Posts Tagged ‘adultery’

I would like to say that after a few weeks I still have a strong impression of this book, but that wouldn’t be true. It’s a murder mystery that takes place over the course of an evening, and at 160 pages, it can be read in the same period of time. By 1964 the original author who wrote as Brett Halliday had already been retired for a few years, but the publishers were still cranking out Mike Shayne novels at the rate of one or two a year. I haven’t yet read anything between the very early Bodies are Where You Find Them and these later ghostwritten stories, so I can’t speak to whether the writing changes abruptly or gradually, but this is a much simpler story than that earlier one.

Tim Rourke, our favorite newsman, comes to Mike Shayne, Miami private eye number one, with a problem. His friend Ralph Larson is terribly jealous as a husband and is likely to do something violent to the man he thinks is screwing his wife Dorothy. Shayne has a talk with the wife and considers the matter closed, but later that evening she calls and asks him to stop her husband doing something terrible. He and Tim race out to the lover’s house, only to catch the husband in the act of shooting him. Conviction seems like a cinch, until it becomes clear that the gunshot didn’t kill him after all – he was already dead.

Because this is a Mike Shayne novel, there are organized crime and local politics, and police officers who are convinced that the private detective is the murderer himself, but these are details that elude me, being outside my realm of experience and interest.

He got out a cigarette and lit it, and looked around him slowly. It was a pleasantly furnished and comfortably cluttered, feminine-looking room. The long sofa along one wall was covered with gold brocade and littered with small soft cushions in bright contrasting colors that managed not to clash. There were end tables with big utilitarian ashtrays on them, and two comfortable-looking overstuffed chairs ranged against the wall opposite the sofa. The muted music he had heard through the door was coming from a stereo set with twin speakers that were detached from it and set at right angles in different corners of the room. The music was not familiar to him, classical, he thought, probably one of the three B’s. A door at the end of the room directly in front of him opened onto a bedroom with a big double bed that was unmade and had two rumpled pillows at the head of it.

Shayne liked everything he saw as he stood there and heard clinking sounds of glass against glass in the kitchen, and he frowned and tried to analyze the warm feeling of contentment that welled up inside him. It was definitely a woman’s place, and yet it welcomed his masculinity and made him feel immediately wanted. He did not know why that was, or how the woman in the kitchen had managed it so well, but he did know instinctively that she had managed it, not consciously probably, but as an expression of herself.

The woman who lives across the hall from Tim’s friends is fascinating, in an odd way. She’s here as a distraction, to illustrate just how focused Shayne is being on this one night, despite how much drinking he’s doing. I suppose I find sirens fascinating because I’m interested in the way people are moved by love and lust, and the different things that work to attract someone. I mean, I don’t find May’s apartment all that alluring, any more than I’d be drawn to the woman herself, with a little too much lipstick and a blouse that’s a little too sheer. It’s not every man that she can draw into her home; Shayne says that it is, and the narrator doesn’t disagree, but I do. There’s a specific sort of man that she can draw in, and it’s that sort of man that is being normalized here. Mike Shayne represents one type of masculinity, but there can be more than one. Despite the apparent lack of substance, this novel has a firm sense of gender roles and gender identity, and woe betide the woman who crosses those lines.

I heard recently that in BDSM relationships, it’s the sub who has the power, and I guess that makes sense. Once he (or she) decides to stop playing the game, it’s over. The situation persists because someone chooses passivity, and if he were to stop being passive then the dom would stop too, because consent is critical to BDSM success. That’s why there are safe words. This is the paradigm that is normalized for romantic relationships in this book, but without the safe words. Mike Shayne keeps muttering about how women don’t know what they do to men, as if men are irrational slobs ruled solely by their emotions and it is women’s work to keep them happy so they don’t run around killing each other. Men are violent, but women are powerful. Dorothy Larson tries to adopt the masculine role of actively choosing a lover (note May’s passivity, and think about how sirens are like spiders), so she fails in the civilizing-of-man role society assigned to her. It’s really her fault that her husband is a murderer, not his. With Dorothy as the active, Ralph is somehow made passive, so he’s powerless in the grip of his jealous anger. Other men feel sorry for him because the cuckolding makes him less of a man in their eyes, someone insufficiently dominant.

Which is, of course, rubbish. Every man is responsible for his own actions, both in reality and in the eyes of the law. It is not women’s job to civilize men or fix them in any way. It is not even women’s job to design a shag pad to seduce men who happen to pass through the corridor. To me, it is society that emasculates men by limiting their range of emotions and denying them access to healthy expressions of those emotions. I also blame society in general for restricting women’s access to education and the professions. I mean, Dottie is acting precisely as she’s expected to: Unhappy with your man? Get another! Don’t get a job or try for any sense of personal fulfillment apart from being a sex doll who cooks and cleans! You’re a woman! It’s like 1960s gender roles cut every person in half and expected them to be content as half a human. No wonder there was so much protesting.

A straight person recently told me that she had a strong value for the gay community because of our blending of both masculine and feminine traits, then told me that I was still halfway in the closet because of my traditionally male gender presentation. It was a weird conversation, and one that troubles me because of the larger conversation about gender and sexual orientation going on in the United States. We’re often told that being gay means being gay in the 1970s, when gay men tended to go to extremes of gender performance – either completely effeminate or so over-the-top butch that they dressed primarily in leather and motorcycle police helmets. But this is 2018, and being gay doesn’t threaten my masculinity. I don’t have to operate at a gender extreme, or seem androgynous to others. People can if they want to – I’m not saying we should blend into straight society. I am saying that we all have the right to determine what is natural for ourselves and the right to perform our own natures in the way we choose (so long as it doesn’t involve harming others). Some men wear nail polish and makeup; I don’t. Some men drive big trucks and hunt deer; I don’t. Some men wear a lot of black and play guitar; I do. Some men do none of these things, and that’s fine too. They’re still men.

