Posts Tagged ‘austen’

This book was prepared as two separate volumes, but Buber was later persuaded to publish them together. In honor of the author’s original intent, I’m going to read and write about these book at different times – meaning, the second part of this entry will probably be written a week or so later than the first, and a lot can happen in a week. [It only ended up being two days. I didn’t want to wait to finish reading.]

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RIGHT AND WRONG

This book is an interpretation of five Psalms: 12, 14, 82, 73, and 1. In that sense, it felt very familiar to me as textual commentary, both as a literary critic and as a former believer. Buber has the erudition of an academic combined with the closedness of a religious adherent. It’s a little like reading while walking through a very large room – you’re moving in a straight line, but every now and again you bump into the wall of “But God can’t possibly desire to harm anyone,” so you strike off in a different direction. These bumps are rare, but they do happen. It makes me think of what Virginia Woolf said about Charlotte Brontë, the sudden jerks of the narrative when her need to express the injustices of society on Victorian women overcomes her desire to tell the story of plain Jane Eyre and short-but-hunky Mr Rochester. [Much as I’d like to see Hugh Jackman as Edward Fairfax Rochester, he’s far too tall and good-looking for Brontë’s description. In my imaginary film starring him, Kelly MacDonald plays Jane.]

In the preface Buber speaks of these psalms as representing a progression, the path a person takes to reaching true goodness. However, he offers very little in the way of transitional material or conclusion, so it feels more like five disparate essays instead of a single unit. Another disconnect has to do with the translation. Buber doesn’t list the full text of the Psalms, so I pulled out the Authorized King James Version to read along, but the translations are very different. Buber implies strongly that he is reading in German with some knowledge of the original language (Hebrew?), and I think that our translator from German to English stayed with the literal translation of the German translation instead of looking back at commonly used English translations of the original text – my opinion here is based on the fact that the book was published in the early 1950s, and I believe that the Authorized King James Version was the most common English translation in use at that time. I’m happy to be corrected on that point. What I’m saying here is that reading your KJV Psalms won’t be all that helpful in understanding Buber’s interpretation of the text.

As I understand things, for Buber, evil comes from being divided against oneself. Psalm 12 introduces the idea of the doubled heart, where we create a second heart in order to interact with the world in dishonest ways. It feels similar to the idea of the social self, or Freud’s ego – to protect ourselves, we only show the rest of the world one part of ourselves, a part that can sometimes contradict or betray the rest of the self. [I’m thinking of the French nihilist in I Heart Huckabees.] The source of evil then is hiding who we are from the rest of the world, living in a closet.

A late interpreter of the Psalms like myself cannot be satisfied, as the Psalmist was, with a simple division of Israel, just as I could not be satisfied with such a division of the human world. We see the rift between those who do violence and those to whom violence is done, the rift between those who are true to God and the apostate element, running not merely through every nation, but also through every group in a nation, and even through every soul. Only in times of great crisis does the hidden rift in a people become apparent.

I still have the rift. When I came out, I was trying to reconcile the two hearts, the hidden part of me and the social self. But looking back, it didn’t feel like healing, and in many ways I’m still wounded. Coming out felt like it created more rifts instead. I watched 50/50 yesterday, and I realized just how angry I am at my mother, still. When I told her about my great crisis, it created so much of a crisis for her that she couldn’t help or support me. She was too busy tending her own wounds to help me with mine. Which is sort of what happened when she got divorced, too – her emotions overpowered her and she couldn’t guide her children through the experience. Or even provide basic emotional support. If I did get cancer like the guy in the film, I’d chase my mom away too. I suppose I don’t yet have the empathy to understand people when they are hurting me that deeply. I felt abandoned by all my family and friends, and while I know that that feeling wasn’t true, it was real, and in some ways still is. Just to be clear, none of the people I felt close to during the last year of my marriage continued to feel close during the first year of my separation; I became much closer to friends I had known before, and to some I hadn’t known that well, so I was never as alone as I felt. But six years later it’s still hard to feel close to people who responded to my coming out with shock and dismay.

While coming out blurred the line between inner and outer selves, it created new divisions between past and present, between skepticism and belief. For the last six years I’ve been denying the part of myself that loves faith. For a long time I even insisted to myself that mystical experiences were a sign of mental illness, and while I’m not saying I’ve always been healthy, I don’t think that skepticizing all of my religious experience is healthy either. If I want to heal my divided self, I have to embrace the part of me that believes in the unseen. Christianity is probably not a good fit for me right now, theistic religions as a whole may not work for me, but whether I like it or not I am a person who believes. I’ve been nearing this through the occult, so that may end up being what makes sense to me. The transfer and sharing of emotional energies matches up with my experience better than deity belief. I’m seeing this as a process of discovering what resonates with me rather than of choosing what to believe, because I tried choosing what I believed for thirty years and it didn’t work. It created that divided heart, the source of evil.

It may seem odd that I would talk about opposition to myself as one who believes, given my temptations toward Islam in Saudi Arabia and toward inclusive evangelicalism in Texas, but in both those faith communities I was looking for community, not faith. At least, not consciously. Men in the closet are better at hiding from themselves than from others.

In a few other passages Buber says that evil is denying one’s own existence. I spent thirty years denying the part of me that loves; I don’t want to spend the next thirty denying the part that believes.

In the verse of the Psalm of which I am speaking [1:6], however, there is something particular added, which is said only here, and it is this. The Psalm does not say that God knows the proven ones, the pious, but that He knows their way. The way, the way of life of these men is so created that at each of its stages they experience the divine contact afresh. And they experience it as befits a real way, at each stage they experience it in the manner specifically appropriate to the stage. Their experience of the divine ‘knowing’ is not like any experience of nature, it is a genuinely biographical experience, that is, what is experienced in this manner is experienced in the course of one’s own personal life, in destiny as it is lived through in each particular occasion. However cruel and contrary this destiny might appear when viewed apart from intercourse with God, when it is irradiated by His ‘knowing’ it is ‘success’, just as every action of this man, his disappointments and even his failures, are success. O the happiness of the man who goes the way which is shown and ‘known’ by God!

The way that Buber is talking about, is the same thing that I mean when I talk about story, stories being a more meaningful metaphor for me than paths. My story is generally about wandering off the path. But it reminds me of the time when I kept a God-journal: you write a conversation between you and God, being honest about what you hear being said to you. I got really angry and stopped because the God-voice told me that he loved my story, and at that time I hated everything about my life. Now that I have a different perspective, I’m okay with that. My story is still on its way out of the dark, but I’m close enough to light to appreciate the dark days I’ve been through. Stories are parabolas, and the only way to get to a happy ending is to hit the bottom halfway through.

Another important aspect of evil Buber discusses is in one’s attitude. Evil is refusing to see the good in our lives. As in Persuasion, the elasticity of mind, the disposition to be comforted, the willingness to be happy, is Good. I haven’t always seen silver linings, but I’m going to be more careful to look for them. The universe is here for my good, and if I can’t see the good, I shouldn’t blame the universe for that. It’s doing the best it can.

IMAGES OF GOOD AND EVIL

In the first two parts of this book, Buber discusses Hebrew and Iranian myths about the creation of evil, or at least about humanity’s descent into evil (I’m not wholly allied to the spatial metaphor here, but Buber likes it). In the third, he synthesizes the two and sets forth his idea about the nature of good and evil. As with many literature students, I think he loses clarity when he gets farther from the text, but taken as a whole, I find the book to be comprehensible.

According to Buber, the different groups of myth are sequential in our lives, though they were probably contemporaneous in their telling. Hebrew first. We remember the story of two people in a garden, with a snake who deceives the woman. Many people have tried to argue that the Fall had nothing to do with food, but with sex. Buber explicitly disagrees; he’s remarkably sex-positive in his description of Eden. He sees the story about humanity’s shift in perception – before the Fall, things just were as they were, and after, we learned to see the world in terms of binary opposites, with of course one side being privileged. Does this imply that intersex and genderqueer individuals represent a prelapsarian innocence, and that they remind us how far we have fallen from nature? Yes, it could. Into this newly binary world we introduce Kain, the first man to choose evil. Adam and Eve couldn’t choose evil because it didn’t exist until after they’d eaten the fruit. Kain makes an offering that God denies, and then he murders his brother, who was accepted. It’s a sort of chicken-and-egg scenario: Did Kain kill his brother because God refused to accept his offering, or did God refuse to accept Kain’s offering because He knew he was going to kill his brother? Then there’s the story of the flood, where the imagery of people’s hearts have become evil. We learn evil, then we choose it, then we imagine it continually.

I wasn’t clear where he was going with this until he started synthesizing, so I’m skipping around a bit in my explanation. The Hebrew phase represents the evil of indecision. We’re born, we start to grow up, and around our teenage years the world seems full of possibility, and while to me that sounds exciting, to Buber it’s terrifying. He sees us caught up in a tornado of options with no idea which is the right or natural course of action for ourselves.

