Archive for August, 2018

Sometimes reading a book reminds us of a friend so forcibly that we read the whole thing smiling.

Don’t worry that you’ve never heard of this book. It seems few have. The author published it about five years ago, and her only previous publication on Amazon is a book of poems from fifteen years prior. I enjoyed it rather a lot, so the fact that she doesn’t put something out every other year should be no deterrent. I rather like the idea of a novelist who doesn’t approach writing like a nine-to-five job. I’m not opposed to a slow, reticent muse.

This book is very similar to the picaresque adventures of Smollett and Fielding, which I suppose links them to Gil Blas and Don Quixote as well. Gabriella Mondini is a doctor in Venice in 1590. Trained by her father, of course, because how else would a woman get such an education in the sixteenth century? It turns out that many of the women in Venice prefer a woman as a doctor, a preference I fully understand, so she’s actually fairly successful. Unfortunately, the physicians’ guild is a jealous set, and they expel her from their ranks. It’s sort of fortunate, because ten years before her father had gone on a journey, and he recently wrote that he will not return. The Dottoressa’s goal, then is to travel across Europe in search of her father, in an effort to keep him from disappearing from her life.

The other goal is to finish the book. Her father began writing The Book of Diseases, a compendium of his lifetime of learning about medicine, but he is too disorganized to bring it to completion, so Gabriella has taken this task on as well. Many of the diseases sound more poetical or mythical than real, as are the cures, but if you look past the Renaissance point of view, she’s dealing with a variety of mental illnesses that happen in women who are constrained by the Renaissance point of view. The systematic and extreme thwarting of self-direction of half the population is going to throw society out of balance, and the thwarted individuals as well.

But one dank January, she would not return to us. Every afternoon for a month I visited Messalina, spoke to her, touched her arm or hand, but she didn’t respond. Once, in a moment of weakness, I confided to my friend an unforeseen yearning for other parts of the world. I confess that her silence encouraged me, and I began to work out my plans in the presence of her fixed demeanor. Other times I hoped that my schemes would draw her into my own imaginings or that my discontent would distract her from her own. But it became clear that I wasn’t helping her to recover. She was always seated at the window, her chin resting upon one solemn fist, her eyes blankly measuring nothing.

It seems that in literature, journeys always entail loss. This may be an American tradition – I’m thinking of Captain Ahab and the Bundrens – but often, we read about journeys, the characters lose whatever they brought with them. If the journey is a metaphor for life, then I guess we get filled full of garbage as children that we have to get rid of as adults. The journey is about losing tools, losing friends, until all the traveler has is her own body, which she has to disguise as a man to avoid being robbed, raped, or locked in a convent. Sometimes things come back, sometimes lovers come back, but those moments of joy cannot be expected or anticipated. Sometimes reunions are not as sweet as we had hoped.

The state of medicine in sixteenth century Europe is unrecognizable as medicine today. Part of it seems like sadism, forcing the patient to vomit, bleed, or defecate, and another part of it seems like magic, with rituals involving the position of the moon. The third bit is something we can hang onto, plant cures. Roots, herbs, flowers, many of the parts of plants can be used to cure diseases in humans and animals.

Though rue may be employed internally as a remedy for many ailments, among them headache, colic, and women’s lunar pains, and externally for gout, chilblains, and bruises, the water of rue is marvelous for sight and second sight. Writers, engravers, and artists relish the fresh herb with watercress and brown bread. Dabble the water around the eyes to settle murky vision and to summon foreknowledge in all things. The herb of sorrow is thus also the herb of grace, for the future already repents of its errors. Some also claim that rue repels plague, biting chiggers, and curses. The evil eye squints from the scent of rue.

And this is what her father’s ten-year journey was about, as well as her own training: finding a cure for his own mental illness. I’m not qualified to diagnose her father’s trouble, but he eventually lost all sense of his own identity and ended up a raving lunatic locked in a barn in Morocco. If she had known where he was, she could have skipped traveling through northern Europe in the middle of winter and she might have been able to help him before he needed locking up. But there are other things she would have missed, like the conception of her own child with a handsome Scotsman.

It may seem odd that there are no repercussions for conceiving a child out of wedlock, but people were more relaxed about things than they are now. People have become so polarized in their opinions that it’s hard for many to deal with someone whose life looks different than theirs. O’Melveny may be romanticizing or imagining the past differently than it was, but I really don’t have a problem with that. I do it often enough myself.

One of the reasons I was looking forward to going back to school was for the availability of mental health services, but now I have some anxiety about going to set an appointment. But I was meeting with my kids yesterday, and my eldest wanted to show me some of the things he’s learning in a martial arts elective at school, and it threw me off my internal balance like I was going back to PTSD-land, like I was in Texas. Maybe I do need to go looking for a cure to my own madness.

This book isn’t going to set the Thames on fire, but it’s good. There are so many feminist novels these days that it seems another one could get lost in the crowd, and that may be what happened to this one. But the book deserves to be read and loved, and not only by me.

Advertisements

There are few American authors of her time who write about divorce as much as Edith Wharton. I guess she wrote about it so much because she had one; also, it was a major subject of debate in the conversations about women’s rights. So of course I’ve been thinking about mine. It was the most emotionally difficult part of my life, particularly with all of the people assuming I wouldn’t care. It’s a complicated thing, being a gay man who loves his wife, because love is even more complex than sexuality. One more reason for me to have run off to the Middle East.