It’s not a masculine or a feminine thing; it’s a mature adult thing to recognize societal expectations and decide for oneself how to interact with those expectations. Everyone gets to choose their own gender performance.

Unless you live in Miami in the 1960s. Then, men either keep their women at home through constant fucking or kill the men who step in as substitute fuckers. Mike Shayne’s world is fictional, but it’s the fantasy of the people of its time. People imagine a world that is simple and easy to understand because the one we live in is so far beyond us. There are so many things to be understood that there’s no way for any one person to understand them all. I mean, scientists have recently found a way to use one egg cell to fertilize another egg cell and create healthy offspring capable of reproduction. I don’t know if those mice really are lesbians, but in another fifty or a hundred years it might be possible for same-sex couples to have children who are the genetic offspring of both parents. It’s a concept I’m having a hard time comprehending, or maybe it’s something I hope for so much that my brain won’t let me think of it. With so much beauty and wonderment in the world, why reduce it to binary opposites? I’m not arguing against black and white when there are shades of grey – I’m arguing against black and white when there are green and blue and red, concepts that black and white can’t understand. Let the world be what it is, a huge sticky mess of colors and concepts and genders and sexes and sex acts, life and death and all the what-the-fuckery in between. Let people be who they are, no matter whether they match you in language, skin tone, or gender presentation. It’s a bit odd that I read a detective novel and extracted the message that we should all mind our own business, but it’s an odd world, and the more we learn the odder we find it. Welcome the odd.

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In 1941, the similarities between Brett Halliday and Dashiell Hammett are more pronounced. It’s easy to read Mike Shayne as Humphrey Bogart, though I didn’t cast the rest of the book and he doesn’t have red hair.

Mike Shayne is a private detective with two apartments – one on a higher floor where he lives with his wife Phyllis, and one on a lower floor that he uses as an office. As he and Phyllis are preparing for a vacation in New York, he gets an urgent professional call. Some drugged girl wanders into his office, vaguely connected with an upcoming local election. As he’s getting his wife to the train station without her finding out about the girl, someone sneaks into the office and kills her. He does a decent job of pretending she’s just asleep when the police come with his reporter friend Tim Rourke, but then the body disappears.

The rest is as you’d expect. Menacing thugs, car chases, car wrecks, reappearing corpses, an insane asylum, a maid who desperately wants both to divulge some information and to ride Shayne’s ginger cock, and all the Miami politics that I’m beginning to see as a vital part of the Mike Shayne universe. If it isn’t organized crime and crooked politicians, Halliday doesn’t care.

One of the things that really struck me in this novel is the way Mike Shayne’s peers police his sexuality. It reminded me of Private Romeo, a not-that-great LGBT movie that locates Romeo and Juliet in an all-boys military school. We expect parents to guard their children’s behavior, but when Lord Capulet’s lines are suddenly coming from a seventeen-year-old, it gets sort of weird. Why is this boy acting in loco parentis? Is he homophobic, or is he trying to save Juliet for himself? But here, the police and Rourke aren’t trying to bed Mike Shayne; it’s as if somehow marriage is a fragile concept, and if Shayne has extramarital sex then the whole thing is fake. His infidelity would make their unrelated relationships mean less to them. He got the fairy-tale ending they all wanted in a previous book, and now they need him to live up to the Prince Charming role that they assigned to him. To be clear, Shayne doesn’t want to cheat on his wife with either the drugged girl or the maid – he loves his wife, and really is the white knight everyone needs him to be. But he needs the police to think he’s screwing the dead girl so they don’t look closely enough to realize she’s dead and start an investigation, and he accepts the fact that he might need to give it to the maid to get the information he wants. Of course, Halliday makes the maid disappear so Shayne is freed from temptation, but still. Everyone has an opinion on Mike Shayne’s sex life, and they all act as if their opinion should matter to him.

“It just goes to show,” Rourke went on, “what damn fools we all are when we pretend to be so tough. You and Phyllis were a symbol of some Goddamned thing or other around this man’s town. While you stayed straight it proved to all of us that the love of a decent girl meant something – and that was good for us. Every man needs to believe that down inside.” Rourke was talking to himself now, arguing aloud a premise which his cynicism rejected.

“That’s what distinguishes a man from a beast. It’s what we all cling to. There’s the inward conviction that it isn’t quite real – that it doesn’t mean anything – that we’re marking time until the real thing comes along – like Phyllis came along for you. And when that illusion is shattered before your very eyes – like with you today – it’s ugly, Mike. It’s a shock. It doesn’t laugh off easily.”

It does make me wonder about my relationship, and what I’m doing here. He’s convinced that we’re going to get married and live happily ever after, but I’m not convinced. I love him, and I’ll give him what time I can, but I don’t have that sense of finality. Maybe it’s because I have a hard time believing that anything endures, but I don’t see this as the last relationship I’m ever going to have. I’m getting what good I can out of it, but I’m not expecting forever.

KISS KISS BANG BANG

This movie claims to be based on the Halliday novel, but it’s more homage than picturization. Harry (Robert Downey Jr) is a small-time thief who blunders into an audition and gets shipped to Los Angeles because he can do the part and he looks sort of like Colin Farrell. Gay Perry (Val Kilmer) is hired to give him detective lessons, and they stumble into a plot that also has car chases, car wrecks, disappearing and reappearing corpses, and an insane asylum. Honestly, that part of it is straight out of Victorian sensation novels, especially The Woman in White. Being in Hollywood instead of Miami, the politicians are replaced by movie people, and some other plot points are adjusted to match 2005’s version of gritty (more severe than 1941’s). Also being in Hollywood, there’s an aspiring actress played by Michelle Monaghan. I think she’s pretty great, in this and in her other films. There’s actually a lot of conversation around the ethics of consent in the first part of the movie, RDJ being the good guy of course. But still, despite the occasional naked woman, my favorite sexy bit is when Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr make out in an alley. Gay Perry is my hero.

