Posts Tagged ‘class’

As I’ve been thinking of things this week, I’ve realized that there is an astonishing amount of rape in Greek mythology. It seems like a third of their stories are, “Fleeing from a man about to rape her, a woman is transformed into a feature of the landscape,” and another third are, “Having been raped, a woman flees from the rapist’s jealous wife and is transformed or killed.” Women’s bodies are mutable and disposable, and men are powerless to control their constant erections. The story of Pan is no different: He chases a girl who doesn’t want to sleep with him, she gets transformed into a reed, and he cuts a group of reeds (hoping to get her) and makes them into a musical instrument. Pan seems to be defined by his sexual appetite – I’ve even seen a statue of him fucking a goat, but instead of the goat standing on its legs (the more practical approach), he’s got the animal on its back, which seems to imply consent but also the idea that this is unnatural. Hamsun only explicitly mentions Pan in one short scene, but the protagonist seems modeled on him, the man who lives in nature and is sexually irresistible.

pan

This is a story of the Nordland summer, when instead of the night nearly equal to the day, the sky blushes as the sun approaches the horizon for a kiss and a little touch before shooting back up into the air. It’s mostly the first-person account of Lt Glahn’s loves during that summer, but there is a short narrative from another voice at the end that shows us a little about him.

When I met him in the autumn of 1859, he was a man of thirty-two – we were about the same age. At that time he had a full beard and wore woollen hunting shirts with excessively low-cut necks, and it happened also that he not infrequently left the top button undone. At first, his neck struck me as being remarkably handsome; but little by little he made me his deadly enemy, and then I did not think his neck any finer than mine, even though I did not show it off as much.

Glahn lives in a little hut close to the woods, and I’m honestly a little envious of how easily he manages his sex life. Girls just seem to show up at his hut, ready to go, as if the warm weather activates a magnet that draws partners to his cock. For all his good looks and self-confidence, though, he’s still a wild man of the woods, sort of useless in polite nineteenth-century Norwegian society.

I have written this now just for my own pleasure and amused myself as best I could. No worries weigh on me, I merely long to go away, I know not where, but far away, perhaps to Africa or to India; for I belong to the forests and the solitude.

Much as he enjoys spending time with Henriette and Eva and the other girls who pop in to the hut, Glahn is interested in, and gradually obsessed with, Edvarda, the local rich girl. She won’t sleep with him, but spends the entire summer playing this elaborate come-here-now-go-away thing that I personally would not have put up with. I don’t understand the pursuit of someone so irresolute in her actions; Edvarda likes the power of having a handsome man in love with her, but I don’t think she actually likes him, she just can’t bear to have him like anyone else. Edvarda’s father pays Eva to do some work for them, so she gets angry and mocks Glahn for talking with ‘a servant,’ or ‘the help,’ but to Glahn they’re both just women, and all women are equal. Or at least, they’re ranked according to beauty and attraction to him, not according to wealth or social standing. Edvarda plays with a couple of other men that summer too, a Doctor and a Baron, both of whom Glahn abuses, both of whom Edvarda compares him unfavorably with. And he does some pretty insane things out of love for this girl – she says that the Doctor is a better man than he even though he’s lame, so Glahn shoots himself in the foot and has to spend weeks recovering under the care of the Doctor he’s so jealous of. He doesn’t end up lame, though, just a little arthritic when the weather is ready to turn.

This is the nineteenth century, though, so a book about casual sex and the misery of denying it will, of course, involve a lot of dying. So I wasn’t surprised so much as saddened at the end. I like to think that sex can be good and happy, not leading to madness and death.

Although I lack Glahn’s confidence in my own attractiveness, I identify with a lot of what he says. He has a number of elaborate descriptions of nature and the effect it has on him.

From my hut I could see a confusion of islands and rocks and skerries, a little of the sea, a few blue-tinged peaks; and behind the hut lay the forest, an immense forest. I was filled with joy and thankfulness at the smell of the roots and leaves and the rich, fatty redolence of the firs, so like the smell of bone-marrow. Only in the forest did all within me find peace, my soul became tranquil and full of might.

