that it must have been terribly thrilling to have been a Communist living during the revolution, seeing the old forms of civilization consciously destroyed and replaced by something rational, based on the ideology that you yourself are committed to. Ludvik Jahn is just such a young man, but he keeps a skeptical distance from the crowd. He has a friend, Marketa, who dives in head first, drinks the Kool-Aid, whatever other metaphor you might prefer for a complete commitment to a system of belief. So when she goes away to training camp, he writes her letters, just sort of messing with her because she’s gullible and naively enthusiastic. But. One postcard, intended as this sort of not-funny-to-everyone joke, gets picked up by the Party and his life gets ruined. Sarcasm always stings a little, but here that little sting turns around and eats his entire life. His best friend Zemanek votes him out of the Party, and therefore out of the university. He’s drafted by the military, but that little black mark on his record gets him sent to a prison squad, where he works in a mine with rioters, thieves, and political dissidents. They’re forced to work six days a week, but the only way to get leave passes or other privileges is to volunteer to work on Sunday too, so sometimes they’d go thirteen or twenty days without a break. It’s a lonely, miserable existence.

I know that my experience is not that bad – the universe is generally fairly gentle with me – but this does remind me of my expulsion from Texas, nearly a year ago. I work for a private language company that does intensive English programs, and they sent me to Texas to work at modifying our curriculum to expand the market to boarding schools with international students. Speaking strictly professionally, it was a resounding success. I kept careful records and had enough data to show that my students’ language skill had improved dramatically, but that wasn’t enough. Little did I know that the Christian school where I worked had been watching me like a hawk all year, and as soon as they figured out my Facebook identity they dug through everything I had ever posted, all four years of it, and used it as proof that I was anti-Christian and deserved to be fired. I’m not against Christians or their beliefs, as long as those beliefs aren’t being used to hurt anyone. They were aghast at all the pictures of men I’ve hit the Like button for, but they based their argument on a joke. It’s not a very funny joke, admittedly, but it was a joke nonetheless.

Back when I was religious, sometimes I’d joke with my friends on the day between Good Friday and Easter – Jesus is dead, we can do what we want while he isn’t looking. I even added a bit about him getting back from Hell, when I would go back to being good. Now, I agree that it’s not very funny, but it is completely orthodox. Many theologians have believed that Jesus spent his time between death and resurrection saving souls from their punishment – the Medievals called it The Harrowing of Hell. You can see it in the old Cycle plays (The York Cycle can be found in your local academic library). Before Jesus, everyone went to hell because of Original Sin, then Jesus went down there to personally bring to heaven all those who were actually good people. Now, because of Jesus, the decent people can skip hell and go to heaven. The Harrowing of Hell is a great cinematic moment in the history of the world as envisioned by the Christian Church, yet these people hadn’t heard of it. This is the problem with splinter groups (read: non-denominational independent Protestant Churches) – insufficient education. My supervisor called it a witch hunt because I’m gay, but because the company does want to keep this market open, they relocated me back to the Midwest. The little Christian school would have just fired me because in Texas it is perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay. My company was really great about the whole thing, appropriately appalled at the suggestion I be fired for my sexuality, so they sent me somewhere I would be surrounded by friends and unconditionally accepted. So, a good move.

What bothers me about all this is just how nice the Christians were, right up until they asked my boss to fire me. I should have figured something was wrong – my subconscious was sending all kinds of paranoia messages, like how I was avoiding open spaces because I kept seeing men aiming rifles at me. But I assumed it was a response to past situations and not the present one, and I knew they weren’t really there, so I figured I was just being crazy, like I was back when I was religious. But no, I was ignoring a present warning. I really ought to learn to trust myself. These people were not my friends, even though I thought they were and trusted them almost completely. A year later, I still have a serious aversion to churches. And strangers. And religions in general.

So, drifting back to changes in Czech society in the late 1940s. They absolutely rejected religion and capitalism, replacing them with a belief in progress, community, and communism. As such, familiar habits became crimes, such as sarcasm or a belief in God. The belief in God doesn’t fit with the officially atheistic stance of The Communist Party, but sarcasm is a subtler crime. It evinces a certain pessimism, an antagonistic way of seeing the world, and pessimism is a lack of faith in progress and hence anathema to the Communists. Sarcasm is not the product of happiness. It betokens disappointment and pride, a sense of intellectual superiority. When everyone in the community is holding hands and singing together, sarcasm is extremely anti-social. The Communists were trying to force an individualistic society into becoming collective, and some people resisted. Maintaining individual difference marked people as suspect because difference meant hierarchization. Part of this destruction of the individual is the erasure of the line between public and private spheres. Suddenly I understand why Kundera makes such a big deal out of this in later books – privacy was taken away by the Communist Revolution. It must have made it strange to arrive in the West and see exhibitionism, where people voluntarily arrange a private act for public viewing. So this explains his fascination with writing about public sex, and how weirdly scatological his middle-aged characters can get.