The soul driven round in the dizzy whirl cannot remain fixed within it; it strives to escape. If the ebb that leads back to familiar normality does not make its appearance, there exist for it two issues [possible results]. One is repeatedly offered it: it can clutch at any object, past which the vortex happens to carry it, and cast its passion upon it; or else, in response to a prompting that is still incomprehensible to itself, it can set about the audacious work of self-unification. In the former case, it exchanges an undirected possibility for an undirected reality, in which it does what it wills not to do, what is preposterous to it, the alien, the ‘evil’; in the latter, if the work meets with success, the soul has given up undirected plenitude in favour of the one taut string, the one stretched beam of direction. If the work is not successful, which is no wonder with such an unfathomable undertaking, the soul has nevertheless gained an inkling of what direction, or rather the direction is – for in the strict sense there is only one. To the extent to which the soul achieves unification it becomes aware of direction, becomes aware of itself as sent in quest of it. It comes into the service of good or into service for good.

So, in other words, in this tornado of options there are really only two: do what is natural and right for you to do, or do something else. Kain chose to do something else. In the story, God sees the doubleness inside Kain; he’s offering his work to God, but not for the stated motive of glorifying God. Kain has the double heart that leads to evil, the division between his interior and exterior selves. God’s not going to support that. Good comes from a unified psyche, a singleness of character that makes one’s course of action clear. This is what makes life so terrifying: if we don’t know who we are, we can’t know what course is our good, so we will inevitably choose evil. To make another film allusion, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, someone asks Dorian Grey what he is, and he answers, “I’m complicated.” This complication is both evidence and source of Dorian’s evil, and he does turn out to be one of the villains of the piece. Both here and in Wilde’s story, Dorian Grey is evil because he chooses to live in that whirlwind of choices, grabbing at every thing presented to him instead of accepting himself and the limitations of being human. Of course he has to put half of himself into something external, like a portrait; from the time Basil paints the picture, Dorian rejects his true human self.

A quick word on nature and multiplicity: Buber doesn’t equate ‘natural’ and ‘good’ the way that I’m doing here. That’s all my own interpretation. He situates our origin in the divine story, created by God, and I situate our origin in the more mundane mechanics of sexual reproduction, created by nature. But I think for the purposes of this discussion the result is the same: Buber and I both find good in being who we were created to be, and evil in denying the person we naturally are. The thing is, moving onto the next topic, that every one of us is created differently, so we each have different goods and evils. It would be evil in me to eat a piece of wheat toast because I would be denying my identity as a person with coeliac disease, but it’s a good decision for people who don’t have my autoimmune response to gluten. It was evil of me to marry a woman because I wasn’t being the gay man that I am, but there are many heterosexual and lesbian marriages that are rooted in good because they are the true expression of the identities of the couple involved. I’m not embracing moral relativism completely – I don’t think the true expression of any person’s identity is to hurt someone else, which is to say that I don’t think there are natural born killers – but I don’t think that any one path, any one faith, any one story, is right for all of humanity. As I say to religious people, If there were only one path to God, we’d all start from the same place. And while Buber is Jewish and speaking from that perspective, he leaves room for other gods and other narratives.

The Iranian myths represent the evil of decision. Remember, we’re speaking of a pre-Islamic Iran, so think of Zoroastrianism. Once upon a time, the highest god, the Wise Lord, began to have doubts, and in his doubt he conceived two primal forces: the one that says Yes, and the one that says No. As before, evil is a turning against oneself. Here, good and evil are equally balanced opposite forces, both of which are contained in or encompassed by the Wise Lord. The second story is of an ancient king, who sought the gods for all sorts of benefits for his kingdom – immortality, prosperity, power to control demons, the standard sort of wish-fulfillment Garden-of-Eden stuff. But after a few hundred years, he forgets the gods’ place in his happiness and he tells himself that he did all this by himself, without divine help. Immediately his power leaves him and he starts a gradual process of isolating himself in evil and eventually being consumed by the demons he had once ruled.

The identical term lie is used in the Vedas, at times, to designate the uncanny game of hide-and-seek in the obscurity of the soul, in which it, the single human soul, evades itself, avoids itself, hides from itself. […] Being-true, however, ultimately signifies: strengthening, covering and confirming being at the point of one’s own existence, and being-false ultimately signifies: weakening, desecrating and dispossessing being at the point of one’s own existence. He who prefers the lie to the truth and chooses it instead of truth, intervenes directly with his decision into the decisions of the world-conflict. But this takes effect in the very first instance at just his point of being: since he gave himself over to the being-lie, that is to non-being, which passes itself off as being, he falls victim to it.

Circling back to my own identity issues, all evil is a form of closet. It’s based in lying to yourself about who you are, rejecting yourself, trying to destroy the person you were made to be (Dorian stabbing his portrait). Because it consists of self-destruction, evil is choosing not to exist. And the evil in me echoes out into the world around me, like ripples in a pond. The good in me also spreads itself around me, which is what makes the world such an interesting compound of good and bad.

What is essential in this second phase is that we aren’t flailing in the vortex of option any more. This sort of evil is related to preference and choice. The question isn’t, Are you living a lie? like it was with the Hebrew myths. The question is, Do you like living a lie? Once you find yourself in a closet, repressing and denying aspects of your real self, do you stay there? Do you hate yourself so much that you prefer living as someone else?

I believe that creation is continuous. We weren’t born fully formed, and we continue to grow and change, to shape our creation, until the day we die. And possibly beyond that. Humans are not static beings; we are in a constant state of becoming. Two good friends of mine have spent this last year splitting up, and as I was talking with one about the decisions the other is making, I mentioned this idea that I don’t think our friend is being careful about who she is becoming. The one present asked why I would phrase it that way, and I couched it in terms of science fiction, multiple dimensions of reality, and Douglas Adams’s Probability Axis, but it comes just as much from my belief of what it means to be human, rooted in philosophy and religion.

I want to create wholeness in my life. I want healing between the parts of me that have been in conflict. I want to be good. I think Buber’s right; goodness starts with a person’s relationship with herself. Buber describes the process of unifying one’s psyche as conversion, and that section about the first book that I wrote on Sunday felt like that type of transformation, as dramatic as coming out of the closet as a gay man. As at any moment when a new field of living opens itself, there’s the vortex of indecision again, but I have a little more self-knowledge than I did as a teenager, so I’m considering fewer options. And I’ve learned how to tell when something is right for me and when it isn’t. Moving forward, I expect to read more religious and philosophical ideas, as I try to understand the shape of my own belief. I may end up worshipping the elephant-faced Ganesh, or I may call down the moon with a local coven, or I may just decide that my religion is kissing trees. But whatever it is, it’s going to be mine, and it’s going to be good for me. I’m not going to internally mock or belittle myself or call myself crazy for believing, and I’m going to do my best to love the me who loves faith.

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We had a snowstorm here, which seems to have begun early last Friday morning and continued until Saturday afternoon. Saturday I was awakened at 5:30 by the landlady next door, banging on my door and shouting that the power was out. My initial reaction was to wonder rather rudely what concern of mine that was, but I kept my mouth shut and eventually answered the door, simply saying “I don’t understand.” I figured that she might want to go somewhere to plug in her oxygen apparatus, but after I got nearly twelve inches of snow off her car, she didn’t want to go anywhere. After a while I figured out that she had dragged me out of bed simply because she didn’t want to be alone in the cold and the dark. The experience felt surreal, like we were acting in one of those shitty modern plays where everything is hyper-realistic and nothing seems to happen. I could see my own words written on a page in front of me as I was saying them. Once the sun came up she released me from conversation and I went back to bed to finish reading Northanger Abbey.

The last six years have been the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s publishing career, starting with Sense and Sensibility in 1811 and finishing with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published together as a four-volume set in December 1817. However, for the other bicentennials, I’ve had things going on – I spent 2011 preparing to come out of the closet and celebrating the birth of my third son, 2013 and 2014 (Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park) in Saudi Arabia working through my identity issues and suicidal tendencies, and 2016 (Emma) dealing with paranoia and post-traumatic stress. I suppose it’s not really paranoia if they really are out to get you, and the Christians really were plotting my downfall, I just didn’t understand the messages my subconscious was sending until it was too late to profit by them. So here I am, just now celebrating an Austen bicentennial at the appropriate time, the release of her posthumous books. NA and P were published in December, but Miss Jane had passed away the previous July.