This is, of course, why I love North Carolina so much. It’s a place of forests, where I can spend time with the trees, breathing in the rich life of their oxygenic exhalations. In the woods there is an ecstasy, a rapture, that doesn’t belong to any other place.

I lay on the ground as I ate. It was quiet over the earth, just a gentle sighing of the wind and here and there the sound of birds. I lay and watched the branches waving gently in the breeze; a diligent little wind was bearing the pollen from twig to twig and filling each innocent blossom; the whole forest was in ecstasy. A little green caterpillar loops its way along a branch, without pause, as though it could not rest. It scarcely sees anything, although it has eyes; often it rears up and feels the air for something to catch hold of; it looks like a bit of green thread slowly stitching a seam along the branch. Perhaps by evening it will have arrived where it wants to be.

For all his attention to the outward world, though, Glahn is rarely self-aware; he doesn’t identify or admit what he is feeling and why. When he tells a girl he loves her, it rings false because I’ve just read an entire chapter about shooting a couple of birds, roasting them over a fire, and eating them, but he hasn’t mentioned her or himself thinking about her, and he’s either fucking or mooning over other girls at the same time. I suppose it could be not so much a lack of self-awareness as an unwillingness to commit his awareness to paper, but his actions make me think that he’s not great at thinking things through or planning ahead.

I lie closer to the fire and watch the flames. A fir cone falls from its branch, and then a dry twig or two. The night is like a boundless deep. I close my eyes.

After an hour, all my senses are throbbing in rhythm, I am ringing with the great stillness, ringing with it. I look up at the crescent moon standing in the sky like a white shell and I feel a great love for it, I feel myself blushing. ‘It is the moon,’ I say softly and passionately, ‘it is the moon!’ And my heart beats gently towards it. Several minutes pass. A slight breeze springs up, an unnatural gust of wind strikes me, a strange rush of air. What is it? I look about me and see no one. The wind calls to me and my soul bows in obedience to the call, I feel myself lifted out of my context, pressed to an invisible breast, tears spring to my eyes, I tremble – God is standing somewhere near looking at me. Again some minutes pass. I turn my head, the strangely heavy air ebbs away and I see something like the back of a spirit who wanders soundlessly through the forest.

I struggle for a little while against a heavy stupor; with mind worn out by agitation and weary as death, I fall asleep.

Which reminds me of my own experiences of the divine in this world, and the way that for me the sacred and the sexual and the natural are all intimately tied together. Perhaps my unsatisfaction with my sex life is caused by not giving enough attention to those other two areas. Maybe Glahn’s confidence comes not from staring into a mirror but from touching the trees and shunning human society. In this book, the sense of powerlessness comes from other people – solitude in nature revitalizes the protagonist until he’s glowing with life. There are no faux pas in the forest.

For it is within ourselves that the sources of joy and sorrow lie.

Glahn tells us this at the beginning, and then tells a story where he forgets it, trying to extract these emotions from a woman instead of just accepting them as they come up within himself. I believe that the statement is true, that our true happiness comes from ourselves rather than our external circumstances, but there are external circumstances that support creating joy. For me, those include trees and aloneness, but for others those could be the sea and a crowd, or the desert with one special man. But whatever those circumstances may be, it’s important not to lose sight of them as I tend to do. These last few months I’ve been trying to engage more with people, but that means that I’m not taking care of my self, or my soul if you’d rather, like I did when I was so far away.