Ludvik’s sarcasm landed him in prison mines for several years. Finally he was allowed to finish his degree and become the academic he had always wanted to be. All this is mostly flashback – the present of the book is about revenge. He’s coming back to his hometown to avenge himself on the man who ruined his life. But he gets sidetracked when he sees Lucie.

Lucie is from a different city. As a teenager, she had a gang that she was friends with, and when they got to be around sixteen they noticed that she was the only girl and proceeded to gang rape the shit out of her, repeatedly. Eventually she got away, and by that I mean got run out of town because everyone said she was a slut, and started a new life in a new town. There, she met Ludvik during his time in the mines and they had a thing for a while, but he never understood why she wouldn’t have sex with him. She’d try to be willing, but in the end she just couldn’t. She coped with the rape by creating a division between her body and soul – the one became dirty and corrupted with the violence of men, but the other was free and pure. She loved Ludvik with her soul, but she needed such an abyss between the physical and the emotional that she couldn’t have sex with him. Eventually they broke up over not having sex, and she left town to start over again. This third town is Ludvik’s childhood home, but she has no way of knowing that. She meets Kostka, a Christian determined to save her. Kostka was a professor at the time of Ludvik’s expulsion, and he was expelled for his religion a short time afterward. He helped to heal her internal divisions, and when the time is right she expresses that personal union by having sex with him, which can sound a little sordid and self-serving on his part, but it’s actually a big step for her to be able to give her body to someone she loves and respects. The sex doesn’t seem to benefit him much; it’s more for her, celebrating her newfound love for her own body. It only happened the one time, like a baptism, and then she went on to lead a conventional life in a conventional marriage to a conventional guy who probably beats her in the conventional way.

Ludvik really has one purpose in coming here: to sleep with Zemanek’s wife Helena. He thinks that cuckolding the guy who derailed his life will make up for all the suffering he’s gone through. But again, this relies on a sense of privacy that the mainstream has abandoned. Ludvik’s seduction succeeds, but his revenge fails because Zemanek doesn’t care. He’s fucking this girl who’s young enough to be his daughter and rubbing it in Helena’s face. Helena thinks she has found someone she can leave her husband for, but Ludvik isn’t looking for a commitment. She might be in love, but to him she’s just a revenge fuck. She has an assistant who’s in love with her and even younger than Zemanek’s girl, but she’s not into him, at least not yet.

Our other essential character is Jaroslav, Ludvik’s childhood friend. While Ludvik and Zemanek embrace the Party in their youth, Jaroslav doesn’t. He’s not in the center of the revolution. But, when the Party announces that it intends to foster art with Communist ideals that still retains a national character, he finds his way in. Jaroslav loves Moravian traditions, especially folk music. He organizes the traditional dances, he writes songs in the folk tradition with Communist-approved themes, he finds ways to keep doing what he loves doing even under a repressive regime. Ludvik may criticize, but Jaroslav did what we all do – he selected and expanded the canon. On a small scale, each of us who reads and writes does this; on a larger scale, academia has trends in what gets taught and what gets avoided. For example, in the 1960s Sir Walter Scott was considered one of the most important Romantic writers, equally with Byron, Keats, and Wordsworth. Now, his poetry is considered too long and tedious to teach, so we mention Ivanhoe in a survey class and move on. Other works get dropped for political reasons, like Heart of Darkness or The Education of Little Tree. Then we choose other things to add, like Felicia Hemans or Oroonoko. There are a lot of subtle currents that add up to big changes.

Youth is a terrible thing: it is a stage trod by children in buskins and fancy costumes mouthing speeches they’ve memorized and fanatically believe but only half understand. History too is a terrible thing: it so often ends up a playground for youth – the young Nero, the young Napoleon, fanaticized mobs of children whose simulated passions and primitive poses suddenly metamorphose into a catastrophically real reality.

When I think of all this, my whole set of values goes awry and I feel a deep hatred towards youth, coupled with a certain paradoxical indulgence towards the criminals of history, whose crimes I suddenly see as no more than the terrible restlessness of waiting to grow up.

While our situations are drastically different, to some extent Ludvik et al are going through the same thing that Generation X is doing today. In our late teens and early twenties, we felt like we were reshaping our world to be kinder, more welcoming. Now that we’re in our thirties or forties, it seems like we’re supposed to have made it, but at thirty-seven I don’t feel like I have anything more together than I did ten years ago. The universe has not acceded to my demand for a better world, and now people are fighting against the movement that I feel really made things better – the Obama presidency. The young people growing up don’t have the same values that people only fifteen years older than they are did. Jaroslav’s son hates folk music; he and his friends are all excited about modernity, so they’re wearing leather jackets and listening to rock music, and in a few years they will propel the Prague Spring to try to take their country back from their Communist parents. Youthful idealism can make a lot of good things happen, but as we age we develop compassion: we learn to see people as individuals instead of masses, ideas as shades of grey instead of the black-and-white ideologies of adolescence. Ludvik’s response, hating youth, is a result of his personal experience of betrayal.

