Archive for August, 2014

Isak Dinesen is the pen name of Karen Blixen, a Danish writer of the mid-twentieth century. Those of you who have seen Babette’s Feast will recognize the characteristics that make Dinesen a little challenging for current American audiences: long exposition, tons of narration. Seriously, sometimes in this book she’ll spend thirty pages narrating exposition for twenty pages of story. That being said, like Babette’s Feast, the stories in this book are often beautiful, and worth working your way through. Just be sure to give yourself time to enjoy them for what they are instead of asking them to be something they aren’t.

These stories were first published in 1934; Blixen had published some isolated stories in periodicals, but this was her first book. She was fifteen years older than I am now, so a mature adult, but sometimes it feels like she’s still a beginning writer. She consciously copies nineteenth-century Gothic models, even the phrases in foreign languages. She writes in English, but throws in French, German, Italian, and Latin, another obstacle to the casual American reader. The Gothic tradition did eventually lead to modern horror, but these stories are hardly frightening. Maybe I’m a bit jaded after seeing films with Norman Bates and Pamela Voorhees, but there’s not much scary stuff going on. They’re not exactly mysterious, either. Four people get trapped in a hay loft during a flood; the only real element of suspense is whether they’re going to drown or not, but knowing literature of the 1930s, you know the answer to that question.

The stories use recurrent family names and settings, so it feels like they’re in a shared version of nineteenth century Europe, though everyone shares ties to Copenhagen or Elsinore. There are also recurrent figures of speech. The Monkey was my personal favorite; one of two that rely on a supernatural ending. I think I liked it because the protagonist is such an idiot, but fancies himself quite the charmer. The Dreamers has the most complex narrative structure, frame upon frame upon frame. The Roads Round Pisa feels exactly like the sensation novels of the 1860s that I love so much. The Supper at Elsinore has nothing to do with Hamlet, but it has the most poignant emotional moment. The Deluge at Norderney and The Old Chevalier were kind of forgettable. The Poet is a fit ending for the book; it’s a little Owl Creek Bridge-ish, but with Blixen’s lengthy setup.

The thing that fascinated me the most about this book, as a whole, is the attitude toward gender. Blixen acknowledges the traditional attitudes, but also points out that they are arbitrary and not inherent. She bends gender when she can – women are mistaken for men, men have feminine characteristics, and there’s a fluidity that may have shocked some people (maybe this is an element of horror that doesn’t feel horrific to me). Witness Boris with his aunt:

Boris kissed her hand for this, and reflected what an excellent arrangement it might prove to be, and then all at once he got such a terrible impression of strength and cunning that it was as if he had touched an electric eel. Women, he thought, when they are old enough to have done with the business of being women, and can let loose their strength, must be the most powerful creatures in the whole world.

When the only way a woman could manage to support herself was through marriage, she had to play up to men, acting dependent on them whether she felt herself to be or not. But when they’re too old to marry (throughout the book it seems agreed upon that a first marriage must happen before the woman reaches thirty or it won’t happen at all) and have their portion of the family income settled on them for life, they can do precisely as they like. Some people who have been beaten back their whole lives lose the ability to act for themselves. In others, the desire for independence grows so strong that it takes over their entire personalities. When a woman has hidden her strength for decades and finally lets herself feel and show it, that can be either inspiring or terrifying, but it is certainly dramatic.

In all of this attention to genderbending, Blixen presents the first coherent case for homophobia I’ve read. Too bad it only works for women rejecting gay men. In this passage, rumors of a regiment in the army that is almost entirely homosexual reaches the ladies of a home for older single women, and they react:

Few things could have stirred their natures more deeply. It was not only the impudence of the heroes of the pulpit and the quill attacking warriors which revolted the old daughters of a fighting race, or the presentiment of trouble and much woe that worried them, but something in the matter which went much deeper than that. To all of them it had been a fundamental article of faith that woman’s loveliness and charm, which they themselves represented in their own sphere and according to their gifts, must constitute the highest inspiration and prize of life. In their own individual cases the world might have spread snares in order to capture this prize of their being at less cost than they meant it to, or there might have been a strange misunderstanding, a lack of appreciation, on the part of the world, but still the dogma held good. To hear it disputed now meant to them what it would mean to a miser to be told that gold no longer had absolute value, or to a mystic to have it asserted that the Lord was not present in the Eucharist. Had they known that it might ever be called into question, all these lives, which were now so nearly finished, might have come to look very different. To a few proud old maids, who had the strategic instincts of their breed developed to the full, these new conceptions came very hard. So might have come, to a gallant and faithful old general who through a long campaign, in loyalty to higher orders, had stood strictly upon the defensive, the information that an offensive would have been the right, and approved, move.

Their society is built on the ideal of heterosexual marriage. Their primary mission in life was to marry because in their socioeconomic class, there was no other accepted way for a woman to make her living. These women didn’t succeed, but at least they could cling to the idea that they had been desired, that they had an opportunity to marry (or at least play around) but chose not to. And then, to be told that women are not necessary to men? That men can love and fuck each other? What use are women, then? When marriage is a woman’s only proof of value, gay men call their self-worth into question. In the conservative circles the ex was moving in at the time of our breakup, this was pretty much the same. Her blog from that time is a hymn to wifely submission and gratitude for her faithful loving husband. So when I said that I wanted to have sex with men, it broke her concept not just of our relationship but of herself. She had to reshape her entire identity, but without the convenient label that I was claiming. This is a process that I cannot imagine.

It is not only women who derive their sense of worth from the opposite sex, according to Blixen. Here’s a little digression about the De Coninck sisters:

If these sisters could not live without men, it was because they had the firm conviction, which, as an instinct, runs in the blood of seafaring families, that the final word as to what you are really worth lies with the other sex. You may ask the members of your own sex for their opinion and advice as to your compass and crew, your cuisine and garden, but when it comes to the matter of what you yourself are worth, the words of even your best friends are void and good for nothing, and you must address yourself to the opposite sex. Old white skippers, who have been round the Horn and out in a hundred hurricanes, know the law. They may be highly respected on the deck or in the mess, and honored by their staunch gray contemporaries, but it is, finally, the girls who have the say as to whether they are worth keeping alive or not. The old sailor’s women are aware of this fact, and will take a good deal of trouble to impress even the young boys toward a favorable judgment. This doctrine, and this quick estimating eye is developed in sailor’s families because there the two sexes have the chance to see each other at a distance. A sailor, or a sailor’s daughter, judges a person of the other sex as quickly and surely as a hunter judges a horse; a farmer, a head of cattle; and a soldier, a rifle. In the families of clergymen and scribes, where the men sit in their houses all their days, people may judge each other extremely well individually, but no man knows what a woman is, and no woman what a man is; they cannot see the wood for the trees.

Maybe it’s because I’m not a sailor (though living in the Middle East I can go for months without seeing a woman’s face or figure), but I’ve never really been interested in Woman as a concept. I’ve been attracted to one or two individuals of that type, but the mysteries of femininity do not charm me. Someone told me recently that the ex had always had a really masculine energy; I suppose that’s why we were together for so long. But I always felt at a disadvantage; she and her friends tended to see me as insufficiently masculine because I couldn’t change the oil in my own car (I’ve learned since), or keep my attention on a televised sporting event (still can’t do it). I also burst into tears every time I see Kate Winslet walk into Johnny Depp’s imagined world at the end of Finding Neverland. I read recently that scientists have determined that ovulation gives women uncannily accurate gaydar, so maybe they were picking up on that subconsciously (or consciously, in some cases). Something about fertility and biological imperatives lets women know who’s not interested, and in our Southern culture where a ‘real man’ is one who produces and provides for a nuclear family, gay men are left outside. If Southern masculinity is a log cabin, we live in tents in the backyard. I have recurrent fantasies about things to do out in the woods, though, so maybe that’s the best place for me.