There is, of course, one other important feature of the Pan myth: he dies. The rest of the pantheon is cursed to endure, forgotten, faded, and immortal, but Pan dies. His death signals the end of Greek polytheism and the beginning of the Christian era, where there is only one god and he only impregnates one girl (who consents) and everything is single instead of multiple. Not only is rape punished now, but so are masturbation, homosexuality, fornication, and adultery. That sentence really makes it sound like I’m somehow nostalgic for a society in which rape is acceptable, but I’m not. I’m all for sexual license, but only as long as the consent of all parties is obtained – nothing sensual if not consensual. Pan’s death marks the end of rustic pleasure and the beginning of a policed society. Similarly, Glahn’s departure seems to be the end of an era – civilization has taken over. Nominally Christian morality has taken over, people have been sorted into classes, and economic power has replaced emotional connection as the motivator of human behavior. The cities have defeated the forests – in nineteenth-century Norway. In my here and now, the antagonism between the two seems to be passing away. A number of cities are incorporating greenways, large parks, and other acknowledgments that people need nature to survive. I’ve seen forested bridges that allow animals to cross highways in safety and landscaped roofs of conference buildings where executives can walk through a garden between meetings. The library where I work is halfway buried in a hillside, and while that means there are no windows on an entire side of the building, it also means that, as every book was once a tree, ours are rooted in the earth. Perhaps I love libraries so much because they are the forests where we keep our knowledge and experience, the collected memory of our species. And perhaps I’m spending less time with the trees because I’m spending so much more time with the books.

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Clive Barker writes such beautiful horror.

Weaveworld

Even this, one of his earliest novel-length stories, moves me to tears.

Nothing ever begins.

There is no first moment; no single word or place from which this or any other story springs.

The threads can always be traced back to some earlier tale, and to the tales that preceded that; though as the narrator’s voice recedes the connections will seem to grow more tenuous, for each age will want the tale told as if it were of its own making.

Thus the pagan will be sanctified, the tragic become laughable; great lovers will stoop to sentiment, and demons dwindle to clockwork toys.

Nothing is fixed. In and out the shuttle goes, fact and fiction, mind and matter woven into patterns that may have only this in common: that hidden among them is a filigree that will with time become a world.

This book was written a little before The Great and Secret Show, and has a lot of similarities to it. There’s a magical world bordering on ours, which people can access at rare times, but which is normally hidden and forgotten. Instead of existing outside, though, the secret magic is woven into a carpet, hidden in plain sight. And instead of having the two-journey structure, this book is in three volumes, and those volumes are subdivided into thirteen books. It brings to mind the twelve-part epics (plus one, to evoke the number of horror) as well as the Victorian three-deckers. Also like TGSS, there’s this amazingly powerful heroine.

“You’re a strange woman,” he said as they parted, apropos of nothing in particular.

She took the remark as flattery.

Suzanna is a regular person, in this book called Cuckoos, but when she faces a magical antagonist she gets access to the power of the menstruum, and while that word isn’t always associated with power, in this book it is. The menstruum is the source of magic, and when used appropriately, can give a woman so much power she becomes revered as a goddess. She has the task of protecting the Fugue, the magical place hidden in the weave, and the people who live there. She is assisted in this task by a lovable not-quite-hero, a cute boy who seems sort of worthless until he’s inspired by love to do incredible things.

And what lesson could he learn from the mad poet, now that they were fellow spirits? What would Mad Mooney do, were he in Cal’s shoes?

He’d play whatever game was necessary, came the answer, and then, when the world turned its back he’d search, search until he found the place he’d seen, and not care that in doing so he was inviting delirium. He’d find his dream and hold on to it and never let it go.

Cal is sort of like Christopher Moore’s Beta Males, more secondary protagonist than hero, but he loves the Fugue and will do anything to preserve it.

True joy is a profound remembering; and true grief the same.

Thus it was, when the dust storm that had snatched Cal up finally died, and he opened his eyes to see the Fugue spread before him, he felt as though the few fragile moments of epiphany he’d tasted in his twenty-six years – tasted but always lost – were here redeemed and wed. He’d grasped fragments of this delight before. Heard rumor of it in the womb-dream and the dream of love; seen its consequence in sudden good and sudden laughter; known it in lullabies. But never, until now, the whole, the thing entire.

It would be, he idly thought, a fine time to die.

