Posts Tagged ‘christianity’

This was Kundera’s first novel, and in some ways, it explains his habitual themes more clearly. It’s like The Joke is a key to help understanding his entire oeuvre. While most of his other novels that I have read focus on the Prague Spring or other anti-Communist movements, this one predates all that. It starts with the generation that became Communist after World War II.

I have become such an inveterate skeptic that whenever someone starts listing his likes and dislikes I am unable to take it seriously, or to put it more precisely, I can accept it only as an indication of the person’s self-image. I didn’t for a moment believe that Helena breathed more easily in filthy, badly ventilated dives than in clean, well-ventilated restaurants or that she preferred raw alcohol and cheap, greasy food to haute cuisine. If her words had any value at all, it was because they revealed her predilection for a special pose, a pose long since outdated, out of style, a pose going back to the years of revolutionary enthusiasm, when anything “common,” “plebeian,” “plain,” or “coarse” was admired and anything “refined” or “elegant,” anything connected with good manners, was vilified.

I think that it must have been terribly thrilling to have been a Communist living during the revolution, seeing the old forms of civilization consciously destroyed and replaced by something rational, based on the ideology that you yourself are committed to. Ludvik Jahn is just such a young man, but he keeps a skeptical distance from the crowd. He has a friend, Marketa, who dives in head first, drinks the Kool-Aid, whatever other metaphor you might prefer for a complete commitment to a system of belief. So when she goes away to training camp, he writes her letters, just sort of messing with her because she’s gullible and naively enthusiastic. But. One postcard, intended as this sort of not-funny-to-everyone joke, gets picked up by the Party and his life gets ruined. Sarcasm always stings a little, but here that little sting turns around and eats his entire life. His best friend Zemanek votes him out of the Party, and therefore out of the university. He’s drafted by the military, but that little black mark on his record gets him sent to a prison squad, where he works in a mine with rioters, thieves, and political dissidents. They’re forced to work six days a week, but the only way to get leave passes or other privileges is to volunteer to work on Sunday too, so sometimes they’d go thirteen or twenty days without a break. It’s a lonely, miserable existence.

I know that my experience is not that bad – the universe is generally fairly gentle with me – but this does remind me of my expulsion from Texas, nearly a year ago. I work for a private language company that does intensive English programs, and they sent me to Texas to work at modifying our curriculum to expand the market to boarding schools with international students. Speaking strictly professionally, it was a resounding success. I kept careful records and had enough data to show that my students’ language skill had improved dramatically, but that wasn’t enough. Little did I know that the Christian school where I worked had been watching me like a hawk all year, and as soon as they figured out my Facebook identity they dug through everything I had ever posted, all four years of it, and used it as proof that I was anti-Christian and deserved to be fired. I’m not against Christians or their beliefs, as long as those beliefs aren’t being used to hurt anyone. They were aghast at all the pictures of men I’ve hit the Like button for, but they based their argument on a joke. It’s not a very funny joke, admittedly, but it was a joke nonetheless.

Back when I was religious, sometimes I’d joke with my friends on the day between Good Friday and Easter – Jesus is dead, we can do what we want while he isn’t looking. I even added a bit about him getting back from Hell, when I would go back to being good. Now, I agree that it’s not very funny, but it is completely orthodox. Many theologians have believed that Jesus spent his time between death and resurrection saving souls from their punishment – the Medievals called it The Harrowing of Hell. You can see it in the old Cycle plays (The York Cycle can be found in your local academic library). Before Jesus, everyone went to hell because of Original Sin, then Jesus went down there to personally bring to heaven all those who were actually good people. Now, because of Jesus, the decent people can skip hell and go to heaven. The Harrowing of Hell is a great cinematic moment in the history of the world as envisioned by the Christian Church, yet these people hadn’t heard of it. This is the problem with splinter groups (read: non-denominational independent Protestant Churches) – insufficient education. My supervisor called it a witch hunt because I’m gay, but because the company does want to keep this market open, they relocated me back to the Midwest. The little Christian school would have just fired me because in Texas it is perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay. My company was really great about the whole thing, appropriately appalled at the suggestion I be fired for my sexuality, so they sent me somewhere I would be surrounded by friends and unconditionally accepted. So, a good move.

What bothers me about all this is just how nice the Christians were, right up until they asked my boss to fire me. I should have figured something was wrong – my subconscious was sending all kinds of paranoia messages, like how I was avoiding open spaces because I kept seeing men aiming rifles at me. But I assumed it was a response to past situations and not the present one, and I knew they weren’t really there, so I figured I was just being crazy, like I was back when I was religious. But no, I was ignoring a present warning. I really ought to learn to trust myself. These people were not my friends, even though I thought they were and trusted them almost completely. A year later, I still have a serious aversion to churches. And strangers. And religions in general.

So, drifting back to changes in Czech society in the late 1940s. They absolutely rejected religion and capitalism, replacing them with a belief in progress, community, and communism. As such, familiar habits became crimes, such as sarcasm or a belief in God. The belief in God doesn’t fit with the officially atheistic stance of The Communist Party, but sarcasm is a subtler crime. It evinces a certain pessimism, an antagonistic way of seeing the world, and pessimism is a lack of faith in progress and hence anathema to the Communists. Sarcasm is not the product of happiness. It betokens disappointment and pride, a sense of intellectual superiority. When everyone in the community is holding hands and singing together, sarcasm is extremely anti-social. The Communists were trying to force an individualistic society into becoming collective, and some people resisted. Maintaining individual difference marked people as suspect because difference meant hierarchization. Part of this destruction of the individual is the erasure of the line between public and private spheres. Suddenly I understand why Kundera makes such a big deal out of this in later books – privacy was taken away by the Communist Revolution. It must have made it strange to arrive in the West and see exhibitionism, where people voluntarily arrange a private act for public viewing. So this explains his fascination with writing about public sex, and how weirdly scatological his middle-aged characters can get.

Ludvik’s sarcasm landed him in prison mines for several years. Finally he was allowed to finish his degree and become the academic he had always wanted to be. All this is mostly flashback – the present of the book is about revenge. He’s coming back to his hometown to avenge himself on the man who ruined his life. But he gets sidetracked when he sees Lucie.

Lucie is from a different city. As a teenager, she had a gang that she was friends with, and when they got to be around sixteen they noticed that she was the only girl and proceeded to gang rape the shit out of her, repeatedly. Eventually she got away, and by that I mean got run out of town because everyone said she was a slut, and started a new life in a new town. There, she met Ludvik during his time in the mines and they had a thing for a while, but he never understood why she wouldn’t have sex with him. She’d try to be willing, but in the end she just couldn’t. She coped with the rape by creating a division between her body and soul – the one became dirty and corrupted with the violence of men, but the other was free and pure. She loved Ludvik with her soul, but she needed such an abyss between the physical and the emotional that she couldn’t have sex with him. Eventually they broke up over not having sex, and she left town to start over again. This third town is Ludvik’s childhood home, but she has no way of knowing that. She meets Kostka, a Christian determined to save her. Kostka was a professor at the time of Ludvik’s expulsion, and he was expelled for his religion a short time afterward. He helped to heal her internal divisions, and when the time is right she expresses that personal union by having sex with him, which can sound a little sordid and self-serving on his part, but it’s actually a big step for her to be able to give her body to someone she loves and respects. The sex doesn’t seem to benefit him much; it’s more for her, celebrating her newfound love for her own body. It only happened the one time, like a baptism, and then she went on to lead a conventional life in a conventional marriage to a conventional guy who probably beats her in the conventional way.