At the end of their story, the De Coninck girls are having dinner with their brother’s ghost, and the clock strikes midnight and he has to go back down to hell. Fanny throws herself at him and

“Morten!” she cried in a long wail. “Brother! Stay! Listen! Take me with you!”

Love isn’t always sexual; Blixen seems to understand pretty clearly that love and sex rarely go together. It makes sense to me that when Disney made a movie about true love that wasn’t heteronormative, they came to the same culture that produced this scene. Fanny loves her brother so much that she would rather be in hell with him than on earth without him. She’s lived with their sister her whole life, so it isn’t as if she’s alone in the world, but if she could choose . . . There is no person in my life that I haven’t had to give up. Even my children I’ve had to release to the ex’s weird conservative Christianity. My seven-year-old came back from camp this summer talking about AK-47s, and I’m deeply disturbed by this, but there’s nothing I can do about it. She’s going to raise the boys as she sees fit. At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of someone hanging onto me so tightly that he’d follow me to hell. I’d like to fall in love with someone and really make it to ‘death do us part,’ but I’m going to need a certain amount of independence. When I go, let me go.

These stories aren’t the type that I normally think of as Gothic. Only one ghost, one bit of magic, no insane asylums or inquisitions. They are appropriately distanced from the audience in time and usually in place, but the landscape is seldom the locus of terror. People are evil enough without any help from Hawthorne’s traveler in the woods. And sometimes people aren’t evil at all, but bad stuff still happens. It’s the way the world is: flawed and somewhat indifferent to the individual human, but beautiful nonetheless. Blixen describes one of her characters as being

Of a strange, slow and angular, unexpected gracefulness in all his movements,

and I think this is the best description of her book itself. It rewards your patience with it.

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Ignorance is a novel about immigration. It changes our reaction to the people involved, though, by referring to them as émigrés instead of immigrants. Immigrants are itinerant laborers from Latin America, southern Asia, or some other slightly disreputable country. Émigrés are refugees fleeing unsatisfactory political or economic situations. Émigrés are more educated in general and are more aware of and invested in current events. They bathe more regularly, have lighter skin, and make more of an effort to learn the language of their new country. They have children instead of anchor babies. The power of French terminology. We do this in English too – what’s the difference between an expatriate and an immigrant? We all have our reasons for leaving.

Ignorance is not just about immigration; it’s about returning after having been gone for a while. I don’t mean the two-year stints that I do in other places – Kundera means spending twenty years in a foreign country, then going back to where you were born. At this point, you can no longer call it home. Home is where you either rent or own a living space where you keep your stuff. That no longer applies to the birth country. I’ve never stayed gone the length of time that he says is necessary for The Great Return, but I feel the same things on a smaller scale, as I travel about and occasionally head back to what should be home.

Home has always been a difficult concept for me. It seems to denote a place where people feel safe, and I didn’t grow up feeling safe. Children in abusive homes seldom do, I believe. My father refused to self-medicate his undiagnosed bipolar disorder with drugs or alcohol; he beat his kids instead. I dodged that by being tiny and young; four older siblings can be useful. My mother wasn’t good at dealing with emotions, so I never felt that anything I did was good enough for her. I did notice, though, that she seemed grateful if I could handle something by myself, so I did. I rarely took my problems to anyone, and besides, I was afraid that if I did a social worker was going to come split our family apart. Somehow most of my siblings have forgotten what it was like to grow up with that, because they want to have a close relationship with her, and they argue about where she should spend her retirement. I don’t want her following me; I can only tolerate her for about three days. Visiting my mother always shows me how far I am removed from ‘home,’ culturally speaking; she tried to convince me to buy a George Strait CD this summer.

I tend to think of the area where I studied at university as home. As soon as I graduated from high school, I rocketed away from that place and moved a solid 350 miles down the road. At Thanksgiving, I went back to my mom’s house with a big bag of laundry. I set it next to the washer and said, “Look what I brought you!” She replied, “You mean look what you brought yourself. I have to wash your brother’s work clothes.” [All weekend? Really?] I had been joking; she was serious. That was the moment that I first realized that this was not home. I was happier at school anyway, so it was easy to start calling it home. My ex’s family was from that area, so after we graduated we kept calling it home and coming back to it, and now that my kids live there it’s the place with the greatest draw for me. The place I came from is Down East; the Appalachians of North Carolina and Georgia are home.

Kundera’s characters experience this in a much more extreme fashion. They left Prague when Russia stamped out Czech-ness in 1968, and now that the Communists are gone, many of the Czechs are returning (published in 2000, but probably set early-90s). After twenty years abroad, what does it mean to come home? The opening page of the novel:

“What are you still doing here?” Her tone wasn’t harsh, but it wasn’t kindly, either; Sylvie was indignant.

“Where should I be?” Irena asked.

“Home!”

“You mean this isn’t my home anymore?”

Of course she wasn’t trying to drive Irena out of France or implying that she was an undesirable alien: “You know what I mean!”

“Yes, I do know, but aren’t you forgetting that I’ve got my work here? My apartment? My children?”

“Look, I know Gustaf. He’ll do anything to help you get back to your country. And your daughters, let’s not kid ourselves! They’ve already got their own lives. Good Lord, Irena, it’s so fascinating, what’s going on in your country! In a situation like that, things always work out.”

“But Sylvie! It’s not just a matter of practical things, the job, the apartment. I’ve been living here for twenty years now. My life is here!”

My life is here. This is the struggle that long-term immigrants have to deal with; where is your life? What is temporary, what is permanent? I’m renting a storage unit where I keep the detritus of nearly thirty-five years of living, and there’s an ocean and a couple of continents between my apartment and it. Which place is home? This is where I work and sleep, there is where I’ve stashed my life. How can this be home if most of my books are there?

“Tell me,” he said. “Is this still our country?”

He expected to hear a sarcastic response about worldwide capitalism homogenizing the planet, but N. was silent. Josef went on: “The Soviet empire collapsed because it could no longer hold down the nations that wanted their independence. But those nations – they’re less independent than ever now. They can’t choose their own economy or their own foreign policy or even their own advertising slogans.”

“National independence has been an illusion for a long time now,” said N.

“But if a country is not independent and doesn’t even want to be, will anyone still be willing to die for it?”

“Being willing to die isn’t what I want for my children.”

“I’ll put it another way: does anyone still love this country?”

N. slowed his steps: “Josef,” he said, touched. “How could you ever have emigrated? You’re a patriot!” Then, very seriously: “Dying for your country – that’s all finished. Maybe for you time stopped during your emigration. But they – they don’t think like you anymore.”

“Who?”

N. tipped his head toward the upper floors of the house, as if to indicate his brood. “They’re somewhere else.”

This passage shows some of my foreignness. The Americans of the South, including all of North Carolina and several other states, tend to think like Josef, patriotism being important and meaning a willingness to die for a certain plot of land and the people who live on it. I tend to be more like N – I don’t want my children to want to die. I’m ready for the American Empire to retract its claws, to loosen its grip on world affairs. Some people are criticizing Obama for not playing a larger part in international affairs (Syria), but I think the United States needs to start asking the question, is this situation any of our business? Less dominance, more cooperation, more letting other peoples handle their own problems. I’m somewhere else.