And a finer time still to live, with so much laid out before him.

As with many other novels I love, this one follows the natural cycles: events usually slow down in the winter, as the British retreat to their fireplaces and let the snows rage around them, and then things pick back up in the spring and get really intense in the summer. The Fugue is a place of creation, so it is often allied with the spring.

Of course, there are antagonists. Immacolata wants to unleash the Scourge and destroy the Fugue, and Shadwell her minion wants to take over. I once read that the protagonist is often considered the character who changes the most, and Shadwell changes a lot over the course of the book, so maybe it’s his story and not so much Suzanna’s and Cal’s. In the first part he’s a salesman, in the second he’s a prophet, and in the third he’s a destroyer, but it is sort of implied that the three roles are all the same, really. He has a magic jacket that shows people the thing they want most and gives them the illusion of attaining it – as I reflected on this and the fact that the thing I want most is love and a man to share it with, I wondered what Shadwell’s jacket would show me. After all, the first time we see it, Shadwell just opens his coat and asks Cal, “See something you like?” as if he were displaying his body and inviting Cal to touch him, but with that slightly menacing tone that says that if he takes the bait he’s going to get beat up for it. The Scourge itself is amazingly powerful, like the dragons of ancient stories, and has lost sight of who he is because of those ancient stories. At one point it’s said that he’s been corrupted by loneliness, and I wonder how much loneliness it takes to turn someone’s mind like that. And I wonder how much time I have left, before I decide that romance is unattainable in this life and that I need to get on without it. Like in Moana, the danger has to be healed instead of destroyed, so this is ultimately a hopeful book, despite all the death and destruction and loss that comes before the end. Which you would sort of expect in a book that I feel with enough intensity to cry at the end.

The thing I wasn’t expecting from this book was racism. The term Negress is outdated, but can be read as descriptive and not pejorative, but there are other words for persons of African descent that are unequivocally used to denigrate (a word which means, to make blacker). I know that word was only used by a bad guy, but even when racism is only used to mark unsympathetic characters it still bothers me. There is also a random offensive comment on the Cherokee, in the narrator’s voice and serving no purpose but to dehumanize a nation whose roots extend beyond our human understanding of history. And another thing: what is this thing that British authors have with writing about gay Arabs? (Neil Gaiman, I’m looking at you and your American Gods.) Does this go back to Rumi and Shams of Tabriz, or did T. E. Lawrence depict the Middle East as some sort of nonstop gay sex party? If so, then there’s no reason for Lawrence of Arabia to be such a dull film (I’ve heard; I’ve never actually seen it). In this book, the homosexual desire is acknowledged, but not celebrated – that will come later in Barker’s career, after he comes out publicly.

The other day I drove back through the old neighborhood in Asheville where The Ex and I used to live, and it was strange and different. On a Saturday in December, there should have been endless traffic, but it was just like a Saturday in any other month – I guess the new outlet shops at Biltmore Square have finally succeeded in diverting holiday drivers away from downtown and the mall area. Less traffic is welcome, but the other changes were less so. I lived in the Charlotte Street area for a year, and I heard more angry honking in half an hour in 2017 than in all of 2009. I commented on this to The Ex, and she agreed that Asheville’s energy has gotten really angry in the last few years, so much so that she doesn’t enjoy coming into town as she used to. In my memory, Asheville is preserved as a magical place where people are kind and mindful of the life around them; the city may still recycle, but they’ve lost their attention to each other. It’s become crowded and distressing, the city’s music transformed into noise. Perhaps there are still oases of comfort, but the city itself is not the oasis it once was. I remember people worrying about gentrification and what would happen when artists and the poor could no longer afford to live downtown, and now we’re seeing it. The problem isn’t with public art or community events (Bel Chere is privatized, but not dead) – the problem is with the people. I wonder if it’s all newcomers; I’ve been getting intensely angry with the world lately, and a lot of it has to do with the way the American government is turning the country to shit and how powerless I feel to do anything about it. I would guess that’s a big part of Asheville’s problem right now too.