Ludvik really has one purpose in coming here: to sleep with Zemanek’s wife Helena. He thinks that cuckolding the guy who derailed his life will make up for all the suffering he’s gone through. But again, this relies on a sense of privacy that the mainstream has abandoned. Ludvik’s seduction succeeds, but his revenge fails because Zemanek doesn’t care. He’s fucking this girl who’s young enough to be his daughter and rubbing it in Helena’s face. Helena thinks she has found someone she can leave her husband for, but Ludvik isn’t looking for a commitment. She might be in love, but to him she’s just a revenge fuck. She has an assistant who’s in love with her and even younger than Zemanek’s girl, but she’s not into him, at least not yet.

Our other essential character is Jaroslav, Ludvik’s childhood friend. While Ludvik and Zemanek embrace the Party in their youth, Jaroslav doesn’t. He’s not in the center of the revolution. But, when the Party announces that it intends to foster art with Communist ideals that still retains a national character, he finds his way in. Jaroslav loves Moravian traditions, especially folk music. He organizes the traditional dances, he writes songs in the folk tradition with Communist-approved themes, he finds ways to keep doing what he loves doing even under a repressive regime. Ludvik may criticize, but Jaroslav did what we all do – he selected and expanded the canon. On a small scale, each of us who reads and writes does this; on a larger scale, academia has trends in what gets taught and what gets avoided. For example, in the 1960s Sir Walter Scott was considered one of the most important Romantic writers, equally with Byron, Keats, and Wordsworth. Now, his poetry is considered too long and tedious to teach, so we mention Ivanhoe in a survey class and move on. Other works get dropped for political reasons, like Heart of Darkness or The Education of Little Tree. Then we choose other things to add, like Felicia Hemans or Oroonoko. There are a lot of subtle currents that add up to big changes.

Youth is a terrible thing: it is a stage trod by children in buskins and fancy costumes mouthing speeches they’ve memorized and fanatically believe but only half understand. History too is a terrible thing: it so often ends up a playground for youth – the young Nero, the young Napoleon, fanaticized mobs of children whose simulated passions and primitive poses suddenly metamorphose into a catastrophically real reality.

When I think of all this, my whole set of values goes awry and I feel a deep hatred towards youth, coupled with a certain paradoxical indulgence towards the criminals of history, whose crimes I suddenly see as no more than the terrible restlessness of waiting to grow up.

While our situations are drastically different, to some extent Ludvik et al are going through the same thing that Generation X is doing today. In our late teens and early twenties, we felt like we were reshaping our world to be kinder, more welcoming. Now that we’re in our thirties or forties, it seems like we’re supposed to have made it, but at thirty-seven I don’t feel like I have anything more together than I did ten years ago. The universe has not acceded to my demand for a better world, and now people are fighting against the movement that I feel really made things better – the Obama presidency. The young people growing up don’t have the same values that people only fifteen years older than they are did. Jaroslav’s son hates folk music; he and his friends are all excited about modernity, so they’re wearing leather jackets and listening to rock music, and in a few years they will propel the Prague Spring to try to take their country back from their Communist parents. Youthful idealism can make a lot of good things happen, but as we age we develop compassion: we learn to see people as individuals instead of masses, ideas as shades of grey instead of the black-and-white ideologies of adolescence. Ludvik’s response, hating youth, is a result of his personal experience of betrayal.

But while it may seem that he is one of those criminals restless to grow up, I don’t feel like he has. This whole revenge thing smacks of immaturity. He sees Helena’s body as belonging to her husband, and his sex act as thieving something to balance the years of freedom stolen from him. Zemanek doesn’t see his wife’s body as his; the Communist idea seems closer to Brave New World, where everybody belongs to everybody else. A woman’s body is never her own. That’s why I think Lucie and Kostka’s experience is so important and good – Kostka teaches Lucie that her body belongs to her, and when they have sex it is her decision about what to do with her body. I don’t make any great claims to maturity myself; I’m preparing to see my family this summer, and as I look ahead, I’m not picturing spending time with the people I love, I’m imagining confrontations with the brothers I feel betrayed by. Without using this vocabulary for it, I’ve been visualizing revenge on them, not by sleeping with their wives but through cutting comments and burning indifference. But that doesn’t make me any better than Ludvik, and it’s not a path that will lead to a good time. I’m not the same person I was when bad things went down, and neither are they. As Kundera points out, revenge is either immediate or worthless. There are no other options.

As long as people can escape to the realm of fairy tales, they are full of nobility, compassion, and poetry. In the realm of everyday existence they are, alas, more likely to be full of caution, mistrust, and suspicion.

The fate of this book is like the fate of its protagonist. Kundera wrote it as a novel, not a political satire. The problem with realism is that if you show real problems realistically, people think you’re exaggerating or being satirical. So, the Communists saw his book the same way his fictional Communists saw Ludvik’s joke, as a serious attack on the establishment. Westerners heard of it and started translating, but they translated poorly and only the bits that served their agendas. Eventually the author left Czechoslovakia and moved to Paris, and he set about having his novels retranslated, so while my copy is an approved translation, it’s not the final definitive one that Kundera supervised in the 1990s. Everyone took it so seriously, even when the title warns us not to.

The promotional material (quotes, blurbs,) markets this as the book of Forster’s gay stories. That’s not always accurate, but it’s pretty close. Chronologically, these stories fall into a few different groups.

PRE-WORLD WAR I

Almost all the writing for which Forster is famous happened between 1900 and 1914. He wrote two collections of short stories during this time, though one was not published until the 1920s. Collected here are five previously uncollected stories, most of them unpublished, and probably with good reason. “Albergo Empedocle” is the one that made it, and it’s probably the best. It’s about an English guy who goes to the Mediterranean with his fiancée’s family, and he realizes that he lived in a Greek colony on Sicily in a previous life (Empedocles having favored the idea of reincarnation). However, the previous life takes over his current life, and he ends up in a mental institution speaking a forgotten dialect of Greek. Despite Forster’s comparative youth, there is some wisdom here:

Had she only realized that it is only hypocrites who cannot forgive hypocrisy, whereas those who search for truth are too conscious of the maze to be hard on others – then the bitter flow of her thoughts might have been stopped and the catastrophe averted. But it was not conceivable to her that he should forgive – or that she should accept forgiveness, for to her forgiveness meant triumph of one person over another.

I like the ability here to understand things from multiple perspectives, as well as the understanding that people who are really in the struggle to understand the world are gentle to those who misunderstand it, and that defining forgiveness as triumph instead of reconciliation leads to bad outcomes.

The first story, “Ansell,” reminds me a bit of Maurice, in that it’s about abandoning society’s ideals and living happily and naturally with a lower-class friend of the same gender. In these early stories, if you’re looking for homosexuality, you can find it, but it’s not obvious. There’s a point here that really irritated me:

Dead silence ensued, which was well enough for Ansell, to whom it merely meant that neither of us had any more to say. But to educated people silence matters: it is a token of stupidity and lack of invention.