But I also fill Josef’s role whenever I go back. In my memory, towns stay fixed; in reality, they are always changing. The city I grew up close to built a new shopping center out toward the airport (Target! Best Buy! Starbucks! Welcome to twenty-first century America!); it’s become one of the biggest shopping areas in town and it killed the mall, so the residents see the city as shaped differently than when I lived there. The university I attended has changed the center of campus, ripping out streets and putting in walking areas and a huge fountain; my heart doesn’t recognize it as home any more, even though that is the place I’ve lived longest as an adult. The town close by has changed less, but time still marches on. Zoo Video disappeared more than ten years ago, KFC closed and became Dunkin Donuts, there’s a new Dairy Queen, and last week there was a fire in one of the buildings downtown. Its future is still uncertain, but I think they’ve decided that they don’t have to tear it down. There are some changes I’m comfortable with, like the restaurant that changes hands every couple of years because the parking lot is too small and too much of a pain to get in and out of so nothing lasts, but the downtown area has too distinct a character to lose a building easily.

Kundera spends some time with our relationship to time. We don’t possess the past because our memories are so faulty. We forget things, we reconstruct alternate versions to make sense of the disconnected scenes we can remember clearly, and sometimes we fabricate memories without quite meaning to. In the early years of our marriage the ex had a favorite story to tell about our married life, and once I told her that it hadn’t happened the way she was telling it, and she responded that it made a better story the way she told it. She was right, but she was also purposely obscuring the truth and making me seem different than I am. But it makes a better story, so that’s how it gets remembered. This is the difference between history and the past. According to Kundera, we don’t possess the future either; we can’t predict it or adequately prepare for it, so it’s out of our reach. Because of our inability to grasp either past or future, we can’t really say that we have the present either. The present is indissolubly linked to two unknowable moments, so it becomes covered by the same fog, the same ignorance.

Kundera’s Irena and Josef come back to Prague to think about the possibility of moving back permanently, but they have grown too foreign, their lives are somewhere else, they don’t fit any more. They belong in their new countries, France and Denmark. Their old friends have moved on, and there is no vacant place in anyone’s life for them to step into. Nothing they left behind belongs to them. Thomas Wolfe titled one of his novels You Can’t Go Home Again, and while I haven’t read it to see what he intends with that phrase, as an expat I’ve felt it to be true. You can’t go home again because home is never where you left it. It’s changed, moved along, and so have you. I don’t have a single home right now; ‘home’ is an area that covers three counties and several cities that are all on the opposite side of the world from where I live.

Kundera’s novels seem to be getting shorter, tighter. This would have been only one part of Immortality or The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but it stands on its own quite well. Ignorance and Identity are much more strongly unified, which I imagine makes them more approachable. Kundera is publishing nonfiction these days too, so it makes sense that the philosophical musings are taking up less space in his fiction. He’s becoming less post-modern. Maybe the rest of us are too. Story is becoming the center of literary fiction again; I wonder what we’ll call this period, thirty years from now?

I envy people with simpler lives, shorter stories. Characters in Hardy novels seem to grow straight out of the ground – their families have lived in the same place for generations, they know everyone they see and everyone they see knows them. I’ve spent my life looking for roots, but I don’t really have them. I’d like to belong to a place instead of wandering about the world, building a life out of blocks that don’t fit together. I’ve got Lincoln Logs, Legos, Duplo blocks, K’Nex pieces, and a bit of an old erector set, and I’m trying to make a coherent whole out of these chunks of different things. Sometimes I can keep things balanced, but other days I just slide apart.

Evelyn Waugh writes about Britain’s upper middle class during the Great Depression; a bit like Jane Austen a hundred years later, or Aldous Huxley when he’s not being science fiction-y, but without the comedy of either of them. There are a few vague attempts at humor, but this is not a funny story.

The book opens introducing John Beaver, a young man whose family was once wealthy though he is not. He lives with his mother, who does dreadful interior decorating, and survives by getting invited to lunch or dinner. No one actually likes him, but he’s useful in filling up the numbers at a party because he’s always available and knows how to look and act in a drawing room. In a world where one of the worst possible things is to have an odd number of guests at dinner, this is an invaluable skill. However, Beaver’s not the protagonist, and soon sinks into obscurity. His existence in the novel is more important than his actual presence.

Beaver was sort of half-heartedly invited to go down to the country for a weekend, but the host forgets he had said anything to him, so it’s rather a surprise when he shows up. Tony Last, the actual protagonist, introduces him to his wife and then manages to avoid him for most of the weekend. He apologizes to Brenda, but she says it really wasn’t that bad. Their house was redone in the neo-Gothic style of the mid-nineteenth century, and it symbolizes Tony’s adherence to tradition. It’s out of fashion and a bit isolated, it evokes an idealized past that never quite existed, and his wife only pretends to be happy there.

Brenda goes up to town and begins an affair with Beaver, one of those discreet affairs that is only a secret from the husband. Tony has his son and his farms, but as Brenda spends more time in London, he gets increasingly lonely. She hires a bedroom in a block of flats, the sort of room that really only has one purpose. All the fashionable people are getting such rooms in a city where they already have a house or apartment so they can carry on their affairs. She pops down to the country to see Tony on the weekends, or not, and always brings a group of friends with her. For a while she tries to get him interested in one or two young ladies, but he’s not interested. Some people are congenitally faithful.

Then their son dies in an accident and Brenda petitions for a divorce. They decide that it’s better for her to be the plaintiff, so he goes off to Brighton with a lady-for-hire. This was really funny in The Gay Divorcee, but in the novel it’s just pathetic. Tony’s not happy and barely goes through the motions (of seeming to have sex, not of actually doing it) and the lady brings her eight-year-old daughter. Then he finds out that her lawyers are asking for a settlement large enough to support her and Beaver in their new marriage, and he quits being reasonable. Eventually he goes off to Brazil to let things adjust in his absence.

There’s a film, done in 1988. It seems as faithful as film could possibly be. The movie opens with a scene in Brazil, after Tony’s camp is destroyed but before he meets Mr Todd, so the majority of it is a flashback with a slight air of delirium. It seems strange to me to see James Wilby and Kristen Scott Thomas leading a film (who are they again?) when names I know so much better have such minor roles – Judi Dench, Anjelica Huston, and Alec Guinness are all supporting cast. The book’s attitude toward the Brazilians is quite sufficiently colonial, as expected for an English author writing in 1934, but the film actually makes it worse by having the Indians steal all of Tony’s stuff. Waugh is careful to point out that they do not take anything that doesn’t belong to them. The film does tone down some of the misogyny, but I actually regret that. When men are rejected by a woman, they spread their anger to all women. This is just what we do; I understand that women often do the same to us. In the wake of the divorce, I’ve had moments when I’m very misogynistic indeed, so when Jock’s girl cancels on him and he says,

It’s the last time I ask that bitch out.

I almost cheered. It seems so natural. When men are alone and unhappy, this is how they really talk, even today. Generally, novels sanitize this sort of thing. It’s not the misogyny that I celebrate, but Waugh’s freedom in portraying it. A moment of unlooked-for realism.