The stories in this volume are arranged according to length rather than publishing date or theme or any other logical system. All were originally published between 1900 and 1914.

ETHAN FROME

Like me, Ethan Frome is a man who got married in a hurry and ran into trouble because of it. He got a little bit of education and dreamed of living in a city, but then his father got sick and he had to come take care of the family farm, and then after his father died his mother got sick too. His family arranged for a distant cousin Zenobia to come take care of his mother and the house. When you see a woman named Zenobia in a book written in the nineteenth century or the first couple of decades of the twentieth, she’s probably dangerous. It’s like how we don’t trust Victorian Lydias. Zeena cared for Ethan’s mother through her final illness, and then he had this weird emotional spasm where he couldn’t lose anyone else, so he married her.

Fast forward six or seven years. Zeena has become a hypochondriac invalid, and Ethan has realized that he’s never moving to a city while he’s stuck with her. Besides, at thirty-five she’s starting to age badly (rural Massachusetts winters are rough), and he’s still twenty-eight and in his youth and vigor. Zeena has taken on Mattie Silver, another distant cousin with no place to go. Mattie’s young and exciting, and draws Ethan into the life of the town because she enjoys being with people and he has to escort her. Ethan and Mattie are in love, but at a distance in the same house. When he feels affectionate, he shortens her name further to just Matt, so I derived a lot of enjoyment from picturing Matt as a man.

Zeena’s concocted a plot to get rid of Matt, even though she literally has no one to take her in. Her only hope is to get a job in a shop somewhere and earn her own living, which isn’t easy for a twenty-one-year-old girl in Massachusetts in the 18-somethings. Ethan goes through an intense time – he wants to run off with Matt and go live out West somewhere, but he doesn’t have the money to go anywhere. As with me, poverty keeps him from divorcing when and how he wants. He doesn’t have anything worth selling, in the middle of winter, not even his house or farm. No one would buy them.

As Ethan is taking Matt to the train station for the last time, they talk about how they never went sledding in town like they had wanted to (‘coasting’ in the vernacular of the time), so they stop for a bit of a sled. There’s a large elm tree that they have to dodge, but Ethan’s good at steering so they miss it. But what if they didn’t? They can get up to speed, charge straight into the tree, and dying together they would foil Zenobia’s plan and solve all their problems. But they don’t, die, they just get severely injured. Being forced into a sedentary life, Mattie becomes every bit as querulous as Zeena, and being forced to take care of someone again cures Zeena’s imaginary ailments. The three of them get along miserably for what seems the rest of their lives.

In many ways I am a lucky person, though I’ve been told that it has more to do with making good decisions than with luck. My decisions have worked out better than I deserve, I think. If I had to marry a woman, then The Ex was the right one; she wouldn’t put up with an Ethan Frome situation. I told her I was gay and she moved out. There was a short time that I wanted her back, but she held firm. She feels shame very acutely, and in her mind there’s less shame in divorcing a gay husband than in living with one. Of course, my being gay means that she had a good excuse, and that she can blame me into perpetuity without ever having to confront her own issues. I’m not saying that she will; I’m just saying that she still hates and distrusts me.

THE TOUCHSTONE

This was the most suspenseful of the stories, so I enjoyed it the most. Glennard is poor and in love, so he needs to find some way to get the money to marry. Years earlier, a famous novelist had fallen in love with him and wrote him some passionate letters from Paris; she died before the story begins, but he still has the letters. He sells them to a publisher to get the money to invest in a good company and make the money requisite to marry his great love.

But those letters were so very personal that his wife would see it as a violation of the soul to have made them public, so he has to try to keep the secret, even after the volume of letters becomes a bestseller. He goes full-on Raskolnikov about it.

The next morning he invented an excuse for leaving the house without seeing her, and when he returned, just before dinner, he found a visitor’s hat and stick in the hall. The visitor was Flamel, who was just taking his leave.

He had risen, but Alexa remained seated; and their attitude gave the impression of a colloquy that had prolonged itself beyond the limits of speech. Both turned a surprised eye on Glennard, and he had the sense of walking into a room grown suddenly empty, as though their thoughts were conspirators dispersed by his approach. He felt the clutch of his old fear. What if his wife had already sorted the papers and had told Flamel of her discovery? Well, it was no news to Flamel that Glennard was in receipt of a royalty on the Aubyn Letters.

A sudden resolve to know the worst made him lift his eyes to his wife as the door closed on Flamel. But Alexa had risen also, and bending over her writing-table, with her back to Glennard, was beginning to speak precipitately.

“I’m dining out tonight – you don’t mind my deserting you? Julia Armiger sent me word just now that she had an extra ticket for the last Ambrose concert. She told me to say how sorry she was that she hadn’t two, but I knew you wouldn’t be sorry!” She ended with a laugh that had the effect of being a strayed echo of Mrs Armiger’s; and before Glennard could speak she had added, with her hand on the door, “Mr Flamel stayed so late that I’ve hardly time to dress. The concert begins ridiculously early, and Julia dines at half-past seven.”

Glennard stood alone in the empty room that seemed somehow full of an ironical consciousness of what was happening. “She hates me,” he murmured. “She hates me . . .”

