Posts Tagged ‘academia’

lighthouse

This weekend I went Down East to see my family, and on Friday afternoon it struck me that it was precisely the sort of experience that Virginia Woolf would write about.

In spring the garden urns, casually filled with wind-blown plants, were gay as ever. Violets came and daffodils. But the stillness and the brightness of the day were as strange as the chaos and tumult of night, with the trees standing there, and the flowers standing there, looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless, and so terrible.

After having spent so much time away, I was a little apprehensive about seeing them all again: my oldest brother, who is getting ready to go back to school for a degree in divinity; the older brother I was very close to fifteen or twenty years ago, but whom I now seldom think about from one year to the next; the younger sister who has been reaching out to me more in the last year or so; and my mother, whose affection is linked to how much we fit her ideals for us. I got a flat tire Friday morning, so the public interactions of going to three different tire places (one closed for renovation, one made me wait an hour before discovering they didn’t carry the right size of tire, the third was great) and delaying my trip for a few hours would be a better fit for Mrs Dalloway than To the Lighthouse, but put me in the proper Woolf frame of mind nonetheless. The way I get self-conscious about how others perceive me, whether strangers or family members, and analyze past interactions to prepare me for the evening, is all very similar to one of her characters. To the Lighthouse is about a gathering of academics and artists, staying with the Ramsays in Scotland for the summer. I forget which island group, Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides, one of those.

At last they had shoved her off, they had launched the lifeboat, and they had got her out past the point – Macalister told the story; and though they only caught a word here and there, they were conscious all the time of their father – how he leant forward, how he brought his voice into tune with Macalister’s voice; how, puffing at his pipe, and looking there and there where Macalister pointed, he relished the thought of the storm and the dark night and the fishermen striving there. He liked that men should labour and sweat on the windy beach at night; pitting muscle and brain against the waves and the wind; he liked men to work like that, and women to keep house, and sit beside sleeping children indoors, while men were drowned, out there in a storm. So James could tell, so Cam could tell (they looked at him, they looked at each other), from his toss and his vigilance and the ring in his voice, and the little tinge of Scottish accent which came into his voice, making him seem like a peasant himself, as he questioned Macalister about the eleven ships that had been driven into the bay in a storm. Three had sunk.

I do get irritated with the archetype of the Angry Academic. Mr Ramsay is insecure about his professional success, so he’s overly critical of his children. Byatt picks up this archetype as well, which got me thinking that there must be something wrong with British academics, but then I remembered Albee as well, and then I thought that since his play is called Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he’s probably influenced by her, as I’m sure Byatt is as well. The thing that bothers me about it is that I have spent most of my life around academics without finding these Angry White Men. In thinking about this anger, it seems like these men question their masculinity because they work with the mind instead of the hand. The men I’ve met feel no such contradiction. They don’t seem bothered with the question of whether teaching is a gendered activity or whether reading in a library is less inherently masculine than shooting rabbits or repairing cars. I’m not saying we don’t have sexism in academia, but the friends I’ve made are comfortable being who they are and not haunted by their perceived inadequacies. Which frees them up to be genuinely kind to their partners and children, unlike Mr Ramsay.

The first part of this book focuses a lot on the relationship between the Ramsays, and what they mean when they think that they love each other. It makes me think about that idea of chivalry that so many people claim to feel the lack of in our modern society, and the way that chivalry is a two-way street. These days people discuss it as a condescending attitude that men used to have for women, but this separateness goes both ways. Chivalry demands that each person have an ideal for the opposite sex, and that when persons of opposite sexes interact they each treat the other as if they see the ideal inside of them. It was a matter of kindness and respecting femininity and masculinity as concepts, doing honour to the Goddess in every woman and the God in every man. Of course there were abuses, on both sides, and even in Woolf’s novel we can see that traditional pattern of etiquette breaking down. Seven-year-old Cam dashes about and never sits still in a “properly feminine” way; Lily Briscoe doesn’t marry and feels no shame or lack in this; Charles Tansley openly expresses his belief in women’s inferiority because as a poor man he needs to put down someone to make himself seem higher and there is no racial diversity to give the opportunity for racism. Chivalry breaks down because people don’t live up to each other’s ideals, and we lose the sense that other people’s ideals matter. In the twentieth century we learned to embrace our own ideals – I live according to my own sense of what it means to be a man, not my mother’s or my ex-wife’s or my sisters’ or any of my female friends’. Chivalry seems to have been about this shared construction of gender identity, and it passed away because we stopped sharing in identity construction. After all, this is in many ways a book about the inability to communicate.

But nevertheless, the fact remained, it was almost impossible to dislike any one if one looked at them.

My two oldest brothers have never much liked each other, so it was genuinely odd to see them talking and laughing apart from everyone else. I joined them (all the men in one group together, women in the other room), and they were bonding over videos of standup comedians they both enjoy. I did my best to participate, but not enjoying videos of standup comedians, I didn’t have much to say. It was strange to see how little my brother and I have in common now, when we once shared so much that we even took the same classes at uni. He studied English alongside me, but now he speaks disparagingly of working in a library, as if what I find exciting would bore him to death. I was always the most serious of us, but in isolation I have become more so, and he (who was once enraptured with reading Thucydides and Beowulf) has joined the mass culture in devaluing academic pursuits. There was some overlap in his behavior throughout the weekend – a discomfort with silence, a compulsion to keep everyone laughing and happy, as if he were carefully avoiding talking about something and equally carefully avoiding letting anyone know there was a topic to be avoided. While he was there in front of me, I was glad to see him, but on reflection I’m concerned. He and I have never even mentioned the fact of my being gay, so I wonder if that’s what he can’t talk about, but it could also be something in his home life that isn’t what it could be. Both of my brothers were performing The Hen-Pecked Husband, which is a posture that always makes me uneasy but enabled them to bond with each other (while excluding me, the no-longer-hen-pecked). I didn’t get to talk with the oldest, but the other one and I got to spend some time watching The Crimson Pirate and laughing at the poor costume choices and other ludicrosities. I sent him home with a flash drive of older movies that he and his wife could enjoy, because at least we have that one interest still in common.

Somewhere in the annals of my family history, I have an Uncle Wirt. This is about a hundred years ago, the time that Woolf set the earlier part of the novel. Wirt took himself very seriously, while all his brothers were fond of joking and playing and taking life easily. As a result, Wirt was the butt of all the jokes, and he never really got on with his brothers. When it came to courting, Wirt found it easier to make love in writing than in speaking, so he corresponded with an English girl and eventually invited her out to the Finger Lakes to marry him. When he introduced her to his brothers, they could not stop laughing they thought she was so ugly. He quietly and seriously cut them out of his life. In this iteration of those genetics, I’m Uncle Wirt, but I don’t get picked on like I used to. When our parents split up, my older siblings lost interest in casual cruelty, and as adults most of us try to be kind to each other.