New Guy has been moving in with me over the last couple of weeks (one more reason to be behind in writing about books – I’m three behind again), so when I watched the movie to remind myself of it before writing here, he was there with me. He started to like it when MM cuts RDJ’s finger off halfway through; so afterward he felt like he had to tell me how boring he thought the first half was. Several times. And when I told him that I had gotten the message and he could stop saying that, he still had to say the word two or three more times. I didn’t feel like I needed to explain this, but apparently I do: when I say that I like this movie and I really want to watch it, a part of me identifies with it. When you insult my favorite movies, you’re telling me that I have bad taste – you’re insulting me. I’m ready to be lovers again, but I’m not quite as peaceful about it as I have been.

Brett Halliday’s novels are turning out to be just what I need in terms of reading during grad school: untaxing, relaxing, exciting. This is one of the first – Halliday (a pseudonym) began writing Mike Shayne novels in 1939, and in 1941 this is the fifth. He continued writing them until 1958, but other writers took over and continued writing the series until 1976. It’s a bit strange to think of Shayne’s career lasting almost forty years; he doesn’t seem to age. In terms of physical fitness and prowess, he’s just as good twenty-five years later as he is here, and his hair is never anything but red. I suppose we don’t like to see characters growing old, even though I think it’s a good thing. We all age, so we need healthy models to learn to do it well. No one learns to be healthy from reading Mike Shayne books.

As it is, this collection wasn’t put together in Lawrence’s lifetime. Three of them were published together, with one of those having been previously published in a periodical. This group of three is from the early 1920s, around the time of Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo, and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious. The fourth story is from the very end of his career, after Lady Chatterley, at the time of The Virgin and the Gipsy. These are all love stories, but as one might expect from Lawrence, they’re all a little unusual.

LOVE AMONG THE HAYSTACKS

This is the one from the end of his life, but it really feels a lot more similar to his earlier work focusing on the lives, loves, and opportunities of the rural poor. Maurice is young and in love with the vicar’s young foreign governess. It seems a little miraculous, because there are not many young people in the area, and he and his brothers haven’t had much romantic experience. His older brother Geoffrey is jealous and surly – not because he wants this woman, but because he wants a woman. As they’re harvesting hay, they meet a homeless man and his unhappy wife. That night, Maurice stays in the field to guard the hay, and his Polish lady comes to him. When it starts to rain, she helps him cover the hay, but at the top of one of the stacks the ladder falls down and they’re stuck there all night. Geoffrey comes round to help cover the hay and sees what happened. He covers the hay himself and leaves them to it. The unhappy woman from earlier pops by looking for her worthless husband, and Geoffrey comforts her. By the morning, he has plans to run off to Canada with her, and Maurice and his girlfriend are not as pleased with each other as they had been.

So yes, sex means different things to different people, and at different times. For Maurice and Paula it seems like a disappointment. They are all impatient to make it happen, but afterward they’re bickering and unpeaceful. For Geoffrey and Lydia, it solidifies their feelings for each other and gives them motivation to press forward, even though there are some substantial obstacles to their being together. I know that we euphemize the activity as making love, but it seems to prove and strengthen love, not create it. I suppose I’m supposed to be shocked at the fact that Lydia cheats on her husband and then leaves him, but that’s not content that shocks me any more. A man can’t marry a woman and assume he’s done his part. Relationships bring expectations, and there’s no reason for her to stay with someone she can’t love.

THE LADYBIRD

In the United States we call the titular insect a ladybug, as if it was somehow perturbaceous. The ladybird in the story is on the family crest of a German officer in a prison hospital in England during World War I. He sometimes uses it as a symbol for himself. The protagonist is a young woman he knew before the war; they met while she was on holiday with her parents. Now she’s married to a young officer believed to be dead, and she learns that her old friend is being held close by. He’s a little firecracker, not very tall but very passionate about his feelings and the sense of isolation. Daphne is his only connection to the happy life he knew before the Great War – he had given her a thimble with a ladybird on it as a keepsake. She doesn’t really like him, but she feels drawn to him in a way she can’t describe to herself. There’s something indefinably sexy about this fiery little German, and even though she keeps thinking she’ll stay away, she keeps coming back.

Then, of course, her husband isn’t dead after all. Basil comes back and he’s all light and conformity where Count Dionys is all darkness and rebellion. After a few nights Basil realizes he’s no longer interested in sex. It’s not that big a deal since they have separate bedrooms anyway (tradition in wealthier English families – I hope they’ve given it up). So when they invite the German count to stay with them before his return to the Continent, it’s easy for her to sneak into his room at night. There’s a lot of social pressure for Daphne to be with Basil – he’s the right sort of husband, socially speaking – but I think that in a different society, one where women were free to be themselves and choose for themselves, she would have chosen the Count, and not just at night.

She never saw him as a lover. When she saw him, he was the little officer, a prisoner, quiet, claiming nothing in all the world. And when she went to him as his lover, his wife, it was always dark. She only knew his voice and his contact in darkness. “My wife in darkness,” he said to her. And in this too she believed him. She would not have contradicted him, no, not for anything on earth: lest, contradicting him she should lose the dark treasure of stillness and bliss which she kept in her breast even when her heart was wrung with the agony of knowing he must go.

No, she had found this wonderful thing after she had heard him singing: she had suddenly collapsed away from her old self into this darkness, this peace, this quiescence that was like a full dark river flowing eternally in her soul. She had gone to sleep from the nuit blanche of her days. And Basil, wonderful, had changed almost at once. She feared him, lest he might change back again. She would always have him to fear. But deep inside her she only feared for this love of hers for the Count: this dark, everlasting love that was like a full river flowing for ever inside her. Ah, let that not be broken.