At some point I’m going to have to stop thinking of myself as recently divorced. Books like this tend to bring that time closer to me, but at least the old wounds aren’t opening back up. This novel didn’t hurt the way that some others have done. In some ways my divorce was exactly the same as Tony and Brenda’s, and in other ways it was completely different. My ex never had an affair, but having children can create that distance too. All of the ways that she had shown me affection went to them; my role became more functional, paying the bills and fathering the children. Over time, love becomes an assumption that you don’t examine closely. I’ve had to stop talking about this part of things because people tend to assume that the fact that I was unfulfilled in my marriage means that I’m not really gay, I only came out to create a situation where I could get a divorce without it being anyone’s fault. Throughout the proceedings, though, we both tended to act like it was someone’s fault – mine.

When you’ve been together for eight years, you tend to have all the same friends. The ex didn’t much care for most of my previous friends, so the only people I spent time with only knew us as a couple, not as singles. They tried to get us back together, but only drove us further apart. When people talk to your very recent ex and then talk to you, they distort things to make it seem like reconciliation is possible. They mean well, but it’s just not helpful. There are times when offering hope is just cruel. Waugh captures this aspect of divorce quite well. Brenda might be tired of Beaver by now, but until she figures that out herself, that piece of information is not going to help Tony. She may not want Tony to be sad, but she doesn’t want to be with him either. My divorce had a great deal of confusion on this topic for a few weeks, until she and I met and she made her feelings clear. Then I had to tell people to stop helping, that we were not going to get back together. I tried to avoid telling them flat-out that they were wrong about her feelings; I don’t remember whether I succeeded.

There comes a point when you realize suddenly that everything is over. At first, it’s like this:

For a month now he had lived in a world suddenly bereft of order; it was as though the whole reasonable and decent constitution of things, the sum of all he had experienced or learned to expect, were an inconspicuous, inconsiderable object mislaid somewhere on the dressing table; no outrageous circumstance in which he found himself, no new mad thing brought to his notice could add a jot to the all-encompassing chaos that shrieked about his ears.

Then, something happens, and

His mind had suddenly become clearer on many points that had puzzled him. A whole Gothic world had come to grief . . . there was now no armour, glittering in the forest glades, no embroidered feet on the greensward; the cream and dappled unicorns had fled . . .

You lose your illusions about the situation and about the person you had been married to. Once the unicorns flee, you can face your future resolutely, realistically. You can let go.

Tony and Brenda agree on a settlement privately, but when the lawyers get involved the amount quadruples, at least partially on the insistence of Beaver. He doesn’t have an income large enough to support himself, much less her. Part of the advantage of the affair is that she feeds him; when that’s done, so is he. The larger amount, though, would require Tony to give up his house, which he refuses to do. When we split, my ex gave notice on the apartment without consulting me, so I ended up homeless for a while. Tony draws the line at that, and cuts Brenda off with nothing. Since the weekend with the girl is obviously faked and everyone knows about the affair with Beaver, it’s not hard to get away without being required to pay her anything. I didn’t have a single turning point when I was suddenly ready to stick up for my rights; it came on slowly. The ex and I settled on an amount of child support that was reasonable for three kids, but completely out of proportion to my income. I spent the next year trying not to starve to death, and only barely succeeding. When you’re raised on the Protestant work ethic, you see your ability to provide for yourself and your family as a marker of self-worth. Economic anorexia is a dangerous thing, because while you can justify it because you can’t afford to eat, the truth is that you feel like you don’t deserve to eat. That can take the joy out of food that you don’t pay for as well. Eventually, I had to sell my car to pay my child support.

I find that emotions are often tied to places. When I came back home after vacation, all the loneliness and depression I had left behind were waiting for me at the door. I am rather anxious to relocate when my contract is over. But when separating from a spouse, it can be good to put some physical distance between yourself and the situation. Tony and I both thought an ocean would be enough. He left England for Brazil, and I left America for the Middle East. Tony’s such a quiet, stay-at-home sort of fellow that it’s strange when people start calling him an explorer, but he really does go off to the Amazon to look for El Dorado. Instead he finds Mr Todd, a missionary child left in the jungle when his parents died. Now he’s an illiterate old man with the complete works of Charles Dickens. He captures people who know how to read English and forces them to keep reading aloud. One of his favorites is Little Dorrit, a book about the different types of imprisonment in Victorian England; part of the absurdity of the situation is that Tony clings to his Victorian home and values, only to end up imprisoned by the literary embodiment of them. Living where I do is a bit like Mr Todd’s. Of course I have the freedom to leave when I like, but there’s nowhere to go. The difficulty of getting anywhere makes it an effective prison. It was good for me to come here and sort out my issues with being divorced, being gay, yet still being worth keeping alive, but I’m beginning to fear that I’m going to end up like Tony. It’s time to find something else to do, to go live another life.

There are some events that seem to divide a person’s life into two equally important halves, even though there are many years before and only a few days or hours after. Marriage, the birth of a child, moving to a foreign country. Divorce is one. But given time, the event becomes a part of your past and you can see it in its proper perspective. I thought that getting divorced was going to kill me. I thought it was the worst possible thing ever. But now I’m quite pleased that it happened. I’m free in a way I could never have been when I was still married. Maybe this is why I don’t get all excited about gay marriage. I’ve been a husband once; I’m not in a rush to try it again.

Peter Carey won the Booker Prize twice, but not for this book. I wouldn’t have given it one either.

The novel begins as contemporary fiction often does: first-person narrator with a screwed-up childhood meets the friend of her parents whom she believes drove her mother to suicide, and all the childhood stuff comes rushing back to fuck with her adult life. But then we dip into Heart of Darkness, as Sarah Wode-Douglass and John Slater then head off to Malaysia together. They spend most of their vacation avoiding the discussion they came there to have, a discussion of the mother’s suicide, and Sarah meets an Australian poet, who has gone quite as native as Mister Kurtz.

Sarah is at least mildly interested because she edits a poetry journal, but Slater warns her to run away because Chubb was involved in a big literary hoax several years earlier. Several of the details of this part come from an actual literary hoax, that surrounding Ern Malley. Chubb is angry with a certain editor, so he submits intentionally bad poetry in the ‘correct’ literary style of the time under the assumed name Bob McCorkle. Then the hoax is revealed, the editor is shamed, and that should have been the end of it. But then the editor is put on trial for obscenity because of the McCorkle poems, and he commits suicide. So Slater doesn’t want his young editor friend to get anywhere near this guy. Obviously, she does anyway, because otherwise their meeting wouldn’t initiate the action of the novel.

Christopher Chubb teases Sarah with a bit of poetry, then makes her listen to his story before he’ll let her take it to be published. The plot of this story is lifted directly from Frankenstein. At the famous trial, a man starts shouting and claiming to be Bob McCorkle. He claims that Chubb created him, and he goes on to write poetry in the style of Chubb’s sobriquet. He then kills the editor and makes it look like a suicide. He becomes problematic when he insists that Chubb supply him with a birth certificate. Chubb doesn’t know if this guy is real or a projection of his subconscious or what, but other people meet him too so apparently he has some independent existence. McCorkle keeps blaming Chubb for his miserable life, implying that they’re doppelgängers and such, and then he kidnaps Chubb’s adopted daughter. Chubb only had the girl for a week, but he spends years searching for this girl. Eventually he finds her in the jungles of Malaysia, but of course she doesn’t recognize him as her father. As Chubb tells this story, he occasionally digresses and his characters tell their stories.