But while it may seem that he is one of those criminals restless to grow up, I don’t feel like he has. This whole revenge thing smacks of immaturity. He sees Helena’s body as belonging to her husband, and his sex act as thieving something to balance the years of freedom stolen from him. Zemanek doesn’t see his wife’s body as his; the Communist idea seems closer to Brave New World, where everybody belongs to everybody else. A woman’s body is never her own. That’s why I think Lucie and Kostka’s experience is so important and good – Kostka teaches Lucie that her body belongs to her, and when they have sex it is her decision about what to do with her body. I don’t make any great claims to maturity myself; I’m preparing to see my family this summer, and as I look ahead, I’m not picturing spending time with the people I love, I’m imagining confrontations with the brothers I feel betrayed by. Without using this vocabulary for it, I’ve been visualizing revenge on them, not by sleeping with their wives but through cutting comments and burning indifference. But that doesn’t make me any better than Ludvik, and it’s not a path that will lead to a good time. I’m not the same person I was when bad things went down, and neither are they. As Kundera points out, revenge is either immediate or worthless. There are no other options.

As long as people can escape to the realm of fairy tales, they are full of nobility, compassion, and poetry. In the realm of everyday existence they are, alas, more likely to be full of caution, mistrust, and suspicion.

The fate of this book is like the fate of its protagonist. Kundera wrote it as a novel, not a political satire. The problem with realism is that if you show real problems realistically, people think you’re exaggerating or being satirical. So, the Communists saw his book the same way his fictional Communists saw Ludvik’s joke, as a serious attack on the establishment. Westerners heard of it and started translating, but they translated poorly and only the bits that served their agendas. Eventually the author left Czechoslovakia and moved to Paris, and he set about having his novels retranslated, so while my copy is an approved translation, it’s not the final definitive one that Kundera supervised in the 1990s. Everyone took it so seriously, even when the title warns us not to.

The promotional material (quotes, blurbs,) markets this as the book of Forster’s gay stories. That’s not always accurate, but it’s pretty close. Chronologically, these stories fall into a few different groups.

PRE-WORLD WAR I

Almost all the writing for which Forster is famous happened between 1900 and 1914. He wrote two collections of short stories during this time, though one was not published until the 1920s. Collected here are five previously uncollected stories, most of them unpublished, and probably with good reason. “Albergo Empedocle” is the one that made it, and it’s probably the best. It’s about an English guy who goes to the Mediterranean with his fiancée’s family, and he realizes that he lived in a Greek colony on Sicily in a previous life (Empedocles having favored the idea of reincarnation). However, the previous life takes over his current life, and he ends up in a mental institution speaking a forgotten dialect of Greek. Despite Forster’s comparative youth, there is some wisdom here:

Had she only realized that it is only hypocrites who cannot forgive hypocrisy, whereas those who search for truth are too conscious of the maze to be hard on others – then the bitter flow of her thoughts might have been stopped and the catastrophe averted. But it was not conceivable to her that he should forgive – or that she should accept forgiveness, for to her forgiveness meant triumph of one person over another.

I like the ability here to understand things from multiple perspectives, as well as the understanding that people who are really in the struggle to understand the world are gentle to those who misunderstand it, and that defining forgiveness as triumph instead of reconciliation leads to bad outcomes.

The first story, “Ansell,” reminds me a bit of Maurice, in that it’s about abandoning society’s ideals and living happily and naturally with a lower-class friend of the same gender. In these early stories, if you’re looking for homosexuality, you can find it, but it’s not obvious. There’s a point here that really irritated me:

Dead silence ensued, which was well enough for Ansell, to whom it merely meant that neither of us had any more to say. But to educated people silence matters: it is a token of stupidity and lack of invention.

I’m quite sufficiently educated, but I don’t often feel silence to be awkward. I don’t see the purpose of education or intelligence to be the obliteration of quiet with idle chatter. I see it as the exact opposite – good friends and intelligent people know when to keep their mouths shut. I have a lot of thoughts that I don’t express (and don’t want to), and I like being able to pursue a train of thought even when there are other people around. Most of the people I love are those who know how to sit quietly with me.

BETWEEN THE WARS

So, Forster wrote Maurice and World War I happened, and there’s a bit of a gap. He wrote his last novel, some say his greatest, A Passage to India, in 1924, and there were a number of other stories, but at one point he decided that he was writing the stories “not to express myself, but to excite myself” and he burned them all. So, there are some racy Forster stories that the world will never see because he thought they were blocking his creativity – he couldn’t write anything publishable because every time he picked up a pen gay sex came out of it. But after the burning, he kept writing stories without publishing them. The three stories in the 1920s become gradually more graphic, but they all have a solemn air – “The Life to Come,” “Dr Woolacott,” and “Arthur Snatchfold.” Gay relationships are punished pretty severely, too – by death in the first two and imprisonment in the last.