THE FOX

This is the one that was published in a magazine, which I find sort of odd because it’s the one that takes on LGBT issues the most obviously. March and Banford are two women who live on a farm during the war. Their farm isn’t super productive, either because gay relationships don’t lead to childbirth and are thus sterile or because they’re not that great at farming. They end up focusing on chickens, which still isn’t that successful because there’s a fox that keeps stealing hens. March sees him once and is shocked into stillness, like that Annie Dillard piece about weasels. Winter is hard on animals, so I don’t really begrudge him the chickens, but then again, they’re not my chickens. Banford is furious about it. She may also be angry that the situation is out of her control; she tends to the house (the traditional women’s work) so she isn’t the one with the gun. March is the more masculine of the two (because even gay relationships have to conform to heterosexual norms), but after staring into the fox’s eyes she can’t kill it.

That was the symbol. The rest of the story is the reality. At war’s end the soldiers are coming home, and one of them wanders into their house. He had lived there with his grandfather before the war, and something vague and unimportant (probably death) led to the women renting the place. He’s young and handy – he even kills the fox for them. But he himself is the fox in this henhouse. Something about March’s defiance of gender roles draws him in. I wonder about him being closeted himself because he’s turned off when he sees her in a dress. He likes March to be mannish, and to be March instead of Nell. Even though he’s much younger, he talks her into marriage, which she of course breaks off once he’s out of the house.

I don’t see on what grounds I am going to marry you. I know I am not head over heels in love with you, as I have fancied myself to be with fellows when I was a young fool of a girl. You are an absolute stranger to me, and it seems to me as if you will always be one. So on what grounds am I going to marry you? When I think of Jill, she is ten times more real to me. I know her and I’m awfully fond of her, and I hate myself for a beast if I ever hurt her little finger. We have a life together. And even if it can’t last for ever, it is a life while it does last. And it might last as long as either of us lives. Who knows how long we’ve got to live? She is a delicate little thing, perhaps nobody but me knows how delicate. And as for me, I feel I might fall down the well any day. What I don’t seem to see at all is you. When I think of what I’ve been and what I’ve done with you, I’m afraid I am a few screws loose. I should be sorry to think that softening of the brain is setting in so soon, but that is what it seems like. You are such an absolute stranger, and so different from what I’m used to, and we don’t seem to have a thing in common. As for love, the very word seems impossible. I know what love means even in Jill’s case, and I know that in this affair with you it’s an absolute impossibility.

So of course he decides to kill one lesbian so he can marry the other. Men can be so depressing and predictable.

Most relationships have to deal with some jealousy at some point. We don’t put our eyes out when we tell someone we love them, and I’m sure even blind people’s eyes wander metaphorically. Jill Banford’s approach, to try to control the situation, is normal, natural, and ineffective. Telling someone what to do and how to interact with others seldom feels like love. That type of fear-based behavior can actually become abusive. But when someone decides you have to die, it’s normal and natural not to like them.

I feel sorry for March, because she has a choice between two people who want to control her and doesn’t see a third option for herself. The soldier boy is the poorer choice, what with the violence and the demand for her to be only a part of herself. One could argue that Banford is the same, but the condition on Banford’s love is that she be loved in return, not that March actively deny a large part of her identity and put up with the death of her lover.

The hetero love story here is really weird and powerfully fucked up. As love often is. But we do see some happiness for March and Banford, so the story isn’t unrelentingly sad. As with so many stories about foxes, it’s a warning. Not that lesbians shouldn’t reject male suitors, they absolutely should, but it’s wise for everyone to be vigilant about people on the edge of violence. Appeasement is a dangerous habit.

THE CAPTAIN’S DOLL

A Scottish captain is stationed in Germany, after the danger of the War has past. He’s sleeping with a local countess who makes dolls to earn her living. She makes one that is obviously him, the military coat and the plaid trousers and everything, and then his wife comes to visit and sees it. The Countess, Hannele, is mystified by their attitude toward sex, that sexual monogamy is insignificant. What matters is the emotions behind it. They can sleep with anyone they want so long as their actual love is only directed at each other. He doesn’t seem to love much of anyone, or at least not very strongly, so it’s of little moment to him, but it’s a big deal to Hannele. She’s not used to this idea, that his soul belongs to his wife but his penis is his own to do with as he likes, and she doesn’t like the situation it puts her in. She thinks that sex means something, and that the fact that he’s fucking her means he cares about her. The situation becomes a little too well known, so of course the wife takes him away. Fucking another woman is fine, but doing it indiscreetly is not. But Hannele won’t sell her the doll.

Years later, the wife dies and the captain comes back to Germany, desultorily looking for Hannele. Instead, he finds a still life painting of his doll. Suddenly the doll becomes this intense symbol of everything that he can’t handle about relationships; he sees women as making men into dolls, homunculi they can pose and speak for at tea parties. He doesn’t feel like a human when he’s in a relationship with a woman. I think that men can be equally guilty of creating an image of the beloved in our minds and forcing women to live up to the image; part of the captain’s anger is that he’s being treated the way men treat women. And then, of course, she had sold the doll after all, to a stranger. The shoe is on the other foot now – he thought he meant something to her, but she moved on. No promises of eternal love and fidelity to a man who treated her like shit.

He starts to pursue her with some of that intensity we saw in The Fox; he only wants a woman when she doesn’t want him, apparently. I know that this happens, and is even pretty common, that people go after those who are unavailable to them. I’ve heard it said that men want the challenge, but I think there’s more to it than that. People (not just men) take rejection as a sign that they’re not good enough, as if we all existed on a scale from one to ten and it was easy to say that one person is a two and another is a nine. Everyone wants to believe that they’re a ten, but getting rejected by a seven means that we’re obviously a six or less. We don’t pursue the seven because they represent a challenge in itself; we pursue the seven to prove to ourselves that we are a seven or higher. Basing one’s self-esteem on the esteem of others (particularly their interest in sharing genital contact) is absolutely ridiculous and leads to these absurd and dangerous situations. Lawrence’s stalkers and murderers need to learn how to love themselves apart from their ability to fuck any woman they want.

Women have the right to choose whom and when to fuck. They are the keepers of their own vaginas. They guard the access. Men who behave otherwise tend toward abuse and possibly violence. It’s certainly a misogynistic attitude, and it implies that the man who holds it is not ready for an adult relationship.