Normally, this type of narrative is ordered logically. The frame story begins, then it is put on hold until the interpolated story is complete or until an interinterpolatedpolated story begins. No such luck here. John Slater keeps barging in and interrupting, demanding that we come back to the frame story and refuse to believe anything Chubb says. The constant interruptions make things a little hard to follow at times. Another difficulty is the lack of quotation marks for dialogue. It’s clear when you consider each paragraph as a whole, but it demands that we delay our construction of meaning until we reach a speech marker or the end of the paragraph, or sometimes the end of the next paragraph. I suppose it makes sense that we should delay deciding what the story means because our narrators are so unreliable, but all the same, the mental work seems unnecessary.

About halfway through, Slater and narrator finally have that discussion they were meaning to have, and she faces the fact that her memory of the suicide was off. She reconstructed events to blame him and exonerate her parents; it turns out that her mother killed herself because she was ashamed of her bisexual husband. When you’re a little kid, you don’t always think through things like, Dad was always taking young men up to the stable to see the horses during Mother’s garden parties, but only one at a time. And of course, this tells her more about herself:

I have said that I do not like sex, and if you say a thing like that clearly enough and manage to make yourself look sufficiently frightful people do tend to believe you. Fortunately or not, it is untrue. And while I had always imagined my secret nature as being perverse and original, I now began to wonder if I was nothing more unique than my father’s daughter.

It seems necessary to the contemporary literary novel that it include some homosexuality, as if the twenty-first century novel isn’t real without it. Being gay is fashionable, in the right circles. But what does this contribute to the narrative? Almost nothing. This is a book about an editor’s quest for perfect poetry and a poet’s Ancient Mariner-ish need to tell his story. The bit about the mother’s suicide and blaming Slater is a pretext to get Sarah to Malaysia to meet Chubb. Revealing the father’s series of gay lovers shifts our understanding of Slater, maybe he’s more trustworthy than we thought, and of Sarah, maybe she’s not a reliable narrator either. But her own sexual preference occupies a page or two and then is ignored. It’s not an important part of this story, so why bring it up? Because Peter Carey writes award-winning literary novels, and therefore he needs the token homosexual.

Perhaps this is why I didn’t enjoy reading the book. Carey writes a novel that fits the description of the hoax poetry: it does everything that the literary establishment seems to require, intertextuality, complex narrative structure, unreliable narrators, and a little token homosexuality, but it lacks real heart. The book feels fake. I spent 266 pages inside the mind of Sarah Wode-Douglass but I cannot conceive of her as anything other than a series of black marks on a white page, a voice whispering in my ear. There’s no physical presence. The other characters seem much the same. Even when amazing things are happening to them, they’re just not real. Each character can manage one motivation, one emotion at a time. It’s as if every sailor on the Pequod were Captain Ahab and they’re all after the same white whale. I have never been to southeast Asia, and I have met several British and Australian people. Yet, the setting of the novel seems more real to me than the characters. Some of them are racist stereotypes, which also bothers me.

Back when I was an undergraduate taking too few hours to compensate for my lack of a social life, I asked my academic advisor for some advice on what to read. He recommended prize-winning authors, and it took less than a semester for me to realize that I liked the winners of Bookers and Nobels more than winners of Pulitzers and National Book Awards. So Peter Carey has been on my list of things to read for quite some time now; it’s a relief to put a tick by his name. I can see myself reading this book in an undergraduate class on contemporary literature, particularly post-colonial or Australian lit, we’d talk about Bakhtin’s heteroglossia, but it’s too self-important to be loved. Maybe that’s on purpose, but that doesn’t make it any more worth holding onto. Some books need to be released back into the wild.

I’ve just finished four days of this program, one season per day. It’s been a bit rough, but I made it through. In some ways, this program fits the definition for addiction: the more I watch, the less satisfied I become with it, but I can’t seem to stop. I hate Game of Thrones spoilers as much as other people, so I’ll refrain from doing that here. Much.

I’m pretty rubbish at remembering people’s names, especially when I only see them on television. In a book, every time you see someone you read her name, but people don’t always say the names of the people they’re talking to. And the names on this show are usually pretty weird. I remember the names that are short and easily recognized, like Stannis, or the nicknames, like The Hound, or I call them functional names, like The King’s Bastard. It’s hard to know which names are important, because sometimes people seem like extras but end up being rather important recurring characters. Others seem hugely important, but only actually appear a small number of times, like Balon Greyjoy. They keep giving more details about Robert’s Rebellion, but I can’t remember most of the story because I get all those dead Targaryens mixed up.

Backstory. Fifteen or twenty years before the show begins, there was the Mad King, something-or-other Targaryen. He was obsessed with fire, and started burning people alive. Robert Baratheon led a rebellion against him, assisted by his very good friend Eddard Stark. Tywin Lannister, the Hand of the King, was also somehow involved. His son Jaime was the youngest member of the king’s guard, and one day Jaime killed the Mad King, saving thousands of lives. Forever after he’s known as The Kingslayer. Robert became king. He had been engaged to Ned Stark’s sister, but she died, so he married Jaime’s twin sister Cersei. During all the fighting Ned produced an illegitimate child, which he took home to his faithful wife. Catelyn Stark can forgive Ned for cheating, but she can’t forgive the boy for existing.

As the story begins, the King’s Hand, Jon Arryn, has been murdered, so Robert comes to the far north to ask Ned Stark to take his place. Ned is the last man in the seven kingdoms that Robert can trust. So Ned travels to the capital to serve the king, which means figuring out who killed Jon Arryn and why. Game of Thrones begins as a murder mystery set in a sword-and-sorcery fantasy world. Unfortunately, as Ned learns how the structures of power work in King’s Landing, the mystery becomes less important and court intrigues take over the plot; they lead to a civil war partially based on the Wars of the Roses (Stark/Lannister, York/Lancaster). The war carries on through several seasons. Meanwhile, Danaerys Targaryen is across the sea, gathering followers, giving birth to dragons, preparing to recover the throne that belonged to her family. Also meanwhile, mystical snow zombies are marching south to destroy everyone. There’s a great wall that should protect them, but the people who live north of the wall (Wildings or Free Folk, depending on your point of view) are running scared, desperate to get to the other side but not desperate enough to abide lawfully.

Issues. The first that springs to mind is gender roles. Jaime and Cersei are twins born to the most wealthy family in existence; he is taught to fight, she is taught to smile. Gender is very rigidly defined, and those who would break the traditional roles end up in a heap of trouble. Brienne of Tarth, for example, is one of the best swordfighters in the show. She’s hugely tall and very strong. She wears armor and protects her king, but people are always making fun of her and she’s always saying either that she’s not a knight or that she’s not a lady. She’s kind of both, actually. I’m not sure what her relationship is to her own body, but she covers it more effectively than most women even when she’s not dressed for battle. There’s a bathing scene that’s kind of awkward; it feels like a violation to see her, even though we don’t see anything. Most of the named female characters are brave and intelligent, and many of them are more effective in achieving their goals than the males. Unfortunately, the unnamed female characters tend to be whores or kitchen wenches. Even those intelligent women often have to use their bodies to get their needs met, and after a while the screen nudity just becomes normal. I kind of went into breast overload and stopped reacting to them. Rape seems to be pretty common; people certainly talk about it a lot.