“Dr Woolacott” is a ghost story – a young invalid meets the ghost of one of the soldiers his doctor treated during The War, and the ghost casts doubt on his treatment, and as they come together physically the boy dies. “The Life to Come” may be one of the best stories, but it’s also one of the saddest.

Love had been born somewhere in the forest, of what quality only the future could decide. Trivial or immortal, it had been born to two human bodies as a midnight cry. Impossible to tell whence the cry had come, so dark was the forest. Or into what worlds it would echo, so vast was the forest. Love had been born for good or evil, for a long life or a short.

A missionary to an unnamed indigenous group tries to convince them of the love of God, but is only successful after he sleeps with the young chief. The missionary convinces himself it was an evil act, but the chief remains unconvinced. However, he does turn his whole tribe to Christianity in the hopes that he can “come to Christ” with the white man again, but it doesn’t turn out. The missionary feels too guilty, so he marries a woman and has kids and rejects the chief once he’s done using him to advance his work. Several of the stories have an anti-Christianity flavor, but this is one of the strongest. For Forster, religion does terrible things to people by making them ashamed of their natural sexual desires. The repressions that religion exacts warps people and leads to a great deal of unhappiness, such as imprisonment or murder. Typically, when there are this many bad endings to stories of gay love, we critics would say that the author is against them. However, I think in Forster’s case the bad endings are not so much an indictment of gay sex as an indictment of a society that rejects homosexuality. If gay love is love, how can it be bad? If God is love, why can’t he support all kinds of love?

The 1930s have a markedly different feel. I don’t want to speculate too much, but I wonder if the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover had anything to do with it. These stories have an exuberance, a joy, that is missing from the others. “The Classical Annex” is about a museum where all the statues come alive at night and fuck each other. But the small-town museum can’t afford more than miniatures, except for the one full-sized classical subject who goes unfulfilled every night. The townspeople made him a metal fig leaf for decency’s sake, and during the day it seems way too big for what it has to cover, but at night it’s suddenly way too small. The curator blunders in one night and is thoroughly shocked and heads back home. His son, though, goes to the museum to find him, and finds a horny gay Greek made of marble instead.

And in after years a Hellenistic group called The Wrestling Lesson became quite a feature at Bigglesmouth, though it was not exhibited until the Curator and the circumstances of his retirement were forgotten. “Very nice piece, very decent” was Councillor Bodkin’s opinion. “Look ‘ow the elder brother’s got the little chappie down. Look ‘ow well the little chappie’s taking it.”

So the youth is part of the statue magic now, and so is technically no longer alive. But it seems that he’s enjoying spending eternity ‘wrestling’ with the Greek, and Forster makes it into a joke on the dignitaries’ ignorance.

“The Obelisk” pulls a similar stunt. A newly married (but not quite happy) couple on vacation meet a pair of sailors on shore leave. They all head toward the town’s one tourist spot, an obelisk facing the sea. On the way there, they separate and the wife has her own Lady Chatterley experience with the nicer of the two sailors.

Yes, he was wonderful. She would have this gallantry to look back upon, especially at night. She could think of Ernest quite kindly, she’d be able to put up with him when he made his little wrong remarks or did his other little wrong things. She’d her dream, and what people said was false and what the Pictures said was true: it was worth it, worth being clasped once in the right arms, though you never had them round you again. She had got what she longed for, and it was what she longed for, not a smack in the face, not a sell. . . . She had always yearned for a lover who would be nice afterwards – not turn away like a satisfied brute, as handsome men are supposed to do. Stanhope was – what do you call it . . . a gentleman, a knight in armour, a real sport. . . . O for words. Her eyes filled with happy tears of happiness.

But, while she never makes it to the obelisk, she realizes later that her husband never did either, and probably for the same reason she didn’t. But it doesn’t impair their relationship – she actually thinks he’s more handsome and pleasant after bottoming for the sailor.

Forster’s morality tale “What Does It Matter?” makes his philosophy clear – sex is no one’s business but the people who are doing it. The president of a fictional eastern European country has a minister of police who wants to make a scandal, so he engineers a situation where the president’s wife walks in on him and his mistress. But there’s no scandal because the wife keeps her calm. Then the minister gets one of his men to seduce the president and has the mistress walk in, and she goes a little crazy, but the president’s wife talks her down. They all agree to accept the situation, and they publish an edict to that effect, that all three have had sex with the president and intend to continue, and why does that matter? The people take to the idea that sex doesn’t imply possession and it becomes the most peaceful nation in the world. No one will attack them because their sexual ideology is so contagious that they will transform any nation that conquers them. This may have something to do with the fact that Forster spent many years in a loving relationship with a married man, but the idea strikes me as sound. If sex is consensual, and that implies that all parties involved are mature adults, then why is it anyone else’s business?