“Oh, that eternal doll! What makes it stick so in your mind?”

“I don’t know. But there it is. It wasn’t malicious. It was flattering, if you like. But it just sticks in me like a thorn: like a thorn. And there it is, in the world, in Germany somewhere. And you can say what you like, but any woman, today, no matter how much she loves her man – she could start any minute and make a doll of him. And the doll would be her hero: and her hero would be no more than her doll. My wife might have done it. She did do it, in her mind. She had her doll of me right enough. Why I heard her talk about me to other women. And her doll was a great deal sillier than the one you made. But it’s all the same. If a woman loves you, she’ll make a doll out of you. She’ll never be satisfied till she’s made your doll. And when she’s got your doll, that’s all she wants. And that’s what love means. And so, I won’t be loved. And I won’t love. I won’t have anybody loving me. It is an insult. I feel I’ve been insulted for forty years: by love, and the women who’ve loved me. I won’t be loved. And I won’t love. I’ll be honoured and I’ll be obeyed: or nothing.”

“Then it’ll most probably be nothing,” said Hannele sarcastically. “For I assure you I’ve nothing but love to offer.”

He’s upset, yes, and probably still sexy in his sixties (he is Scottish, after all), but he’s also wrong and ridiculous. Imagine the gall of a woman, to treat a man the same way he’s treated her. Men have robbed women of their humanity, their opportunities to express and be themselves, their right to make their own choices about their bodies, for too much of Western history. A hundred years ago men don’t seem to have been accustomed to recognize that fact. I feel like these three post-World War I stories could have been called Love Amid the Patriarchy. It places Lawrence in kind of an awkward position: some critics will say he’s doing it on purpose to reveal how harmful the patriarchy is, but some will say he’s doing it unconsciously because he’s really on the verge of being a murdering stalker himself. He just found a woman he wanted who wanted him back, so the violence is unnecessary. It’d be great if we could revive him long enough to ask him which.

In any event, all four of these stories are about love and its problems. The soldiers who returned from the war brought with them a set of attitudes that clearly harmed women, and the women themselves are complex, interesting people who deserve love and respect, even if they don’t know how to demand it. Lawrence’s vote is clearly on the side of sexual license, so long as both partners agree to it. His stories demonstrate the importance of talking plainly about sex and what it means. Partners should understand what it means to the other and be willing to accept the burden of expectation it creates, whether the expectation is to go about one’s business like it meant nothing or to be involved with the partner for the rest of one’s life. Being of the same religion, or ethnicity, or orientation, is no guarantee that two people will have the same attitude about sex. You have to talk about it.

Lawrence’s politics are sometimes upsetting, but his language is exquisite. I’ll probably always enjoy his writing, misogynistic and proto-Fascist as it was. These stories are very much in his vein, so whether you like them or not, whether you should read them or not, really depends on how you feel about him. They’re all good examples of what he does, representative pieces of the man. I enjoy them, but you’ll have to make your own choice on that subject.

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.

I know it’s been a couple of weeks that I haven’t written here, but it’s not for want of reading. I have four or five books that I need to write about; I’ve been reading rather a lot. The problem is with my computer – it’s five years old, and they’re not built to last that long any more. It’s reached a phase where it crashes every time it gets jostled or tipped, and that doesn’t fit well with my computing style – I take the term ‘laptop’ seriously. I’ve put it on a desk for the writing today, so perhaps we won’t have any unpleasant interruptions.

Start with Shakespeare. The Winter’s Tale is one of those plays that people don’t always like to call comedies because some terrible things happen. A truly nice guy has to exit, pursued by a bear. It’s not always clear who’s good and who’s bad, though I suppose that’s part of the point. It’s a story of dissolution, followed by gathering and forgiveness. King Leontes is convinced that the second child about to be born to him is not his, so he has one of those huge operatic scenes with his wife and friends after which the lady is unconscious and everyone assumes she’s dead. He sends the baby off to his best friend, whom he believes to be the true father, but the baby gets lost because the courier is eaten by a bear. She gets adopted by a poor shepherd and his idiot son, and sixteen years later she does meet Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, but it’s because her boyfriend Florizel is actually the king’s son. The truth about her starts to come out, but in a distorted form, so Florizel and Perdita run off to Sicilia to get the real story. Leontes, after suffering in isolation for so long, takes back his daughter and his best friend, and they go to see a statue of his dead wife, but the statue comes alive because she hasn’t really been dead all this time. In the end, Leontes’s pain seems to have redeemed him because everyone forgives him, which makes the ending seem unrealistic to me. It’s not enough to suffer – everyone does that. The suffering has to change you so you’re not a jealous homicidal nutbag, and I don’t see enough change in him to warrant bringing him back into Hermione’s life.

The Winterson novel is a retelling of the Shakespeare play, brought up to our time. There’s a good bit of the weirdness of Shakespeare in her story as well, because I find the story inherently strange. Leo is a successful businessman, married to a famous singer, MiMi. Their friend Xeno has been staying with them, and Leo suspects the two of them of cheating behind his back. Xeno and Leo are so close that they fooled around together in their bicurious stage. Leo has stuck with women ever since, but Xeno identifies himself as gay, though he also admits to being strongly attracted to MiMi. He kind of wishes they could have a three-way polyamorous relationship, but that’s not really an option for anyone else. Leo accuses her and gets to raping her, but her water breaks and they have to rush her to the hospital to give birth. Leo sends the child away to New Bohemia (which feels an awful lot like New Orleans), but his messenger gets killed and Shep and Clo pick up the child and raise her. Shep is an older guy, maybe a little too old to raise a baby, and Clo is his grown son, not bright. MiMi and Leo divorce and she moves to Paris, spending the next twenty-one years in near-total seclusion. As in Shakespeare, their first child, a son, gets killed for no apparent reason except to punish Leo, who loves the boy.