THE LAST ASSET

Mrs Newell is a resourceful sort of woman. She works her way up in society by dating rich men, having lost sight of her husband long ago. Now that she’s arranged a marriage between her daughter and a French count, she has to produce the husband to prove that she’s not divorced. She hires a reporter to find him, and he turns out to be one of those familiar strangers, people you talk to in a restaurant when you’re both the only Americans but never bother to learn their names. Notice I said ‘you’ – I wouldn’t strike up a conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, no matter how many times we ate breakfast in the same place, no matter how much his accent would remind me of home. No, the only place I enter into conversation with strangers is in an establishment dedicated to serving alcohol to homosexual men.

As with Ethan Frome, there’s a lot of sadness in this story, even though it’s about reunion.

XINGU

This one was just funny. There’s a snobby literary society up in New England somewhere, and they’ve invited a successful author to come join them. They want to impress her, but she’s not that interested in politics, design, or food, or any of the other subjects they bring up in order to awe her into confirming their sense of their own worth. Then, a member they’ve all been planning to vote out, suddenly asks her about Xingu, and everyone is convinced it’s a new philosophy that they haven’t heard of but are willing to pretend to know in order to put this author in her place. The author goes off with the savior of the group, and then everyone else looks it up – it’s a river in Brazil. She was speaking in double entendres the entire time, and they laugh and are embarrassed by their ignorance.

THE OTHER TWO

This one is frequently anthologized, so I’ve taught it a few times. It’s not as useful as “Roman Fever,” which I have more to say about so I wish academic publishers would use it instead. This story presents divorce not in its spiritual or political aspect but in its social – the awkwardness is more significant than the sin or the women’s rights. Mr Waythorn is Alice’s third husband; because of a child, he runs into the first, and because of his business he runs into the second. Divorce doesn’t necessarily remove the offending partner from one’s life completely, after all. He starts to get used to the ex-husbands, until eventually through one of those coincidental tricks of fate all three of them are in a room together, with her serving them tea.

What I find fascinating about this collection is the perspective Wharton chooses to tell the stories from. Except for “Xingu,” with its entirely female cast, Wharton always chooses the perspective of the man, not the woman. She employs the female perspective in The House of Mirth to great success, so I’m not certain why. I mean, these stories are just as emotionally complex for the women as they are for the men. I guess it gives her a chance to explore the idea that women are mysterious to men while men are completely transparent to women. Or maybe straight men like to imagine the world this way. I have a friend who described his wife as mysterious because he was always finding out new things to love about her (after more than ten years), but I always found her remarkably open, honest, and straightforward. Maybe some men need the exotic, something they don’t understand, so they project that quality onto the women they love. Love itself is often the only mystery – does she love me, and why?

I do enjoy Edith Wharton, even though there’s usually not much to make me happy in her stories. Her syntax demands to be taken slowly; it requires attention; as an author, she insists on her leisure. We must take the story at the pace she gives it to us, and there is something appealing about someone who will not be hurried. I suppose there may also be an appeal to reading a story about New England winters when I’m in the middle of a hot Southern summer, adjusting the emotional temperature to find greater comfort. This was an odd little collection of stories; I don’t know why these were chosen and not others, but I do love something strange.

Book 2 in the Midnight, Texas series. I’m finding that with sequels, I have dramatically less to say than I did with the first one.

First off, Harris’s writing goes extremely quickly for me. More than 350 pages in two days. I get really strongly engaged in the story, and although it’s slower than the television series, it still keeps me riveted. It may be that the books I read before and after use more complex syntax and thus demand a slower pace, but I flew through this book, enjoying every minute.

Next, characters. Manfred Bernardo is still kind of in the middle of the book, but our primary centers of consciousness are Olivia Charity and Joe Strong. Olivia is a hired assassin hiding from her parents – she was abused as a child, and her father is now trying to find her. She keeps hiding. At one point it’s strongly implied that Olivia is not her real name, but we gloss over that. Joe is an angel, trying to hide his true nature from everyone, including himself. Unfortunately, he hurts his ankle on a jog and has to spread his wings to get home, so things are starting to destabilize for him. His partner Chuy may be one as well, but I’m not sure on that yet. The show portrays Chuy as a demon, as much in disgrace for whom he loves as Joe the angel is. Changing Chuy from an angel to a demon could be a commentary on race (Hispanic vs mainstream white) or just on sexuality (the slightly more effeminate gay), though I guess he could be a demon in the books and we just haven’t seen the evidence of it yet.

“That’s what we’re here for,” Chuy said. “To help.”

“And to fix antiques and fingernails,” Joe said, laughing. “I wish I didn’t love old furniture, and you didn’t love decorating women. I wish we were both accountants or bounty hunters. Something less predictable.”

“As long as we’re happy. And we take care of each other,” Chuy said, much more seriously.

“I try to take care of you,” Joe said, turning to take Chuy in his arms. “How’m I doing?”

“Pretty good,” Chuy said, and it was the last time he said anything sensible for a while.

As before, this is as graphic as it gets.