I’m quite sufficiently educated, but I don’t often feel silence to be awkward. I don’t see the purpose of education or intelligence to be the obliteration of quiet with idle chatter. I see it as the exact opposite – good friends and intelligent people know when to keep their mouths shut. I have a lot of thoughts that I don’t express (and don’t want to), and I like being able to pursue a train of thought even when there are other people around. Most of the people I love are those who know how to sit quietly with me.

BETWEEN THE WARS

So, Forster wrote Maurice and World War I happened, and there’s a bit of a gap. He wrote his last novel, some say his greatest, A Passage to India, in 1924, and there were a number of other stories, but at one point he decided that he was writing the stories “not to express myself, but to excite myself” and he burned them all. So, there are some racy Forster stories that the world will never see because he thought they were blocking his creativity – he couldn’t write anything publishable because every time he picked up a pen gay sex came out of it. But after the burning, he kept writing stories without publishing them. The three stories in the 1920s become gradually more graphic, but they all have a solemn air – “The Life to Come,” “Dr Woolacott,” and “Arthur Snatchfold.” Gay relationships are punished pretty severely, too – by death in the first two and imprisonment in the last.

“Dr Woolacott” is a ghost story – a young invalid meets the ghost of one of the soldiers his doctor treated during The War, and the ghost casts doubt on his treatment, and as they come together physically the boy dies. “The Life to Come” may be one of the best stories, but it’s also one of the saddest.

Love had been born somewhere in the forest, of what quality only the future could decide. Trivial or immortal, it had been born to two human bodies as a midnight cry. Impossible to tell whence the cry had come, so dark was the forest. Or into what worlds it would echo, so vast was the forest. Love had been born for good or evil, for a long life or a short.

A missionary to an unnamed indigenous group tries to convince them of the love of God, but is only successful after he sleeps with the young chief. The missionary convinces himself it was an evil act, but the chief remains unconvinced. However, he does turn his whole tribe to Christianity in the hopes that he can “come to Christ” with the white man again, but it doesn’t turn out. The missionary feels too guilty, so he marries a woman and has kids and rejects the chief once he’s done using him to advance his work. Several of the stories have an anti-Christianity flavor, but this is one of the strongest. For Forster, religion does terrible things to people by making them ashamed of their natural sexual desires. The repressions that religion exacts warps people and leads to a great deal of unhappiness, such as imprisonment or murder. Typically, when there are this many bad endings to stories of gay love, we critics would say that the author is against them. However, I think in Forster’s case the bad endings are not so much an indictment of gay sex as an indictment of a society that rejects homosexuality. If gay love is love, how can it be bad? If God is love, why can’t he support all kinds of love?

The 1930s have a markedly different feel. I don’t want to speculate too much, but I wonder if the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover had anything to do with it. These stories have an exuberance, a joy, that is missing from the others. “The Classical Annex” is about a museum where all the statues come alive at night and fuck each other. But the small-town museum can’t afford more than miniatures, except for the one full-sized classical subject who goes unfulfilled every night. The townspeople made him a metal fig leaf for decency’s sake, and during the day it seems way too big for what it has to cover, but at night it’s suddenly way too small. The curator blunders in one night and is thoroughly shocked and heads back home. His son, though, goes to the museum to find him, and finds a horny gay Greek made of marble instead.

And in after years a Hellenistic group called The Wrestling Lesson became quite a feature at Bigglesmouth, though it was not exhibited until the Curator and the circumstances of his retirement were forgotten. “Very nice piece, very decent” was Councillor Bodkin’s opinion. “Look ‘ow the elder brother’s got the little chappie down. Look ‘ow well the little chappie’s taking it.”

So the youth is part of the statue magic now, and so is technically no longer alive. But it seems that he’s enjoying spending eternity ‘wrestling’ with the Greek, and Forster makes it into a joke on the dignitaries’ ignorance.

“The Obelisk” pulls a similar stunt. A newly married (but not quite happy) couple on vacation meet a pair of sailors on shore leave. They all head toward the town’s one tourist spot, an obelisk facing the sea. On the way there, they separate and the wife has her own Lady Chatterley experience with the nicer of the two sailors.

Yes, he was wonderful. She would have this gallantry to look back upon, especially at night. She could think of Ernest quite kindly, she’d be able to put up with him when he made his little wrong remarks or did his other little wrong things. She’d her dream, and what people said was false and what the Pictures said was true: it was worth it, worth being clasped once in the right arms, though you never had them round you again. She had got what she longed for, and it was what she longed for, not a smack in the face, not a sell. . . . She had always yearned for a lover who would be nice afterwards – not turn away like a satisfied brute, as handsome men are supposed to do. Stanhope was – what do you call it . . . a gentleman, a knight in armour, a real sport. . . . O for words. Her eyes filled with happy tears of happiness.

But, while she never makes it to the obelisk, she realizes later that her husband never did either, and probably for the same reason she didn’t. But it doesn’t impair their relationship – she actually thinks he’s more handsome and pleasant after bottoming for the sailor.

Forster’s morality tale “What Does It Matter?” makes his philosophy clear – sex is no one’s business but the people who are doing it. The president of a fictional eastern European country has a minister of police who wants to make a scandal, so he engineers a situation where the president’s wife walks in on him and his mistress. But there’s no scandal because the wife keeps her calm. Then the minister gets one of his men to seduce the president and has the mistress walk in, and she goes a little crazy, but the president’s wife talks her down. They all agree to accept the situation, and they publish an edict to that effect, that all three have had sex with the president and intend to continue, and why does that matter? The people take to the idea that sex doesn’t imply possession and it becomes the most peaceful nation in the world. No one will attack them because their sexual ideology is so contagious that they will transform any nation that conquers them. This may have something to do with the fact that Forster spent many years in a loving relationship with a married man, but the idea strikes me as sound. If sex is consensual, and that implies that all parties involved are mature adults, then why is it anyone else’s business?

AFTER WORLD WAR II

By the end of WWII, Forster was in his mid-60s. He’d been busy doing other things, because even if you’re as fantastic as he was there’s more to life than publishing fiction. There are a couple of other gay stories from the late 1950s, and they return to that 1920s feeling of “great” literature. “The Torque” is about a Roman from a newly Christian family who gets raped by a Goth, but in reality the sex seems more unexpected than unwelcome. They don’t speak each other’s language, so the Goth can’t really ask, and afterward the Roman seems to have enjoyed himself. Then later he imagines the Goth asking to be raped in turn, so I really have to question Forster’s use of the word. Rape means that consent is withheld, but in this story it’s only withheld until the rapist’s intentions are clear. This is not what rape is really like. It’s a horrible experience that leaves permanent scars. If the receiver consents, and I mean from the heart and not necessarily in words, then it’s not rape. Some people are pressured into consenting in words when they do not really want to do it, and that is rape. People have started talking about ‘grey rape,’ where the two parties are so chemically elevated that neither is sure whether they had sex or whether consent was given, and I don’t know how to judge that situation, and I’m glad I don’t have to. I do think that it’s a bad idea to have sex if either person is too far gone to judge the situation, but as the name implies, this is a grey area. And, as should be obvious, no one asks to be raped. The request implies consent. In the story, the Roman gets happiness and possibly mystical powers from the experience, not permanent psychological wounds. But Forster is back to hating on Christianity and its demand for chastity.