Always, Mrs Ramsay felt, one helped oneself out of solitude reluctantly by laying hold of some little odd or end, some sound, some sight. She listened, but it was all very still; cricket was over; the children were in their baths; there was only the sound of the sea. She stopped knitting; she held the long reddish-brown stocking dangling in her hands a moment. She saw the light again. With some irony in her interrogation, for when one woke at all, one’s relations changed, she looked at the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much to her, yet so little her, which had her at its beck and call (she woke in the night and saw it bent across their bed, stroking the floor), but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotised, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!

Sunday morning I woke up early and came downstairs, and read my book until I was sleepy again. I nodded off for half an hour or so, and in that time I saw/felt someone come over and kiss me on the cheek. I reached up and pulled him in closer, for a real kiss, the type that tells the other just how much I care about him, but it was just a dream. It’s like when I’m dancing to the music in the kitchen and I wrap my arm around No One’s waist and pull him close and rest my head on the air where his shoulder would be. It seems sometimes like life is preparing me for this great romance that hasn’t happened yet, and other times it seems like life is teaching me to be content with fantasy because I’m never going to have a love that satisfies me.

She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself – struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: “But this is what I see; this is what I see,” and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.

Typically when I read this book I see it as being primarily about Mrs Ramsay, what she means to the people around her, how they react when they lose her. This time I think that the protagonist is actually Lily Briscoe, the marriage-resisting painter. The difficulty she has with her art feels a bit like Woolf peeking out through the character and talking about writing. It does seem indicative of what happens to me when I sit down to write.

The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low. Then one gave it up; then the idea sunk back again; then one became like most middle-aged people, cautious, furtive, with wrinkles between the eyes and a look of perpetual apprehension. For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express that emptiness there? (She was looking at the drawing-room steps; they looked extraordinarily empty.) It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind. The physical sensations that went with the bare look of the steps had become suddenly extremely unpleasant. To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have – to want and want – how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs Ramsay! she called out silently, to that essence which sat by the boat, that abstract one made of her, that woman in grey, as if to abuse her for having gone, and then having gone, come back again. It had seemed so safe, thinking of her. Ghost, air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily and safely at any time of day or night, she had been that, and then suddenly she put her hand out and wrung the heart thus. Suddenly, the empty drawing-room steps, the frill of the chair inside, the puppy tumbling on the terrace, the whole wave and whisper of the garden became like curves and arabesques flouring round a centre of complete emptiness.

In thinking about this loss, I don’t really have this continuity of memory and essence of the dead. The people I miss are still alive, but far away, and no longer the people I knew. Seeing my brother makes me wonder if I had been lying to myself before, if he had always been this frantic entertainer hiding ‘a centre of complete emptiness,’ but that thought goes against one of my most important beliefs, in the mutability of mankind. People grow and change; he and I grew in opposite directions. I saw some other friends this weekend too – in Brazil, I would call her my concunhada, but in English we don’t have a good word for the friend whose sister is married to my brother – but without this sense of loss. The things I have always loved about them are still true, even after three kids and thyroid cancer. Yes, they grow and change, but I guess we’re moving in a similar direction. Whatever the cause of it, I can return to them after years away and feel as natural as if I had seen them last week. I always feel loved and welcomed, even though they still embrace that church that denies my right to a romantic relationship. [I was looking through the hymnal and realized that with their emphasis on right behavior and embracing truth, a great many of their hymns are still meaningful to me.] I may get back to them in a few weeks, or it may be a few years, but no matter how we grow, I am certain that they will always love me.

I love this book. I will be the first to admit that nothing happens, that this book takes place inside the mind and not in the outward world, but it is no less beautiful for all that. I love my family too, not for their beauty or poetry, but because they are mine, including the fact that I don’t get close because I know the ways their love falls short. I also love my friends, the family I choose, because their love never does.

 

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In education, we talk about the ‘affective filter,’ which refers to the fact that when a person is in a heightened emotional state it is difficult for that person to learn or produce evidence of learning. A student who is experiencing anxiety or depression has a much more pressing need to deal with those emotions than to learn that the capital of Spain is Madrid, or to take your stupid math test. My affective filter has been up for a while now, so while I’m enjoying reading, it’s a little more difficult for me to sit down and write. I finished this book nearly a week ago, and it’s taken this long for me to give myself the space to begin to write. [And it took more than a week to finish this.]

Ozeki is part Japanese, part North American, and her novel celebrates this style of cultural blending. There are two parallel narratives in the book, one about a girl in Japan writing a diary and one about a fictionalized Ozeki living on a small island off the coast of British Columbia. To be clear, the real Ozeki has a husband with the same name and similar academic background as the one in the book, and they have a house in the same area as the one in the book, so the portrayal may not be all that fictional. She alludes heavily to a Japanese genre of confessional novels popular in the 1920s, and this narrative is probably strongly influenced by them.

Ruth finds a diary washed up on the beach and immediately recognizes markers of suicidal tendencies in the writer, so she enlists the aid of several friends and colleagues to find out more about the girl writing in an effort to save her. One of the things that impressed me about Ruth and her friends is the way that people interested in intellectual things seem to find each other. Most of the people I meet outside of work (and in some settings, even at work) have very different interests than I do. They don’t seem to enjoy reading books and talking about them. Ruth’s community on the island seems a collection of Best Possible Helpers who still have individual quirkiness. For example, the guy who runs the recycling center is a native French speaker and reads philosophy.

The other thing that impresses me, both in the book and from my own observations, is just how much academic people care. Most of my non-academic acquaintance is concerned primarily with comfort and helping people they love, but academics are more likely to believe that ideas are important and to let their principles dictate their daily habits. Once there was a large group of us helping someone move into a new house, and halfway through one couple said, “Well, we have to go protest the war now. We’ll see you later.” Protesting the Iraq War wasn’t an option they would get to if they had time; it was a necessity which all other activities had to bend to. Ruth’s friends are similar, though their activities are more concerned with climate change and the health of the Pacific. Oliver, Ruth’s husband, is planting species of trees that were native to the area in the earliest times we can imagine, pre-dinosaur even. That’s a conflict because the island authorities want only native species, meaning currently native species, so Oliver’s trees are seen as invasive. Both he and they are trying to preserve the area; they just have different ideas about the best way to do it.

There are a lot of storms in Ruth’s narrative, because there are a lot of storms in this area at this time of the year, but they also provide narrative tension and delay.

Ruth also spends a lot of time remembering her mother, who died a few years earlier from Alzheimer’s. Her mother is Japanese, so Ruth feels a close connection with this culture even though she seems to have spent her life in North America. I mean, she doesn’t have any linguistic or cultural markers that differentiate her from the academic subculture of the United States. Everyone on the island seems to have loved Ruth’s mother, and she seems to have been more popular than Ruth herself – definitely more engaged, more active in doing community things. Ruth seems a little less social than the people around her. When she finds the diary, it is difficult for her to share it with anyone. She doesn’t even want people to know she has it. It is her special project, and no one else can know about it. Except that they have to so that she can get more information about Naoko and her family. In this sense, I identify with Ruth a lot. It is proving very difficult for me to be in a relationship with someone who is more social; he’s accepted the fact that I’m not going to talk much, so he only turns to me in his quiet times, which are not that lengthy or frequent. This means that I feel like I have to fight to spend time with him, and we’re only alone at night. I feel like he’s losing interest. The relationship between Ruth and Oliver works because he’s only slightly more social than she is, and he takes an interest in her normally quiet activities, like reading. [I’m thinking of the Zone of Proximal Development.] And part of the distance between me and him is my fault, as I’m becoming more hermit-y toward him as he focuses his attention in other places. It’s a spiral of apart-ness.