So, absences from last time: Bobo and Lem are almost nonexistent, and Fiji’s role is dramatically reduced. This story isn’t about them. Additions: the hotel people. The old hotel in Midnight is renovated and reopened, but it seems to have some shady ulterior purpose that hasn’t been revealed yet. I’m expecting to learn more in Book 3. The hotel has some long-term guests, retirees who don’t quite need assisted living yet. One of them keeps wandering off, so his grandson comes to help take care of him. You might remember Barry the Bellboy from True Blood Season 2 – here he is, briefly reminiscing with Manfred over their mutual acquaintance Sookie Stackhouse. The suspiciousness of the hotel seems to extend to Madonna and Teacher, the chef and the handyman. In the first book they seemed to fit right in, but over time it’s become clear that they don’t really belong with the other Midnighters. Something else to explore in the next book. The other new addition is Diederik. His father drops him with the Rev, even though the Rev hardly seems like the person to raise a child. Silent and brooding, constantly tending the pet cemetery and the church that no one seems to attend. Diederik isn’t the average kid, though – he grows fifteen years in as many days. And then, at the full moon, it’s revealed that he and the Rev are both weretigers. I do not understand why Harris wants to populate Louisiana and Texas with tigers. They are not a native species in this part of North America. But they’re here, creating the potential for trouble if people aren’t smart enough to stay indoors at night.

And, the murder mystery. In an early chapter, Manfred is helping a woman contact her dead husband when the husband reaches through him and takes her off to the next life. Manfred is accused of murder and of stealing her jewels, so the trick is not to discover the murderer but to see if they can prove he didn’t do it. It’s all revealed in the end, of course, but there are so many distractions from the jewel thief plot that I nearly forgot about it. This book is less carefully plotted than the first, and like the second book in most trilogies, it opens loops that don’t get closed. There are things still to learn.

So I’ve moved into an old house, one that has room for New Guy to live in when he finds a job down here. Getting a job does need to happen first – I don’t make enough money to support him. He’s always had a higher income than I have, but I find that the greater the income, the greater the expenses incurred. There are very few Americans who are really comfortable with having any money left over at the end of the month. I grew up in an old house and I’ve lived in a few before this, but I didn’t expect the lack of upstairs water pressure. There’s only one bathing facility, and it’s upstairs. I tried taking showers for the first week, but the pressure isn’t strong enough to get my hair feeling clean. I’ve switched to tub baths, and in reading this book I realized that it takes a good four or five chapters to get the tub full. If I were in a rush, I’d find this very irritating.

0816181604

The house hasn’t been lived in for a year or so, and a while back the owner decided to paint the windows. The neighbors didn’t like the newspaper taped up to keep the glass clean, so he’s kept it up to spite them. It makes the house look abandoned, or haunted, or maybe both. I haven’t seen evidence of haunting yet, so I’ll assume if there are any ghosts that they like me. There are nut trees in the yard, and they keep dropping the nuts onto the house, and the driveway, and my car, and every other hard surface in the area. If I keep hearing random bangs after the nuts have all fallen, then I’ll think about haunting. In general, I feel good here, when I’m not having anxiety attacks about school. Transitioning back into studenthood is not as comfortable as one might imagine. I’ve lost my study skills; I have to access the self-knowledge that studying requires, which is different from the types of knowledge I’ve needed as a teacher. And I have to admit that information about me is different than it was; I don’t have the same brain I did thirteen years ago when I started grad school the first time, or twenty years ago when I started undergrad. Well, technically I do have the same brain, because neurons don’t die off and get replaced periodically the way other cells do, but it’s not operating at those levels of efficiency.

Enfin, I do enjoy Charlaine Harris’s books. They’re comfortable and familiar, as modern Southern mystery novels are to me. Hers are more engrossing than others, though, so I think her popularity is well deserved. I’m looking forward to finding the third book of the series.

I hope I don’t have to tell you how much I love this book. Love is so hard to quantify, and a look through my posting history ought to tell you that this is precisely the sort of book that I value highly. I know that some people see it primarily as a book about adultery, but that’s hardly the point. There’s an incident before the book begins, but there are no sexual acts performed by the characters during the course of the book. This is a book about justice and rehabilitation, not crime.

We begin with Hester Prynne. Back in early seventeenth-century England, she grew up in the country and was married to an old scholar. He decided to relocate to Boston, so he sent her on ahead. After two years without seeing or hearing from him, she started to give him up for dead. And then she becomes pregnant, and her troubles really begin. She has some jail time, and some public shaming on the scaffold where the stocks are kept. Then, for the rest of her life, she has to wear a red A on her chest as a constant reminder of her sin and shame. Well. We call it a red A, and Hawthorne calls it the scarlet letter, but the background fabric is red and the letter itself is in gold thread. It’s so beautiful that strangers sometimes mistake it for a badge of honor, and Hester’s artistic skill with the needle is so intense that no one can recreate what she’s done, not even by backing the thread out and tracing backwards. She takes her daughter to live in an abandoned house on the edge of town, and unleashes her artistic revolutionary soul in solitude. Hester has an acute awareness of the injustices of society against women, and dreams of being a prophet of the new age, proclaiming the equality and rights of women. Which leads to what I find to be one of the creepiest lines in the book:

The scarlet letter had not done its office.