AFTER WORLD WAR II

By the end of WWII, Forster was in his mid-60s. He’d been busy doing other things, because even if you’re as fantastic as he was there’s more to life than publishing fiction. There are a couple of other gay stories from the late 1950s, and they return to that 1920s feeling of “great” literature. “The Torque” is about a Roman from a newly Christian family who gets raped by a Goth, but in reality the sex seems more unexpected than unwelcome. They don’t speak each other’s language, so the Goth can’t really ask, and afterward the Roman seems to have enjoyed himself. Then later he imagines the Goth asking to be raped in turn, so I really have to question Forster’s use of the word. Rape means that consent is withheld, but in this story it’s only withheld until the rapist’s intentions are clear. This is not what rape is really like. It’s a horrible experience that leaves permanent scars. If the receiver consents, and I mean from the heart and not necessarily in words, then it’s not rape. Some people are pressured into consenting in words when they do not really want to do it, and that is rape. People have started talking about ‘grey rape,’ where the two parties are so chemically elevated that neither is sure whether they had sex or whether consent was given, and I don’t know how to judge that situation, and I’m glad I don’t have to. I do think that it’s a bad idea to have sex if either person is too far gone to judge the situation, but as the name implies, this is a grey area. And, as should be obvious, no one asks to be raped. The request implies consent. In the story, the Roman gets happiness and possibly mystical powers from the experience, not permanent psychological wounds. But Forster is back to hating on Christianity and its demand for chastity.

I didn’t quite see the full extent of Forster’s hatred of Christianity until I got to “The Other Boat.” Here, he not only blames Christianity for homophobia, but also for racism:

He spoke of the origins of Christianity in a way that made her look down her nose, saying that the Canal was one long genuine Bible picture gallery, that donkeys could still be seen going down into Egypt carrying Holy Families, and naked Arabs wading into the water to fish; “Peter and Andrew by Galilee’s shore, why, it hits the truth plumb.” A clergyman’s daughter and a soldier’s wife, she could not admit that Christianity had ever been oriental. What good thing can come out of the Levant, and is it likely that the apostles ever had a touch of the tar-brush?

In terms of Western Civilization, Christianity has been the winning team for about two thousand years. However, it’s not a European religion. It’s not an American religion. It’s from the Middle East. If most American Christians saw Jesus Christ today, they would think he looked like a terrorist. It’s interesting to me that she points out the racial Otherness of the Arabs, but here in the United States we define peoples of the Middle East as white, no doubt so that we can admit that Jews are white. Jewish people have played a large role in positions of power in American history, so of course they can be legally considered white. After all, we can’t go around Othering Jesus. But if we welcome Jesus as part of our group, we also have to admit Syrian refugees as white people, and Iraqis and Saudis and all the other people from the heart of Islam. Which creates a racial conundrum for some people, if they put any thought into it.

Forster juxtaposes racism with homophobia – the white Englishman is okay having a relationship with the ethnically vague foreigner as long as no one knows about it, and he enjoys it as long as he doesn’t think about it. But at the end he realizes the foreigner’s bribes are tipping people off, and he does spend some time thinking about it, and he kills the man he doesn’t love. Then he runs up on deck and jumps in the ocean, killing the other man he doesn’t love, himself.

Taken all together, this is kind of a weird collection because the stories are written at such different times in the author’s life. They can hardly be expected to present a unified viewpoint; we are all such different people at different stages of our development. Forster in his 20s and Forster in his 70s write in very different ways, and “Ansell” and “The Other Boat” don’t seem all that unified. But in some ways they do. Maybe people don’t change as much as I think (hope) they do. “Ansell” ends with the boys happy together because the rich, educated boy isn’t yet thinking of his future, but “The Other Boat” shows what happens when he does. There is an important distinction, though – Edward in “Ansell” loses all the books he needs to write his dissertation, so his love with Ansell grows up because he’s already lost the future he had planned. In “The Other Boat,” Lionel still has a lot to lose when he hooks up with Cocoanut, and he can’t face that expected loss when he realizes that their relationship isn’t the secret he thinks it is.

THREE COURSES AND A DESSERT

Speaking of weirdness. This four-part story was designed for four different authors, each taking a section. You’ll recognize the format from Naked Came the Stranger, as well as its for-charity descendants Naked Came the Manatee and Naked Came the Phoenix. The first author, Christopher Dilke, does a good job of setting up an interesting story, and Forster manages to match his tone and characters pretty well. But the third author, A. E. Coppard, is not their equal. Characters change drastically and become caricatures of themselves, and while James Laver does his best to mop up the damage in the epilogue, the first two parts cohere and the rest do not. I do appreciate Laver’s final twist – Forster ended his part with a murder, and Laver broke the fourth wall by placing Forster in the crowd and saying that the author did it. It’s a bit of a joke, but I think it was the only reasonable way to end it. It’s an unfortunate addition to a short story collection that, at 210 pages, was already long enough to publish. I’ve seen novels shorter than that published without any trouble.

This collection was a real delight. It satisfies the itch for a book like Maurice without being it – early twentieth century, well-written, normative gay romance with a little Lady Chatterley thrown in. No wonder I couldn’t put it down.