One of the important historical events in this part of the book is the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster in 2011. The internet has several different opinions on how much the nuclear fallout in Fukushima affects the Pacific coast of Canada and the United States today, but Ruth and her family/friends are concerned about it. The tsunami brought several items from Japan to North America, which is their explanation for how Naoko’s diary reached Ruth. They’re concerned with the health of the Pacific generally, as in understanding the size and scope of the garbage patches and how they will break down over time and poison us all, especially in light of the killer radiation.

Naoko’s story deals a lot with her family as well, but the narrative is about her learning about her family instead of hiding from her community like Ruth. Let’s start at the beginning.

Jiko Yasutani is over a hundred years old. She was a feminist anarchist novelist, until her son died. After that, she devoted her life to Zen Buddhism in an attempt to forgive the individuals and institutions that led to his death. She seems to have succeeded. Sixty years of meditation and gratitude have created mental habits that do not support vengeance or bitterness. Nao says that she has superpowers because her capacity to accept and respect others inspires quiet respect from everyone, even from strangers. She walks into a room and her presence is felt; the room is better for her being there. Aside from the son, she has two daughters, but they don’t occupy a big place in the story. They are loved, and one of them has a son, and that’s all there really is to know. Jiko sees the problems in the lives of her grandson and great-granddaughter and takes steps to help. I admire the way that her respect and acceptance of all things includes herself. She recognizes her competence and uses it; she recognizes her weakness and asks for help. There’s a simplicity, a lack of self-consciousness that I would like to have in my own life. I worry that achieving it would twist me out of shape, because self-consciousness is such a large part of my personality, but there is a serenity that I admire and would like to achieve.

Haruki #1 is her son, and makes the third narrator (after Nao and the third-person who narrates Ruth’s story). He was a philosophy student, the type who is so dedicated that he learns German and French so that he can read European philosophers in the original languages. Partway through his university studies, he is drafted into the army. His entire unit is composed of students, and the drill sergeant and other trainers are merciless in the hazing. He eventually learns that it is easier to take upon himself the punishments directed at his friends than watch the authorities abuse them. It is easier to forgive wrongs done to the self than wrongs done to people we love. He accepts the fact of his imminent death, so when they ask for volunteers to join the kamikaze squad, he raises his hand. He decides to crash into the sea rather than a battleship so that he won’t have to kill Americans. His narration comes through his letters to his mother, but he also keeps a secret diary in French. These writings get stuffed into a lunchbox and taken by the sea, along with Nao’s diary and his watch. How these things get passed around is a little vague, and there’s a little magical realism in it. Since the rest of the book is so thoroughly realistic, this felt like a bit of a flaw, but it makes sense if you accept the Zen philosophy. But if you don’t, you can just assume people look for meaning in things they don’t understand and leave it at that.

Haruki #2 is Haruki’s nephew. He’s gifted in programming, so he moves his family to California and has quite a successful career for ten or twelve years. But the dot-com bubble breaks, and they have to return to Japan. He spends the book in an extreme depression, and attempts suicide twice. It turns out that the bubble popped early for him because he refused to obey orders due to his ethical code, so he’s not really that different from his uncle the pacifist hero, though he slices pages out of Haruki #1’s beloved Heidegger to make complex origami insects. When he realizes his daughter is being cyberbullied, he finds the project that gets him back into a paycheck and a good state of mind – a thing (I don’t know if you’d call it an app or a virus or a bot or what) that, whenever someone looks for you online, deletes the search results. It’s a way of bringing anonymity to the accidentally notorious. This is what makes it so hard for Ruth to find any corroborating evidence that Nao’s diary is real.

Naoko is Haruki #2’s daughter. She starts a diary to honor her old Jiko’s life, but it really ends up being about her. She spent most of her childhood in California, so when they have to move back to Japan, it’s the opposite of coming home. The other kids hate her for being “fat and stupid,” though here in the United States she’s probably pretty normal. Her academic Japanese language skills don’t match her grade level, though, and American kids aren’t expected to look like anorexic anime characters. The other kids hold a funeral for her and post it to youtube, and there’s a scene that reminds me of Carrie, but with a souvenir being sold on eBay. It’s horrible. She stops going to school and spends more and more time with the sex workers in the neighborhood, so her parents send her to spend the summer at a temple with her great-grandmother. She loves it, she loves her grandmother, she is happy. But when she goes back to school, nothing’s changed. She fails her high school entrance exams and joins the sex workers. This isn’t the type of thing where she’s wandering the streets – she sits in a café until one of the guys wants her, then they go to a hotel. Her first guy reminds me a bit of the first guy in Fanny Hill – he’s handsome and really sweet, if you ignore the fact that he’s paying to have sex with a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. The second guy she’s forced to go with, and she realizes that she really does care about herself enough to get out. There’s a happy ending, but most of the book is dominated by the sense that she’s going to kill herself. I’m glad she doesn’t.

Ruth going online and looking for these people inspired me to do a little of my own. My uncle died when I was young, but he had an ex-wife and a few daughters, so I thought I’d dig around a bit and find out who they were, hoping that these cousins of mine were happy and successful women. But I didn’t find them, because all the internet has to say about my uncle is about his killer, the most recent person to have been executed in that state. The articles talk about how my uncle served in Vietnam without firing his weapon (or even learning to – he was a pacifist), how most of the law cases he worked on were pro bono, and how he donated the produce of his garden to feed the homeless. He seems like the world’s nicest guy, and I never knew him because he died when I was five. My family argued against capital punishment at every appeal, but the killer had other victims whose families had other ideas about things, so the state killed him. One of the papers even interviewed my sister (I saw it on Murderpedia, a website I’m appalled by the existence of), I guess because she was the geographically closest family member to the place of execution.

The whole situation has me really angry and really sad, and the fact that my relationship is fading out means that I don’t feel like I have anyone to talk to about it. The relationship also makes me feel angry and sad, and I get kind of overwhelmed by all the things that feel terrible in my life right now. I don’t feel close to my friends or family – I just feel alone, sort of used, and not strongly wanted. I am not falling into suicidal ideation, though; I’ve realized that I like being alive too much to let it go. But it’s time for the next new thing to start. I need another chapter.

 

Oxford, in the rain:

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

And our featured professor of literature, Gervase Fen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

And lo, from the very beginning, I am in love again.