I didn’t quite see the full extent of Forster’s hatred of Christianity until I got to “The Other Boat.” Here, he not only blames Christianity for homophobia, but also for racism:

He spoke of the origins of Christianity in a way that made her look down her nose, saying that the Canal was one long genuine Bible picture gallery, that donkeys could still be seen going down into Egypt carrying Holy Families, and naked Arabs wading into the water to fish; “Peter and Andrew by Galilee’s shore, why, it hits the truth plumb.” A clergyman’s daughter and a soldier’s wife, she could not admit that Christianity had ever been oriental. What good thing can come out of the Levant, and is it likely that the apostles ever had a touch of the tar-brush?

In terms of Western Civilization, Christianity has been the winning team for about two thousand years. However, it’s not a European religion. It’s not an American religion. It’s from the Middle East. If most American Christians saw Jesus Christ today, they would think he looked like a terrorist. It’s interesting to me that she points out the racial Otherness of the Arabs, but here in the United States we define peoples of the Middle East as white, no doubt so that we can admit that Jews are white. Jewish people have played a large role in positions of power in American history, so of course they can be legally considered white. After all, we can’t go around Othering Jesus. But if we welcome Jesus as part of our group, we also have to admit Syrian refugees as white people, and Iraqis and Saudis and all the other people from the heart of Islam. Which creates a racial conundrum for some people, if they put any thought into it.

Forster juxtaposes racism with homophobia – the white Englishman is okay having a relationship with the ethnically vague foreigner as long as no one knows about it, and he enjoys it as long as he doesn’t think about it. But at the end he realizes the foreigner’s bribes are tipping people off, and he does spend some time thinking about it, and he kills the man he doesn’t love. Then he runs up on deck and jumps in the ocean, killing the other man he doesn’t love, himself.

Taken all together, this is kind of a weird collection because the stories are written at such different times in the author’s life. They can hardly be expected to present a unified viewpoint; we are all such different people at different stages of our development. Forster in his 20s and Forster in his 70s write in very different ways, and “Ansell” and “The Other Boat” don’t seem all that unified. But in some ways they do. Maybe people don’t change as much as I think (hope) they do. “Ansell” ends with the boys happy together because the rich, educated boy isn’t yet thinking of his future, but “The Other Boat” shows what happens when he does. There is an important distinction, though – Edward in “Ansell” loses all the books he needs to write his dissertation, so his love with Ansell grows up because he’s already lost the future he had planned. In “The Other Boat,” Lionel still has a lot to lose when he hooks up with Cocoanut, and he can’t face that expected loss when he realizes that their relationship isn’t the secret he thinks it is.

THREE COURSES AND A DESSERT

Speaking of weirdness. This four-part story was designed for four different authors, each taking a section. You’ll recognize the format from Naked Came the Stranger, as well as its for-charity descendants Naked Came the Manatee and Naked Came the Phoenix. The first author, Christopher Dilke, does a good job of setting up an interesting story, and Forster manages to match his tone and characters pretty well. But the third author, A. E. Coppard, is not their equal. Characters change drastically and become caricatures of themselves, and while James Laver does his best to mop up the damage in the epilogue, the first two parts cohere and the rest do not. I do appreciate Laver’s final twist – Forster ended his part with a murder, and Laver broke the fourth wall by placing Forster in the crowd and saying that the author did it. It’s a bit of a joke, but I think it was the only reasonable way to end it. It’s an unfortunate addition to a short story collection that, at 210 pages, was already long enough to publish. I’ve seen novels shorter than that published without any trouble.

This collection was a real delight. It satisfies the itch for a book like Maurice without being it – early twentieth century, well-written, normative gay romance with a little Lady Chatterley thrown in. No wonder I couldn’t put it down.

 

Given the option to teach literature again this month, I was firmly against repeating The Old Man and the Sea, so I chose the other option for a really short book that the company had in inventory. I hadn’t read it before, and reading a new book to teach it was a really strange experience. I kept looking for new vocabulary and literary elements, thinking of ways I could assess my students’ reading instead of enjoying my own. It’s like knitting projects to sell – it turns a hobby into work, and I’m not that fond of working. It takes the joy out of it.

Steinbeck was working on crossing the line between prose and drama, so this novel is set up like a play. Each chapter begins with a description of the scene, and everything happens in that confined place. There’s a lot of dialogue and not really a lot of action. It’s mostly, people walk on, sit, and talk. It’s a three-act tragedy, with each act having two scenes (six sections that are not actually named chapters).

George and Lennie are migrant ranch hands in California during the Depression, a time and place that are practically owned by Steinbeck. George is little and sharp, Lennie is the opposite, large and dull. My international students were fairly familiar and comfortable with the idea of Lennie being a grown man with the mind of a small child (one of them has a relative with Down’s Syndrome), and I don’t have the training to diagnose his particular brand of developmental delay. George grew up in the same town, so he keeps him around. Lennie is a habit he just can’t break, even though he complains about how much fun he’s losing out on. He could be going out and getting drunk and laid like all the other guys if he didn’t have to take care of Lennie. Yet, the two of them have plans for the future precisely because he does take care of Lennie. Other migrant workers drift without a sense of direction, but these two have a definite plan to get some money together and buy a specific plot of land. They’ll have a house and animals, and Lennie will take care of the rabbits. He loves touching soft things. They’re starting a new job, which is the exposition.

The big trouble at the new job is with the boss’s son. Curley is a little guy who likes to fight, and he’s stupidly jealous of his too-sociable wife. He thinks Lennie is laughing at him because of his wife’s wanderings, so he starts a fight that he can’t finish. Lennie breaks his hand. That’s the climactic turning point that leads the wife of the pugilist to cast her eye on the over-big child. Now, at their last job, Lennie started touching a woman’s dress that was soft like a rabbit or a dead mouse, and she freaked out and he couldn’t figure out what to do except close his hand tight and hold on for dear life, while the poor woman is screaming Rape just as loud as she can. George had to whack him over the head with a fence picket and they ran off to keep from getting killed. Curley’s nameless wife lets Lennie pat her hair, and then when he clamps on and can’t release she starts screaming, but he covers her mouth to shut her up and accidentally breaks her neck. At this point all George can do is shoot Lennie before the lynch mob hangs him.

At one point Steinbeck said that this woman wasn’t actually a character; she’s just a symbol of evil, a piece of forbidden fruit. Lennie falls because he can’t resist, even though he remains innocent, just like Billy Budd. I’d like to argue for a minute that she’s a real person. She grew up in a little town, dreaming of something better, and then she met a few men who promised her Hollywood and glamour but didn’t deliver, though I imagine she delivered her goods to them. Then she meets a guy who’s little but strong, and instead of promising fame he promises love. It sounds like a good deal, but then it’s all isolation on a farm outside Soledad CA. Every time she tries talking to anyone, her husband shows up and makes trouble. It’s not her fault there aren’t any other women around. Some people are cut out for solitude, but some aren’t. This girl needs people, society, conversation, but all she gets is trouble and loneliness. I didn’t notice any evidence of domestic violence, but I think more careful readers have made a case for it. Her life is miserable. She found acceptance in the past by treating men a certain way, and now she’s punished for it. The Depression may make the workers’ life miserable, but hers is just downright untenable. Then someone defeats her guardian monster, and she shows a little interest, but the new champion is even worse than the old one. He kills her. Lennie didn’t slut-shame her like everyone else on the ranch, but I’d say death of the body is worse than death of the reputation. The explicit narrative centers its pathos on Lennie, but in a time when there was no good treatment or care options for the developmentally delayed or mentally ill, his fate is inevitable. Hers could have been avoided, if the author had seen the woman as more than the instrument of a man’s downfall. You know, if he had bothered to give her a name.