NORTHANGER ABBEY

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In the 1790s, Austen wrote three novels: First Impressions, Elinor and Marianne, and Susan. After her father’s retirement the family moved to Bath, and she prepared Susan for publication. It was sold to a publisher in 1803, but he kept it without doing anything with it. Eventually she bought it back, revised it again (changing the protagonist’s name) and published it as Northanger Abbey. This is one of her most intertextual books, with several homages to the Gothic novels of the 1790s – so many, that in the advertisement for the book, she apologized for its being a little dated even before it was published. Since Frankenstein came out in 1818, and Melmoth the Wanderer in 1820, I think she needn’t have worried, but the Gothic craze was dying down a bit. The most important source is Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, which I read thirteen years ago and haven’t felt the need to go back to. It’s a huge book, and Radcliffe holds the audience in suspense a little too long for me. By the time the mystery is solved, three pages before the end of the book, I don’t care any more. I just wanted it to end. I do appreciate Mrs Radcliffe’s rich descriptions of the natural scenery, and I do recommend her other novels to the attention of people who are fond of two-hundred-year-old suspenseful romances (The Italian, The Romance of the Forest), but Udolpho requires a dedication that I’m not ready to give just now. I have the same hesitation for reading other long books as well – I want to be sure that the exchange of time for pleasure will pay off.

Catherine Morland is the protagonist, but hardly a Gothic heroine. Happy home life with three older brothers and six younger siblings, with two living parents who seem intelligent and interested in promoting their children’s welfare. She’s not especially bright, or talented, or beautiful, but she loves reading scary stories, so Gothic novels fill her thoughts. She goes off to Bath with friends of her parents, and she meets a man that she really likes.

She was assured of his affection; and that heart in return was solicited, which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own; for, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, – though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character, and truly loved her society, – I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude; or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of a heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.

For a clergyman, Henry Tilney is kind of a sarcastic bitch, and it seems that Catherine loves him because he’s the first guy to give her any attention at all. He’s smart enough to see the advantages of loving a seventeen-year-old girl who’s a little more innocent than we expect girls to be in the twenty-first century – Catherine is sweet and kind, always attributing the best possible motives to other people and blaming herself for misunderstanding when they prove to be less perfect than she imagines. Unless the person in question reminds her of the villains in Gothic romances, in which case she assigns the worst possible motives instead.

After meeting Henry, she meets the Thorpes, a brother and sister destined to grieve and perturb.

Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love.

At first, Isabella seemed the perfect friend, especially when she gets interested in Catherine’s brother James. John Thorpe then pays his addresses to Catherine, but she finds him very uncongenial from the start. He’s not interested in talking about books, only about carriages and hunting, rather a lot like the straight men I grew up with. The vehicles are a little more modern, and the hunting involves dogs and horses less often, but the dullness of the conversation is unchanged. The panic she feels in a car being driven way too fast and the umbrage she takes at being lied to are also familiar experiences.

Catherine spends Volume II on a visit to the Tilneys’ home, Northanger Abbey.

Her passion for ancient edifices was next in degree to her passion for Henry Tilney, – and castles and abbeys made usually the charm of those reveries which his image did not fill.

Catherine tries to write herself into a Gothic novel, but real life is set at a lower pitch than a Radcliffe novel, so self-centered men might be a pain to live with, but they don’t lock their wives in towers and starve them to death. A comparison could be drawn to another Austen protagonist, Emma Woodhouse, in the way that they both create stories for their lives and the lives of their friends that have no bearing on the real world, being based on the author’s character and not the character of those friends. Besides, there are always secrets that the protagonist is not privy to, which leads to the surprises in their narratives.

When I first read Austen’s novels, my sister-in-law was reading them too, and I suggested them to the brother who connects us, but he declined, stating that Austen’s characters cared more about the lace on their dresses than the realities of their personalities (or something like that, I’m trying to remember a conversation from fifteen years ago) – which I thought an odd comment for someone who had only ever seen the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice, until I was speaking with my mother and she made the same comment in almost exactly the same words. Having attended high school in the 1960s, my mom had had to read many of the books that I read at university, so I knew that she might have some actual Austen experience.

It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biassed by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull or the jackonet. Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter.

But the excessive attention to lace is a sign of an unsympathetic character, and Austen has quite the same opinion of such people as my mother and brother do. Which I was able to convince my mother of in the following years, as I kept sending her books like Mansfield Park and Persuasion. When I started sending Victorian novels, though, she stopped reading them, and sometimes I have half a mind to take back Villette because people who don’t love that book shouldn’t have access to it.

PERSUASION

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Persuasion was Austen’s last completed novel, and its protagonist is dramatically older than the others – Anne Elliott is a full ten years older than Catherine Morland.

Surely, if there be constant attachment on each side, our hearts must understand each other ere long. We are not boy and girl, to be captiously irritable, misled by every moment’s inadvertence, and wantonly playing with our own happiness.

So Anne thinks, but lovers at thirty are not so different from lovers at twenty as she might imagine. There are still all the same emotions, jealousies, and misunderstandings, but she is right that the two of them have much less tolerance for bullshit than they might have had when they were younger. Indeed, Austen herself seems ready to cut the shit and quit being routinely nice to everyone. This is the book where she lets herself get a little nasty.

The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son, and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before.

He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him “poor Richard,” been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done any thing to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.

And this is the author that once gave Mr Willoughby a reasonably happy ending.

As a skilled and practiced reader, I tend to identify with the protagonist in whatever book I’m reading, and Austen’s are no exception: I feel especially close to Fanny Price and Anne Elliott. It is often harder for me to identify with the men, though, particularly the ones like Colonel Brandon, who falls in love with a girl literally half his age. Thirty-five-year-old men have no business flirting with seventeen-year-olds, a fact that Marianne understands early on in Sense and Sensibility but allows herself to forget. I do feel close to Mr Darcy, with his shyness and overconfidence in his own understanding, and to Henry Crawford, with his short-sightedness and need to make everyone love him, but here in Persuasion there’s a man whose descriptions could more obviously apply to me. These phrases are other characters’ responses to him.

Give him a book, and he will read all day long.

He will sit poring over his book, and not know when a person speaks to him, or when one drops one’s scissors, or any thing that happens.

He is one of the dullest young men that ever lived. He has walked with me, sometimes, from one end of the sands to the other, without saying a word. He is not at all a well-bred young man.

He considered his disposition as of the sort which must suffer heavily, uniting very strong feelings with quiet, serious, and retiring manners, and a decided taste for reading, and sedentary pursuits.

He had a pleasing face and a melancholy air, just as he ought to have, and drew back from conversation.

Anne points out that while Captain Benwick’s manners aren’t ideal for his society, he has a good mind and is someone whose acquaintance is worth cultivating. I like to think that’s true of me as well; not that I’m ill-mannered, but I have the same habit of silence, particularly with people I don’t know well. I was driving a teenager to school once – when the conversation lapsed, she said, “Awkward silence,” and I replied, “I don’t find silence to be awkward.” I think it’s nice, and often restful. I do not aspire to Benwick’s fate, though, of meeting a girl with an empty head and filling it with my own books and opinions. I’d like to love someone who has his own mind.

Another pleasant singularity is in the way that Austen takes some time to show us a relationship that works, a rarity in her novels. Admiral Croft married a younger woman, to be sure, but she is by far the steadier head of the two, and Austen seems to represent them as a model for connubial bliss:

But by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself, they happily passed the danger; and by once afterwards judiciously putting out her hand, they neither fell into a rut, nor ran foul of a dung-cart; and Anne, with some amusement at their style of driving, which she imagined no bad representation of the general guidance of their affairs, found herself safely deposited by them at the cottage.

Knowing their feelings as she did, it was a most attractive picture of happiness to her. She always watched them as long as she could; delighted to fancy she understood what they might be talking of, as they walked along in happy independence, or equally delighted to see the Admiral’s hearty shake of the hand when he encountered an old friend, and observe their eagerness of conversation when occasionally forming into a little know of the navy, Mrs Croft looking as intelligent and keen as any of the officers around her.

While this is definitely complimentary to the pair, I think it’s also a big compliment to Mrs Croft. She lets her husband drive, but also makes sure he does it properly. Instead of getting all put out when they meet her husband’s friends, she participates actively in the conversation, which requires a knowledge of subject and audience that many people do not cultivate. Sometimes I think about the importance of boundaries, and she may cross those at times, but she crosses the stupid boundaries around what their society tells her a woman should know and be interested in. A person of her mental and physical strength would languish in the traditional wifely role, staying in England while her husband goes sailing for a year or more, in what Austen describes as the “the sameness and the elegance, the prosperity and the nothingness” of empty-headed society like Sir Walter and Elizabeth. It seems a real challenge to meet quality people – I don’t mean titled, I mean people of intellectual and moral substance – in any station of life, whether among the Regency gentry or twenty-first century America. In this case, I feel myself to be more blessed than most as regards my friends, and less blessed than most as regards lovers.

My cousin, Anne, shakes her head. She is not satisfied. She is fastidious. My dear cousin, (sitting down by her) you have a better right to be fastidious than almost any other woman I know; but will it answer? Will it make you happy? Will it not be wiser to accept the society of these good ladies in Laura-place, and enjoy all the advantages of the connexion as far as possible?