Men do their best to reduce women to a single trait, beauty. However, they do the same to each other; men are reduced to strength. At one point, a very large man and a girl are traveling through the countryside and he kills a farmer. She asks why, and he says that it is simply because the man is weak. Physical strength is generally the most important, but having powerful allies or a lot of money are also ways to avoid being killed. The pressure on men is most apparent in the portrayal of homosexual men. Yes, there are gay men with almost graphic sex scenes, so hooray for that. But, once a man is seen in bed with another man, he immediately becomes ineffective. Gay men are reduced to their sexuality; there’s very little else interesting about them, and they don’t win any fights. Once a relationship is over, they disappear. Male bodies are often displayed as completely as female, but less often. There is some full frontal action, if (like me) that’s what you’re into, but much less frequently than for the women. It’s almost like an afterthought or a mistake, even though I know it isn’t.

Servitude is also important. Danaerys wanders around Essos freeing slaves, which is great except for the unfortunate race thing, but I’m more interested in the attitudes in Westeros. Most of the characters seem to see their lives as meant for service; they get their identities and self-esteem from serving their masters well. There’s no shame in service, but the dependent attitude bothers me. I go to work eight hours a day, but I tend to think of that as the price I pay for living here. My real life is at home, where I don’t have any masters. I don’t think of myself as serving my employers, either. They do, but I don’t. I teach people to communicate, and in order to work contentedly I have to think of it in these idealistic terms. My teenage rebellion came a little late, when I was thirty years old, and I’m still too independent to be happy working for someone else just to get a paycheck. Almost all of the ‘good guys’ on the show insist on being servants, though, and that makes me uncomfortable.

Reputation is everything at court. It can be built on nothing at all, but it must exist. The world is full of spies and rumors, so it is vital to understand what is being said about you. The reputation for strength is more important than actual displays of it; win a couple of well-publicized fights and you never need to fight again, if you don’t want to. Loras’s grandmother can argue for the value of a little discreet buggery, but no repeated action is that discreet, and people saying tolerant things doesn’t stop jokes like, ‘He can’t be that great a swordsman. He’s been stabbing Renly for years, and he’s still alive.’ It would be very difficult for Loras to lead any kind of group because they’re too worried about what he does off the battlefield; therefore, he doesn’t. On the other hand, Petyr Baelish has worked his way up from nothing to the king’s Small Council; being called Littlefinger doesn’t seem to have damaged him much. As the owner and manager of one of the more exclusive whorehouses, he has a lot of other people’s reputations in his power as well. According to the show, ‘Men like to talk when they’re happy.’ Littlefinger isn’t the only one who rises almost to the top by keeping other people’s secrets.

Power is generally sought by those least suited to wielding it.

People on this show go on and on about justice, but I don’t see much of it. It looks more like revenge most of the time. Justice implies a certain balance, an order restored; there is no balance or order here. Just a lot of violence, some of it for no reason at all. People who watch the show talk about evil, but I think of evil as involving some form of malice that is either without motive or disproportionate to its cause. I’ve heard Cersei Lannister in particular called evil, but she doesn’t fit my definition. She’s selfish and cruel, but her motives are pretty clear, and everyone else’s hatred is on the same scale as hers. In terms of good and evil, she’s not that different from Arya Stark; she’s just in a position to do more about it.

The religion of people is interesting. There are old gods, and there are also several new gods. There’s a group of seven mentioned at weddings, Father Warrior Smith Mother Maiden Crone Stranger. The meaning of those words becomes more clear in Season Four when people start praying out loud, to all seven individually. [See the codification of gender roles in religion! The males are defined by profession, the females by age.] The other gods can be hard to keep up with; there’s a Flayed God and a Drowned God, and probably several more. There’s also a cult of The One True God, some kind of fire deity who demands human sacrifices and calls himself The Lord of Light. He’s involved in several supernatural occurrences, while the other gods aren’t. I think it’s the old gods who are involved in the tree at Winterfell – up north, there’s a species of white tree with red leaves that grows a pattern that looks like a face in its bark and oozes red sap. These trees are regarded as sacred spaces. My favorite religious statement, though, is from Arya’s dancing master: ‘There is only one god, Death. And there is only one thing that we say to Death: Not today.’

Death is one of the most important things in this series. Everyone dies. We all know that, but Americans try to ignore it. In this series, you can’t. Everyone dies. When you get attached to a character, that’s almost a surefire way to predict that he’s going to die. Bad people die, good people die, badass people die, people with nice asses die, everyone dies. It’s actually understandable; there are several dozen named characters, most of whom have their own story to live out, and it’s hard to follow that many plotlines. Solution? Kill people. Maybe they will have some closure, maybe not. But kill them all the same.

Some authors simply love their characters: Jane Austen and Piers Anthony spring to mind. They are determined to give as many happy endings as possible. I have never seen an author who hates his characters as much as George R R Martin. A boy likes to climb? Let’s cripple him. A man gets his identity from swordfighting? Let’s chop off his sword hand. Someone has the initiative, intelligence, deviousness, and proper family to rule the Kingdoms? Let’s make him a dwarf so that no one will listen to him. Someone’s trying to do the right thing? Let’s give him partial information so that his decisions have disastrous consequences. There’s a limit to my tolerance for dramatic irony. The Mad King died shouting, “Burn them all! Burn them all!” I sometimes feel like Martin is going to go the same way. No one is going to survive this series.

Quick disclaimer: The correct transliteration of Japanese into English involves dashes over vowels, but I don’t know how to make WordPress do these correctly. So I’m missing diacritical markers throughout the entry. I’m sorry.

Jun’ichiro Tanizaki is a famous early twentieth century Japanese novelist, among those who know anything about Japanese novels (not me). Many of his books have been made into pictures, and there have been four film versions of Manji/Quicksand, which tells the story of a lesbian love affair. Most of his novels seem to be similarly concerned with the often problematic nature of sexual attraction and behavior. This tiny book is an essay on aesthetics.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but Western design is all about cold flat surfaces. They’re easier to keep clean. Cleanliness is at the heart of most of it, and by cleanliness we often mean brightness or newness. We like light. The sun gives life to the entire planet, so we welcome it into our homes as much as we can. Part of our ideas about beauty and health involve exposing the skin to the sun in order to counteract “prison pallor.” We also like things to look new. Well, we prefer things to be new, but we can’t manage that all the time. But these are all Western ideas, Western values. Tanizaki has a tendency to decry Westernness in favor of his idea of traditional Japan.

Traditional Japanese design is all about warmth and shadow. Instead of putting glass in the windows, they put paper. Instead of filling the bathroom with tile and porcelain, they use wood. They only like silver when it’s tarnished, after being touched thousands of times by unwashed hands. They like dirt and darkness. The whole idea of a house is to create beautiful shadows in the corners. They set pictures back in little alcoves so the shadows grow deeper around the art. The attraction to gold is that it shines in very little light, glowing in the darkness. The reason for bright makeup and garish costumes in Japanese theatre is that it was performed with very little light. There’s a certain softness to everything, a haziness as life retreats into obscurity.

