Archive for January, 2016

This book is sort of like an Alfred Hitchcock mashup, so of course I loved it. It’s a mystery that has echoes of Vertigo, Psycho, and North by Northwest. The author worked in cinema in the 1960s, so the influence can’t be an accident. You may not see his pen name on the screen, though; some of his work was done under his real name, Jean-Baptiste Rossi. I’m impressed with the fact that he gave himself a sobriquet that is an anagram of his real name.

It’s easy to kill, it’s easy to die. Everything is easy. Except, maybe, to console for a minute the child who is still trapped inside of us, who has not grown up, who never will grow up, and who never stops calling for help.

Dany Longo is a nice girl, pretty, shy, like a Joan Fontaine character. She borrows her employer’s Thunderbird while he’s on vacation and goes on a trip of her own, but as she gets away from Paris, people keep claiming to have seen her the day before. Shopkeepers, garage mechanics, hotel concierges, everyone saw her passing along yesterday, even though she knows that she’s never been down here before. It’s all very Gothic and unsettling, but she’s not so weak as people think she is. At one point a guy steals the car after seducing her, so she tracks him down and within two hours she’s in a different city taking the car back. There is a (very) handsome truck driver who helps her with some of this, but like a good Gothic book/film, most of the suspense comes from the protagonist’s response to circumstances that are revealed through ordinary people/minor characters.

She was living, fully awake, in a dream. Neither a good dream nor a bad dream; an ordinary dream, the kind she sometimes had and forgot afterwards. But this time she was not going to wake up in her room. She was already awake. She was living in someone else’s dream.

Do such things exist? To take a step indistinguishable from all the other steps you have taken in your life and, without realizing it, cross a frontier of reality; to remain yourself, alive and wide awake, but in the nocturnal dream of, let’s say, the girl next to you in the dormitory? And to keep on going in the certainty that you’ll never leave it again, that you are the prisoner of a world modeled on the real one but totally absurd, a world which is monstrous because it may vanish at any moment into your friend’s brain, and you along with it?

As in dreams, in which motives change as you go along, she no longer knew why she was on a road driving through the night. You walk into a room where – click – a little picture shows a fishing port, but Mama Supe is there, you came to confess to her that you have betrayed Anita and you can’t find the words to explain it to her because it is obscene, and you hit Mama Supe again and again, but she has already turned into another old woman whom you came to see about your white coat, and so forth. What was clearest was that she was supposed to get to a hotel she had already been to, before they could tell a policeman that she had never been there. Or the other way around. They say that when you’re crazy it is other people who seem to be crazy. Well, that must be it. She was crazy.

And of course, it’s hard to see who is significant and who isn’t, who is the murderer and who is mad. Maybe the Mama Supe (Mother Superior to strangers) who raised Dany and now lives as the voice in her head is really malevolent and not the part of her subconscious that protects her from the suicidal urges she feels sometimes. It’s hard to tell, until you get to the end and Dany figures it all out.

Of course, there are also moments of humor. It’s a delightful book.

The people of Marseille are very nice. First of all, they don’t insult you any more than most people do if you try to run over them, but they also take the trouble to look at your license plate. When they see that you come from Paris they tell themselves that obviously they must not expect too much of you, they tap their foreheads with their index finger, but without ill will, simply because it’s the thing to do. If at that moment you announce, “I’m lost, I don’t understand anything about your rotten city, the stoplights are out to get me, I’m looking for the freight yard in Saint-Lazare, does it even exist?” they take pity, they blame the good Mother for your misfortune, and a dozen of them crowd around to give you information. Turn right, then left, and when you get to the square with the Arc de Triomphe, watch out for the streetcars, they’ll run you down, my cousin’s wife’s sister stopped one of them and now it is she who has stopped in the family plot, and since she’s at the Canet cemetery it’s too far to bring flowers.

I guess people are pretty much the same everywhere. Even I once caught myself giving directions that included as a landmark that house on the corner that used to be painted chartreuse with yellow trim. Oh you know which one I mean, the guy only painted his house like that because his friend bet him fifty bucks he wouldn’t do it and leave it that color for a year. The joke was on the friend, because he lived happily in the chartreuse house for years. I think it’s white with dark trim now, but it may still have one green side. Then you turn again at the house that always has the dogs lying in the sun on the porch roof. You know the one.

