Posts Tagged ‘adultery’

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.

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It’s Christmas Eve. John Rivers, a grandfather in his late fifties, is talking with a novelist friend about the night he lost his virginity. No section breaks anywhere, just a hundred and fifty pages of that.

At the age of twenty-eight, Rivers was a moralistic mama’s boy. He finally broke from his mother and went to work in a Nobel-Prize-winning scientist’s laboratory. The Genius is famous all over the world for his brilliant mind, but Huxley is more interested in showing his physical side. He has frequent asthma attacks, which his family ignores. His children are little more than short people whom he acknowledges to live in the same house. And his wife is everything to him – a weird mix of mother and . . . I really want to say whore, but that doesn’t feel quite right. Probably because I’m uncomfortable with the word. It feels disrespectful, and those women deserve much more respect than they get. Anyway, the Genius has a safe in his bedroom where he keeps his gun, some money, the current draft of his next book, and his Victorian pornography. Rivers has a hard time understanding how Miss Floggy’s School for Finishing Girls can coexist with physics research, but it makes sense to me. People are a balance; strength is counterweighted with weakness, and being brilliant as a scientist is, in this case, placed against a certain sexual infantilism.

Rivers is invited to live with the Genius, and he gets on well with the family. The teenaged daughter has a crush on him, because he’s a handsome older man living in her house and she’s fully prepared to be fallen in love with. She writes poetry and wears too much makeup. There’s a little brother, but he’s hardly significant. The maid is a racial stereotype – I keep expecting her to scold Clark Gable for not being nice to Scarlett. But the mother is a Goddess. Rivers is completely in love with her, but too priggish to do anything about it. By Goddess, of course, I mean she’s a woman with gumption. She keeps the house running in order, despite the absent-minded professor and the overly romantic daughter. Despite the amount of work she puts in, she retains her beauty and inner light, the spiritual heart of her home.

Then the Goddess’s mother gets sick and she has to go away for a while. The daughter really starts in on her campaign for Rivers, having read too much Wilde and Swinburne without having any experience of love or sex to give meaning to their words. [Jack White: If you think a kiss is all in the lips, you got it all wrong. If you think a dance is all in the hips, go on then and do the twist.] Ruth does the work of sexualizing Rivers for the reader, though he won’t take advantage of a girl half his age. I don’t know what the age of consent was in St Louis in 1923, but no matter the legality. It would just have been wrong. Then Genius Henry sexualizes Goddess Katy – he convinces himself that she’s sleeping with her mother’s young doctor, and describes all the crazy shit she’s done with him. Poor Rivers has to face the idea that his Goddess could also be a wild animal between the sheets.

Henry’s bonkers enough to make himself sick from a few weeks of jealous celibacy, so when he’s at death’s door they call Katy away from the bed of her dying mother to come sit at the bed of her dying husband. When she gets back, the light’s gone out of her. All this care of others is wiping her out, erasing/effacing her. When she gets the phone call telling her that her mother’s finally dead, she comes to Rivers’s room.

Shaken by sobs and trembling, she pressed herself against me. The clock had struck, time was bleeding away and even the living are utterly alone. Our only advantage over the dead woman up there in Chicago, over the dying man at the other end of the house, consisted in the fact that we could be alone in company, could juxtapose our solitudes and pretend that we had fused them into a community. But these, of course, were not the thoughts I was thinking then.

And the handsome young assistant has sex for the first time. In some ways it’s kind of sweet, but in others not. His fifty-something self sees the event gently, as something nice that two people did for each other. His younger self was too religious to be anything other than nauseated. He keeps saying that it has to stop, but they keep doing it until the Genius heals up. Every time he says that it’s wrong, Katy shushes him. It’s not that she feels guilty or uncomfortable, it’s that she thinks his religion is immature and uninteresting. She takes the lead throughout the affair, and it doesn’t end until she’s ready for it to. Which is when the spurned poetess starts to make references to adulterers burning in hell forever.

I think it’s unfortunate that something as nice as sex has to be surrounded by so many cultural prohibitions. Katy seems innocent, and sleeping with Rivers turns her inner light back on. She’s full of grace again; she gets the strength to take care of her sick husband by fucking the lodger. It’s healthy. Then Rivers makes it less than it could be by going on about the wrongness of it, then the daughter becomes threatening, and it’s like an overripe fruit rotting from its own sweetness. What was beautiful becomes tragic.

“And to think,” said Rivers, “to think that once we were all like that. You start as a lump of protoplasm, a machine for eating and excreting. You grow into this sort of thing. Something almost supernaturally pure and beautiful.” He laid his cheek once more against the child’s head. “Then comes a bad time with pimples and puberty. After which you have a year or two, in your twenties, of being Praxiteles. But Praxiteles soon puts on weight and starts to lose his hair, and for the next forty years you degenerate into one or other of the varieties of the human gorilla. The spindly gorilla – that’s you. Or the leather-faced variety – that’s me. Or else it’s the successful businessman type of gorilla – you know, the kind that looks like a baby’s bottom with false teeth. As for the female gorillas, the poor old things with paint on their cheeks and orchids at the prow . . . No, let’s not talk about them, let’s not even think.”

Yes, let’s ignore the attitudes that keep women imprisoned. Katy is a goddess like Hera, or a bitch in heat, but never a human equal. Both Henry and Rivers either keep her on a pedestal or in a ditch, but neither of them really treats her like a partner. She has a specific function, and God help us all if she has to do something else, like attend to a dying woman in a distant city. I’m sure that part of the reason for the affair is that she needs a sense of freedom, a feeling of control over her own life and choices. She needs a connection with life, not death. So of course the novelist kills her. No other satisfactory way out of the situation. And thirty years later John Rivers (I wonder if he’s named after Jane Eyre’s cousin) reminisces about her and his summer of love. I feel like there must have been more to her than Huxley shows us. But no. We only see her through an aging man’s memory, with its necessary distortions. With all the tragedy of this short book, this one feels like the most egregious: we miss the chance to know a truly extraordinary woman, a human being whose intelligence and devotion live inside her beauty and sexuality, someone complex and wonderful but who sees life as simple and acts simply, a person too natural for 1920s American society. I suppose a happy ending was too much to hope for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, something happens, and

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

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

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

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

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