One of the things that bothers Tanizaki is Western paper. He sees it as thin and cheap and overly bright, and I’ll agree that much of it is (cheap copy paper). But consider used books. My copy of The Mill on the Floss, for example, has nice paper. You can feel the texture in it. It smells like wood and ink, as a book ought. Holding it without reading it, just touching the pages, warms the hands and the heart. Thank you Oxford UP, but really, most old books have this feel to them. Try a Bantam paperback from the 1960s, or a Penguin Classic. They’re nice. They give me the same feeling as being in a forest. I wonder if, as books age, they return to their woody origin, redeveloping grain. Maybe if we left them alone, they’d grow moss and bark. I love mine too well to try the experiment.

I could agree with many of Tanizaki’s points, though I was a little uncomfortable with the joys of grime, but my brain absolutely rejected his portrayal of feminine beauty.

My mother was remarkably slight, under five feet I should say, and I do not think she was unusual for her time. I can put the matter strongly: women in those days had almost no flesh. I remember my mother’s face and hands, I can clearly remember her feet, but I can remember nothing about her body. She reminds me of the statue of Kannon in the Chuguji, whose body must be typical of most Japanese women of the past. The chest as flat as a board, breasts paper-thin, back, hips, and buttocks forming an undeviating straight line, the whole body so lean and gaunt as to seem out of proportion with the face, hands, and feet, so lacking in substance as to give the impression not of flesh but of a stick – must not the traditional Japanese woman have had just such a physique? A few are still about – the aged lady in an old-fashioned household, some few geisha. They remind me of stick dolls, for in fact they are nothing more than poles upon which to hang clothes. As with the dolls their substance is made up of layer upon layer of clothing, bereft of which only an ungainly pole remains. But in the past this was sufficient. For a woman who lived in the dark it was enough if she had a faint, white face – a full body was unnecessary.

Oh my. It was bad enough being an American housewife, with the pressures to stay in and keep the house clean, but being expected to stay in, not keep the house clean, and barely even to exist? Straightening out the natural curves of the body until every woman becomes a clothes hanger, an ungainly pole? No. This is not beauty; this is torture. I suppose there are some evolutionary advantages: if you live on a small island chain, it’s important not to overpopulate your habitat (cf the British, who colonized the world to relieve the overcrowding at home). The women Tanizaki describes lack the traditional markers of fertility, and the stress of having to look like that I imagine would reduce what fertility they have. The disembodied face seems more like a ghost than a woman, and Tanizaki’s aesthetic for women has all the problems of Poe’s famous statement that nothing is more beautiful than a beautiful woman who has just died. How do these men have sex with these women? Who wants to fuck a gaunt stick? Traditional Western thought is that you heap a woman with clothes, and a man’s imagination works busier to imagine what’s underneath them (think about the bustle), but Tanizaki’s view of traditional Japan implies that they heap women with clothes and men forget what’s underneath. I think this is unrealistic, but I don’t really have much contact with Japanese culture other than what you get reading Memoirs of a Geisha and graphic descriptions of seppuku.

Japanese women used to coat their teeth with black lacquer to make their faces seem whiter. Tanizaki is sad that they don’t do this any more.

On the other hand, he also waxes poetic on the beauty of No actors. Kabuki actors wore bright white makeup, but the No actors just used their own skin.

I once saw Kongo Iwao play the Chinese beauty Yang Kuei-fei in the No play Kotei, and I shall never forget the beauty of his hands showing ever so slightly from beneath his sleeves. As I watched his hands, I would occasionally glance down at my own hands resting on my knees. Again, and yet again, I looked back at the actor’s hands, comparing them with my own; and there was no difference between them. Yet strangely the hands of the man on the stage were indescribably beautiful, while those on my knees were but ordinary hands. In the No only the merest fraction of the actor’s flesh is visible – the face, the neck, the hands – and when a mask is worn, as for the role of Yang Kuei-fei, even the face is hidden; and so what little flesh can be seen creates a singularly strong impression. This is particularly true of Kongo Iwao; but even the hands of an ordinary actor – which is to say the hands of an average, undinstinguished Japanese – have a remarkable erotic power which we would never notice were we to see the man in modern attire.

Even in our modern Western society, a man’s beauty is not diminished when he is dressed. Tanizaki is approaching a homosexual aesthetic here: why is there so much gym porn? Not just because it’s a culturally sanctioned opportunity for men to undress together. Gay people (men or women) relate to others in this way more frequently than straight people. Like Tanizaki, we see someone who is attractive, we look at ourselves and realize how little difference there is between us, and we see ourselves as more beautiful because of our similarity with the other. I was hanging out in an airport a couple of weeks ago noticing all the good-looking men walking by, and then I scolded myself a little – ‘Think about what these guys have in common, OccMan. Dark hair, glasses, beard, collared shirt? Now look at yourself. You’re such a fucking narcissist.’ Perhaps, perhaps. After all, I can take an essay on Japanese aesthetics and use it to talk about myself for fifteen hundred words.

Tanizaki realizes that he’s talking like a grumpy old man who can’t see the value of the time he’s living in now, and the nostalgia is so thick you can suffocate in it. But I don’t think his memory is the same as the reality. Only the wealthy could live in the manner he describes. I would imagine that the poor were less interested in beautiful shadows and more interested in getting their work done and their physical needs met. Forget her wispy ghost-face; can she cook? Most women had to leave the house sometime, instead flitting about in the elegant shade. There is beauty to be found in the lives of the poor too.

Tanizaki’s writing is lovely. Funny, serious, artistic, disturbing (lacquered teeth), insightful, possibly inaccurate. It opened to me a new way of thinking, in only forty pages. I find myself looking at the dust and shadow under the bed, trying to see that as one of the more beautiful aspects of the studio apartment, but my eye drifts back to the photographs I have up and I can accept the fact that I see the world as I do, differently than a Japanese writer in 1933. I’ll keep loving light and cleanliness, glass and steel, tile and porcelain. Our style has its own poetry, its own literature, its own culture. It’s good too.

 

So once I was showing Casablanca to a group of high school students, and when we reached the relevant moment, I explained to them the 1940s sex scene: two people kiss, the music gets louder, then we fade to a shot of (at least) one of them smoking, fully dressed. One of the students refused to believe that Rick and Ilsa have sex. I reminded her that it was strongly implied, and then Rick half-way apologizes to Laszlo for it when they’re saying goodbye at the plane. But no, she didn’t want to believe it. I guess for some people, love is only romantic if it’s unconsummated.

Similarly, one must not expect too much detail from Gide. The book was originally published in 1902, before gay sex was something people described in print. This way, each reader can decide for himself whom Michel has sex with and whom he doesn’t; I identify with his story so strongly that I don’t want him to do it with all those ten-year-olds, but . . . maybe he does.

The title implies that Michel is a person who reflects on the human experience and draws useful generalizations from it, but his conclusions are immoral. I’m not sure I would characterize them quite that way, but then, I have troubles of my own with the moral/immoral dichotomy. At the time of my life that this book reminds me of, someone described me as being “between gods,” and I think that phrase describes Michel more accurately.

Michel begins the novel as a Puritanical scholar with a fortune and no living family who marries a woman he barely knows. In defense of this decision, Marceline seems pretty awesome. It’s like she has this enormous store of love that she needs to share with someone, so when she marries, it all goes to her husband. He immediately shows signs of tuberculosis, so they head down to Algeria for him to recover in the dry climate. His recovery is slow, but it seems to be complete.