 

Oxford, in the rain:

The next day the weather broke. Early in the morning, before the first rays of light had touched the towers and pinnacles of the city, the rain began to fall from a leaden sky. When Nigel woke from a disturbed sleep the streets were already soaking, the elaborate and inefficient drainage systems of Gothic, Mock-Gothic, Palladian and Venetian architecture were already emitting accumulated jets of water on unwary passers-by: From Carfax the gutters streamed down the gentle slope of the High, past the ‘Mitre’, past Great St Mary’s, past the Queen’s, and so down to where the tower of Magdalen stood in solitary austerity above the traffic which ran towards Headington or Iffley or Cowley. Outside St John’s, the trees began to creak and whisper, and the drops rattled with dull monotony from their branches, while a few solitary beams of pale sunlight rested on an architrave of the Taylorian, glanced off southwards down the Cornmarket, and were rapidly engulfed somewhere in the precincts of Brasenose. The cinereous sky echoed the grey of innumerable walls; water ran in streams down the ivy which more or less shields Keble from offensive comment; paused and momentarily glistened on the wrought-iron gates of Trinity; gathered in innumerable runnels and rivulets among the cobbles which surround the Radcliffe Camera, standing like a mustard-pot among various other cruets. The eloquent décor of Oxford is bright sunlight or moonlight; rain makes of it a prison city, profoundly depressing.

And our featured professor of literature, Gervase Fen:

He travelled first-class because he had always wanted to be able to do so, but at the moment even this gave him little pleasure. Occasional pangs of conscience afflicted him over this display of comparative affluence; he had, however, succeeded in giving it some moral justification by means of a shaky economic argument, produced extempore for the benefit of one who had unwisely reproached him for his snobbishness. ‘My dear fellow,’ Gervase Fen had replied, ‘the railway company has certain constant running costs; if those of us who can afford it didn’t travel first, all the third-class fares would have to go up, to the benefit of nobody. Alter your economic system first,’ he had added magnificently to the unfortunate, ‘and then the problem will not arise.’ Later he referred this argument in some triumph to the Professor of Economics, where it was met to his chagrin with dubious stammerings.

Sometimes I think there’s something seriously wrong with me. I’ve been hitting the high culture a little hard lately – looking back, I haven’t read anything that could be considered an easy, relaxing read since October – so I went into the bookstore looking for something “different” (as I framed it to myself), and I came out with Dostoevsky and Kit Marlowe. I tried again a few weeks later, and I bought yet another Kundera novel and one of Joseph Campbell’s books on myth. I’ve also been feeling really tense lately, and I wonder if I even know how to relax any more. Fortunately, I approach the kobo differently. When I browse the website, I actively seek the less snobbish material that I can’t get reconciled to in printed form. Though really, I’m not sure if a book that uses such words as constatation and aposiopesis can really be considered easy, relaxing, or low-culture. I was sent to the dictionary at least five times, not generally a sign of low-stress reading.

Gervase Fen is a literature professor at Oxford, and uses his free time to solve crimes. He loves a good murder. Even though the narrator assures us he’s done this before, I think this is his first appearance in print. He’s delightfully eccentric, alternately exuberant and depressed, as the case progresses. Solving mysteries makes him happy, but the ethical dilemmas prompted by the solution trouble him. Is it right to assist in the conviction, imprisonment, and probable execution of a murderer who has killed someone that no one misses, and in fact most of the victim’s acquaintance rejoice in her demise? Especially when the murderer is an artist who could make a wartime world more beautiful? It’s a tricky puzzle. As much as I value human life and try to consider all lives equal, the damage that surrounds certain individuals makes me think that they and the world would both be happier if they were put out of the way. I’m not planning to murder anyone, I’m just saying that not all deaths are tragic.

The straight man from whose perspective we see the plot unfurl, Fen’s Dr Watson, is Nigel Blake, a former student who now works as a journalist. He quotes a lot, nearly as much as Fen himself, though in truth everyone does in this book. There is a veritable shit-ton of allusion, most of which I didn’t recognize and don’t feel bad about. I mean, how many people are reading Charles Churchill these days? Nigel’s quotations are more recognizable, usually from Shakespeare. The title itself is from King Lear, where he quotes the gilded fly as a symbol of lechery, when he’s praising venery for the illegitimate son who cares for him, as opposed to the honestly-got daughters who throw him out of his own home. One of the characters owns a ring with a gilded fly, a reproduction of an Egyptian artifact, and it’s found shoved onto the finger of a corpse. Hooray for literary theatre puns.

Along with the literature professor who solves crime, there’s a police detective who analyzes literature in his free time. Fen and Sir Richard disagree with each other’s conclusions, but the detective doesn’t play a large role. The Inspector, the more significant police presence, is an old man who is generally appalled and offended by the lax sexual mores of 1940. He spends his time being slowly authoritative and magnificently dense.