There is something about this book, this woman, that makes me feel all relaxed and happy, Smollett’s ‘agreeable lassitude.’ I read the first page, the first line, and I am instantly more composed, more reconciled to the world I live in. I’ve been analyzing myself on this reading, trying to figure out why Mrs Dalloway should affect me in this way, and I think it’s her approach to life.

And of course she enjoyed life immensely. It was her nature to enjoy (though, goodness only knows, she had her reserves; it was a mere sketch, he often felt, that even he, after all these years, could make of Clarissa). Anyhow there was no bitterness in her; none of that sense of moral virtue which is so repulsive in good women. She enjoyed practically everything. If you walked with her in Hyde Park, now it was a bed of tulips, now a child in a perambulator, now some absurd little drama she made up on the spur of the moment. (Very likely she would have talked to those lovers, if she had thought them unhappy.) She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, saying things she didn’t mean, blunting the edge of her mind, losing her discrimination.

Mrs Dalloway enjoys life indiscriminately. Everything and everyone pleases her. Her servants love her because she makes their work easy for them without losing the ineffable sense of glamour that she casts on everything. I find her enthusiasm compelling and irresistible, though not quite infectious. She awakens in me the desire to love the world as she does, but I’m not quite there yet. She has a gift for making things beautiful that I do not possess. She certainly has a way with people that I do not. For all I try, I do not have the manners that make strangers feel comfortable, and that deficiency makes it harder for me to make new friends and enjoy large parties as she does.

Though I suppose that I lack discrimination as well, and this is one of the reasons that I didn’t quite succeed in academia. Edmund Wilson said that the true connoisseur is the one who can distinguish between the various qualities of literature and always prefers the highest; I’m more in love with the B-List. I can read and enjoy Dickens, but I get much more pleasure from Wilkie Collins, who is not quite as reputable. Indeed, I even find my appreciation for George Eliot fading a bit, though my late-20s self thinks it sacrilege to admit the possibility. As you can see from this blog, I mix classics with zombies and sci-fi. I may be able to distinguish between the various cuts of literature, but I don’t insist on the absolute best. The apathy toward discrimination keeps me from being a true literary connoisseur/critic.

And now Clarissa escorted her Prime Minister down the room, prancing, sparkling, with the stateliness of her grey hair. She wore ear-rings, and a silver-green mermaid’s dress. Lolloping on the waves and braiding her tresses she seemed, having that gift still; to be; to exist; to sum it all up in the moment as she passed; turned, caught her scarf in some other woman’s dress, unhitched it, laughed, all with the most perfect ease and air of a creature floating in its element. But age had brushed her; even as a mermaid might behold in her glass the setting sun on some very clear evening over the waves. There was a breath of tenderness; her severity, her prudery, her woodenness were all warmed through now, and she had about her as she said good-bye to the thick gold-laced man who was doing his best, and good luck to him, to look important, an inexpressible dignity; an exquisite cordiality; as if she wished the whole world well, and must now, being on the very verge and rim of things, take her leave.

Mrs Dalloway as a mermaid here makes me think of that line from Prufrock, and to Peter Walsh she does seem a little inaccessible, uninviting. She and Peter and Sally Seton spent a lot of time together thirty years previously; Peter and Sally were both in love with her, and Clarissa and Sally even shared a kiss that Mrs Dalloway still lingers over in memory. Peter proposed, which she finds much less agreeable. And yet, she chose Richard Dalloway, who seems so much less of a person than the other two. There’s a much clearer portrait of him in The Voyage Out, chapters three through six. It was published ten years earlier, and the Dalloways serve as a type of ideal for the young protagonist. In the earlier novel they travel briefly with a group of academics and/or artists, of that type that you’re not sure if they create art, criticize it, or both. The Dalloways bring a certain elegance to the party, however much the other members may dislike it. But what I really wanted to point out from the earlier story is that Clarissa explains why she chose Richard. He was the first person she felt truly understood her. Despite their devotion, Peter and Sally don’t see to the heart of her. I think that in order to see something in other people, the same quality has to exist in ourselves. Clarissa Dalloway is essentially different from Peter Walsh and Sally Seton. A part of it is class, a larger part is patriotism and duty. It sounds a bit mad to me, but the parties, the clothes, the house in town, the frivolity, all that Peter can’t comprehend, is her responsibility to England. The upper classes have a duty to adorn the nation. The desperate poor need something to hope for, and the wealthy give them that ideal. To many people it seems like selfishness, but Mrs Dalloway sees it as service.

I read The Voyage Out three years ago, and in response I wrote, “I read to escape as most fiction readers do, but I also read for the people. I see patterns of being that I would like to emulate, models of what I could be. Some are happy, some are sad, some are lovable, some are evil, but I see the seeds of them in myself, and I see that it’s possible for me to be other than as I am. Novels serve as a mirror in which I see my own potential.” It continues to hold true. I love Mrs Dalloway because she has a grace and social talent that I don’t have but that I would like to develop. My social anxiety and social position keep me from large parties with the Prime Minister, but the comfort under observation would be a real benefit.

Mrs Dalloway is all light and beauty and elegance, but for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Her dark Other is Septimus Warren Smith, a young man still suffering from the post-traumatic stress of World War I. The officer he loved and served under died in the War, and five years later Septimus is still insane with grief.

So they returned to the most exalted of mankind; the criminal who faced his judges; the victim exposed on the heights; the fugitive; the drowned sailor; the poet of the immortal ode; the Lord who had gone from life to death; to Septimus Warren Smith, who sat in the arm-chair under the skylight staring at a photograph of Lady Bradshaw in Court dress, muttering messages about beauty.

Paranoia, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur . . . It’s bad. Many of his symptoms were Woolf’s own, such as the belief that the birds were giving him messages in Greek, which he does not speak. The thing that touches me about the portrayal is not so much him as his wife. He married Lucrezia in Milan before he came back from the war, and she does her best to take care of him. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be afraid of going crazy, and then inventing a character who loves you and takes perfect care of you. And then acknowledging that it isn’t enough. Rezia can’t save him. The doctor comes again, but he just can’t take it any more and escapes.

Even though they never meet, Mrs Dalloway hears about what happened and she understands. She knows that the pressure of doctors could drive someone to suicide, and she doesn’t judge him for it. She knows, and feels sympathy. Between The Voyage Out and Mrs Dalloway, there was the influenza epidemic, and Clarissa fell deathly ill. She recovered, but with a fresh awareness of death, which follows her throughout the day of this story. Facing the reality of her death takes some of her sweetness away. There is strong rage hiding under the white or red roses and mermaid gowns. Most people see only the surface; Peter and Sally see only the depths; but she is both. Mrs Dalloway is a real human being, which means she has rivals and hatreds and friends and loves and everything that makes a life. She sees all of life, whether good or evil, and values it all. She loves life so much that she loves even the pain. She accepts herself completely.