There are influences in my life encouraging me to get out there and find someone to date, and there are a couple of guys that I’ve sort of thought about, but I’m not really that attracted to them (I don’t mean primarily physically). I am questioning the worth of this fastidiousness, this disinclination to kiss frogs in the hope that one might turn into a prince, but still. I don’t want to force myself into a situation that I don’t actually want. I’ve been in a few awkward situations, and right now I seem to be choosing the discomfort of loneliness over the discomfort of a bad relationship. And I know, not every encounter has to turn into a relationship, but there are so few prospects out here that I’m worried that I would force the relationship just to stave off the loneliness.

She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older – the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.

I haven’t cast off the habit of prudence, but I want romance too – to feel loved, not just to get fucked. I want someone who will put his arm around me during a movie, who will sing with me in the car or in bed, who will hold me when I cry, who will take my hand and lead me through a crowd, who will love to touch me as much as I love to touch him. I want someone who will make me a priority in his life. When I buy flowers, I want them to be really for him and not actually for myself.

She watched – observed – reflected – and finally determined that this was not a case of fortitude or of resignation only. – A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven; and Anne viewed her friend as one of those instances in which, by a merciful appointment, it seems designed to counterbalance almost every other want.

Fortitude, resignation, resolution, patience – these are qualities I can actually do pretty well with, despite my complaining here on the blog. But Persuasion reminds me that these aren’t the way to happiness. Being truly happy comes from within, not from external circumstances. Even if I did have a job that allowed me to pay my bills and a man who loved me, these things would not guarantee my happiness. That can only come from me, from making peace with myself and from loving being who I am.

It’s always a little sad to me that Jane Austen died without having experienced the sort of marital felicity she imagines for her characters, but really, I get sad when I remember that she died at all. And at the end of Persuasion there were some tears, whether for the conversation comparing the strength of men’s and women’s love or for the end of the book or for the end of the career I’ll leave you to decide for yourself. I imagine the world two hundred years from now and wonder whether anyone will remember my name then, or if my memory will last even twenty years after I go. But while some look at Austen’s novels as proof of the oppressive restrictions placed on women in Regency society, her name endures. People are still reading and writing and thinking about her, much more so than any of her brothers, despite their active careers and large families. She may have focused on “a little bit of ivory, two inches wide,” but she created something beautiful, which I truly believe will last as long as civilization endures.

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.

 

 

house of the dead

So apparently I’ve given up sleeping. I don’t know why, but this week it’s just been really difficult for me to stay down. Two days a week I’m at work for twelve hours, so I ought to be exhausted, but I still pop awake after a few hours. I suppose there are more stressors in my life than I realize, and I’m probably not dealing with them appropriately.

This book is not nearly so Halloween-y as its title implies. When he was in his late twenties, Dostoevsky was arrested for publishing articles that were inconveniently political, and he spent four years in a Siberian prison. This book was his way of understanding and communicating that experience. This was very early in his writing career, so the effects of it ring out through his better-known works, like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. There are some gestures toward fictionalization, but I tend to think that there’s not much fiction in it, so as I’m discussing this I’ll probably conflate the author with the narrator. I know that’s a logically problematic choice, but I’m going with it.

In many ways, the prison is a microcosm of the society as a whole, or at least as men experience it. There is a strong division between the working class and the moneyed class which prevents them from ever crossing over and making friends. In the United States, we sometimes talk about our society as if we really were all created equal, but the Russians of the nineteenth century have no illusions on this subject. They see humanity as divided between servants and masters, and what you are is what you are. When First-Person Narrator arrives at the prison, he tries to be egalitarian and make friends with all sorts, but they are quick to put him in his place – he was raised in the upper class, so he has no business mixing with the workers. It’s not his social peers that class him off, it’s those who are lower who exclude him.

Some people think that if convicts are well fed and well kept and all the requirements of the law are satisfied, that is all that is necessary. This is an error, too. Everyone, whoever he may be and however down-trodden he may be, demands – though perhaps instinctively, perhaps unconsciously – respect for his dignity as a human being. The convict knows himself that he is a convict, an outcast, and knows his place before his commanding officer; but by no branding, by no fetters will you make him forget that he is a human being. And as he really is a human being he ought to be treated humanely. My God, yes! Humane treatment may humanise even one in whom the image of God has long been obscured. These “unfortunates” need even more humane treatment than others. It is their salvation and their joy. I have met some good-hearted, high-minded officers. I have seen the influence they exerted on these degraded creatures. A few kind words from them meant almost a moral resurrection for the convicts. They were as pleased as children and as children began to love them. I must mention another strange thing: the convicts themselves do not like to be treated too familiarly and too softly by their officers. They want to respect those in authority over them, and too much softness makes them cease to respect them. The convicts like their commanding officer to have decorations, too, they like him to be presentable, they like him to be in favour with some higher authority, they like him to be strict and important and just, and they like him to keep up his dignity. The convicts prefer such an officer: they feel that he keeps up his own dignity and does not insult them, and so they feel everything is right and as it should be.

As with the officers, so with the owners of the means of production. I’ve seen this same fact in working with students – not the ones who come to college, but the teenagers who are having a rough life. When I lived in Washington I sometimes was assigned to the school for ‘troubled’ kids: the ones who have to be escorted to school by law enforcement officers, the school with a padded room for students whose emotions get the better of them. It was a difficult assignment for me because I felt nothing in common with these people, and I lack the firmness they require. I am too familiar and too soft for this population, so they don’t have much respect for me. But I like being who I am, so I’m not going to ‘toughen up’ to satisfy a group that I may never have to work with again. This is why I prefer teaching adults; kids who are like this are still forced to come to school, but this is the type of adult who doesn’t see the purpose of continuing his education, so doesn’t. I won’t deny that some of my students may have fit this category in their past, but by the time they get to the community college they are mature enough to recognize that I teach for their benefit, and that it’s their responsibility to take the benefit from what I teach.

Circling back to the guards, the ones he writes about are seldom the fluffy successful type described above. He talks more about the ones that remind me of the stories of Auschwitz guards, and in some ways the Siberian prison camps were a lot like the German prison camps a hundred years later. The same emphasis on work that doesn’t produce anything, like moving a pile of rocks from one place to another and then back again. The same temptation for the guards to become almost inhumanly violent and cruel.

Tyranny is a habit; it may develop, and it does develop at last, into a disease. I maintain that the very best of men may be coarsened and hardened into a brute by habit. Blood and power intoxicate; coarseness and depravity are developed; the mind and the heart are tolerant of the most abnormal things, till at last they come to relish them. The man and the citizen is lost for ever in the tyrant, and the return to human dignity, to repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.

Unlike with the Nazis, though, there is a safe haven: the hospital. Prisoners come to the hospital when they need a rest for a few days, and the doctors are actually kind and lenient with them. Some of the convicts choose a sort of slow suicide: they steep their snuff in vodka, then drink it off. I don’t know the mechanism behind it, but this somehow gives them consumption, from which they die a horrible death. This passage reminds me of some of the stories I’ve heard about people dying of AIDS; I don’t understand why, but AIDS stories always make me extremely emotional.

And now as I write this, I vividly recall the death of the consumptive patient, Mihailov, whose bed was nearly opposite mine, not far from Ustyantsev’s. He died, I remember, four days after I came in. Possibly I have mentioned the case of the consumptives through unconsciously recalling the impressions and ideas which came into my mind at the sight of that death. I knew little of Mihailov himself, however. He was quite young, not more than five-and-twenty, tall, thin, and of extremely attractive appearance. He was in the “special division,” and was strangely silent, always gently and quietly melancholy, as though he were “drying up” in prison, as the convicts said of him. He left a pleasant memory among them. I only remember that he had fine eyes, and I really do not know why he comes back to my mind so distinctly. He died at three o’clock in the afternoon on a bright frosty day. I remember the glowing slanting rays of the sun pierced through the green frozen panes of our windows. The sunshine was streaming full on the dying man. He was unconscious, and lay for several hours in the death agony. From early morning he had scarcely recognised those who went up to him. The patients would have liked to do something for him, seeing his distress; his breathing was deep, painful and raucous; his chest heaved as though he could not get air. He flung off his quilt and his clothes, and began at last to tear off his shirt; even that seemed a weight to him. The other patients went to his help and took off his shirt. It was terrible to see that long, long body, the arms and legs wasted to the bone, the sunken belly, the strained chest, the ribs standing out like a skeleton’s. Nothing remained on his body but a wooden cross and a little bag with a relic in it, and his fetters which might, it seemed, have slipped off his wasted legs. Half an hour before his death the whole ward was hushed, we began to talk almost in whispers. Everyone moved about noiselessly. The patients did not talk much, and then of other things; they only looked now and then at the dying man, who was gasping more and more terribly. At last, with a straying and uncertain hand, he fumbled at the cross on his chest and began pulling it off, as though even that were a weight that worried and oppressed him. The patients removed the cross, too. Ten minutes later he died. They knocked at the door for the sentry and told him. An attendant came in, looked blankly at the dead man, and went to fetch a medical assistant. The medical assistant, a good-natured young fellow somewhat excessively occupied with his personal appearance, which was prepossessing however, soon came in, went up to the dead man with rapid steps that sounded noisy in the silent ward, and with a particularly unconcerned air, which he seemed to have assumed for the occasion, took his wrist, felt his pulse and went away with a wave of his hand. Word was sent to the sergeant in charge: the criminal was an important one and could not be certified as dead without special ceremony. While we were waiting for the sergeant, one of the convicts suggested in a low voice that it might be as well to close the dead man’s eyes. Another man listened attentively, without a word went up to the dead man and closed his eyes. Seeing the cross lying on the pillow, he picked it up, looked at it, and put it round Mihailov’s neck again; then he crossed himself. Meanwhile, the dead face was growing rigid; the sunlight was flickering on it; the mouth was half open; two rows of white young teeth glistened between the thin parched lips.