If you’re looking for a great little mystery from the pre-cell phone age, this is it. Of course, there are some triggers: date rape seems to have been very common in France in the 1960s, and once Dany escaped only to leave her friend Anita in her apartment with two horny guys. She feels guilty about it, but she’s also dealing with post-abortion guilt. An important thread to the narrative is Dany’s journey toward valuing herself. At the beginning she’s so weighted by guilt that she’s murmuring “Kill me” in her sleep, and by the end she’s winning the fight to save her life and her sanity from the people who threaten her. She doesn’t have a Jimmy Stewart or a Cary Grant to save her (sexy truck driver isn’t around all the time), so she learns to do it herself. Not just how to save herself, but that her life is worth saving.

Life is full of pressures from within and without, and we have to learn to choose ourselves. For some of us, that’s a hard lesson. And we keep having to repeat it. But our happiness won’t come on its own; we have to learn to value it, to work for it, and to enjoy it when it comes.

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Halfway to your house is a park I always pass and wonder about. Today, I’m stopping. There’s a sign: these woods have snakes both poisonous and non, so don’t go picking up any handsome strangers.

The first hot day in January, the woods are full of couples with dogs and children. The cute boys hike in pairs, smiling at each other. I smile back.

The trail markers show me every tenth of a mile I walk away from civilization, away from you.

I touch the trees as gently and intimately as if we met in a one-night club. I lean in to smell the sap in their broken places. I press my bearded cheek to their rough skins and leave a kiss.

When the going is steep I pick up speed, running, legs wide, leaping from far right to far left. My lungs expand and I gulp the air deeply, freely.

Tonight you’ll find someplace dark and noisy, where every shot is a lover and every eye is hungry. I hope you find what I’ve discovered in the quiet shade. Every tree is a home, every pond an oasis, every step a miracle.

Anne is the most frequently forgotten Brontë. I mean, even Branwell gets some press time as the crazy brother. She was the youngest, and seems to have been a bit of a tagalong. Branwell was a tutor to some rich kids, so she tagged along to be governess to the girls. When he got fired for banging the kids’ mom, she got fired too. Then, Charlotte found a bunch of Emily’s poetry and wanted to get it published, so Anne tagged along again. Then, in the supreme moment of tagalongery, when Wuthering Heights was accepted by a publisher, they wanted some padding, so Agnes Grey got tacked onto the end. Now, they are seldom marketed or read together because people recognize that, though it may be a little short, WH can stand on its own. And then, of course, when Emily died, Anne survived less than six months. What a copycat.

To some extent, all the Brontë novels are about education. I’m a teacher, so I like them. Sometimes I wish I were a Brontë teacher so I could lock students in closets too (Villette, not AG). Young Miss Grey decides to supplement her family’s income by becoming a governess. She spends six months with a terrible family; the kids are brats and the parents won’t let her discipline them. With no consequences, the kids run amok and she hates her job. But her dying father isn’t attending to the clerical duties like he used to, so she tries again with older kids. She’s not great with them either, but stays with them for a few years. Then, in what I strongly feel is a bad idea, she and her mother open their own school. Fortunately, she finds a guy who’s a perfect fit, they get married, and she turns into a baby factory.

I presently fell back, and began to botanise and entomologise along the green banks and budding hedges, till the company was considerably in advance of me, and I could hear the sweet song of the happy lark; then my spirit of misanthropy began to melt away beneath the soft, pure air and genial sunshine: but sad thoughts of early childhood, and yearnings for departed joys, or for a brighter future lot, arose instead. As my eyes wandered over the steep banks covered with young grass and green-leaved plants, and surmounted by budding hedges, I longed intensely for some familiar flower that might recall the woody dales or green hillsides of home: the brown moor-lands, of course, were out of the question. Such a discovery would make my eyes gush out with water, no doubt; but that was one of my greatest enjoyments now. At length I descried, high up between the twisted roots of an oak, three lovely primroses, peeping so sweetly from their hiding-place that the tears already started at the sight; but they grew so high above me that I tried in vain to gather one or two, to dream over and to carry with me: I could not reach them unless I climbed the bank, which I was deterred from doing by hearing a footstep at that moment behind me, and was, therefore, about to turn away, when I was startled by the words, ‘Allow me to gather them for you, Miss Grey,’ spoken in the grave, low tones of a well-known voice. Immediately the flowers were gathered, and in my hand. It was Mr Weston, of course – who else would trouble himself to do so much for me?