Race is another isolating identity. Crooks works in the stable, and lives in a little room off the main part of the barn instead of in the bunkhouse with the other hands. He’s crippled from getting kicked by a horse, showing just how little valued the lives of black men are. In his isolation, he becomes misanthropic instead of social, with a sort of self-protective hostility. Lennie doesn’t notice and befriends him, but not too closely.

Candy is isolated by his age. Ranch work is for the young and strong, and he is neither. It doesn’t help that he only has one hand. But he’s the right sort of different, because George and Lennie make space in their plans for him.

When it comes to the others, mainstream society, it’s a toss-up. You could get Slim, who’s compassionate and a real friend to George, or you could get Carlson, who sees that George has just killed his best friend and says,

Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?

A lot of people are just not good at emotions. Carlson is a bit of a psychopath, intent on killing whoever doesn’t serve him, like Candy’s smelly old dog. It’s unfortunate, but hard times like the Depression bring out the utilitarian in some people. I have to confess to having this unsentimental streak as well, because circumstances in my life are also sometimes difficult and necessitate parting with people or things that I would prefer to keep. It doesn’t help that I love people who aren’t good for me. He’s working at being better, these last few weeks, so I’m hopeful for our future. I know I should be thinking about how good I am to him too – I am a bit self-centered. I do my best for him, but I express my own needs to myself more clearly than he expresses his to me, so it’s easier for me to evaluate whether my own needs are being met than his. Yes, I need a break from these fatalistic modernist texts, but it’s nice to come back to the real world and know that there are people who care about me, and that there’s a handsome man I’m going to sleep next to tonight, and he loves me.

BILLY BUDD

Billy Budd is sort of a gay Christian allegory. The Christian part is fairly obvious – Budd is falsely accused of mutiny and accidentally kills his accuser, a superior officer. Even though that officer was the only man on ship who wasn’t openly in love with Billy Budd, the captain has to kill him to maintain law and order.

And yes, it’s quite gay.

When Claggart’s unobserved glance happened to light on belted Billy rolling along the upper gun deck in the leisure of the second dog watch, exchanging passing broadsides of fun with other young promenaders in the crowd, that glance would follow the cheerful sea-Hyperion with a settled meditative and melancholy expression, his eyes strangely suffused with incipient feverish tears. Then would Claggart look like the man of sorrows. Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.

This short novel wasn’t published in Melville’s lifetime, and it was written toward the end of his life, forty years after Moby-Dick. The big whale book has some clearly homosexual passages, and here Melville just drags it into the fore. The only “ban” against Claggart loving Billy is society’s ban against homosexual behavior, and in single-sex environments like a warship that ban is a little relaxed. After all, there’s an older Dansker who calls Billy “Baby,” and Melville just says that it’s for “some recondite reason.” Even casting my imagination back to 1891, when the story was written, or to 1797, when the story is set, trying to reason that there’s a nonsexual yet secret reason to call a grown man Baby is kind of complex.

Baby Budd is a great Christ figure, and after the book was first published in 1924 there was a rash of Christ figures in American literature. The classic elements are derived from him – blond, innocent, acting spontaneously from his own good nature. Billy is beautiful and charismatic, despite his naivete and tendency to stutter. Everyone loves him, and the one who lets that love get twisted is the only one who works against him. It’s a tragedy in that an innocent man has to die, but it’s also a tragedy that Claggart has to distort his entire character for some imaginary social code that no one else cares about and that he dies for it.

I am not certain whether to know the world and to know human nature be not two distinct branches of knowledge, which, while they may coexist in the same heart, yet either may exist with little or nothing of the other.

I think the world is beautiful and fascinating, and with the amount of traveling I’ve done, I could be considered to know something of it. But while I do all right understanding people in books, in real life I’m a little less skilled. Real people have all kinds of secret motivations and do underhand things, like spying on a significant other online or selling shoddy merchandise or plagiarizing an essay. I’ve been feeling a little taken-advantage-of lately; while that may just be the effect of reading about a Christ figure or two (remember The Old Man and the Sea), it may also have some merit. For a long time I’ve been worried about my mental stability, but I’m not going crazy. I’m struggling not to overreact, because I know I do that, but at the same time I know that I can trust my feelings. If I feel this way, there’s a problem, not with my brain function, but with the way I’m being treated. I wish I knew how to fix it.

THE PIAZZA TALES

The Piazza Tales is a short story collection that Melville published in 1856. Except the first, these were all written for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. He was simultaneously publishing other stories in Harper’s, and those were collected after his death and published as The Apple-Tree Table and Other Stories. That later collection is now a little harder to find, but it contains the frequently anthologized “Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids” and “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” Piazza has the stories that people generally think of, if they think of Melville short stories at all, “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno.”

The Piazza

Just to be clear, Melville loved Nathaniel Hawthorne. I mean, so much that after they met Hawthorne started avoiding him because there was something a little excessive in his fan-boy-ish-ness. NH sometimes used the first piece in a story collection to establish a sense of place, as in “The Old Manse” (Mosses from an Old Manse) or “The Custom-House” (The Scarlet Letter, which was originally conceived as the beginning of a short story collection). Melville gives this strategy a try here. He’s settling into a house in the mountains, and decides that it’s a real crime to have a spectacular view and nowhere to sit outside and enjoy it from, so he builds himself a deck facing his favorite view. He becomes interested in a spot on the mountain opposite, investing it with all sorts of fairy qualities from Shakespeare and Spenser, and one day he goes to see it. It turns out, there’s an isolated girl in a cottage there, and she spends her time looking over at his house and imagining how happy and magical his life must be.

There are a few ways to read that. People often say that it just means that our fantasies are all just illusions, and that if we get to the heart of what we really want there is only equal or greater unhappiness. But I’m feeling optimistic this morning, so I’d rather say, even in the least happy life there is magic, if we have eyes to see it. Glory and beauty are all around us; we just have to learn to look for them. We need to value what we have instead of letting familiarity breed contempt. And perhaps the good things are easiest seen at a little distance.

Bartleby

In many ways, I think this story is a response to Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government.” We’re familiar with the idea of civil disobedience that has shaped protests in the West, particularly with the American Civil Rights movement, and so we typically see this as a good thing, a way to get stuff done. Melville imagines a passive resister in ordinary life. Bartleby isn’t making a political point or taking a stand on an issue; he just quietly says that he “would prefer not to” do anything he is asked. In other ways, this is a response to Dickens’s Bleak House, which began serial publication the year before “Bartleby” was published. The characterization here, with the quirky extreme personalities, is very similar to Dickens, and both stories tell about law-copyists. Before the Xerox machine, the courts still needed several copies of legal documents, so someone had to copy all those papers by hand. Scrivener is a dull, mechanical profession, and both Dickens and Melville try to humanize these machine-like people. Enter Bartleby, the copier who won’t do what he doesn’t like.