And then there are the victims and suspects, a group of theatre people and their hangers-on. The victim, Yseut Haskell, is a total bitch to everyone. She used to be sleeping with the playwright, but he’s moved on to the leading lady and the supporting actress hasn’t got over him. Oxford’s organist is hung up on Yseut, but she ignores him; the prop girl is hung up on the organist, and he ignores her in turn. There are other friends and relations, like the owner of the gun and the half-sister and the stage manager, and there’s more sex going on, but all of it offstage because we are writing in 1943 and things aren’t that lax.

This novel is written and set during World War II, yet the war doesn’t seem to invade Oxford. They have their blackout curtains, of course, and the war had a strong impact on theatre-going (which explains why a famous playwright and talented actors are leaving the West End to put on a show with a repertory company in Oxford), but most people keep doing what they had been doing, studying and teaching and performing, regardless of the Nazi Menace. I suppose if you’re not a soldier, wars don’t hold the attention very long. And since they don’t last forever, the activities that are not directly affected are in some ways more important. Of course, those activities could be ended by a war, but they’re not always. Art flourishes, even in unlikely places. And so does love.

So Nigel turned his attention back to what was left of Yseut. It was curious, he thought, how completely death had drained her of personality. And yet not curious: for her personality had centred entirely on her sex, and now that life was gone, that too had vanished, leaving her a neuter, an uninteresting construction of clay, suddenly pathetic. She had been an attractive girl. But that ‘had been’ was not a conventional gesture to the fact of death. It was an honest admission that without life the most beautiful body is an object of no interest. We are not bodies, thought Nigel, we are lives. And oddly, there came to him at that moment a new and firm conviction of the nature of love.

Yes, this contradicts Poe’s assertion that there is nothing more beautiful than a beautiful woman who has just died, but Crispin’s idea is better, healthier. In a book where sexuality runs rampant, he turns away from necrophilia and makes sure sex is only expressed in healthy, heterosexual ways. Nowadays, when we read that two young men didn’t hear the gunshot because they were listening to German opera and tone poems at high volume, we think that it’s to cover the sounds of gay sex, but they had all the windows and doors open, so less lover-like and more aggressively pretentious. Even in 1943 I imagine that Wagner and Strauss (Richard, not Johann) had a limited appeal. When I was in graduate school I tried listening to them for a class and my newborn son screamed and screamed. He was happy with Donizetti, but could not handle the Germans. But really, who doesn’t like Donizetti? They put some in a Bruce Willis film, and that scene is even more widely remembered and loved than the ending, which is a little anticlimactic. Granted, there’s a crazy electronic cadenza, but it’s still Donizetti.

Life matters. We are who we are because we are alive, and when we die this physical shell, this earthly husk, will become a thing of no worth, something we burn or bury, which is what we do to trash. A body with no breath, a human with no life, is not a thing of great value. Its only use is as evidence – we must find out who or what deprived us of this life. And that’s the conclusion we must eventually come to: Even Yseut Haskell’s life matters and contributes to humanity. Robbing the world of a life is a serious crime, one that people in my home country are only too happy to commit. Our murder rates are rising dramatically, which suggests that people in the United States do not value human life. There are too many bombs, too many shootings, and too much of it is based on identities. People get killed for being black, for being Muslim, for being gay, I mean this guy from Baltimore just ran up to New York because he wanted to kill a black person. Why do you think they’re insisting so much that their lives matter? Because white people think it’s okay to kill them. Yes, all lives do matter, but the majority of American culture does not question the value of white lives. Straight white male Christian lives, to be specific. I was in the mall yesterday, and there were several small-time entrepreneurs setting up booths and tables to sell things, and I heard one of the sellers demean both Jews and Blacks in the space of about twenty minutes. I suppose this is a good community for that, since there aren’t many non-white, non-Christians around, but what a horrible way to see the world. Life is precious, both your individual life and everyone else’s.

Objectively speaking, it has been said that Crispin’s murders are too convoluted, that no one would ever actually kill people in these manners. They’re too unrealistic. Yes, that’s very likely so, and I suppose it’s bothersome if you read mystery novels because you want to figure it out before it’s revealed, but I don’t. I read these stories because I think detectives are interesting people. Intelligent, brave, and eccentric – who wouldn’t want to spend time with them? Crispin’s mysteries, though, are probably best enjoyed by people who enjoy literary quotations and expanding their vocabularies. Like me.

Given the option to teach literature again this month, I was firmly against repeating The Old Man and the Sea, so I chose the other option for a really short book that the company had in inventory. I hadn’t read it before, and reading a new book to teach it was a really strange experience. I kept looking for new vocabulary and literary elements, thinking of ways I could assess my students’ reading instead of enjoying my own. It’s like knitting projects to sell – it turns a hobby into work, and I’m not that fond of working. It takes the joy out of it.

Steinbeck was working on crossing the line between prose and drama, so this novel is set up like a play. Each chapter begins with a description of the scene, and everything happens in that confined place. There’s a lot of dialogue and not really a lot of action. It’s mostly, people walk on, sit, and talk. It’s a three-act tragedy, with each act having two scenes (six sections that are not actually named chapters).