He’s not good-looking, but he’s kind. She’s the religious Brontë, so he’s a curate. The good kind, who comfort the poor and rebel against the establishment. No one else thinks he’s worth chasing, and no one notices her at all, so they’re a match made in wallflower heaven. He spends most of the book offscreen, and it’s not even that long a book. There’s not a whole lot of action here, because there’s no reason for them not to get together. Good storytelling involves the strategic placing of obstacles; there are no impediments to their happiness, so there’s not much story. It’s a short book.

There is some real value here, though. All the greatness that you remember from Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights is here, but in miniature. If you want to teach some Brontë but don’t want to spend a lot of time on it, Agnes Grey is a winner. It’s short, class conscious, and a little feminist. Good people make happy marriages and reach improbable financial security, while bad people marry assholes and lead wealthy yet empty lives.

Life is just not this Newtonian. There are no Equal and Opposite Reactions. If Miss Grey doesn’t get over her shyness and speak up, she’ll never get the guy she wants. And if I don’t figure out how to break up with someone, I’m going to be stuck with a relationship that I have never actually wanted until I either move house or die. Or he does.

 

I love this book. In graduate school I learned that it can be dangerous to write about books I love, because it is difficult to convey those emotions in an academic analysis. The emotion gets in the way of the analysis, just as I lose my good judgment when I feel an emotional connection to the decision to be made. This explains why I’ve asked for a transfer closer to home, even though I’m in a good job and a decent social situation. I have an emotional connection with that landscape, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be content apart from it. My company’s closest location is five hundred miles off, but that’s a lot closer than the thousand miles away I am now.

This book seems to have been conceived as one of a series where our leading authors write about the myths that have shaped their lives and writing. I’m not sure if that series ever took off because I always see this one standing alone or with Byatt’s other work, and since she deals so much with fairy tales and myths anyway, it doesn’t feel out of place in her oeuvre. So yes, as the title implies, this is a book about Norse mythology. But it is also a story about Byatt’s encounter with Norse mythology when she was a girl, The Thin Child in Wartime. The Norse myths make more sense to her than the Christian ones, so while she doesn’t believe in them as a religion, they more adequately express her developing worldview.

The thin child thought that these stories – the sweet, cotton-wool meek and mild one, the barbaric sacrificial gloating one, were both human make-ups, like the life of the giants in the Riesengebirge. Neither aspect made her want to write, or fed her imagination. They numbed it. She tried to think she might be wicked for thinking these things. She might be like Ignorance, in Pilgrim’s Progress, who fell into the pit at the gate of heaven. She tried to feel wicked.

But her mind veered away, to where it was alive.

So while the stories take place in Midgard or Asgard, they also always have reference to living in the evacuated-to English countryside during World War II.

Odin was the god of the Wild Hunt. Or of the Raging Host. They rode out through the skies, horses and hounds, hunters and spectral armed men. They never tired and never halted; the horns howled on the wind, the hooves beat, they swirled in dangerous wheeling flocks like monstrous starlings. Odin’s horse, Sleipnir, had eight legs: his gallop was thundering. At night, in her blacked-out bedroom, the thin child heard sounds in the sky, a distant whine, a churning of propellers, thunder hanging overhead and then going past. She had seen and heard the crash and conflagration when the airfield near her grandparents’ home was bombed. She had cowered in an understairs cupboard as men were taught to cower, flat on the ground, when the Hunt passed by. Odin was the god of death and battle. Not much traffic came through the edges of the small town in which the thin child lived. Most of what there was was referred to as ‘Convoys’, a word that the thin child thought was synonymous with processions of khaki vehicles, juddering and grinding. Some had young men sitting in the back of trucks, smiling out at the waving children, shaking with the rattling motions. They came and they went. No one was told where. They were ‘our boys’. The child thought of her father, burning in the air above North Africa. She did not know where North Africa was. She imagined him with his flaming hair in a flaming black plane, in the racket of propellers. Airmen were the Wild Hunt. They were dangerous. If any hunter dismounted, he crumbled to dust, the child read. It was a good story, a story with meaning, fear and danger were in it, and things out of control.

In the daytime, the bright fields. In the night, doom droning in the sky.

I did not grow up during World War II. My parents weren’t born until afterward. My childhood war was very different. By the 1980s, American society had grown comfortable with the Cold War. The enemy was always there, there was the constant threat of invasion and nuclear holocaust, but this very constancy had inured us to it. The threat of mutually assured destruction kept us pretty much safe. Then, when I was a thin child of nine, the Berlin Wall came down, and a couple of years later the Soviet Union fell apart. There was a sense of relief, but I had never experienced the absence of loved ones as Byatt did, nor was I ever evacuated.