But, much like the Fugue, my communities can be saved. Suzanna’s grandmother leaves her a book of German fairy tales, with the inscription:

Das, was man sich vorstellt, braucht man nie zu verlieren.

Which Barker translates as:

That which is imagined need never be lost.

But looking back at the German, I appreciate the fact that it uses indefinite pronouns and active verbs, so that a more literal translation could be: That which one imagines, she never needs to lose, or One never need shed what she imagines. Despite all my anger at how very disappointing life in the United States has been the last few years, I still hope for something better. I’m still imagining the life I want, and trusting the stories that tell me that if I can dream it, I need not lose it. Nothing that we imagine can be lost forever.

 “It’s all the same story.”

“What story?” Cal said.

We live it and they live it,” she said, looking at de Bono. “It’s about being born, and being afraid of dying, and how love saves us.” This she said with great certainty, as though it had taken her a good time to reach this conclusion and she was unshakeable on it.

It silenced the opposition awhile. All three walked on without further word for two minutes or more, until de Bono said, “I agree.”

She looked up at him.

“You do?” she said, plainly surprised.

He nodded. “One story?” he said. “Yes, that makes sense to me. Finally, it’s the same for you as it is for us, raptures or no raptures. Like you say. Being born, dying: and love between.”

 

untitled

Sometimes I get to the end of a book and joy lodges in my throat like a stone I can’t breathe through until I’ve undammed my eyes and tears flow as freely as love. This one was different. I wasn’t crushed by happiness; I still had to stop reading and give the emotion space, but it was an expanding joy, as if my chest contained the entire universe still gently growing, my heart a world in a sea of constellations, the infinity of space the air I breathe. I loved this book the way I love my own freedom, the limitlessness of my potentiality, the vastness of experiences I have yet to taste.

This book is part of the same project as Byatt’s Ragnarok, which I still love as my favorite book, but this takes a different myth. Winterson explores the story of Atlas, he who carries the world on his shoulders. She pictures him not just as the strongest man in the world, but as a gardener and a father who guarded too jealously what he thought of as belonging to him. So he loses everything he had and has to support the weight of everything that was never his.

Atlas has a role that never changes, so there aren’t many stories about him. There’s his origin, but once he starts carrying a planet he’s stuck. There’s just one other story – the time he meets Heracles. The great hero, in Winterson’s telling, wanders the world with a weapon in one hand and his dick in the other (it’s a short book, shorter than a lot of films, but he beats himself off in front of others twice). She doesn’t see him as being especially bright, but good at tricks and possessing an immense vital energy. Heracles takes the burden so that Atlas can perform one of his tasks for him, then drops the world back on him and scampers off. You can tell Heracles is working-class British by the way he compulsively calls Atlas ‘mate’, as if it’s a conversational tic that doesn’t mean anything, like the way the Brazilian gauchos call each other ‘tchê’ or Americans who grew up in the 1980s call each other ‘dude’. This is the first time they’ve met; what claims to friendship is Heracles trying to invoke?

Heracles also brings Atlas a question, Why? Why must we accept the decree of the gods and submit to Fate? Hera nudges the question forward a bit by reminding him of all the possibilities that every moment contains. But Atlas feels responsible, and old habits are hard to break, so he keeps holding the world on his shoulders. This resonates with me in a lot of ways, but right now I’m thinking of professionally. I never got into education because I wanted to be a teacher; I wanted to read books and talk about them with people, preferably people who would have something intelligent to say in response. For a while it seemed that becoming a literature professor would be a good way to manage that, so I started teaching composition as a way of building toward that, but my applications for doctorate programs were never quite good enough, so I got stuck bearing the weight of teaching. Many people fall into careers tangentially like this and end up loving them; I haven’t. I like to learn, so I read up on teaching methods and styles and such, but unlike when I read novels, in education articles the words turn into a sea that my eyes can float on the surface of without penetrating the depths. I’m working at a library now (in addition to, not instead of, teaching), and in many ways I’m finding it more personally congenial. But with one of my colleagues retiring at the end of the year, I’m being confronted with a choice: do I apply for the full-time teaching job, which would offer financial security the likes of which I have never known, or do I apply for library school and continue to chase the new experience? A good part of this year has been about reassessing priorities and living according to what I love and not what is merely expedient or easy, which probably means that I’m going to choose library school over a teaching career. Thinking in terms of Atlas, teaching is a weight I would gladly shift onto someone else’s shoulders.