Eleven years ago I was a Puritanical scholar with no fortune and an enormous family who married a woman I barely knew. In defense of this decision, I have no defense. I was lonely and desperately wanted to get married because that was the only way I would allow myself to have sex. I found a beautiful girl in the same situation who had nearly all the same interests as I have, and we did it. I have an odd mix of logic and romance, so logically I understood that there’s not just one soulmate out there for each person and that any two people who are committed to a relationship can make it work; I believed all the best things about her and knew that we were in love, so we were going to be ridiculously happy. We were, after all, dolls from the same set. [Nothing is worse than seeing a Ken look-alike marry a Cabbage Patch Kid. Or, for that matter, Malibu Barbie with Raggedy Andy.] Three weeks after we got together I proposed, six weeks after that we were hitched. She had an allergic reaction to a birth control shot and was taking medicine for a seizure disorder that we later found out she didn’t have, so she was really sick at first. Her recovery was slow, but it seems to have been complete.

During his illness, Michel discovers his body for the first time; he begins to see it as something valuable that needs to be cared for and respected, not just a carrier vessel for his big old brain. He also begins to find value in the bodies of others, particularly the little Arab boys in the neighborhood. He’s so fond of them that he ignores acts of petty thievery or other small crimes. This discovery of the body is what drives him away from his faith and studies – most people I know went through this as teenagers, though I hit it at twenty. I was a missionary, so I didn’t have an opportunity to drift away from my faith, but I did develop a taste for the company of other men. Nothing sexual as yet, but this was the first time in my life I had a number of close male friends, and I rather liked it. After I was married and I started paying attention to my same-sex desire, it also had the effect of driving me away from faith. Traditional Christianity is so inimical to homosexuality that I don’t understand people who do both. [I don’t have to; their lives are their business.]

When Michel is well enough, they move back to France. He gets infatuated with a number of young men, most of whom do not return his affection. His old friend Ménalque, though, is definitely up for anything. Michel has become disgusted by the conformity of ‘good society,’ but he’s not yet ready to give it up. When Ménalque gets frustrated by the inconsistency of the rumours about him, he says:

“Leave all that nonsense to the papers. They seem to be surprised that a man with a certain reputation can still have any virtues at all. They establish distinctions and reserves which I cannot apply to myself, for I exist only as a whole; my only claim is to be natural, and the pleasure I feel in an action, I take as a sign that I ought to do it.”

“That may lead far,” I said.

“Indeed, I hope so.”

I rather like Ménalque, and I’m sad there’s so little of him in the book. I’d like to be more like him; alas, I still care too much what people think of me. I do seek to be natural, though, and following a whim is a good enough reason to do something. Like Ménalque, I hope that this attitude will lead me into a great variety of new experiences.

In one of their conversations, Michel and Ménalque briefly equate the moral sense with the sense of property, and I think that conventional morality is very strongly linked to ownership. Isn’t sexual morality based on the idea that one person belongs to another? Back when Adam and Eve were in the Old Testament garden, they were told to have dominion over and to subdue the earth. There’s this idea in Christianity that the world is ours as stewards, and it’s our duty to God to become financially successful by using our resources to the best of our abilities. Somehow, the glory of God is inextricably tied to the size of Christians’ bank accounts. If you look back at Jesus’ parables, it’s kind of alarming just how many of them focus on being successful in business. They claim those are only symbols that the wealth-obsessed Jews would have understood, but when you read an allegory too many times, the symbols seem more and more literal, and Christianity has been telling these stories for two thousand years.

Once Michel leaves France, as he leaves conventional moral ideas behind, he also gets rid of his property as quickly as he can. I’d like to have fewer things, but I get sentimental about my possessions, especially old letters and my children’s artwork, and I have a weakness for buying books, videos, and clothes. Michel seems to throw money at whatever is in sight. This third part is characterized by frenetic movement; he’s running out every night, through winter in Switzerland and all up and down Italy, then Tunis and Algeria. He says that he feels driven as by a demon, and there is some urge riding him throughout this journey. I assume he’s having a variety of unmentioned sexual experiences, but Gide isn’t writing the gay man’s Fanny Hill. He seems more interested in Michel’s intellectual development than in his sexual development.

And where is Marceline in all this? Michel still pretends to love her, but during the night that he spent with Ménalque, she had a miscarriage and started showing signs of tuberculosis. Her illness keeps pace with his casting off of conventions, so by the time he sleeps with an underage Arab prostitute even though he’s attracted to her brother, Marceline dies. His love for her seems tied to his adherence to society, so you could say that she lives by his love alone, and when that’s gone, so is she. She keeps trying to bring him back to the world of faith and approved society (he seems to spend all his time with farmhands), while he keeps pushing himself away. He’s fascinated by the worst in people, so he keeps drawing it out. While I agree with him that

Every kind of thing goes to the making of man,

I think it’s important to nurture what is good. When I lived with my kids, I became aware of the great potential for violence in my character; I love my kids, so I didn’t act it out. In this case, I agree with Marceline:

Don’t you understand that by looking at any particular trait, we develop and exaggerate it? And that we make a man become what we think him?

Yes, Marceline, yes. This goes back to Sartre’s comment on intersubjectivity: we negotiate our identity with the people around us. Sometimes we agree with what people say of us; sometimes we form an identity in opposition to the messages we get from others. I would have liked to see more detail in this third section because this discussion is all academic. We don’t actually see Michel corrupting people, as in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Who is worse for having known him, except her? And he hardly thinks of her at all. Perhaps his three friends who come to save him in the framing narrative, because their ideas are rocked by his story, and they can’t point to where he began to go wrong. But most of the characters appear briefly, with no past and no future. We don’t see how he changes them.

The end of my marriage was rather different. Yes, as I became aware of and learned to accept my homosexuality, I became less invested in the relationship, as Michel does. But my ex spent that time raising a growing family and becoming stronger in her faith, and as I left Christianity she embraced Catholicism. Since the separation it has been important to her always to seem as if she’s doing emotionally better than I am, so I pretend to believe her. I don’t know how she really is, but taking care of her feelings is no longer my job, so I don’t worry about it too much.

I differ from Michel primarily in what being gay means to me. I don’t think it makes me an enemy of society; I don’t think it makes me evil. It makes me different than most people, but different doesn’t mean wrong or bad. It’s just . . . different. I’ve always been different; I grew up in a place with a significantly different accent than the people around me, and I was the only kid I knew who liked to read. Football, Southern accents, heterosexuality, none of these are right. They’re just more common (in some places). Homosexuality is natural to me; God made nature; therefore, God made me gay, so it can’t be wrong of me to be this way. Besides, according to Psalm 37:4,

Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.

I was busy delighting myself in the Lord, and looked into my heart to see what desires were there, and what did I find? The desire for men. I can’t belong to a community that sees gay sex as evil or wrong because my desire for it came from God. If you believe that God exists and inspired the Bible and all the et ceterae that go along with that. But even if I don’t believe in God or anything else, that’s still no reason to go looking for evil. Bad stuff will come without my searching for it.

I feel as if this book is unfinished. I want Michel to find peace with himself and his sexuality. I want his conflicts to resolve. It’s like he left on a journey and the story ended before he arrived at his destination. He left one god, but hasn’t found the next. Maybe Gide’s point is that this struggle with oneself and with society never ends, but still. I think it can, and even if it can’t, don’t we read and write fiction to imagine new possibilities? To sample experiences that we won’t actually have? To complete what’s left undone, to correct the world’s flaws, to bring hope? As it is, the book ends in about the same place as Women in Love, almost articulating the reality of love between men, but not quite there yet.