Last week, when I went back to North Carolina, I was baffled by these last six months. How could I have imagined I could be content in the Midwest, when so much of what I love is hundreds of miles away? My children, the friends who helped me through my divorce and coming-out, so much of what really matters to me, so much of what I consider my life is there. I want to go home. And when I think of Mrs Dalloway, I’ve been realizing that I don’t have faith in myself. I don’t think that I will be able to make it there. The him that I’m with now I think can really help me reconcile myself with my family, as well as give me the courage to go after what I really want in life, even if it’s without him. He can show me the way, but I have to do the work myself. I need to continue to decide that my happiness is worth working toward. That could involve a new life, a new career, all kinds of scary things. But if it gets me home, that will be worth it. I just can’t bear the thought of dying here.

 

The promotion for this book (at least the copy I have) seems to be, “If you loved Possession, you’ll like this.” Yet it was published twelve years earlier, and the author seems to be at a different stage in her thinking and writing. Like Possession, it deals with the private lives of people who give their lives to literature; unlike Possession, these people are not career scholars, they’re teachers at a little school in Yorkshire. Stylistically, she’s writing as an academic instead of as someone who wants people to read her sentences.

He did not look, as she had supposed, perhaps feared, he might, silly.

Do not separate the predicate adjective from a linking verb with a long subordinate clause (and a second clause embedded in the first! Oh my).

This book draws a lot from D. H. Lawrence, explicitly from The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There are also a lot of parallels with The Virgin and the Gipsy. Two sisters growing up and learning about life and love, the older more serious, the younger a bit of a firecracker. Unfortunately, Stephanie and Frederica are being raised by Bill Potter, a verbally abusive, frustrated academic. He’s replaced the Bible and Christianity with Lawrence and the Romantics. It’s a curious trade, and one that leads to results he himself does not condone.

Good teaching is a mystery and takes many forms. Stephanie’s idea of good teaching was simple and limited: it was the induced, shared, contemplation of a work, an object, an artefact. It was not the encouragement of self-expression, self-analysis, or what were to be called interpersonal relations. Indeed, she saw a good reading of the Ode on a Grecian Urn as a welcome chance to avoid these activities.

I agree with Byatt’s comment on the mystery of being a good teacher, but I’m not sure if Stephanie goes about it correctly. Her method was highly valued in the early 1950s, when we were trying to make the study of literature dispassionate and scientific, but my experience with literature professors is that they generally want students to connect with the poem, or with the poet through the poem, or with themselves through the poem. Self-expression, self-analysis, and interpersonal relations are desirable and indeed necessary aspects of today’s classroom, like the time I wrote to my professor that I was having a hard time relating to Shakespeare’s sonnets because I had never been in love. [I glance backward at my twenty-three-year-old self and shake a fist, shouting “Come out of the closet! You’re gay! Pay attention to your crushes on men!”]

Stephanie is the older, steadier sister, and as such, is the one I’m more interested in. She rebels against her father, first by leaving Cambridge and teaching in the same middle-of-nowhere town she was raised in, and then by marrying the curate. Wasting her intellectual talents is one thing, but allying herself so strongly to a professional Christian is just too much. Daniel isn’t actually that great of a Christian; he doesn’t believe or care about the dogma. His interest is in social justice, so instead of spending a lot of time studying and writing sermons, he goes around finding ways to help people. This is a mission Stephanie can agree with. Her feelings don’t seem to heat up that much; he wants her, he’s a logical choice, and he represents a way to escape her father. A common sad story.

Frederica is the titular virgin, an unpopular seventeen-year-old anxious to lose her virginity. It’s the year of Elizabeth II’s coronation, so the local artsy people are doing a celebration of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Apparently there are numerous parallels between the life of Elizabeth and Frederica’s story, but I am no Renaissance scholar. Alexander Wedderburn, her father’s younger colleague at school, has written a play about the queen that will serve as the centerpiece to the Elizabethan festivities. They hire a few professional actors, but Frederica is chosen to act the part of the teenaged Elizabeth. The play gives her license to find someone to have sex with, and by the two-thirds point this is the primary element of suspense. Who? When? Where?

He produced a macintosh and laid it out under a somewhat Wordsworthian thorn bush. Frederica sat stiffly on the edge of it, telling herself that there were certain things that when she knew them would not bother her in the same way any more. She had read Lady Chatterley, true, and The Rainbow too, and Women in Love, but it cannot be said that she expected a revelation from the traveller in dolls. She wished her ignorance, part of it, to be dispelled. She wished to become knowledgeable. She wished to be able to pinpoint the sources of her discontent.

She’s not discontented because she’s a virgin. If she were, she wouldn’t have so many near-misses. There are a few times she has the opportunity to have sex but backs out at the last minute. She gets called a cock-tease, but I don’t think it’s intentional. She means to have sex, but gets disgusted with the men. There are a lot of disgusting men out there, and those who want to sleep with a teenager (after they’ve passed into their legal majority) are among them. Austen heroes, I’m looking at you – Colonel Brandon and Mr Knightley, especially. They are both my age when they marry, but Marianne Dashwood is only nineteen and Emma Woodhouse twenty-one. I have no business running after little boys like that. Frederica’s discontentment comes from her social isolation and her volatile father.

When she finally creates the right mixture of partner, place, and time, she finds that sex is different from what she had expected.

She had learned something. She had learned that you could do – that – in a reasonably companionable and courteous way with no invasion of your privacy, no shift in your solitude. You could sleep all night, with a strange man, and see the back only of his head, and be more self-contained than anywhere else. This was a useful thing to know. It removed the awful either/or from the condition of women as she had seen it. Either love, passion, sex and those things, or the life of the mind, ambition, solitude, the others. There was a third way: you could be alone and not alone in a bed, if you made no fuss. She too would turn away and go to sleep.

I found that out too, but since my first time was on my wedding night, it wasn’t immediately. At first it was this cosmic force binding us together, but in time I could also see it driving us apart. I had to learn to accept love without a physical component – love and sex became divided for me because I got love without sex, not sex without love the way most people seem to.

I suppose the reason I don’t find Frederica very interesting is that different versions of her story get told over and over and over again. Bookish teenage outcast finds her place in society? How many times have we told that story?

I identified more with their brother Marcus. He’s sixteen, but I kept visualizing him as younger. Like me, he has family-trauma-induced mental problems, including hallucinations and sporadic extreme sensitivity to light. I pushed it all into religion, where you can pass that kind of stuff off as proof of divine favor (or at least attention – Old Testament prophets did not lead peaceful lives). Marcus’s father doesn’t allow of religion, so he pairs up with a teacher who has some weird beliefs about the natural and supernatural worlds. In another time, Lucas Simmonds would have been a ghostbuster or an internet conspiracy theorist, tracking ley lines and all that good stuff, but in the 1950s the information isn’t available to him. He keeps trying to make something happen, find some proof that the supernatural is real (The Truth Is Out There), and in the process lose himself. There’s something suicidal about his desire to vanish into the air, cast off this mortal flesh and join the elementals or whatever he wants to do. Marcus isn’t really into this like Lucas is, and the self-dissolution aspect of it worries him, but Lucas has answers (however wonky) and gives him time and attention, which no one else is willing to do. It seems like Lucas’s biggest problem is one he won’t face: he’s gay. His flight from the body is really a flight from his own sexuality. If chemical castration were offered to him, I think he would take it. Instead he ends up really going off the deep end. Marcus ends the book in a bad place too, primarily because he feels responsible for Lucas. Lucas’s insanity isn’t Marcus’s fault though; you can blame society for denying the viability of homosexuality as a mode of existence, you can blame Lucas for refusing to accept himself, but none of this can be traced to Marcus. He got to the party too late to be responsible for it. I do wish that Lucas could have danced by the pond with flowers twined through all the hair on his body without being crazy – if I ever have a nervous breakdown, I hope it’s beautiful like that.