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity, then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.

The narrator, the lawyer who employs Bartleby, is an older, active gentleman who takes a paternal interest in his employee, but he cannot figure out all of this preferring not to do things. This type of polite disobedience leads to Bartleby doing some inappropriate things, like living in the workplace outside of working hours, eavesdropping on important meetings, and being insubordinate to his employer, to law enforcement, and indeed to everyone else. He clings to the secret dictate of his heart, just like Robinson Crusoe or Ralph Waldo Emerson, but “doing his thing” is doing nothing. Narrator can’t figure out what to do with him, so eventually he moves to a different office. The new lawyer who takes the office eventually has Bartleby arrested for vagrancy, and he dies in jail after refusing his meals.

I’ve been taking the lens of Transcendentalism, but you could also read this story as a warning against depression-induced inanition. Bartleby used to work in the dead letter office, burning all the letters that could not be delivered. If every letter represents a desire, a wish to connect with another human, the dead letters are the failures. After who-knows-how-long destroying all these wasted desires, Bartleby lost any desire of his own. There’s no implication that he’s looking to the future; he seems like a remarkably clear example of what clinical depression looks like. No active sadness, but no hope either. Just doing nothing, wanting to do nothing, until death. I admire Bartleby’s adherence to himself, but the result makes me sad.

Benito Cereno

Oh my god, the racism, the racism. I suppose you could argue that this is free indirect discourse, or a narrated monologue, so these terribly offensive opinions are Captain Delano’s and not Melville’s, but even so. The racism.

“Benito Cereno” is the most like Billy Budd, it being a naval story featuring The Handsome Sailor set in the 1790s. Captain Delano seems like what Billy Budd could have been, had he lived and advanced.

Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories at that day associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man.

This is also a classic Gothic tale – Captain Delano gets into a mysterious and vaguely threatening situation, until about two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through, when the real threat is revealed and he defeats it.

The threat comes from the extreme racism – think Heart of Darkness. Don Benito Cereno is captain of a merchant vessel carrying slaves along the coast of South America. They’re in distress and put in for water on the same island that Captain Delano has stopped at to restock his water supply. He goes on board to render assistance, and the Nordic-looking white boy (I always picture him as whiter than white, sort of glowing) is surrounded by Africans. His inner monologue is full of comments on the ethnic differences between himself and the Africans – he thinks of them as the perfect servants because of their (he thinks) natural stupidity and servility. He thinks of them as animals, little different than deer or monkeys. Even the few Spanish he sees are marked in the text as different, not quite as white as he is. He can tell that something fishy is going on, maybe Don Benito is plotting to murder him, but he quickly dismisses the thought because he’s such a nice guy (as some of my acquaintance would say, “It’s awful white of him”). Of course, the truth is that the slaves have taken over the ship and are much more intelligent than he had taken them for, but the intelligence is bent toward evil so the white captain is still better than they are.

This story is based on the real events that happened on board the Amistad, which were memorialized in the film of the same name with Matthew McConaughey and Anthony Hopkins. Africans who had been illegally kidnapped and sold into slavery took over the ship and forced the Spanish to sail them back to Africa, but the Spaniard turned the ship north and it was taken off Long Island. The film focuses on the trial and how the brave white lawyers overcame their own racism to rescue the poor black victims, so I think it’s still a little white-centric, but it’s better than Melville. “Benito Cereno” moves the story back into the time when slavery was legal in South America (The United States was about forty years behind the times when it came to abolition) and makes the Africans evil murderers and thieves, the worst of mutineers, slaughtering the beloved slaver Alexandro Aranda. Don Alexandro is Don Benito’s childhood friend – some people read the relationship as gay because they think Don Benito is effeminate, but the evidence is not as strong as it often is in Melville. They want to overtake Captain Delano’s ship too, but of course they are sufficiently white to conquer the former slaves quite easily, incidentally killing most of the remaining Hispanics in the process.

“Benito Cereno” is just as long as Billy Budd, but without chapter breaks, which helps build suspense and all but makes it harder to find a good place to stop. The sentences are also simpler, and it’s less allegorical, which will appeal to a lot of readers who aren’t put off by the racism, which is so intense I would feel bad quoting any of it.

The Lightning-Rod Man

A short piece about a man who makes his living by scaring people to death, and Melville’s “The Piazza” narrator is having none of it.

The Encantadas; or Enchanted Islands

A series of ten sketches describing the Galapagos Islands. They’re mostly volcanic rock, and while I’ve seen some really beautiful specimens of black glass from volcanoes, Melville sees them as ugly misshapen hellrocks. They’re called enchanted because sailors had some major problems with their navigation; people thought they moved around because they’d find them a hundred miles away from where they were expected. There are a few narratives, but this is mostly description – I would go so far as to say that it’s of limited interest. The descriptions are only partially original; he’s writing years after he came back to shore, so he did some borrowing from previously published accounts.

This group does have the second female character, Hunilla the Chola widow. She’s a mixture of Hispanic and Native American ancestry, which the Latins call Cholo (though anthropologists lean toward Mestizo). She was left on an island with her husband and brother, who both died. There’s some implication that passing ships would stop and the seamen would do unspeakable things to her, before Melville’s ship rescues her. Melville usually writes about male-only worlds, so he doesn’t do much with female characters, and this lack of practice is evident. He seems to understand that the lives of women are unnecessarily difficult because their dependence on men (and transportation by them) isolates them, but he seems incapable of realizing or understanding their characters. It’s like women are another species to him, as different as the Africans in “Benito Cereno.”

The Bell-Tower

This is another piece strongly influenced by Hawthorne. Think of the Promethean allegories, like “The Birth-Mark” or “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” A Renaissance architect builds a bell-tower. He goes way overboard, both with the height and the ornamentation, even making a mechanical man with arms like clubs to strike the bells. Like any good Frankenstein story, the attempt to create life leads to death, so it’s hardly cheerful, but then Hawthorne is seldom cheerful himself. In all his admiration for Mosses from an Old Manse, this is his closest approximation to one of those stories, which I suppose makes it a fitting bookend for “The Piazza.”

The Piazza Tales is a weird collection, indicative of the weirdness Melville got into after the failure of Moby-Dick. Pierre has a lot of that reaction, when Melville suddenly stops telling his story to complain about literary critics for several pages, but the insistence on writing what he likes to write instead of what paying customers might like to read is still evident, as is his problematization of ideals beloved by Emerson, Thoreau, and their attendant Transcendentalists, as well as his extreme admiration of Hawthorne. Very intertextual, sometimes engaging, interesting reading.

THE TOWN-HO’S STORY (CHAPTER 54 OF MOBY-DICK)

I guess whoever edited this collection for Signet Classics thought the project wouldn’t be complete without a little Moby-Dick, so here’s the obligatory excerpt. It works well as a stand-alone piece. It covers mutiny at sea, so it’s thematically linked to Billy Budd and “Benito Cereno,” but there’s a much stronger sense of destiny. This collection is arranged roughly backward, chronologically, so it seems that Melville’s interest in predestination waned over his lifetime, because here in Moby-Dick everything is predestinated or foreordained. The white whale is not just one face of God, as in Ahab’s “strike through the mask” speech, it’s the bringer of Fate. The whale decides men’s destinies at sea.