George and Lennie are migrant ranch hands in California during the Depression, a time and place that are practically owned by Steinbeck. George is little and sharp, Lennie is the opposite, large and dull. My international students were fairly familiar and comfortable with the idea of Lennie being a grown man with the mind of a small child (one of them has a relative with Down’s Syndrome), and I don’t have the training to diagnose his particular brand of developmental delay. George grew up in the same town, so he keeps him around. Lennie is a habit he just can’t break, even though he complains about how much fun he’s losing out on. He could be going out and getting drunk and laid like all the other guys if he didn’t have to take care of Lennie. Yet, the two of them have plans for the future precisely because he does take care of Lennie. Other migrant workers drift without a sense of direction, but these two have a definite plan to get some money together and buy a specific plot of land. They’ll have a house and animals, and Lennie will take care of the rabbits. He loves touching soft things. They’re starting a new job, which is the exposition.

The big trouble at the new job is with the boss’s son. Curley is a little guy who likes to fight, and he’s stupidly jealous of his too-sociable wife. He thinks Lennie is laughing at him because of his wife’s wanderings, so he starts a fight that he can’t finish. Lennie breaks his hand. That’s the climactic turning point that leads the wife of the pugilist to cast her eye on the over-big child. Now, at their last job, Lennie started touching a woman’s dress that was soft like a rabbit or a dead mouse, and she freaked out and he couldn’t figure out what to do except close his hand tight and hold on for dear life, while the poor woman is screaming Rape just as loud as she can. George had to whack him over the head with a fence picket and they ran off to keep from getting killed. Curley’s nameless wife lets Lennie pat her hair, and then when he clamps on and can’t release she starts screaming, but he covers her mouth to shut her up and accidentally breaks her neck. At this point all George can do is shoot Lennie before the lynch mob hangs him.

At one point Steinbeck said that this woman wasn’t actually a character; she’s just a symbol of evil, a piece of forbidden fruit. Lennie falls because he can’t resist, even though he remains innocent, just like Billy Budd. I’d like to argue for a minute that she’s a real person. She grew up in a little town, dreaming of something better, and then she met a few men who promised her Hollywood and glamour but didn’t deliver, though I imagine she delivered her goods to them. Then she meets a guy who’s little but strong, and instead of promising fame he promises love. It sounds like a good deal, but then it’s all isolation on a farm outside Soledad CA. Every time she tries talking to anyone, her husband shows up and makes trouble. It’s not her fault there aren’t any other women around. Some people are cut out for solitude, but some aren’t. This girl needs people, society, conversation, but all she gets is trouble and loneliness. I didn’t notice any evidence of domestic violence, but I think more careful readers have made a case for it. Her life is miserable. She found acceptance in the past by treating men a certain way, and now she’s punished for it. The Depression may make the workers’ life miserable, but hers is just downright untenable. Then someone defeats her guardian monster, and she shows a little interest, but the new champion is even worse than the old one. He kills her. Lennie didn’t slut-shame her like everyone else on the ranch, but I’d say death of the body is worse than death of the reputation. The explicit narrative centers its pathos on Lennie, but in a time when there was no good treatment or care options for the developmentally delayed or mentally ill, his fate is inevitable. Hers could have been avoided, if the author had seen the woman as more than the instrument of a man’s downfall. You know, if he had bothered to give her a name.

Race is another isolating identity. Crooks works in the stable, and lives in a little room off the main part of the barn instead of in the bunkhouse with the other hands. He’s crippled from getting kicked by a horse, showing just how little valued the lives of black men are. In his isolation, he becomes misanthropic instead of social, with a sort of self-protective hostility. Lennie doesn’t notice and befriends him, but not too closely.

Candy is isolated by his age. Ranch work is for the young and strong, and he is neither. It doesn’t help that he only has one hand. But he’s the right sort of different, because George and Lennie make space in their plans for him.

When it comes to the others, mainstream society, it’s a toss-up. You could get Slim, who’s compassionate and a real friend to George, or you could get Carlson, who sees that George has just killed his best friend and says,

Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?

A lot of people are just not good at emotions. Carlson is a bit of a psychopath, intent on killing whoever doesn’t serve him, like Candy’s smelly old dog. It’s unfortunate, but hard times like the Depression bring out the utilitarian in some people. I have to confess to having this unsentimental streak as well, because circumstances in my life are also sometimes difficult and necessitate parting with people or things that I would prefer to keep. It doesn’t help that I love people who aren’t good for me. He’s working at being better, these last few weeks, so I’m hopeful for our future. I know I should be thinking about how good I am to him too – I am a bit self-centered. I do my best for him, but I express my own needs to myself more clearly than he expresses his to me, so it’s easier for me to evaluate whether my own needs are being met than his. Yes, I need a break from these fatalistic modernist texts, but it’s nice to come back to the real world and know that there are people who care about me, and that there’s a handsome man I’m going to sleep next to tonight, and he loves me.