From our position in the twenty-first century, it’s expected that we’ll admire Hester’s rebellious spirit – because she’s right. But Hawthorne is writing in the nineteenth century, when women were valued for their inactivity and endurance, and his story is set farther back still, two hundred years before his own time, when according to Virginia Woolf women were beaten and flung about the room with impunity. Besides, Hester’s rebellion drove her to break the law, and sending the attitude underground is no guarantee that she won’t break the law again. Outwardly she is a model citizen while inwardly she longs to burn the world down and start over. The town elders even begin to discuss allowing her to remove the scarlet letter, but she won’t let them take it from her. I don’t blame her – if I had a free pass out of social obligations, I would hang on to it too. The scarlet letter holds her outside of society, which helps her to have such a different perspective. She doesn’t want to be just like everybody else.

The letter represents human justice and all its inadequacies. The idea behind it is that forced suffering will teach criminals to value society and its laws, a sort of Stockholm syndrome hope. Divine justice, based on the idea that love heals and unites us, gives Hester a daughter, Pearl. Pearl is a weird kid, in a city full of weird kids. She’s light and graceful and dances all over the place, imaginative and artistic like her mother. Seeing these qualities in children often upsets adults because society trains us to pour our imagination into prescribed channels, but kids don’t know the prescribed channels, so it’s more like a flood that pours over everything. Nothing is off limits, no thought too strange, no subject too holy. She has a natural irreverence that seems to come with youth and intelligence. Hester traces all her iconoclasm to the crime that conceived her, but that’s Puritan values. Does anyone really want Pearl to be like other kids, who say things like:

Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!

Kids are jerks. But the town leaders worry about this one, and discuss taking Pearl away from Hester for the sake of her soul. They think Pearl will grow up better without being raised by the town harlot. But Hester argues passionately for her right to keep her child, and they relent. As the book progresses, Pearl drifts closer and closer to revealing her father’s secret, which is after all a major part of the real justice Hawthorne is portraying. And through the love of Pearl, Hester really does calm down and rehabilitate. She still sees the injustice, but she gives up the idea of changing things by herself. For Hawthorne, criminals have no place in the revolution. Women’s rights have to be won by blameless women. I understand his point, that in order for changes to happen at the top of society they need to be championed by people that society’s leaders will listen to, and it’s hard to get people to listen to a single mom with a criminal record. But if no one breaks laws, no one will realize the laws are unfair. If no one breaks taboos, society doesn’t change.

Roger Chillingworth is Hester’s husband. He didn’t die on the crossing from Amsterdam; he had been living among the Native Americans, learning their systems of healing. At the time we meet him, he’s skilled in four-humors medicine, alchemy, and homeopathy, which is the highest we could say for a doctor in the seventeenth century. He sees Hester’s public shame and convinces her to conceal his identity so he can search for the man who cuckolded him and drive him to confession. When he finds his target, he psychologically tortures him while tending to his illnesses – Chillingworth’s alchemy leads the man’s body to produce a scarlet letter on his chest, red on pale skin, the visible sign pushed out from the adulterous heart. Chillingworth frames this to himself as a quest for justice, but he’s really only interested in punishment and revenge. It reminds me a bit of the television program Lucifer, where the title character is constantly pointing out that the devil doesn’t take pleasure in sin – it’s his job to punish it, that’s all. TV Lucifer likes joy and tries to convince people to have a good time, so long as it remains innocent and consensual. I don’t mean devoid of alcohol, drugs, and sex; by innocent, I mean there is no malice. But as Chillingworth dives deeper into his vengeance, he takes joy in his victim’s suffering. For Hawthorne, this is worse than the adultery. Chillingworth learns to love malice; it becomes the only important feature of his character. By focusing exclusively on one goal, and that goal being to cause pain, Chillingworth becomes an evil caricature of his former self, twisted psychologically as much as he has scoliosis physically.

The fourth principal character is Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister who fucked Hester, both literally because he loves her and figuratively because he’s too afraid of losing his position to stand with her. Because of his fear, she has to go through all of this alone. While Hester is on the path of healing and Chillingworth is on the path of vengeance, Dimmesdale shows us the effect of hidden sin, crimes unconfessed. This theme gets a much more careful representation in Crime and Punishment, where Dostoevsky demonstrates the extreme stress of feeling guilty and holding it inside. Dimmesdale’s poor mental health affects his physical health as well, and he wastes away from the constant stress of seeming the opposite of what he feels himself to be. In many ways he’s like a closeted gay man – being gay isn’t sinful, but staying in the closet involves the same type of duplicity and vigilance. He has a secret that no one must infer; he must hide the core of who he is from everyone he meets. There is no relaxation, only self-hatred and lies. Even when alone, he just punishes himself. It’s no wonder he goes crazy and dies. The relief of confessing the reality of his soul is so intense, and the required change in his lifestyle is so extreme, that he collapses on the spot. But his confession is necessary for the closure in all the other stories as well – Chillingworth’s vengeance, Hester’s rehabilitation, and Pearl’s socialization all require it. Dimmesdale’s refusal to confess doesn’t just hurt him; it retards everyone’s progress. Secrets are poisonous, and there are very few that I find myself willing or able to keep. Those few are related to situations that I didn’t create and are none of my business, and the people I keep them for are very special to me indeed.

It is hard to calculate the impact of this book. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela has been called the first British novel because it was the first piece of extended prose fiction that delved heavily into the psychology of its protagonist; The Scarlet Letter holds a similar position in American literary history. I don’t mean to imply a bad opinion of Irving or Cooper; it’s just that Hawthorne popularized the inward look in a way that they didn’t. Charlotte Temple and Hope Leslie aren’t quite as meditative either, but the critics who defined The First Great American Novel would never have ascribed that title to one written by a woman, even though Charlotte Temple was the first American bestseller and Hope Leslie has an exploding pirate ship.