I’ve been visiting my kids this week, and I first saw them on a playground. My oldest ran up to me and commented on how many children were there and how scary crowds are, and I thought, “Oh good, you’ve inherited my social anxiety.” I’m happy for any connection with my kids. He unwrapped the book I got him and was really excited – The Ex and I both enjoyed Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence when we were his age, so Over Sea, Under Stone was a good choice – so excited, in fact, that by the time I left the next day he had finished the entire book. It’s sometimes harder to see similarities with my middle boy – he’s more Emilio Estevez than Anthony Michael Hall – but he has my preference for showing love through physical contact and my impatience with unnecessary conversation. The youngest is still sort of a mystery to me; it’s like he’s a batch of muffins that have only been cooking for seven minutes. Just not done yet. He’s sensitive and affectionate, and likes whatever his brothers are into.

I saw my dad a few weeks ago, and I’ve been crying ever since. It’s not that I miss him, though I did, it’s that my parents are kind of horrible. In the course of one evening he pointed out that even though I’ve lived in the Midwest/Southwest for two years, he’s the first one to come visit me [subtext: I’m the only one who loves you and you can’t trust anyone else], AND that he had way too many kids and he jokingly/not-jokingly wishes abortion had been more socially and morally acceptable back in the 1970s [subtext: I wish you were never born]. He tried to give me a handshake instead of a hug [subtext: You’re a stranger to me, stay out of my personal space, keep your gay filth to yourself]. This whole love/rejection thing is toxic and hard and makes the concept of family very difficult for me, so I’m not participating in my guy’s holiday family get-togethers the way he’d like me to. I’m not sure what he wants, maybe another version of his brother’s partner, but my relationships with my family (or The Ex’s family) have not prepared me for the kind of interactions he wants me to have with his parents and extended family.

I worry about my family life. I don’t know how to do any of this, being a good son or a good father or a good partner to someone who is close to his family. I try to be myself and act in ways that are natural to me, and show love whenever I can, but lately I’ve been feeling like it’s not enough. The collapse of the Potter family feels like a warning, but I don’t know how to profit from it. There must be a way to hang onto love without losing the self, there must be a way to reach out to loved ones without hurting them, and there ought to be a way to interact with my parents that doesn’t leave me sobbing for months afterward. But twentieth-century literature may be the wrong place to look for them.

Yes, this is a book about the pace of modern life. Partially.

We begin with Kundera and his wife driving out to a castle-turned-hotel for the evening. As he’s driving, he’s thinking about the modern tendency to road rage (yes, I’m pointing at myself) and our insane hurry to do everything. After they arrive, they enjoy a quiet evening and go to bed early. So, for most of the book, he’s imagining it, and his wife is dreaming what he imagines, like their minds are in the same vehicle but he’s driving. Every now and again she’ll wake up and comment on the story, or a piece of music that he mentions. This is the frame.

Because this is a Milan Kundera novel, he moves quickly to the subject of sex. He thinks that our sex lives must be as hurried as the rest of life, and he finds this unfortunate. He remembers a short erotic story from the eighteenth century, Vivant Denon’s Point de Lendemain. This is a real story; you can read it at Project Gutenberg, if you read French. Denon was more famous for his Egyptology; his travel book on Egyptian archaeology fueled the orientalist fads of the late eighteenth to the nineteenth century, which sort of culminated in Aida – because why not set an Italian opera in Egypt – or possibly in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – because why not send an American teacher to fight Nazis in Egypt. Frankly, if you’re looking for eighteenth century smut, Fanny Hill is much more detailed, with less not-sex. A young man sees a married friend of his mistress, and she takes him out to her home in the country (the same castle Kundera is staying in, of course). Over the course of the evening, she works a slow seduction, the type designed to end in sex but in such a way that the man thinks it’s his ardor leading the charge. There are a few changes of scenery; she leads him all over the garden. She flirts him in a little, then pushes him away with that classical French pout. Finally she takes him to a secret room in the castle and they do what she brought him for; the next morning he runs into the guy she’s been fucking and he reveals that the whole night was just a smokescreen so that her husband would focus his jealousy on Young Protagonist instead of on the real lover.

So of course Kundera reimagines the story in the modern world (twenty years ago, before we all had cell phones). Kundera’s pal Vincent is at the same hotel, attending a conference of entomologists. He meets Julie, some kind of admin assistant working the conference. They bond over the fact that they both feel young and undervalued, so they abuse the other attendees over a few drinks and decide to go up to her room. They get sidetracked by the new swimming pool, so they swim naked for a bit and do it poolside. Then she runs away all flirtatious-like and he follows her but not quite fast enough (A lady clutching a dress to her nude front is all right, but a gentleman ought to put on the trousers in his hand). He can’t find her, so for both young men, the love affair has no tomorrow. I feel like I ought to be sad about that, but a one-night stand is one of my favorite memories, so I’m really not.

Because this is a Kundera novel, there’s also a socio-political element, this time focused on performance. Some people grow and expand like a rose blooming when they have an audience. So they play to that audience; Kundera calls it dancing, and he has quite a lot to say about dancers. Most of it not great. We wear masks in public, and sometimes we confuse the mask for the real self. People who don’t even know a person’s real self can reject a mask, but the rejectee feels it in the real self. The good politicians and academics know how to manage their personae to get ahead. Čechořipsky is less skilled in this area. He may at one time have been a brilliant entomologist, but he failed to ingratiate himself with the Soviets when they took over Czechoslovakia. He tries to see it as a successful rebellion now, but at the time it was just cowardice. So he’s spent the last twenty years as a construction worker, not studying bugs. He’s so emotionally overwhelmed at the conference he forgets to present his paper, and when he realizes his mistake he feels like a big idiot, so he comforts himself by thinking of his physique. Working in construction like that, he’s stronger than any of these guys who have spent their lives in laboratories. Boys have always comforted themselves for the fact that they’re not comparatively smart by asking themselves who would win in a fight. But the other scientists don’t see him as buff or hot or anything. They seem to see him more as a Quasimodo figure.