Time passes.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter that there was any time before this time. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that it’s night or day or now or then. Sometimes where you are is enough. It’s not that time stops or that it hasn’t started. This is time. You are here. This caught moment opening into a lifetime.

Winterson often speaks of time as if it were a character, and she titles the book after one of the last lines of Shakespeare’s story. Leontes, newly surrounded by his loved ones, says they’ll all go off and discuss what they’ve been doing in “the gap of time,” the sixteen years that they were all out of contact with each other. The thing that fascinates me about this phrase is that time has no gaps. It just keeps moving on, one second at a time, and there’s nothing we can do to speed it, slow it, or skip over it. The only gap is in our experience as an audience. We don’t see the sixteen years in the middle of the play, or the twenty-one years in the middle of the novel, so we perceive it as a gap, but the characters do not. If Leo had really skipped over all those years of isolated pain, he’d be the same asshole he was in the beginning, and isn’t the lesson here that pain makes people less assholish, more deserving of love? Neither writer shows me convincing evidence that Leontes has changed, and I think that pain in isolation isn’t the best way to teach someone how to love. You have to practice, and that means not being isolated.

Xeno and MiMi talk a lot about Nerval’s dream – a French poet dreamt that an angel fell to earth, in one of those crowded back alleys of Paris. If he opened his wings, he’d destroy everything around him; if he didn’t open his wings and fly away, he’d be trapped and die. Xeno uses it as the basis of a video game he designs, The Gap of Time. It’s all about feathers falling and becoming angels, and deciding whether the angels are good or evil, whose side you want to be on. Of course he and Leo take opposite sides, though they both haunt MiMi’s virtual apartment, where he’s programmed her as a statue. Xeno’s portrayal troubles me because he seems like Winterson’s primary antagonist, but I don’t read him as one in Shakespeare. Polixenes seems a bit clueless, careless and thoughtless but not really bad. Xeno seems bent on making the people he loves unhappy. He’s the dark side of the moon, and Leo is the bright sun that burns. Leontes talks about adultery as the spider in the cup – if you don’t see it, your drink tastes normal; once you do see it, the drink tastes poisonous. But to me, the important part here is that there is no spider in Leontes’s cup – he’s seeing spiders that don’t exist, imagining his wine is contaminated when there’s nothing wrong with it. But Winterson keeps bringing it back, Xeno’s seemingly inherent arachnous nature. For her, Leo does have a spider in his life, even if it isn’t fucking his wife.

I’m troubled by Hermione. She seems like one of those Gothic heroines I enjoy so much, a beauty who falls in love with a beast. She’s an innocent, forced to suffer through the insanity of the men around her. As with Hero from Much Ado About Nothing, the most effective way for her to prove her innocence is by dying when she’s accused. Also like Hero, she doesn’t actually die because life doesn’t work like that, but she pretends to be dead so that the accuser she still loves will suffer. When he’s sufficiently proven his penitence, she takes him back as if that had been her plan all along. If a man is so irrational that he will only believe a woman is telling the truth if she’s dead, he’s not a person that woman should be with. Maybe he’s a murderer. Maybe he’s a rapist. Maybe he sticks with subtler forms of abuse, but that’s no reason for her to share her life with him. In both stories, she’s one of the least realized characters; more of an ideal than a human being. I’d like to read a story where someone really breathes life into her, but neither of these is it.

Winterson seems to connect most with Perdita, the adopted girl who finds out her birth parents are rich and famous. She also discovers that her boyfriend isn’t just a mechanic at the local used-car dealership; his parents are rich too. She’s literally the girl who grows up poor and turns out to be a princess. Polixenes and Leontes are both taken by her beauty, but there’s not really enough time in the story for them to build a relationship with her. Winterson’s Perdita makes the connection clear, but she’s a bit like Miranda from The Tempest. She grows up with a single father in relative isolation, and then she discovers that the world is larger and more beautiful than she had imagined.

Perdita heard his car. Perdita saw him across the fence.

She moved back. Her heart was overbeating. Why do I feel this way? And what is this way that I am feeling? How can something so personal and so private, like a secret between myself and my soul, be the same personal, private secret of the soul for everyone?

There’s nothing new or strange or wonderful about how I feel.

I feel new and strange and wonderful.

Perdita is a girl who loves. Her name points to her as lost, but that only describes her from her parents’ point of view. In herself, she seems to know who she is and what she wants in life, that identity not being solely based on her genetic background. She meets Leo, but still insists that Shep is her father, in all the important ways. And she loves Zel, even if his parentage is different from what she had assumed. Zel grows up knowing who his father is, and hating him. Polixenes spends a year on a visit of state to his best friend, but it’s assumed that he spends the sixteen-year gap with his wife and son. Xeno keeps wandering around the world with very little contact with his son, so Zel has reason not to value someone who shows so little value for him. When Xeno makes an effort, Zel resists, so there’s not a lot of hope for them. I grew up similarly, but when my father reaches out I try to reach back. I don’t think there’s anything productive to be had from being unkind to him. You could read this as contradicting what I said up there about Leontes and abusive relationships, but fathers are different from husbands. I don’t live with my father, and I make sure I filter and evaluate everything he says. I know he’s doing his best, even if I find that best to be wanting at times. The effort would be too much to keep up with a man I lived with. The marriage relationship makes the partners vulnerable to each other in a way that I’m not with my dad. The constant presence of the abusive man would erode his partner’s sense of individuality and freedom. As with MiMi’s interest in the Nerval story, the only way out is to destroy everything. That’s not the case with me, a man who lives independently of his father and only speaks with him occasionally.

Free will depends on being stronger than the moment that traps you.