One of the things that I noticed here, again and again, is that FPN always notices and comments on whether a man is handsome or not. He seems to really enjoy spending time with men who are young and handsome, but he doesn’t expand on why, and this question of why does seem to bother him at times. I’m not saying that Dostoevsky was a closet case; I’m just remarking on a trend. It also seems to me that the convicts have no privacy or personal space, not even to bathe. The bath-house is far too small for them, so they’re packed in as tightly as possible, so tightly that the water runs off of one man and onto his neighbors. It does seem like a great opportunity for some homosexual voyeurism, but Dostoevsky doesn’t go there. FPN sees a mass of limbs but doesn’t get into specifics.

There is a great diversity in this prison – there are some Poles, some Muslims from farther south, and even a Jew. The groups don’t always mix, and the Muslims mostly don’t speak Russian, but sometimes when we read Dostoevsky it seems like Petersburg, Moscow, and a little patch of countryside are all that Russia amounts to, but even at this time it was a vast empire, and convicts from all over got sent to Siberia. The one element of diversity we don’t see is in gender. For the convicts, there are two types of women: good wives and mothers who love unconditionally and are universally absent, and whores. The whores may not be good (or deserve names), but at least they’re here.  There is one exception to this rule, in the story “Akulka’s Husband.” Akulka is a good girl who gets treated like a whore, a passive object for others to project their fantasies on, and so she gets beaten a lot and eventually dies.

I mentioned this as a story – the book is not a continuous narrative. He compresses all of his time into a year, like Thoreau did with Walden, so that we have that same autumn-winter-spring-summer progression that we get in an Austen novel. It’s like someone sat down next to him and said, “So, Dostoevsky, tell me about Siberia.” I recognize it because it’s the same sort of unorganized rambling that I do when someone sits next to me and says, “So, Occ Man, tell me about Saudi Arabia,” or “What was Brazil like?” or “How does someone like you, raised as a Mormon and a true believer, get married, have kids, come out of the closet, get divorced and leave your church?” It’s too big a subject to handle in normal, polite conversation, and the person asking rarely wants a complete answer. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to answer to the other person’s satisfaction – tell a story or two that show a little foreignness but not too much, and make the stories funny. Avoid telling them about the depression and isolation because that’s not what they want to hear. It’s a bit like the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – they want to hear about the adventure, but they don’t want to know that most of the adventure involves being tensely bored, and they certainly don’t want to feel the tension or the boredom. How does one make these intensely difficult experiences into entertaining nuggets to share at cocktail parties? I’m still working on that. The funny stories don’t spring to mind all the time, so I could talk about the two-foot-high sunflowers or the stray cat that got adopted at the desert compound, or I could talk about tromping through the jungle and drinking out of a stream or walking on a road built by slaves two hundred years ago, or I could talk about how much I loved my ex-wife and that my divorce was just like a straight man’s or how it took me seven years to stop being afraid of my own feelings. Dostoevsky’s book is written from the vantage point of the guy who has just finished the experience but hasn’t yet figured out how to share it.

FPN says that prison is the first time he’s ever spent time with the working class, and from the homogenization of them I’d guess it’s Dostoevsky’s first time too. I grew up among the working poor, but my mother did not, unless you count the maid, and in her stories I always felt that we had somehow come down in the world. We might be the poor children of an air-conditioning repairman, but her father had worked closely with Eisenhower during the War, attended Cornell University, and become a civil engineer for the federal government. Sometimes I can still hear her voice in my head, telling us not to act like the neighbor kids (of whom she did not approve, but we were way out in the country and there was literally no one else to play with), or not to act like a black person (that was for my younger siblings, never for me), or not to act like a fairy (that one was for me alone, never directed at the others), because we were better than all of them. Before I finished high school I had worked out that she was wrong, that no person is better than any other, and that money and culture do not determine a person’s worth, but I had to work that out on my own. Dostoevsky learns that lesson too, but here in prison.

There is no standard by which to measure the soul and its development. Even education itself is no test. I am ready to be the first to testify that, in the midst of these utterly uneducated and down-trodden sufferers, I came across instances of the greatest spiritual refinement. Sometimes one would know a man for years in prison and despise him and think that he was not a human being but a brute. And suddenly a moment will come by chance when his soul will suddenly reveal itself in an involuntary outburst, and you see in it such wealth, such feeling, such heart, such a vivid understanding of its own suffering, and of the suffering of others, that your eyes are open and for the first moment you can’t believe what you have seen and heard yourself. The contrary happens too; education is sometimes found side by side with such barbarity, such cynicism, that it revolts you, and in spite of the utmost good-nature and all previous theories on the subject, you can find no justification or apology.

This is one of the things that we come to Dostoevsky for, this understanding of every person’s individual worth and dignity, what George Eliot describes as ‘sympathy,’ but in this book he’s still developing that understanding. I feel like it hasn’t quite become a habit of mind yet; this is me as a kid on the playground, wanting to be involved but left on the outside because I wasn’t athletic and I talked funny (Boston accent in rural North Carolina). The author hasn’t yet reached his maturity. That makes this book an interesting signpost in his development, but for fans of The Major Novels, the ones in The World Literary Canon, it’s a little disorienting and disappointing.

Many of you will recall Hoffmann’s name from the Offenbach opera, or from the opera that he himself wrote. Others may recall comments about German ghost stories of the Romantic Era, and you’ll want to connect those with Hoffmann’s name. It seems strange to think that these stories were published at the same time as Jane Austen’s, though a trifle less strange to think of them as contemporaneous with Frankenstein, Wordsworth’s Prelude, and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Another thing to think of as strange is the fact that the editor chose this group to package together. He wasn’t looking for a broad sampling of Hoffmann’s work; he put together the stories that were the most similar, that all have pretty much the same central idea. These are allegories of thought, intuition, and inspiration, and therefore of identity and art.

If there is a dark power which malevolently and treacherously places a thread within us, with which to hold us and draw us down a perilous and pernicious path that we would never otherwise have set foot on – if there is such a power, then it must take the same form as we do, it must become our very self; for only in this way can we believe in it and give it the scope it requires to accomplish its secret task. If our minds, strengthened by a cheerful life, are resolute enough to recognize alien and malevolent influences for what they are and to proceed tranquilly along the path to which our inclinations and our vocation have directed us, the uncanny power must surely perish in a vain struggle to assume the form which is our own reflection. Lothar also says there is no doubt that once we have surrendered ourselves to the dark psychic power, it draws alien figures, encountered by chance in the outside world, into our inner selves, so that we ourselves give life to the spirit which our strange delusion persuades us is speaking from such figures. It is the phantom of our own self which, thanks to its intimate relationship with us and its deep influence on our minds, casts us down to hell or transports us to heaven. (The Sandman)

So, unlike a lot of supernatural stories, these are deeply humanistic – it’s always ourselves, our divided selves, that control our lives and destinies. We make choices, so responsibility is never assigned to external forces like God or Fate. We each make our own world.

Nor do I quite see what you mean by wonders, my excellent Mr Peregrinus, or how you contrive to divide phenomena into the wondrous and the non-wondrous, since the reality they manifest is the same as ourselves, and we and they determine each other reciprocally. If you wonder at something because it has not yet happened to you, or because you think you cannot perceive the connection of cause and effect, that simply shows that your powers of perception are limited by the deficiencies of your vision. Whether your vision is naturally deficient, or sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, I cannot say. But, with respect, Mr Tyss, the most comical aspect of the matter is that you are trying to divide yourself into two parts, one of which perceives what you call wonders and readily believes in them, while the other wonders at this perception and this belief. (Master Flea)

As in this quotation, all this is often tied into vision and perception. Characters look through magnifying glasses or spyglasses or into mirrors, and their value is often determined by what they are able to see, which could also be named how they see, which is informed by their beliefs. Worth is conferred upon those who see wonders in the midst of everyday life, who know that the world is a miracle and more fantastic than we can imagine. Those with this gift are often found to belong to the world of fairy more than the world of work – these are stories like those of Diana Wynne Jones, where characters have more than one identity, so a bratty little brother can become a legendary hero, or an unemployed Welsh uncle can really be a powerful magician.