The Town-Ho is a leaky boat, which is apparently not unusual at the time. It’s a bit like my friends who have a fluid leak in their cars and just keep putting water in before they drive to town. You keep your men on the pumps and go where you need to go. Working the pumps can be exhausting work, so another type of The Handsome Sailor (but without the innocence of Capt Delano or Baby Budd) wears himself out and sits down for a rest. The ugly commanding officer tells him to get up and sweep the pig shit off the deck. Steelkilt replies that that job is for the little boys, who aren’t busy just now. Radney tells him to get off his ass and clean the deck. Now in one sense Steelkilt is right, cleaning the shit isn’t in his job description, but in another sense he doesn’t have the right to refuse a direct order. He refuses anyway, they get into a fight, and Steelkilt breaks Radney’s jaw. He starts up a mutiny, but the captain gets it under control. Radney gets to whip Steelkilt, who then starts plotting murder. Fortunately, the white whale comes along and removes temptation. Ahab may have lost a leg, but Radney got straight up eaten by Moby Dick. Steelkilt later gets everyone to defect and the captain never sees him again, but Ishmael swears that he has seen and spoken with him, I guess in a White Whale Survivors’ Club meeting.

Looking at the collection as a whole, it seems Melville had a real issue with authority – the artificial distinctions created by society keep us from acting toward each other as equals. Men are divided by arbitrary social roles, which leads to poisonous behavior. Maintaining a sense of freedom and innocence is a natural response, but when an underling does not conform there are unfortunate consequences. Similarly, when a leader abuses his power there are unfortunate consequences, because the abuse of power leads to rebellion. Love seems like a good answer, but it’s not always enough. We love and admire the extraordinary, but the world insists on conformity to usage, so it’s safer to be average. Don’t get noticed and you can lead a long, mediocre life. Be amazing and you die young. I don’t agree with this attitude, but it does seem to be what Melville is pushing. I get in the mood for Melville every so often, and Billy Budd is a much quicker fix than Moby-Dick, but this fatalism is not the direction I want to go in. I steer my course, and I’m guiding my ship to a happier port.

I have only ever read this book for school assignments, I have refused to purchase it, and reading it for my students this week has not changed my dislike.

Before he was The Old Man, he was Santiago el Campeón, a Cuban sailor who made runs to the coast of Africa. Once in a bar in Casablanca he won an arm-wrestling match that had lasted twenty-four hours and made his fingernails bleed. But generally, he watched the lions on the shore and was happy. Now he’s an old fisherman. He’s lost none of his strength and courage, the determination to win. After all, arm-wrestling is generally won not by the stronger competitor but by the one who wants it more. I was never very good because I never could care very much about competitions of strength.

The old man has been eighty-four days without catching anything. His apprentice has been sent to another boat, so even though Manolin takes care of him on shore, at sea he is alone. So now, Day 85, he catches a tuna and throws it in the bottom of his boat. Then, one of his hooks farther down gets something big. It’s an eighteen-foot marlin, and it tows him out to sea for the next two days. The first night he eats the tuna. The second night he catches a dolphin, which he eats about half of, along with the two flying fish he found inside it. The third afternoon the marlin circles a bit, and he brings it in for the kill. It’s too big for his boat, so he straps it alongside. That afternoon he kills four sharks and seriously wounds two more, as they come for his fish, but after it gets dark he can’t see them any more and by this point he’s too tired and weak to do anything about it. By the time he gets home, all he’s got is a big old marlin skeleton.

It’s utterly depressing. This is a book about someone who has never been defeated in his entire life being destroyed by the thing he loves most. Despite his persistent unreflected-upon Catholicism, he has a real animistic view of nature – all the animals are his friends, the sea is his lover, even the stars are his friends. He has a strong love for life and the world, even though when considered independently of his perspective it doesn’t care about him. Hemingway makes him a Christ figure, the suffering servant who kills the brother he loves in order to feed the community, and I know this is the classic Modernist view of things. I’m more interested in how the old man compares himself to Icarus – he wasn’t defeated, he destroyed himself by letting the marlin pull him out too far.

Which means, consider the third implied comparison: Is Jesus Icarus? Jesus doesn’t take a middle path; he calls others to a higher standard of social and personal morality, starting from his Sermon on the Mount comment “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Like Icarus, Jesus aims high, only instead of looking for personal glory or whatever it was about the sun that entranced Icarus, he aims for the good of the entire community. But his goals are too high. Frankly, the god of the Old Testament always aims too high. Moses brought down a huge list of commandments, the drunk people were fornicating in worship of a golden calf, he breaks the list and goes back up the mountain and comes back with only ten. By the time of Jeremiah, this same god says that if ten is too much, they can follow just one commandment and he’ll save them from Nebuchadnezzar, but that one was too much. Many Christians have this idea that they are expected to follow this list of rules, but it was always aimed a little too high. It’s common to see Jesus as the one who makes everything easier and doable, who stops us from being Icarus because he gives people grace, forgiveness for taking the middle road between godliness and devilishness. But our stories of Jesus, the ones that made it into the New Testament, characterize him as perfect. He aimed for the sun and fell into death and infamy, though both were only temporary. For Icarus, death is the end. There is no recovery from defeat. For Jesus, there is always a victory coming.

Which is true for the old man? Is this the end, or is there a future victory waiting for him? For me, it feels like the end. All his optimism and confidence carry him through the catching of the fish, but when the sharks come, despair enters his heart for the first time. There is nothing he can do. The sea will not allow him to take this victory. It’s like this whole experience was intended to teach him that he has reached the limit of his power. He’s no longer the champion. Instead, he’s like that guy in Casablanca – they had a rematch once, but it ended quickly because he had lost his confidence. Now that the sea has beaten him, he’s going to expect to be beaten and he’s going to die a loser.

In real life, none of us are gods. We have to learn how to lose. The old man hasn’t had to learn to lose gracefully, so I think this defeat will destroy him. Me, on the other hand, I’ve been beaten so many times I can’t count. There are some ways that this has shaped me – for example, I don’t like competition and tend to avoid situations where there is a winner and a loser – but I haven’t adopted this as my identity. I’m not of the Beat generation. I fall, I get back up, I keep going. Sometimes in a new direction, but always forward.