Time seems to take on the role of Fate – it’s like people are stuck in a story that they’d rather not be living. I don’t believe it works that way. Leontes’s actions have disastrous consequences for the people around him, but none of that is inevitable. It’s not clear how much choice Shakespeare’s queen has, but in the twenty-first century we expect women to be able to choose their own husbands. MiMi didn’t have to marry him. It’s all a matter of accepting responsibility for choices. I think that twenty-one years of misery is a heavy penalty to pay, but that’s the story as Winterson gets it from Shakespeare. Leo has to accept consequences of his own behavior, but most of those consequences he’s forced onto other people as well. MiMi didn’t destroy her world by divorcing her husband – he did that by falsely accusing her and losing her children. Perdita and Florizel didn’t choose their circumstances, but they make choices, hopefully better ones than their parents made. If Winterson is correct, then I believe we are all stronger than time, we all have free will and are only trapped by other people, not by fate or moments or time.

Have you noticed how ninety per cent of games feature tattooed white men with buzzcuts beating the shit out of the world in stolen cars? It’s like living in a hardcore gay nightclub on a military base.

I love Winterson’s sense of humor.

The endings interest me, primarily because of the difference between them. Shakespeare doesn’t show us the reunion of Leontes with Perdita and Polixenes; that’s narrated by an eyewitness to someone else. Shakespeare’s attention is on Leontes and Hermione, so restoring the marriage is the important thing for him. The other relationships seem harder for him to imagine, which is the explanation I can find for the indirectness of that scene. In Winterson’s story, the important reunion for Leo is with finding Perdita and Xeno. It’s the meeting of father and daughter and the repairing of the gay relationship that matters to her. She closes the scene with Leo and Xeno standing in the aisle of the concert venue, watching MiMi onstage, before they approach and talk with her. For a singer, MiMi has astonishingly little voice in the book, and here when she has an opportunity to talk to the man who hurt her and may or may not be forgiven, she is silent because she’s putting on a show for the larger crowd. Maybe it ends here because Winterson had a hard time facing the next scene, where she is supposed to forgive him and reunite. I’d have a hard time writing that scene, because in my imagination Hermione would not make that choice. I would have written her a community and a job and a life; I would have her prove to Leontes that she doesn’t need him. By ending the book where she does, Winterson doesn’t have to write MiMi’s decision to take him back or not, and we can choose to believe what we like.

I love reading Jeanette Winterson novels. I’ll admit to having found this one weird and a little hard, but I think the same thing about her source text, which means this is a good adaptation. This is dramatically more recent than anything else of hers I’ve read, so it’s good to see that I can enjoy books from different periods of her career. Her writing is beautiful and I get engaged quickly with her characters, even if they’re people I might not like in real life. And I still don’t know what to make of Autolycus, in either version of this story. But it’s a good book, and begins with a summary of Shakespeare for those who are unfamiliar with his telling.

witches of eastwick

Continuing to celebrate Halloween, here’s one of those novels whose title has gotten stuck in my head somehow and is as closely associated with October as Frosty the Snowman is with December, but is quite different from the Mitchell novel I read earlier in the week.

The first question is one of style. I tried to sit down and read it all at once, but Updike’s sentences resist being read quickly. Halloween being the season of personifying the inanimate, one could argue that they don’t like to be read at all. There is a profusion of detail that can seem ponderous, all those subordinate clauses pushing their way in so that it is sometimes hard to see what the subject and verb are, or maybe that heart of the sentence is intentionally hiding, enfolding itself in the extraneous as a means of self-preservation. Which sounds ridiculous, because the only life words have is when someone reads them. Stories are a complex act of shared creation between a writer and a reader – he suggests a shape, and I breathe life into it with my imagination, a complex, unique spiraling shape of personal experience and genetic memory. But Updike is seldom content to suggest; his riotous excess of description leaves little for the imagination, and since the imagination works more quickly than the reading eye, the process is slower. It was very challenging for me to take Updike’s mind into my own, and his style is very indicative of the Literary Novel of his time, the 1980s, and I’d say that it continues to influence the self-consciously literary writers of today.

Another issue is that of subject. Witches? In New England? How original. Updike is a man writing about women’s lives from women’s perspectives, which always seems highly suspect to me. It’s in many ways a book of all the things men accuse women of doing, like the way that most of the book is a transcription of gossipy phone calls. Some of it also seems like men’s fantasies of what women do, like the unspoken bisexuality of the witches, where it seems that every woman is trembling on the cusp of lesbian porn. The climax of Act One is a hot tub orgy with one man and three women (we know Updike is a heterosexual man because he never mentions the size of the penis with such power).

Maybe it was modish in the 1980s to refer to homosexuality a lot in your book, but the way his characters talk about it pushes men like me away. That word for us that I find the most upsetting, a British cigarette, gets tossed about like it’s as normal and inoffensive as iron or book. I’m not sure why I find this word so much more upsetting than all the other ways people describe me, nor why the shorter version is so much more upsetting than the word that means a bundle of sticks, but I’m apparently having a rainbow snowflake moment and I’ll thank you to respect my feelings, Mr Updike. The reviewers talk about his great sympathy for his characters, but as a homosexual male I felt outside the realm of his empathy. It seems natural for me to be angry at being the only one included in the book but excluded from sympathetic treatment, so maybe the rest of you (meaning women or heterosexuals) won’t feel the same way that I do. This book is about as pro-gay as the Christopher Reeve film Deathtrap.

But then again, maybe what seemed like sympathetic treatment in 1984 won’t seem sympathetic today. I believe that many women of my acquaintance would take umbrage at the idea that femininity requires taking the place of a man’s mother, just as I find it offensive that many people even today believe that men are perpetual children in need of mothering. For an example, watch the later seasons of Arrow. In the first season The Green Arrow is very Batmannish, but by season four he’s surrounded by women, a little sister and a few friends, and one of them takes over as CEO of his family business and they all boss him around as if he were a child, despite being younger than he. They all talk about how dumb and helpless he is, despite the fact that they know he’s a fucking superhero. He might be a filthy rich masked vigilante with serious top-shelf hand-to-hand combat skills and an amazing body, but he’s still ‘just a man.’