You are now, kind reader, in the fairy realm of glorious wonders, whose mighty strokes summon up both supreme bliss and extreme horror, and where the grave goddess raises her veil so that we may fancy we see her face – but her grave expression often breaks into a smile, and that is the impish humour that teases us with the bewilderment of magic, as a mother often teases her dearest children. In this realm, which our spirit often reveals to us, at least in our dreams, try, kind reader, to recognize the well-known shapes that, as the saying goes, cross your path every day. You will then believe that this magnificent realm is much nearer at hand than you had previously thought; and that is what I heartily wish you to believe, and what the strange story of Anselmus is supposed to convey. (The Golden Pot)

I do love narratives that teach this concept, that this is a world of endless wonder, that the bird that flew against my window this morning was a miracle of life trying to get into my apartment, and that by keeping it shut out I lost something more than the opportunity to clean bird shit off all my stuff.

At this point, my kind reader, you must be prepared to hear a story which seems quite unconnected with the events that I have undertaken to recount and is thus open to criticism as a mere episode. Sometimes, however, it happens that if you resolutely follow the path that seemed to be leading you astray, you suddenly find yourself at your journey’s end. And thus it may also be that this episode only appears to be a false trail but in fact leads straight to the heart of my main story. (Princess Brambilla)

These are also stories about storytelling, because the mythical aspects of the stories are told explicitly as stories, which then bleed into the supposedly realistic portions of the narrative until actual reality is compounded of both.

There are other ways that these stories speak to me, as in pieces of advice like this:

I tell you again, give up your solitary life. You’ll feel much better if you do. If you knew any other girls, you’d hardly think Dörtje the most beautiful of all; and if you had made advances to any other woman, you wouldn’t think that Dörtje was the only one who could love you. Come, come, Peregrinus, a bit more experience will teach you better. You’re a good-looking man, and I wouldn’t have to be as intelligent and perceptive as Master Flea is, to foresee that you’ll enjoy happiness through love in a quite different way than you now imagine. (Master Flea)

Which is advice that I’ve needed at some points in my life. As things are now, I’ve been pulling toward hermit-ness more than is needful. It made a little sense in the Midwest because I didn’t feel a connection with either the people or the place, but now that I’m back home in the midst of people who love me, I would be happier if I made more of an effort to spend time with those people. Then there’s the him from the Midwest, the memory of whom is keeping me from actively looking for the romance my heart cries out for. He was going to come down for a visit this weekend, but ran into some administrative difficulties – an ex had rented a car under his name a few years ago and not returned it on time, so there was an unpaid charge for a few hundred dollars attached to his credit card number, which they didn’t bother telling him until he showed up to pick up the rental he had ordered for Friday morning. He paid it off and is postponing the trip for a few weeks, which is frustrating for the both of us, but what lends poignancy to the situation is that I’m planning to tell him that long-distance is not working for me, and he needs to either commit to leaving his family for me or let me go. I think that if I phrase it that way he’ll pick the option I think would be best for us both, which is breaking it off. I don’t think he’ll be happy far away from his family, and if it takes this long and this much trouble to schedule a visit to see me, it’s going to take just as much time and effort to go back to see them, and before I left he had been talking about moving down here and getting up there twice a month. I think his expectations (for the world, not necessarily for me) are unrealistic. I also think that he loves me because I try to make people feel safe and comfortable (in real life, not necessarily on the blog), not because of who I am. He likes the feeling of security, and frankly, any gay man who thinks monogamy is important could fill that role, and most of them would fit his lifestyle and tastes more easily than I would. As for my own happiness, I haven’t felt fulfilled in the relationship for a long time; as The Ex did, he made me feel loved in spite of my weirdness and not because of it, as if I needed an interpreter to interact with real, normal human beings. I’d rather not be with someone who encourages my sense of isolation or alienation. It’s strong enough without the help. Which is sort of why I want him to come down here for the conversation instead of trying it over the phone – I don’t think he’s ever really seen me happy, and seeing who and what does this for me could be a good education for him. If you’ll excuse the cliché, an eye-opener.

All this stuff about identity doubling is not where I needed to be this week, which is why I was reading so slowly. About ten days ago, my car had serious trouble on the way to work, so it’s been parked at the college ever since. A week ago, my good friend (who comments here as Scribble Feather) took me to a car dealership to look into buying a new vehicle, but I was denied financing because of my income and credit score. Granted, I know my income is low, but my credit isn’t bad, so I checked the credit report. Apparently someone stole my identity and ran up three credit cards in my name – they applied for a fourth, unsuccessfully. I’ve been calling around to these different financial companies and declaring fraud, but it’s going to take some time before it’s all cleared up. Just thinking about finances is enough to give me the shakes, so it’s been an unnerving experience, the type where I have to shove all my emotions into a back room so that I can take care of what needs my immediate attention. I stayed with the good SF for a few days, and now I’m borrowing a vehicle from another friend, so we see how important communities are, and how grateful I am to be in the middle of one. And now that I’m done with a lot of that, the depression I’ve been delaying is starting to seep in. It’ll get better, though. The day the car gave up on life was the day of a job interview, which was successful, so tomorrow (Monday) I’m starting a new position, Library Clerk. This is in addition to my position as a part-time English instructor, and in the new year I’ll shift the schedule around so that the library job will be my main focus and I’ll only have one class. The new schedule will also make it easier to find a third part-time job, which I think will be necessary.

Oh, it might be helpful if I were to list the stories in the volume:

  • The Golden Pot, in which Anselmus writes his way into the heart of a snake
  • The Sandman, which has very little to do with sand and is part of Offenbach’s opera
  • Princess Brambilla, where Carnival goes on for far too long thanks to the commedia dell’arte
  • Master Flea, where a man learns confidence when he’s given the power to read others’ thoughts
  • My Cousin’s Corner Window, which is much shorter than the other stories and which fits almost nothing I said here

As is implied, this is a collection of stories that would be better read one at a time instead of all at once, and in truth, it was never the original author’s intent that they should be combined like this. Despite my disagreement with that editorial choice, I will say that Ritchie Robertson’s 1992 translation is a good one and feels very contemporary, even though the stories were written two hundred years ago.

A few weeks ago, a very dear friend asked me my opinion of this book – apparently it’s the new big thing among certain gay communities. I must say, since it was copyrighted last year, this is one of the most recent books I’ve ever read in my life. I usually catch the cultural moment ten, fifteen, thirty, sometimes fifty or a hundred years late. Sometimes more.

My first impulse is to talk about the negatives, but that’s because he’s writing about things that are very similar to my experience, but expressed differently than I would, and not exactly my experience. It felt like he was trying to write my story but getting it wrong, as if he were making a collage of my life but mixing it in with stereotypes I don’t fit. I think this is what Rider Haggard must have felt when he read Treasure Island, only I’m not actually planning on writing a response.

I even felt something of that desire myself, though it was nothing like madness for me, in my life lived almost always beneath the pitch of poetry, a life of inhibition and missed chances, perhaps, but also a bearable life, a life that to some extent I had chosen and continued to choose.

This is one of the places where I diverge from him, because even though a good bit of my life has been dominated by inhibition and missed chances (as I think is inevitable when you wait until you’ve passed thirty to admit to yourself that you’re married to someone of the wrong gender), I have not lived my life beneath the pitch of poetry. I have always felt things deeply, and though my life has not always been what I want, my inner life has always been quite intense, and that is where poetry comes from. I don’t share the full force of my emotions with many people, and when I have done over an extended period of time, those people have asked me to please stop. I’m too much, which would make poetry the perfect outlet for me if I took the time for it more often.

Stylistically, all you really need to know is that Greenwell attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It wouldn’t be fair to say that they all speak with the same voice, but they definitely all have the same accent. It’s the type of writing that wins the National Book Award, the highly self-conscious writing of Americans who write Literature (capital L) after around the 1990s. His sentences just keep going on and on. I wanted to break some of them into smaller sentences (comma splices are okay in the UK, but not here), but others I just wanted to cut off the ends because they were unnecessary, the meanings of those last clauses already understood. As I was thinking about why he would keep these obvious redundancies, I thought about what they contribute, and I realized that they were pointing out things that Protagonist doesn’t know, often with the implication that he can’t know, or that he can’t be bothered to find out. Or, you know, since this is supposedly fiction, the author could just make something up. There’s an air of ignorance and apathy that I had a hard time with, considering that this is a love story.