It’s fairly well-known that The Scarlet Letter changed the course of Melville’s career – he seems to have had a bit of a crush on Hawthorne, from the extreme praise he printed of Mosses from an Old Manse and Hawthorne’s discomfort on meeting him in person. People hear that he read The Scarlet Letter while writing Moby-Dick and then blame Hawthorne for all the cetology, but have you ever looked at White-Jacket? It’s the book before Moby-Dick, and it’s all about describing the mundanities of life on a man-of-war and drawing parallels to life in general. Hawthorne didn’t teach Melville to do allegory; he showed him that it’s possible to combine allegory with a good story. There doesn’t have to be a separation between the two. And, of course, critics at the time hated Moby-Dick, so The Scarlet Letter led to the bitterness that flowers so uncomfortably in Pierre and the later works.

It also had a strong effect on George Eliot. Her first full-length novel, Adam Bede, is a retelling of The Scarlet Letter in a Hardy-esque Wessex. Arthur Dimmesdale becomes Arthur Donnithorne, Hester Prynne becomes Hester Sorrel, and Roger Chillingworth becomes Adam Bede. Eliot focuses on the suffering rather than the justice, because she’s writing a tragedy rather than a journey. When I think of Adam Bede, though, I tend to focus on Dinah Morris’s story, the young woman preacher who marries Adam in the end. She reminds us that Eliot’s previous fiction is the Scenes from Clerical Life. Dinah shows us graphically that a woman can be a prophet, though she is the type of ‘pure’ woman that Hawthorne imagines central to gaining respect for women’s issues. In her own life as mistress to an unhappily married man, Eliot must have had a lot of sympathy for Hester Prynne, more than I could muster for Hettie Sorrel back when I read Adam Bede for the first time. Hester is intelligent and artistic, two qualities I value, but Hettie’s just a pretty face masking a pile of discontent. I never understood what Adam Bede saw in her.

The biggest effect, though, is in the way Hawthorne taught us to think about the Puritans. By all accounts they were never as ugly, joyless, and strict as he represents them. But The Scarlet Letter is more often and less critically read than historical documents, so people assume Hawthorne knew what he was talking about. He was closer to us in time than to his subject. It’s like the whole Jonathan Edwards thing. In school, we read “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” and assume that he and all the other Puritans were obsessed with hell and believed in a God of hate, disappointed in our goodness because he longs to throw us into the fire like unwanted spiders. But if you read Edwards’s journals, you find that he was a mostly happy guy who loved nature, God, and the people around him. He was a lot closer to modern evangelicals than people think when they only read the one revival sermon. In fact, we’re so similar that a few years ago someone made a movie of Emma Stone as Hester Prynne in a modern California high school.

Of course, with me being who I am, I see it as a story of two people who fall in love in a society that tells them that they can’t. And despite all of the bullshit, Hester and Arthur really do love each other.

And, as if the gloom of the earth and sky had been but the effluence of these two mortal hearts, it vanished with their sorrow. All at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest, gladdening each green leaf, transmuting the yellow fallen ones to gold, and gleaming adown the gray trunks of the solemn trees. The objects that had made a shadow hitherto, embodied the brightness now. The course of the little brook might be traced by its merry gleam afar into the wood’s heart of mystery, which had become a mystery of joy.

Such was the sympathy of Nature – that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth – with the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a death-like slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s!

Love is love. Hester’s marriage to Chillingworth, which even he admits was a mistake, creates some legal troubles, but her love with Arthur is as real and intense as anyone else’s. Hidden, but real. It draws my attention back to my own situation, of being in an affair with a man who is still legally married to his wife. I’ll admit that I don’t completely understand why he lives as he does, especially when I see how little happiness it brings him. I guess Norman Bates is right, that some people get stuck in traps and can’t get out of them. I’m doing my best to motivate him, but he has to get out of this on his own. I can’t do it for him.

I read this book during my transition to a new house in a new town. I’ve been having to take a lot of self-care time these last few weeks, but hopefully I’ll be able to put more time and attention into being a student and less into being a ball of anxiety. Getting my financial aid check will help – food insecurity makes everything else seem unimportant.

Speaking of perceived unimportance, I want to put in a good word for “The Custom House.” A lot of people skip it, but I find it a delight. Hawthorne describes his time working for the government as a customs agent and a few of the incredibly aged people who work there with him. He stresses the importance of paying attention to daily life, which is a skill I don’t always have.

The fault was mine. The page of life that was spread out before me seemed dull and commonplace, only because I had not fathomed its deeper import. A better book than I shall ever write was there; leaf after leaf presenting itself to me, just as it was written out by the reality of the flitting hour, and vanishing as fast as written, only because my brain wanted the insight and my hand the cunning to transcribe it. At some future day, it may be, I shall remember a few scattered fragments and broken paragraphs, and write them down, and find the letters turn to gold upon the page.

It’s hard to understand what’s important as we’re going through the daily round. When do changes take place inside us? How do our desires and needs change? Why is literature so interested in moments of change rather than moments of stasis? When it comes to life, I’m better at the big picture, the broad strokes. Other people are good at the diurnal continuity. I think that a life well lived needs both; I value the part that I’m good at because I value myself, and people who are good at the everyday stuff should do the same.