Winterson discusses the story in terms of her emotional weight, as an adopted child rejected by the parents who once wanted a child they could not have.

I am good at walking away. Rejection teaches you how to reject. I left my hometown, left my parents, left my life. I made a home and a life elsewhere, more than once. I stayed on the run. Why then, did the burden feel intolerable? What was it that I carried?

My burdens and rejections are different to hers, but the pattern fits. As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been saying No more than Yes lately, and Winterson uses this same phrasing, but while I do want to say Yes more often, I still think it’s important to take care whom and what I say Yes to. It’s taken me some time to get comfortable saying No, so it seems like that word is a gift from the universe right now, allowing me to choose rather than drift along in the currents of time. No is the rudder I use to steer my ship of Fate, and while I may never reach the harbor I’m aiming at – I may never reach one at all, harbors being as illusive as horizons – manning the helm is my job and I’m not giving it up to impersonal forces or supernatural entities that have no stake in the results. It’s my life, and I’m going to own it.

Which leads us to the Russians. In the United States we tend to think of ourselves as the only astronauts, forgetting that it was the cosmonauts that inspired us to shoot for the moon. The Russians lost a dog in space and were about to put it down when Atlas rescued her. He also loved the space station Mir, which is a word that can mean either peace or the world, which implies that for the Russians the two concepts are blurred.

Atlas spends his immortality staring into space, watching the rocks on Mars, seeing the stars turn in their constellations, galaxies moving through infinity, the entire universe whirling like an Eastern Dervish. Staring at cosmos and wondering why he submits to gods that the world itself has forgotten, Atlas never asks the question, Where did the world sit before I held it? Why is it essential for the world to rest on him? What kind of hubris demands that he carry so much weight? Atlas doesn’t look back to prehistory; his concerns are solely with the future – he only asks, What catastrophe will happen if I put it down? And that question keeps him stuck in his old patterns for millennia. His belief in the catastrophe is his prison. Heracles keeps wandering free, he even liberates Prometheus, but Atlas stays, until Laika the Russian dog shows him the new world he couldn’t see.

Atlas had long ago ceased to feel the weight of the world he carried, but he felt the skin and bone of this little dog. Now he was carrying something he wanted to keep, and that changed everything.

I love this book. It’s weird (Deianeira worrying that one day soon men will no longer want to rape her), it’s funny (Heracles stepping off the world to offer Atlas a hand job), and it’s beautiful (Atlas and his dog walking away from the world into the universe). I wish there were stronger and more descriptive words I could use – everything I think to say seems too dull a tribute.

 

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.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been working on grading some research projects, and the teacher gave them all the same topic, so it’s been a little hard to focus on because my mind keeps wandering away from globalization to other things. Any other thing. This morning I was finishing the last of it, and I had some coffee to help me wake up and focus, and I listened to exciting swing music, so now I have all this energy and not much to do with it.

Globalization is becoming rather a pertinent topic lately, with Brexit and Trump’s increasingly intolerant policies. These current struggles are foreshadowed in this book, describing Turkey a good twenty or thirty years ago. Thinking back over Pamuk’s career and the books of his that I’ve read, The Black Book was written before he became internationally famous, and the dominant feeling is the author’s deep love for Istanbul. Then there was this one, The New Life, which expands over all of Turkey, but the optimism implied in the title is misleading. This is an angry, unhappy book. Then there was the first one I read, My Name is Red, the historical murder mystery that helped him really ‘make it’ in the world market. A few years later he was awarded the Nobel Prize, and quickly became the best-selling Nobel author in history.