Healing belonged to their natures, and if the world accused them of coming between men and wives, of tying the disruptive ligature, of knotting the aiguillette that places the kink of impotence or emotional coldness in the entrails of a marriage seemingly secure in its snugly roofed and darkened house, and if the world not merely accused but burned them alive in the tongues of indignant opinion, that was the price they must pay. It was fundamental and instinctive, it was womanly, to want to heal – to apply the poultice of acquiescent flesh to the wound of a man’s desire, to give his closeted spirit the exaltation of seeing a witch slip out of her clothes and go skyclad in a room of tawdry motel furniture.

Our witches are three divorced women in their thirties, which was quite shocking in the late 1960s, when the book is set (distanced from author and reader in either time or space, as a Gothic novel should be). And yes, they set about having affairs with married men, and frankly it seems that everyone in town is having an affair with someone else and they all whisper about it but no one does anything about it but talk. When another woman in town gets left, they remark on the fact that she’s now gained the power if she’ll do anything with it, but they don’t make any effort to invite her to the coven. Sukie is the youngest, a bright redhead who writes for the local paper; Jane is the angry one, a cellist who also teaches piano; and Alexandra is the leader, being the oldest and most powerful.

The portrayal of Alexandra got on my nerves, too. This is entirely personal: she’s my age, height, and weight, and she thinks of herself as old and fat, and no one disagrees with her. I’m actually not sure how much I weigh – I haven’t weighed myself since I dated that guy in Texas, when I gained twelve pounds during a two-month relationship – but Lexa is the weight at which I no longer feel like I need to lose weight. He of the Midwest asked me the other day how much weight I’ve lost in North Carolina, and again I have no way of knowing, but I will say this. I can no longer grab an entire handful of excess at my side, and the tendons in my hands and feet are showing themselves again. I don’t have one of those sexual foot fetishes, but a man’s feet can be a pretty good indicator of how much body fat he’s carrying, and when I lived out there I had these thick pads of fat on top of my feet, and now they’re almost completely gone. My belt is getting loose, and when I put on my trousers yesterday I just pulled them up and fastened them without holding my breath or lying down or trying to stretch the waistband an extra inch or two. In Illinois I thought my trouser zippers were going to kill me, and now I don’t think of them at all.

On the first page they’re talking about a new man who’s moving to town, and while you may remember this as the same beginning to Pride and Prejudice, it’s not really anything like. At first they think he must be gay because he’s from Manhattan and has never been married, but once he gets there they all fall for him and he encourages all three. It’s never made explicit, but he’s very much a Satanic figure, and the name Darryl van Horne does sound a bit devilish. He fills in the wetlands, displacing the egrets that nest there; Alexandra doesn’t always see his aura when she’s surrounded by the peacock tails of color that other people’s emotions manifest; at one point his legs seem to be jointed the other way, as if he had goat legs; his face always seems cobbled from disparate pieces that don’t belong together; and he takes charge of their art and ends up controlling the witches. They eventually suspect that they’ve been serving him all along, but with no proof, they drift away from each other. There’s also all the magic going on that they’re not doing, and the way that their lovers end up dead. I also think it’s weird that his hot tub room and bedroom are both completely black. I suppose this draws more attention to the white bodies on display in those rooms, but it’s a little strange.

I don’t remember what gender politics were like in 1984; I was still too young to attend school back then. Maybe this sort of portrayal was normal or enlightened back then, but it’s not any more. It’s a book about women’s power, but the power comes from ceasing to have loved a man, so it’s still very anti-Bechdel. They may be empowered to the point that they have uncoupled copulation from procreation, but they freely admit to neglecting their children, and while the witches all have progeny, none of those children are main characters. Their pets are more important to the book than the children are. Their power makes them independent, outsiders in their own families and community, reliant on each other and no one else. It’s as if being a feminist requires (or induces) social isolation.

I suppose part of this review should mention love as the binding between the sexes, but I don’t see much of it in this book. I see desire and attraction, control and power and a lot of things that have nothing to do with love but get substituted for it. I think the lack of love is part of my trouble with the book. People are selfish and isolated and horrible to each other. In the beginning, Alexandra reminds herself that magic always has a price, a sacrifice necessary to maintain the balance of nature, and it bothers me that as we roll along they forget that. Maybe the dissolution of the coven is a result of their lack of sacrifice, their desire to get something for nothing, but Updike doesn’t address that explicitly.

He does address suicide. The only time we see something from a man’s perspective is when a guy kills his wife and then hangs himself. If this is a trigger, be ready to skip ten pages or so from the middle of Act Two.

I keep trying to wrap this up in a nice summative fashion – a story that builds and builds but doesn’t go anywhere, no Act Three climactic finish, the worst kind of realism – but all I can think of are more things to disagree with. I wonder how much of it is the book and how much is me. Recently someone told me that I’ve been saying No too much lately, so the other night I decided to say Yes to the drag show in a neighboring town. I had only been to one other drag show, and while the entertainment hadn’t been very interesting to me, the man I’d met there was amazing. So I tidied my apartment and cleaned myself up and went, only to find a crowd of around twenty people loosely centered around the door to the club. I walked through and stood for a moment directly in front of the door, cocking my head inquisitively at the handsome man stationed there. He told me that they couldn’t admit any more people, and I heard some of the students around me muttering about how shocked they were that any place in this town would be full, so I nodded at the handsome man and walked on down the street. I decided to find something else I could say Yes to, but there’s not much in that town, and I didn’t feel like drinking with a lot of straight college students (I wasn’t in a talkative mood), so I drove back to this place where I live, but I don’t know this town well – I’ve been in and out of the area for almost twenty years now, but I’ve never spent much time in this town – so I got lost and didn’t find downtown and eventually just came back home, thinking, This is why I keep saying No to the world. I did say Yes to the deer wandering in the road, meaning I didn’t hit her, and when I got home I looked up at the stars and said Yes. They’re always so amazing, out here away from streetlights, and I saw one suddenly rush to the ground, and I made a wish. The same wish I always make: Love.

 

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.