So he goes down to the pool to do some lengths and feel better about himself, and he sees these two people fucking next to the pool, and he thinks what a strange and wonderful country France must be, where lovers can do that in public without drawing unwanted attention. What he doesn’t realize is that Vincent’s dick is not at all engaged. It’s in its resting state, dangling about but not actually inside her. This sex act is a performance. Vincent and Julie are each performing their rebellion against society for an invisible audience, possibly each other, so there’s no need for them to actually touch. Just like in Denon’s story, where the lady takes the young man to prove to her husband that he doesn’t have to worry about the man she’s sleeping with habitually – it’s all performance. Our lives are full of performance too; we’re all dancing about in front of the cameras, hoping to get our pictures taken. Our cultural conversation insists that fame is ephemeral, but that doesn’t stop us from wishing for it. Kundera points out that we all think we are the elect, and that we will somehow get our image preserved forever. It’s hard for us to cope with our equality; we believe we’re special, that we somehow deserve nice things even when no one else has them. Or maybe I’m just talking about me, who secretly never gave up his dream of becoming a rock star. Even though he’s 37 and has only a basic musical talent and a complete disdain for autotune. It makes people sound like robots.

So, to complete this book on fame and sex (and the informal spaces where the two interact) and pacing, there’s this weird little apostrophe on the last page that doesn’t seem to fit with the novel.

I beg you, friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope.

Is that really what the whole thing has been about? Happiness? and Hope?

What does it take to be happy? What does ‘happy’ even mean?

Against my expectations, I’m reminded of a bit of St Paul, where he says that external circumstances don’t matter to him because his contentment comes from within (Phil 4:12-13). Much as I dislike supporting Paul, this one makes sense. The characters in this book are mostly unhappy, but it’s primarily themselves they are unhappy with. Vincent and Julie and Čechořipsky and the other dancers are all acting out their obvious insecurities, while the characters he borrows from Denon seem happy, even the young man who was manipulated and used. I guess that makes sense, according to the codes of the time he protected a woman (read weak, defenseless creature) from the vile aspersions of her husband (however true they may be). I guess people like being helpful, even if the help is kind of strange. In context, though, I think Kundera would link their happiness to their slower pace of life. Their actions are more deliberate: Julie takes the opportunity when it comes, but Madame de T creates the opportunity and orchestrates the entire experience. My modern self wants to be special, unique, not so easily predicted, but Denon’s lad finds happiness in the utility that comes from being so utterly conventional. Less individuality, less fame, but more happiness.

As I’m sitting here considering times I have been both happy and slow, I think that the connection has to do with the amount of control I feel I have over my own life. If I let modernity have its way, I get swept into the rush of things. When I can control my life, I slow it down. When I feel in control, I feel happy. And frankly, reading seems to play a large part in all this. He got me an iPad a month or two ago, and it’s a nice toy for checking my friends’ facebook posts, but when I try to read an article they share, the ads load very slowly, so I read a few sentences and the screen goes blank to reload the next ad, so I find my place and read a few more words before the screen goes blank again. If I get through an entire paragraph and have to scroll down, when the screen goes blank it will leave me at the top of the page again. It’s one of the most frustrating reading experiences I’ve ever had because I’m forced to rush. But reading an actual book is wholly different. The artifact is already intact, so I don’t have to wait for ads or buffering. It’s always immediately available, and it never reloads. There’s no pressure to hurry before the words disappear. Any pressures are purely internal, so I’m in control of the experience. I can choose to read quickly if the book is exciting, or I can slow down if the writing is complex or beautiful. With a printed book, I can make choices because there is so little technology mediating my experience of the text while I’m reading it.

Choice might actually be a better way of thinking about this than control. When I make choices, I’m happiest if I can take them slowly. Modern life does have a way of insisting that choices be made immediately, whether the matter is actually urgent or not. It’s better to have time to deliberate, weigh the options, think on it for a bit. The slower pace gives me confidence that I’m making a good choice. So. Slow is good. Taking time with/for people shows them that they are important to you. Taking time is how we escape from that twentieth-century French conviction that everything is meaningless. Slowness makes things matter.

What a sad little book.

This should hardly be a surprise; Hesse generally writes sad little books, and this one came out before he got into psychoanalysis. But even here, in his comparative youth, Hesse is one of the writers who can most clearly articulate the experience of depression, and while it can evoke painful memories for me, there is a reward greater than the pain: the knowledge that I am not alone in my suffering.

“Do you think so?”

“Yes. You are suffering from a sickness, one that is fashionable, unfortunately, and that one comes across every day among sensitive people. It is related to moral insanity and can also be called individualism or imaginary loneliness. Modern books are full of it. It has insinuated itself into your imagination; you are isolated; no one troubles about you and no one understands you. Am I right?”

“Almost,” I admitted with surprise.

“Listen. Those who suffer from this illness need only a couple of disappointments to make them believe that there is no link between them and other people, that all people go about in a state of complete loneliness, that they never really understand each other, share anything or have anything in common. It also happens that people who suffer from this sickness become arrogant and regard all other healthy people who can understand and love each other as flocks of sheep. If this sickness were general, the human race would die out, but it is only found among the upper classes in Central Europe. It can be cured in young people and it is, indeed, part of the inevitable period of development.”

I don’t believe everything about depression that Mr Lohe says here, and I don’t think Hesse does either. First, there is nothing imaginary about feeling lonely. The people I love live hundreds of miles away, and the best friend I’ve made here is a student who is graduating in a week. He’s going to school in the Pacific Northwest next year, so I may never see him again. This thought makes me sad. Second, depression would not stop the entire human race. Depressed people are capable of having sex, and many try to use that to treat their depression. And even without that, we don’t all kill ourselves. Thirdly, what do you mean, it’s confined to rich Europeans? Have you ever met someone outside the upper classes of Central Europe? We’re all the same; human nature is a constant, and the same types of personality exist in all strata and in all places.

In other ways, of course, Mr Lohe is completely right. Our society values the mental habit of finding patterns and formulating general theories from a few pieces of evidence. This is what is measured on IQ tests, and I do it well, so people think I’m smart. But people with this habit, people with high IQs who are considered intelligent, will draw huge overarching conclusions about the entire world based on the flimsiest evidence. This is where stereotypes come from. When I was young I thought the world was cold and indifferent because I could not mix with the people around me; now, I think that the people in the town I grew up in are weird and that I was suffering from my family situation without acknowledging the suffering or its cause, which kept me from interacting well with people. I think that my current living situation is temporary, but I still have to fight against the temptation to believe that I will always be alone and that while I may move from one place to another, nothing important will ever change.

When music stirred my being, I understood everything without the aid of words. I was then aware of pure harmony in the essence of life and felt that there must be a meaning and a just law behind everything that happened. Even if this was an illusion, it helped me to live and was a comfort to me.

This week I’ve been grateful for a key to the practice rooms at school. I’ve found it useful to have a language without words; I’m playing Mozart on the piano again. [I wish I still had my Debussy music.] Sunday was Mothers’ Day, and I had been planning to be a good and dutiful son, but when the day arrived I just couldn’t. I went to church as usual, but all I wanted to do was run away and scream. The reverend had a word or two to say to me after the service, and he had to hold me in place to keep me from running. [I crocheted him a blanket for a housewarming gift and he wanted to thank me; it wasn’t anything threatening.] I did scream some in the car later. After church I get a latte and use the free internet to check facebook and wordpress, and my friends were all grateful about their mothers and posting happy pictures – I honored the day by posting Joan Jett singing “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” So I’ve pinpointed my mom as some source of past trauma and present stress, but I don’t know how to deal with it. The music helps, but it doesn’t heal.