I’ve been thinking of this in terms of my profession, lately. In our culture people think that teachers can never be happy or fulfilled doing anything else, as if we all feel this sacred calling, as if we were nuns or something. I’ve gotten past that. Teaching is a job, and though it’s one I do well, I don’t think it’s the only one I could enjoy. There are lots of ways to help people; teaching them to communicate is only one, and it’s not even the one I spent six years in college for. I went to school to help people understand, and I’ve spent the last ten or eleven years teaching them to speak. Giving people a voice is a powerful thing, but my lack of explicit training in it means that my professional life is dogged by uncertainty. There must be a better way than the one I’ve worked out on my own, but I’m little motivated to go research teaching strategies or get the MA in TESOL or education that would qualify me for the work I’m already doing. As I think about it, I realize that I feel like my life is being controlled by forces that I don’t understand and therefore cannot manipulate, specifically, money. I’d like to study economics or finance or accounting or something so that I stop panicking when I think or talk about money, so that I can use it to make my life better instead of feeling like it’s a dirty stranger that lives in my wallet. I want to make money familiar to me and I want to learn to make better choices with it. I’m sick of being so goddamn poor all the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My inner tween is rolling his eyes and saying “Oh my Gooooooooooood this book wasn’t long enough.” It was published posthumously, so Lawrence may not have been done with it. More than half of this book feels like exposition, and once we get to the place where I feel like he is ready to get into the story it’s over.

The Virgin Protagonist is named Yvette. She grew up in this awful vicarage with a power-hungry grandmother and an overly judgmental aunt. Her mother ran off when she was young, so they keep throwing that in her face. Her father the rector is still in love with the woman he thought she was, so the aunt has to keep all her venom a secret, hissing at Yvette’s door when she’s almost asleep. Creepy.

Six young rebels, they sat very perkily in the car as they swished through the mud. Yet they had a peaked look too. After all, they had nothing really to rebel against, any of them. They were left so very free in their movements. Their parents let them do almost entirely as they liked. There wasn’t really a fetter to break, nor a prison-bar to file through, nor a bolt to shatter. The keys of their lives were in their own hands. And there they dangled inert.

She’s out with friends one winter day and they run across an encampment of Roma. The girls of the party have their palms read, and Yvette makes eye contact with one of the men. The grandmother tells her about a dark man who’s going to be important to her, and it really seems like she’s pushing Yvette into the arms of her married son. He doesn’t have a name until the last page, when Lawrence and Yvette suddenly realize that that may have been important. I’ve remarked on Lawrence’s unfortunate attitude toward ethnicity before, and here it’s at its worst. This man, mentioned in the title, enormously important in this girl’s life, and he’s just called the gipsy, because his ethnicity is the only important thing about him. He’s very sexy, he’s attracted to her, but. He’s rough trade, not someone you introduce to your parents unless he’s just selling copper pots.

In order to delay the inevitable, Lawrence has Yvette meet a disreputable couple from outside of town. He’s a beautiful young ex-army guy, and she’s a soon-to-be-divorced Jew. As with The Sexy Guy, her racial features are highlighted as her only distinguishing traits, and her racial otherness gives her the freedom to relax society’s strict code of sexual ethics. For Lawrence, you can do whatever you like so long as you’re not British. But wait, is the Jewish woman a citizen of the United Kingdom? Doesn’t matter. For persons whose ancestors come exclusively from northern Europe, country of origin is important. For others, not so much. Here in the United States, ethnic Jews and Roma are considered white, but Lawrence doesn’t treat them as such. He has to make them as different from the rectory family as he can, and racial characteristics are easy to focus on.

Lawrence is setting up an ideological contrast: the white English family is constricted by social codes, which they value more than freedom or life. Their law kills. The ethnically other characters reject and/or are rejected by society, but they have the freedom to do as they like. They are in touch with passion, the forces of life. Their anarchy brings life. I’m not saying this was the most culturally sensitive way to prove this point, like showing the value that minorities bring to society by perpetuating the stereotype that all Asians are good at math, but for the 1920s it was brave to cast these people as the goodies and the traditional British family as the baddies. In this book, Lawrence represents a step forward from where society had been, in terms of racial equality, but from where we are now, it’s a step back.

But, having read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, we have certain expectations regarding the representation of the sex act. The marketing for the book encourages these expectations: “The last and most provocative novel from the genius of D. H. Lawrence”, and “The minister’s daughter. Her father taught her about God. The gipsy taught her about Heaven.” But no. Just, no. She plays back and forth, will she act on her feelings for him, won’t she, but in the end she does nothing. The Roma are leaving town, and he comes back to say goodbye, even though they’re barely even friends. A flash flood tears through the valley where she lives, and he saves her by pulling her into the house. They run up to her room because it’s the most structurally sound. It’s February in northern England and they’ve been caught in a flood, so they have to guard against hypothermia, which they do by getting into bed naked together, but it’s not so much sexy as a medical emergency.

The vice-like grip of his arms round her seemed to her the only stable point in her consciousness. It was a fearful relief to her heart, which was strained to bursting. And though his body, wrapped round her strange and lithe and powerful, like tentacles, rippled with shuddering as an electric current, still the rigid tension of the muscles that held her clenched steadied them both, and gradually the sickening violence of the shuddering, caused by shock, abated, in his body first, then in hers, and the warmth revived between them. And as it roused, their tortured, semi-conscious minds became unconscious, they passed away into sleep.

Instead of having sex, they have a nap instead, and he’s gone before she wakes up. She finishes the book in many ways as much a virgin as she was at the beginning. The man himself, the act of making love with him, these concrete things are not important. It’s the abstractions that matter. He represents an ideal, a feeling that she wants to repeat and dedicate her life to. He wakes her up to the importance of love and sex, but he’s not the one to fulfill her desires. If one is inclined to read symbolically, the flash flood in a narrow valley could represent female sexual desire, or sexual fulfillment, but it’s dangerous, and could kill them both. The flood does destroy the house, so the rector’s family has to split up and move away for a time, so maybe Yvette’s sexual awakening is going to ruin her family as they fear, but the book ends before we see what happens. Lawrence suggests and gestures toward things instead of describing them explicitly.

If the book is provocative, or at any rate more provocative than Lady Chatterley, it’s in the representation of the church. This isn’t Scenes of Clerical Life where we see the private lives of pastors and their foibles that make them lovably human. Lawrence practically puts horns on Yvette’s father and claims that his religion is death. Life is in the mountains. It’s in nature, love, and sex. Abstaining from life-giving activities is a slow torture that leads to corruption of the self/soul and death. The respectable life of Yvette’s family is a form of voluntary pointless misery; she can choose not to perpetuate the unhappiness, but she has to choose to do it. We see her begin to choose life, but we don’t see the consequences; we don’t see her happier, freer life. I want this book to be only Act I, not the entire piece. Maybe she does move on, maybe she doesn’t. There’s so much indecision in Yvette’s character that I can’t say for sure what will happen now. But she’s begun, and that’s the important thing.

I think back over the men I was attracted to before I came out of the closet, celebrities, students, friends. I wasn’t ready for gay sex then, so any attempts would have ended in disaster. But seeing them, and especially seeing my response to them, taught me important things about myself. If Yvette were ready for sex, she would have taken that gypsy man without question. He’s definitely available. Even without consummation, she learns important things about herself: how she feels about her father’s house and relatives, what kind of man she finds attractive, and why she’s not attracted to the single men in her own social circle. When I look at this story as a reader who wants a repeat of that scene where Lady Chatterley and her husband’s gamekeeper do it doggy-style in the woods during a rainstorm, it seems like a lost opportunity. When I look at this story objectively, it’s probably the best thing that could have happened to her. Yvette is learning, but she’s not finished. When she’s older, when she’s ready, she’ll find a man to have sex with and I’m sure it will be lovely. Right now, she’s at a time of her life where near misses are enough.