I hesitate to make sweeping generalizations, like Everyone should read this book, but everyone should really read this book. It’s about justice, forgiveness, and living openly and honestly without fear. We all make mistakes, so it’s important to learn how to restore our sense of ourselves when we’ve violated our internal laws. None of us lives up to our own standards all the time, so we have to forgive ourselves and press forward. It’s a book about how to go on living when you start to hate yourself, as well as how to stop hating yourself once you start. It also stresses the importance of gender equality, and we’re still working on that nearly two hundred years later. The long sentences and advanced vocabulary can be a challenge, but I think it’s worth it.

This novel was originally published in 1980, and the quotes on the cover are all about how Graham Swift is the literary novelist of the decade. And to some extent, they’re right. His book fits all the conventions for the literary novel of his time. It felt like something I’d read before, even though I’ve never read anything of his before, because there’s nothing to mark it as different or distinctive. It’s the same literary novel that people have been writing since the mid-1970s.

We meet Willy Chapman on the last day of his life. He knows that it is, and there are almost constant references to this fact, even though it’s never explicitly stated. Because it’s his last day, he tries to make it both completely normal and a form of leave-taking, so of course he fails. People catch on to the fact that something’s weird, but they don’t know what.

But of course this isn’t the real story. The real story is his life, told in a series of flashbacks, sometimes in order, sometimes not.

Past the winning post, round the first bend, the shadows on the grass swivelling round mockingly in front of them. Barely half the race run, but already – you can sense it – they are getting lost in their struggles. A grimness setting in. They don’t notice the wails of the crowd or the encouragement of the figures clustered round the winning post and the judge’s desk – sports masters, house monitors in blazers and flannels, Mr Hill, bending over the track, waving what seems a threatening fist as they approach; the clock-tower, the spire. Don’t they see, the secret is not to think of the race? But they notice only the endless dark circuit of the track. A grimness. The crowd senses it. The cheering changes tone. They like a battle.

This is written close to the end, but it’s from one of the earlier scenes. Chapman was a high-school track star in 1931, where he realized that for most people life becomes a constant struggle, a battle that never ends. Until it does. People like that; they enjoy watching the fight. But that’s not what Chapman lives for. He wins the race by thinking of the encouragement, or the crowd, or anything but the struggle, the difficulty of filling lungs while moving too fast for the air to be drawn in naturally, the ache of tiring muscles, and the inevitable slowing. Chapman hangs back until the last lap, then races past for the win. His primary opponent, Jack Harrison, pushes himself to be faster than everyone else, and finally comes in second.

Irene Harrison is a reasonably nice girl from a wealthy family. They run a chain of laundries, I think all in London. Her parents pick a suitor from a similarly ‘good’ family with a ‘good’ future, so of course he date-rapes her. They insist she go out with him again, and he does it again. The family had drummed her head full of all this nonsense about feminine purity, so premarital sex kind of destroys her. She ends up going to a mental institution for a few weeks, but that only keeps her from acting out. It doesn’t heal anything.

Literature from this time seems to require a rape, or an abortion (either unwanted and forced or wanted and denied), or both. It’s like the fiction of the twentieth century is fueled by trauma inflicted on women. Thinking about it this morning, it’s like the last century went along steadily denying people the comfort of traditional gender definitions. The wars became so obscene that men doubted their masculinity simply because they refused to lose their humanity. I hate the fact that masculinity is so often defined by violence – not only because it destabilizes the gender identity of men who like peace, but mainly because it leads men to perform acts of violence simply to understand who they are. Defining masculinity through violence means that every man needs a victim, usually a woman or a child. Drawing our attention to toxic masculinity is important, but it’s most helpful to pair it with the nontoxic variety. Pointing out toxic masculinity without providing an alternative expression of male gender identity has the tendency to normalize the unhealthy attitudes. “Don’t rape women” is a fantastic rule, but we also need “Do treat women with respect, as you would any other equal.” Provide Do’s for all the Don’t’s to avoid creating a behavior vacuum, that people will then fill with other forms of bad behavior.

Chapman is sort of like the good example – the rapist and the girl’s brothers treat him like a patsy, just like in all those eighteenth-century novels where the cast-off mistress is married to a sidekick or lesser hero. But really, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with marrying a girl whose hymen is already broken, or even understand why everyone is laughing behind their hands at him. She’s pretty, he likes her, she tolerates him, so what else matters?

Throughout the book, they talk about their deal. Irene is marrying Willy because she thinks he’s the only one who will have her. He’s not her equal, either socially or intellectually. Handsome, athletic, and malleable, yes. Willy is marrying her because she’s amazing: beautiful, rich, smart. They never talk about their deal, but it runs something like this. Irene can offer Willy everything he wants except love, so he won’t bother her with that. They’ll go through the forms of marriage without ever offering or eliciting the word Love.

When they marry, he’s a lower employee in a printer’s office. His hands are almost permanently dyed black with newsprint. She buys him a newsstand so that he can own his own business, though he leans more toward offering the candy and marketing to children than focusing on the papers. Eventually he also starts selling toys, and expands to a second location. Professionally, Willy Chapman is very successful. Unfortunately, before he opens for the first time, as he’s hanging the new sign, he falls off the ladder and breaks his leg. Due to the state of medicine in 1938, this is a life-changing accident. Now, a man in his 20s can break a leg and heal without it materially affecting his movements a year later. Chapman gets a permanent limp. You could read the runner’s sudden inability even to walk comfortably as a castration, but again, it doesn’t seem to bother him too much. Or at least, his feelings aren’t important enough to dwell on.