The real war for me was strictly domestic. My father was undiagnosed bipolar; most men self-medicate with alcohol or drugs, but since my father’s religion forbade those, he calmed himself down by hitting his children. I was too young and small to be a target, but I have four older siblings who caught rather a lot of it. I don’t remember much from the early years, but my sister assures me that I had every reason to be perpetually afraid. And I was. Not just of my father, though; I was afraid of everyone. Life is unpredictable, and as a kid that meant that I never knew when someone was going to go from happy to violently angry in less time than it takes to read this sentence. I think this is the key to understanding why I freak out in crowds; that’s a lot of people to keep from punching me in the face. You’re asking, why would anyone punch me in the face to start with? Because life is unpredictable, and my childhood trained me to know that every person is a potential threat. Especially family members who are supposed to love and care for me. These days I have friends that I trust, but they are people who seldom make sudden moves and do not raise their voices when they get heated in a conversation.

My mother had a quick temper too, but she handled her anger by distancing herself from the situation – the situation usually being her children. I don’t remember being hugged or kissed when I was young. The first clear memory I have of getting that sort of affection from my mother is from after I was married and had graduated from college. I remember how awkward she was at it, like this was something she’d seen other people doing and had always wanted to try but was never sure where or how to begin. For most people, hugs are not that complicated.

Shortly before the Berlin Wall fell, my parents separated. I hear multiple stories about it, but the one I remember is coming home from church one Sunday to find him gone. When I was twenty-one I found his nearly-suicide leaving note in my mother’s things; I imagine she still has it. When it first happened, I recognized that my father’s absence represented a new stage of life for me, but I wasn’t shocked. Life is unpredictable, and my brother used to run away with some frequency, and so did the teenagers on all the family-oriented TV programs of the time, so that my dad ran away was no big surprise. It’s what I understood people to do. I suppose this should have made things easier, but I still had nearly a decade of living with an emotionally unavailable parent who projected her own anger onto me and made me doubt my ability to achieve anything I set my hand to, despite all the clear evidence that I’m intelligent and capable.

Like Byatt, I turned to stories. The Norse legends weren’t readily available in middle-of-nowhere North Carolina, so I read the Greek and Roman myths instead. The Egyptian ones didn’t make sense to me, but the Hellenic Pantheon absolutely did. Their characters are driven by human desires, only played out on a larger scale. Unlike the Hebrew God, you can escape them. You may have to be turned into a tree to do it, but you can get away. People can run, hide from, and even occasionally trick the gods. And life is always trembling on the cusp of transformation. In Greek myth, there is always a way out, and I suppose that’s what I needed then.

The thing that always impresses me about Norse myths is the suffix –heim, home. Everyone and everything has a home. Death, evil, frost giants, dark elves, they all have their proper place. There isn’t really an outer darkness where people are cast out for their crimes, as in Christianity. All places can be known, rendered familiar, by describing them as someone’s home. Despite the monsters, there’s nothing so frightening that it can’t be realized in the imagination. In Byatt’s telling, everything also has a name: she names plants and animals and sea creatures and everything that I couldn’t even think to put a name to. The Acknowledgements section shows that she had to do some research, she didn’t have all these names at her fingers’ ends, but I appreciate that. If you’re going to write about the creation and destruction of the world, give things the dignity of their names.

Byatt places at the center of the belief system Loki, the agent of chaos, the force for change. He drives everything, and the others – Thor, Odin, Freya, etc – are all along for the ride. He and his children explain the way the world works, and how the world will eventually end. Order and Chaos will cancel each other out in a furious battle, the likes of which the world will never have seen before.

Everything ends, and everyone dies. Beautiful Baldur may have been the first (and how gorgeous does he have to have been, if already-beautiful Scandinavian men call him more beautiful than they?), but all the gods die. Not the gradual fading into disbelief of the Greeks, but violent sudden death. And then, even war ends. Sorry to be so morbid, but I believe most of the problems of Western civilization come from our inability to face the reality of our own mortality. Even this book ends, far too soon. It is beautiful, and it shows our world to be beautiful and fragile. And temporary. Use your time here well – love often and completely, create beauty where you can, and read this book.