Thematically, all you really need to know is that this is a gay love story, and in our current cultural climate, that means there are three options: pornography, unrealistic stereotypes played for overdone comedy, and Greenwell’s choice, utter tragedy involving isolation and alienation. Seriously, gay writers and filmmakers have got to be the most depressing people in the world. What we need is our own version of Their Eyes Were Watching God, a story of how great it is to be us that doesn’t hide from the times it’s not, where we see someone really learn to love himself and claim his identity as something positive and peaceful rather than defiant and in opposition. Protagonist is an English teacher from Kentucky living in Bulgaria, and I guess he likes it even though he says some unkind things about the cityscape. He doesn’t like the Soviet architecture, but he seems to get on okay with the native stuff that survived World War II and the Cold War. The fact that he’s an English teacher doesn’t impact the story much because we don’t see him in class, but his narration shows that he loves languages and words, and the phrases he says in Bulgarian sound similar enough to the Russian that I remember to pique my interest.

Okay, plot. Mitko is a hustler in Sofia, and First-Person Narrating Protagonist hooks up with him a few times. They start to feel something real for each other, but FPN sort of freaks out and breaks it off. Then, a couple of years later, Mitko shows back up to tell him that he may have given FPN syphilis, and yup, sure enough, he did. The American teacher has enough income to pay for treatment, but the Bulgarian street kid does not, so he ends up most probably dying from it. It’s as simple as La Traviata, but as in that quote up above, he overthinks everything as a way of keeping his emotions in check, so he doesn’t get operatic. He feels this overwhelming attraction for this guy that he doesn’t even seem to like much, but he doesn’t dig into that. He treats his own emotions as something alien to him, along with everything else because he’s living in a foreign country. To some degree, he’s hiding from his anger so that it doesn’t overwhelm him – he’s bought into the lie that he’s monstrous, only capable of hurting the people around him. We see this most strongly when he has syphilis; one of the common themes of the gay tragedy archetype is that our love is paired with disease, as if being gay is inherently unhealthy. Well, his anger isn’t a disease, it’s a response to being rejected by his parents because he’s gay, and to having a pretty shitty dad. In the course of this book, he doesn’t unpack the injustice of his life; he just pushes it down and tries not to deal with his family. Moving to eastern Europe is a convenient way of hiding from his feelings.

Some of the similarities to my life are obvious, as in the whole ESL teacher thing. I came out of the closet and moved to Saudi Arabia, which isn’t that far from Bulgaria. I didn’t go looking for hookups, though, because having gay sex is punishable by beheading there. I know most gay Saudis don’t get their heads chopped off, but we’re all products of our culture, and I didn’t want to get involved with someone who thought what we would be doing was evil or shameful. I cannot deal with that kind of secrecy. I’m just not discreet enough.

I did hook up with a guy I met in Europe, though, and there were some similarities to Mitko. He expected me to be rich, not understanding that I was blowing all my money on a week in Paris. We went to an expensive restaurant and I spent way too much on a lunch, but I also skipped eating a couple of days that week. People don’t often get the way I swing back and forth like that; I’m not sure I understand it myself, but I know that I do, and I love and accept that about myself. Like Mitko, the Algerian boy made sure I knew where I stood in his life – as in, not the center, not even for the three days we spent together. He was also into some BDSM stuff that I am definitely not into, but Mitko doesn’t seem to be into choking. As I’m thinking about it, the Algerian was actually pretty great when his clothes were on; he just went sort of bizarro once the trousers were off. Mitko is pretty consistent, whether his dick is out or not.

When FPN was describing their early encounters, I contrasted them with my singular one-night stand. FPN can’t wait to get down to business, but Mitko puts him off, and actually borrows his computer to set up encounters with other clients. FPN just sort of lets him, staying off to the side, having someone within reach without reaching out to him. With Mr Labor Day, it was very different. I should say, I was very different. FPN is like me in being shy, but he’ll reach out to guys who set up dates in public toilets and I won’t. Then he keeps being shy all the way through. I believe that there is a time and a place for shyness and modesty, and that is in public when my trousers are still on. Once the clothes come off, the time for being shy is over. All I wanted to do with Mr Labor Day was touch him, so I did. There was Round One, then I rubbed his back and shoulders until he was ready for Round Two, and then after we were dressed I held him close and swayed and sang, “Do You Wanna Dance?” And I kept kissing him all the way out of his house and into the driveway. And on his side, he was so gentle. I remember how carefully he used his big rough hands to take my glasses off, fold them, and set them on his nightstand. Sometimes I remember the way that he touched me and my entire body responds, even if I’m driving down the freeway. FPN doesn’t get into the sexy details, at least not many of them, but when I was reading I had to assume that the sex was pretty phenomenal for FPN to put up with being treated with this lack of interest. But then again, maybe it was uninteresting, because he describes everything else in such detail. Or maybe his editors made him take it out. It’s like when people write gay romances but don’t have any experience with gay sex, so they describe in minute detail the furtive glances, the covert touching of hands, the stolen kisses, but when the lovers take it further the authors suddenly have all the prudery of the Hays Committee. Greenwell isn’t that extreme, but it’s clear that his story isn’t there. It’s not his goal to give us a blow-by-blow account of blowing Mitko, so we gloss over that. Oddly enough, we seem to get the most details when they’re in public restrooms, as if the level of privacy of the location is reflected in the way the story is told.

I’ve never been good at concealing anything, the whole bent of my nature is toward confession.

This is true of me as well (check the name of this blog again, if that’s a surprise to you), and I wonder if it’s the author rather than the narrator talking. After all, FPN has a name that’s hard for people who speak European languages to pronounce, as is Garth. What other languages use that dental fricative sound at the end? Arabic, and some Spanish accents. There are probably more; I’m just listing the ones I know from my own experience. He also only gives us the name of the guy who’s dead (probably) – everyone else is referred to by a common noun that indicates their relationship to FPN, or with a first initial. Maybe it’s a tactic to lend authenticity to a fictional narrative; maybe he just isn’t willing to assign fictional names to people who are real, alive, and possibly willing to sue him. In this blog I’ve been avoiding the use of names, but in the past I assigned fictional names to people, sometimes using their middle names, sometimes using names that would be easy for me to remember, like switching Jason and Justin, or renaming Peter Paul. But it seems like a cop-out. Once I was in a church pageant that was structured as a set of songs introduced by monologues, and all the monologues were given by characters named things like First Woman or Third Man. My friends kept saying, “George. Betty. How hard is that? Just give them names!” And really, if he were retelling his actual experience as if it were fictional, he’d be in good company (anything by Henry Miller or Jack Kerouac). I’d just prefer that it be made explicit. I’d like to know, am I identifying with someone who doesn’t exist, or am I making a real emotional connection with someone I have never met and will never meet through the medium of language?

One last complaint, I promise: the structure is weird. Yes, ABA form has been with music for centuries, and sometimes we do it in fiction too (think of Sense and Sensibility – Book 1 divided between two country homes, Book 2 in London, and Book 3 back in the country), but the B section doesn’t seem to fit. It feels like someone told him that he needed to add forty pages before they would publish his book, so he wrote a section on being a gay teenager in Kentucky (it’s only marginally about the present, when he gets news that his father is dying and takes forty pages to decide he’s not going back to the United States for the funeral). I suppose it gives us some motivation for him to have become an ESL teacher and left the country, but since he talks about word etymologies and English-Bulgarian cognates, he has enough of a linguistic interest to make it a reasonable career choice without hearing about how his father threw him out of the house. It would actually make more sense to talk about how he met the guy he actually calls his boyfriend, the Portuguese student named R (which makes me think of the Romeo in Warm Bodies). It might take some focus off of the Mitko stuff, but it’s sort of like in Merry Wives of Windsor, where I don’t care about the Fords’ marriage because I’ve never seen their happiness. I don’t know what his jealousy costs them both, except to recognize that Mrs Ford is completely awesome and his fears are unfounded.

Okay. I’ve talked and talked about the problems and the connections, but as I alluded to earlier, a good part of what I feel about this book is jealousy. Some people have the confidence and determination to make a career of writing, and I blog about them instead of doing it myself. Lately, all my attempts at fiction writing have veered into the pornographic, so I haven’t been sharing them. Much as I would like to write something that people would like to read, I would prefer it didn’t happen through Bad Penny Press. I often also have some envy for people who came out of the closet before marrying someone of the opposite gender, but as I think over my life, I’m actually fairly satisfied. For all that I hate The Ex sometimes, and I hate what I did to her, my life has been amazing, and she was a big part of that. And I would not trade witnessing the births of my children for all the disease-ridden gigolos behind the Iron Curtain. Yes, I spent the part of my life when most people are experimenting being too religious and pretending to be straight, and I’ve had to make up for that lost time in imagination and not in reality (like in Hesse’s Magic Theatre), but in every life there are tradeoffs. Most gay men will never know the feeling of biological fatherhood, of watching a part of you grow inside someone else, mixing with her and becoming an amalgam of you both, and then seeing this new person that is both you and not-you arrive into the world. And for most of the time we were together, The Ex supported and encouraged me to be my best self. If I had a dream, she set about finding a way to make it happen. I’ll probably never know what it’s like to be promiscuous, to know that I have a body that is young and strong and generally lusted after, to feel confident that I could have any person I wanted to be with. I may never know what it’s like to be in a relationship with someone who wants to have sex as much as I do. But FPN talks about having a life that’s bearable, and it makes me sad that his expectations are so low. Life isn’t just for enduring; it’s for enjoying. It seems that the gay community as a whole is interested in pleasure without happiness, and I think that tendency is already sufficiently well documented. Let’s start telling the story of our joy as well as the story of our pain. Let’s start believing that joy is possible for us and that it’s a worthwhile pursuit. And when new gays come out, let’s help them work through the rage instead of burying it under a mountain of booze, sex, and pills. What seeds are we planting?