I soon realized that these teachings could only be of solace and value to those who could accept them literally, and sincerely believe them to be true. If, as it seemed to me, they were partly beautiful literature, partly intricate symbols, an attempt at a mythological explanation of the world, one could be instructed by them and hold them in esteem, but one could not learn how to live and gain strength from them. One could perhaps be a worthy and religious theosophist, but the final solace beckoned only to those who accepted simple beliefs without too much questioning. In the meantime, it was not for me.

Religion is not the answer. I convinced myself for a long time that it could solve my troubles, but for all my heroic efforts, I just can’t believe in it. I don’t think that stories have to be literally true in order to be powerful, but the Hebrew mythology is not as useful for me as it once was. I just can’t accept things without interrogating them. No idea really stands up under a steady stream of questions. I think this is part of my attraction to academia; it’s a subculture that doesn’t expect (or fully value) definitive answers. Only the questions matter; answers are necessarily provisional and incomplete, so life is about learning to ask the right questions. I can accept that, though I can’t often come up with the right questions on my own. I have a strong value for and feel a profound connection with those friends who ask me good questions.

Anyway, the book. Our first-person narrator/protagonist is a crippled composer whose ideal woman (Gertrude) falls for his best friend, a depressed but talented singer who drinks too much and beats his girlfriends. There’s another girl who loves him but whom he does not love in return. So for all his teacher’s comments on how wrongly people with depression view the world, in Hesse’s world everyone falls in love with the wrong person, and some of them die.

I think one can draw quite a distinct division between youth and maturity. Youth ends when egotism does; maturity begins when one lives for others. That is what I mean. Young people have many pleasures and many sorrows, because they have only themselves to think of, so every wish and every notion assumes importance; every pleasure is tasted to the full but also every sorrow, and many who find that their wishes cannot be fulfilled, put an end immediately to their lives. That is being young. To most people, however, there comes a time when the situation changes, when they live more for others, not for any virtuous reasons, but quite naturally. A family is the reason with most people. One thinks less about oneself and one’s wishes when one has a family. Others lose their egotism in a responsible position, in politics, in art or in science. Young people want to play; mature people want to work. A man does not marry just to have children, but if he has them they change him, and finally he sees that everything has happened just for them. That links up with the fact that young people like to talk about death but do not really think about it. It is just the other way round with old people. Life seems long to young people and they can therefore concentrate all their wishes and thoughts on themselves. Old people are conscious of an approaching end, and that everything one has and does solely for oneself finally falls short and lacks value. Therefore a man requires a different kind of continuity and faith; he does not work just for the worms. That is why one has a wife and children, business and responsibility, so that one knows for whom one endures the daily toil. In that respect your friend is quite right, a man is happier when he lives for others than when he lives just for himself, but old people should not make it out to be such an act of heroism, because it isn’t one really. In any case, the most lively young people become the best old people, not those who pretend to be as wise as grandfathers while they are still at school.

I find much of this to be true. Having children and family can give a meaning to an otherwise purposeless existence; the trick is to find the right people to devote one’s life to. Kuhn latches onto his mother (his father dies shortly after giving this speech), even though they’ve never understood or even liked each other. At first it’s a bad situation, but it gets better with time. They learn to respect each other, and perhaps love too. I spent eight years living for my wife and children, and it just made things worse in the end. She didn’t respect my work (reading Wuthering Heights is not playing when you’re taking a degree in British literature), and in the end she didn’t trust or value me for myself. I was useful to her when I could be controlled, but I hate feeling controlled. She encouraged me to examine my emotions critically, but when I did the result was not complimentary to her. My children are as independently minded as I am, so it was hard to base my emotional life in them because children don’t reciprocate well. They’re excessively pragmatic, in a short-sighted way. But at least their machinations and motivations are obvious. I love my sons and miss them horribly, but I’m so glad to be away from their mother that it’s not often apparent.

So, it’s a book about famous people and the reality of being around them:

Gradually the walk in the night cooled me down, and although my own wound was still open and needed healing, I was induced to think more and more about what Marian had said and about my stupid behavior that evening. I felt that I was a miserable creature who really owed an apology. Now that the courage the wine had given me had worn off, I was seized by an unpleasantly sentimental mood against which I fought. I did not say much more to the pretty woman, who now seemed agitated and moody herself as she walked beside me along the dark streets where, here and there, the light of a lamp was suddenly reflected on the dark surface of the wet ground. It occurred to me that I had left my violin in Muoth’s house; in the meantime I was again filled with astonishment and alarm at everything. The evening had turned out to be so different from what I had anticipated. Heinrich Muoth and Kranzl the violinist, and also the radiant Marian, who played the role of queen, had all climbed down from their pedestals. They were not gods or saints who dwelt on Olympian heights, but mere mortals; one was small and droll, another was oppressed and conceited, Muoth was wretched and self-tormented, the charming woman was pathetic and miserable as the lady friend of a restless sensualist who knew no joy, and yet she was good and kind and acquainted with suffering. I, myself, felt changed. I was no longer a single person but a part of all people, seeing good and bad in all. I felt I could not love a person here and hate another person there. I was ashamed of my lack of understanding and saw clearly for the first time in my young life that one could not go through life and among people so simply, hating one person and loving another, respecting one person and despising another, but all these emotions were closely tied up, scarcely separable and at times scarcely distinguishable. I looked at the woman walking by my side who was now also silent as if she too realized that the nature of many things was different from what she had thought and said.

And about the nature of creative work:

Then my work appeared before me, so familiar and yet so alien, which no longer needed me and had a life of its own. The pleasures and troubles of past days, the hopes and sleepless nights, the passion and longing of that period confronted me, detached and transformed. Emotions experienced in secret were transmitted clearly and movingly to a thousand unknown people in the theatre. Muoth appeared and began singing with some reserve. Then his voice grew stronger; he let himself go and sang in his deeply passionate manner; the soprano responded in a high, sweet voice. Then came the part which I could so well remember hearing Gertrude sing, which expressed my admiration for her and was a quiet confession of my love. I averted my glance and looked into her bright eyes, which acknowledged me and greeted me warmly, and for a moment the memory of my whole youth was like the sweet fragrance of a ripe fruit.

But the depression covers it all.

If you’re not comfortable with reading about depression, stay away from Hermann Hesse. If you’re suffering from it, he can help you feel like someone understands, even if it’s a German who’s been dead for fifty years. I think that the solutions Hesse finds later in his career are more helpful: think Steppenwolf, for example. It’s a good book – Hesse writes beautifully, and his translators do too – but sad. I should go look for something cheerful to read next.