There’s a lot of talk about World War II, but they get through it without too much trouble. He works in the quartermaster’s, and she goes to live in the country for a while, but then comes back and gets a job (pointedly not working for her father). It seems to be a theme in the British literature around World War II – just keep buggering on. Irene’s brother, the runner, dies, but she’s not that sorry to have one fewer family member to boss her around, disrespect her husband, and gaslight her.

Then there’s Dorothy. Part of the deal, what Willy and Irene give to each other, is a child. Just one. He loves children, but he’s working all the time, so Dorry is really Irene’s daughter, imbued with all of her mother’s values and faults. She’s the classic baby-boomer, as seen in the early 1970s – entitled, rude, rebellious, ungrateful. So, sort of how the baby-boomers see the millennials. Takes one to know one, I guess. Swift himself was born the same year as his character, so I want to see him identifying with her, but I never found her all that sympathetic. He seems to be celebrating his parents’ generation and partially condemning his own.

I’m tempted to discuss the differences in values in terms of gender, but it is probably more accurate to frame the discussion around class. Willy Chapman has little in common with the family he marries into, and we see it most clearly in his interactions with his wife and daughter. He’s from a working class background, and pushed his way to the lower middle before marrying a girl from the upper middle. This being the twentieth century, there are no titles, but the Harrisons are definitely gentry while Chapman would normally be permitted to shine their shoes for a nickel if he washed his hands first. Remembering the emphasis on feminine purity, Irene inherited a great deal of money from her mother, who got it when her brothers died. It’s sort of like the payment she receives for holding herself together and marrying someone the family can tolerate. She’s being paid for not going too far off the rails – or in other words, for letting her rapist get away with it, for staying silent and accepting injustice. She invests some of the money in dish sets, china that will keep its value (she insists). When she dies, it seems logical that the fifteen thousand pounds should go straight to Dorothy, but the new generation isn’t into purity. She’s been living with a fellow student without marrying him, and the sense of social outrage is too much. No inheritance from her dead mother. She’s furious, of course, and comes around to take the china, which makes Chapman very sad. He hates the idea that his daughter is so obsessed with the money – he’s not seeing it as a symbol of familial acceptance, an acknowledgment of worth. Eventually he does write her the check (it’s not like anyone else in her family is still around to care), even though he doesn’t understand why it’s so important to her. She’s going to inherit when he dies anyway, but I think he wanted her to know that he’s giving it to her of his own free will, not as a default.

Contrast that with Chapman’s work, selling newspapers and candy.

Memorials. They don’t matter. They don’t belong to us. They are only things we leave behind so we can vanish safely. Disguises to set us free. That’s why I built my own memorial so compliantly – the one she allotted me, down there in the High Street. A memorial of trifles, useless things.

Newspapers are, by their very nature, disposable. I’m always sad when I hear of people who hoard the papers, because they lose their value very quickly. I don’t mean their financial value, I mean their use value. What good is last year’s newspaper? If you buy them daily, what use is it to keep one from last month? I’ve heard that one of my father’s sisters (he has two, I’ve never met either) is one of these, and it’s sad. The trajectory of my life has been away from physical possessions, toward finding my sense of permanency within myself. Wandering through a house with floor-to-ceiling stacks of newsprint is not how I want to pass my old age, nor how I think anyone should. For the Harrisons, the newsstand is kind of a Fuck you, you don’t deserve anything permanent; for Chapman, it’s also kind of a Fuck you, I’m devoting my life to the transient, disposable things of life, not your lasting value.

And none of it – that was the beauty of it – was either useful or permanent.

The irony is that in the end, they live on Chapman’s business and not his wife’s family or inheritance. The Harrisons wither and collapse while Willy’s business expands. He assumes that Dorothy will sell the business after he dies, but he’s really built something that the most mercenary of materialists would be proud to have, despite his celebration of the temporary.

The thing that really struck me about this book, aside from seeing a valorization of my own principles, is the way that the world shrinks. He’s in London, one of the most exciting cities on the planet, but his world consists of his house, his shop, and the road he drives to get between them. It’s not even a very long road. There’s a lot more to the city than he ever sees; a lot more to England, a lot more to Planet Earth, but he tightens his gaze to a handful of buildings and a few short streets. Having traveled as much as I have, I don’t understand it. I can’t comprehend the type of fortitude and courage it takes to live according to the same routine in the same narrow orbit for thirty years. I haven’t been able to manage it for three. My life has taken me around a continent and onto three more, but Chapman’s life is circumscribed within a few miles. I’m not even sure I want to understand.

Is Graham Swift going to be studied in literature classes in fifty years as a preeminent British novelist of the late twentieth century? I don’t know. I’m inclined to say not, because there’s nothing really too experimental, nothing to grab the eye. Will I remember this book in six months? I’m not sure. Like Willy Chapman, the book itself is like a small pebble dropped in a large pond, that makes a ripple or two and then is lost. Within reach, but not important enough to retrieve.