So, yes, I think eight pages of advance praise is a little excessive. I think this book is sad in a way that is becoming trite. But I also think that Greenwell is a talented, thoughtful author, and I’d like to see what he does in the future. It’s a first novel that grew out of a prize-winning story; let’s wait for him to get some more material and show us something really new. Given the title, I suppose I should have written about possession and possessiveness and recognizing what is and isn’t a person’s responsibility, but that’s a strain I wasn’t much interested in. I suppose because I still need to do some work in this area myself. Now that the Midwestern guy and I have separated our daily lives, no longer eating and watching TV together, it’s becoming apparent that we don’t have much to talk about, and talking is sort of the essence of long-distance relationships. I’m not much of a talker (only this verbose when writing); I need someone I can do things with. Surely it can’t be impossible to find a gay man who loves books, music, movies, and the outdoors?

There comes a time in a person’s life when he realizes that he is collecting the complete novels of Milan Kundera, and he decides to embrace it as a conscious decision. The local bookshop has two more (the two that I haven’t pursued as steadily because I read them first, fifteen years ago), and then it’ll be off to find the either more elusive or more recent books. When you shop primarily in used bookshops, recent novels are rather elusive.

Kundera didn’t publish any novels until he was about the age I am now, and this one, the second, still has a strong focus on youth. It seems a little allegorical, and I wonder if it might not be a little autobiographical as well. It’s about a young poet who comes of age during the Communist Revolution. While there are several important characters, they’re only named according to their function in the poet’s life, so while he is Jaromil, they are the janitor’s son, the artist, the redhead, the cinematographer, the silver-maned poet, etc. The janitor’s son becomes a policeman and a reminder of how far Jaromil is from the stereotypical adult masculinity he wants to achieve, but he only gets called the janitor’s son, even though his father isn’t in the story. This is indicative of Jaromil’s extreme self-centeredness. The ending makes the Narcissus metaphor explicit, but long before that I was sickened by Jaromil’s contempt for other human beings.

In some ways this book feels like a rewrite of Sons and Lovers – Jaromil’s mother is a little too close to him, and he has a relationship with a shopgirl that he knows she will disapprove of. Maman is imaginative, in the sense that she creates a mental reality when the perceived reality is unpleasant, but not in the sense that she is in any way unconventional. Jaromil (Communist poetry) was conceived by an engineer (the educated working class) out in nature, according to his mother, but it was more likely in a disgusting bachelor apartment borrowed from the engineer’s friend. Indeed, nature as landscape or unenclosed space has very little place in this book at all. Nature exerts itself over Jaromil as weather or as disease, or the idiosyncrasies of human biology. Maman was never that crazy about her shotgun husband, so she liked to pretend that a figure of Apollo (classical influences) conceived the boy without the father’s intervention, despite the obvious limitations of such a fantasy. This reading might seem facile and forced, but issues of artistic inspiration, expression, and responsibility are at the center of the book.

World War II figures largely in twentieth-century Czech history. German occupation and redrawing of boundaries is big on a national scale, but in the daily lives of people, particularly children, it seems to have had little effect. Jaromil’s father was killed in a concentration camp because he was having an affair with a Jewish girl, but his father was mostly absent anyway. This lack of a strong masculine presence in his life, coupled with soft delicate features, leads to his preoccupation with his inferiority as a male human. He does have an art teacher, but the teacher is concerned about the philosophy of art changing under Communism, and Jaromil tries to assert his independence by disagreeing with him, which damages their friendship. Jaromil never tries to build up the rest of his body, so he’s a spindly little artist who isn’t brave enough to talk to girls. Eventually he does find someone, and losing his virginity is a huge milestone for him, but his masculinity has turned toxic by this point. A sexual relationship doesn’t relieve his insecurities; it makes them worse. It leads to sexual violence, which brings up some unpleasant memories for me, and reading this part might explain why I’ve been so anxious and angry these last few weeks. Partially, at least – I have good reasons in my real life, too.

The book reaches a crisis at the end of the fifth section, and it seems like Kundera is about as sick of this kid as I was, because there’s this violent wresting of the narrative at the beginning of part six.

Just as your life is determined by the kind of profession and marriage you have chosen, so our novel is limited by our observatory perspective: Jaromil and his mother are in full view, while we glimpse other figures only when they appear in the presence of these two protagonists. We have chosen this approach as you have chosen your fate, and our choice is equally unalterable.

Still, every person regrets that he cannot live other lives. You, too, would like to live out all your unrealized potentials, all your possible lives. (Alas, unattainable Xavier!) Our book is like you. It, too, yearns to be all the other novels it could have been.

That is why we are constantly dreaming about erecting other observatories. How about putting one in the middle of the artist’s life, or perhaps in the life of the janitor’s son or that of the redheaded girl? After all, what do we really know about these people? We hardly know more than does foolish Jaromil, and he knows precious little about anyone. What kind of novel would it be if we followed the career of the janitor’s son, and Jaromil would appear only once or twice in the course of brief episodes about a poet and former schoolmate? Or we could follow the artist’s story and learn at last what he really thought of his beloved Maman, whose belly he had used like a piece of canvas.

And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was so great to get away from Jaromil for a while, even if only for twenty pages. There’s a middle-aged man, widower, who likes to have a sex life but doesn’t like to get attached, so he sees a girl only once in a while, and he has several girls. One of them is Jaromil’s girl, and they discuss him briefly, but this section is a few years after Jaromil’s death, so he’s seen at a great distance, as one who ruined the girl’s life but now has no more power to hurt her.

But who is this unattainable Xavier? Jaromil dreamt of becoming this guy, young and smart and strong and sexy, like a younger Czech James Bond-Indiana Jones hybrid, but there’s more than that. Xavier only exists in dreams – things get tough, he falls asleep and is instantly in another, equally real reality. He works through problems from one reality in the next, possibly nesting several dreams like in Inception (oh, how I love this film), and ultimately wakes back up to solve his problems and escape, even if only as a dream hiding in dreams. Xavier is Jaromil’s ideal self. But much as the poet dreams of freedom, he is continually caged in by his mother’s vampiric love. This is a trope I see in media a lot, and I suppose is relevant to my own life as well, the mother that wants her children to be strong, brave, confident, and successful, but constantly shelters them from experiences that will allow them to develop strength, bravery, self-confidence, and the other qualities that lead to success. Yes, it’s important for parents to show love to their children, but it’s also important for parents to know when their children can handle things on their own, and to sit back and let them do it. I have a lot of animosity built up toward The Ex, but I admit freely that she is an excellent mother, and I see my children growing up as intelligent, confident, capable boys. I know that living with her is the best choice for them. Perhaps not for always, and I keep hoping that I will be geographically close enough to have an emotionally close relationship with them, but for now they are having their best possible life, and I wouldn’t take that from them.

Today is Mothers’ Day in the United States, and while I have some animosity built up toward my mother as well, it’s the day that I pretend that doesn’t exist and call her. Sometimes she feels abandoned, which Jane Austen would call “the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning”; my mom was emotionally unavailable during my childhood because she was coping with the divorce and her own anger issues, and the work of repressing all that kept me at a distance. In my roving life I often regret the type of relationship we have, and I wish I could be closer to my biological family, but the bottom line is that I don’t miss them, the actual people that they are, very much. There’s a big family thing this summer that I’ve been planning to go to, but these days I’m thinking of skipping it. I miss my kids, and I’d rather put my time, energy, and money into seeing them rather than into seeing people that I’m really angry about.

Art and revolution. Poetry seems to have been at the forefront of the Communist Revolution, at least in Czechoslovakia. The arts were bent toward propaganda, which leads the artists in the book to ask the question, How do I adequately express myself? In modern abstract experimental forms, or in the more mimetic forms that will appeal to the uneducated masses? With the Party taking a strong interest in the arts, the question also becomes, How do I adequately express myself without getting arrested? A lot of artists and thinkers seem to have been sent to do manual labor on farms (I’m thinking forward to the guy in Slowness, as well as back to the teacher from The Joke), and while there is value in that sort of life, it’s not the life that they chose for themselves. So, it’s either follow the unstated, unacknowledged rules of the establishment, or be forced to give up art altogether. It’s a dangerous gamble/game.

This was a hard book for me. I’ve got my own issues with mothers, though, and with governments, and this troubled relationship with the idea of being a writer and whether or not that makes me an artist, so it may not be for you. Happy Mothers’ Day.