So, Reader, place your faith neither in a character like me, who is not all that sensitive, nor in my anguish and the violence of the story I have to tell; but believe that the world is a cruel place. Besides, this newfangled plaything called the novel, which is the greatest invention of Western culture, is none of our culture’s business. That the reader hears the clumsiness of my voice within these pages is not because I am speaking raucously from a plane which has been polluted by books and vulgarized by gross thoughts; it results rather from the fact that I still have not quite figured out how to inhabit this foreign toy.

First-person narrator is not a happy guy. The book starts off promising, but it actually goes south pretty quickly.

I read a book one day and my whole life was changed. Even on the first page I was so affected by the book’s intensity I felt my body sever itself and pull away from the chair where I sat reading the book that lay before me on the table. But even though I felt my body dissociating, my entire being remained so concertedly at the table that the book worked its influence not only on my soul but on every aspect of my identity. It was such a powerful influence that the light surging from the pages illumined my face; its incandescence dazzled my intellect but also endowed it with brilliant lucidity. This was the kind of light within which I could recast myself; I could lose my way in this light; I already sensed in the light the shadows of an existence I had yet to know and embrace.

Most of us who love reading have had this sort of experience, and I think that we’re especially susceptible to it when we’re young, as he is. Early 20s, still at the university, a time when we are acutely aware of the fact that we are transforming ourselves into the people we want to be. But for most of us, the research we do into the books we read, no matter how emotional we feel about them, is essentially impersonal. We don’t meet our favorite authors, in my case because they’d been dead for over a hundred years. For Protagonist, though the book leads him into intensely personal spaces.

In the life of those people like me whose lives have slipped off the track, sorrow presents itself in the form of rage that wants to pass itself of as cleverness. And it’s the desire to be clever that finally spoils everything.

He reads the book, and it’s so powerful for him that he wants to meet with the girl who first made him aware of it. They do meet again, but she’s not really into him; she’s all over the guy who introduced her to the book, Mehmet. Mehmet isn’t as into her as she is into him. One day, Protagonist is looking for them and sees Mehmet get shot in the street, right next to her. He asks around and gets really contradictory information about what happened, whether Mehmet is alive or not, still studying at the university or not, still in town or not. Eventually he gives up and takes to the buses. At this point I really started to feel like I was reading a book by David Lynch – the critics say Kafka, but I haven’t made it through The Trial, and I have made it through Eraserhead. They all three share this phantasmagoric quality, which feels sort of allegorical but is not transparent enough for me to find the meaning.

He’s riding buses, changing destinations at random, and Turkey is a big country. There’s plenty of room to get lost in. Then his bus crashes. Then another bus crashes. Then he starts looking for buses that are likely to crash. He thinks he’s being led intuitively by the book, but this section (Act 1 of 3) is full of random accidents. He starts to see that the new life he’s looking for is really close to death. Indeed, his obsession with bus crashes seems to lead toward death. And crime, since he robs the newly dead to keep buying bus tickets. He does run into the girl again – her name is Janan, and in keeping with Pamuk’s habit of portentous names for female characters, it means Soulmate. They ride the buses together, still looking for crashes, both now also looking for Mehmet. In one of the crashes, they meet a couple who had been going to a dealers’ convention to meet Doctor Fine, so they steal their identities and destination.

Act 2 is at Doctor Fine’s. Unbeknownst to Janan and himself, Doctor Fine is Mehmet’s father. Mehmet is an identity that he stole later on. Doctor Fine thinks that his son is dead, and he blames the book for polluting his son with Western influences. Because he hates the book so much, he has spies all over the country looking for the people who read and are affected by the book, and if they seem to be spreading the book they get shot. This is where the similarity to ultra-nationalists like the Americans who support Trump and the British who support Brexit became a little uncomfortable for me. There’s nothing wrong with patriotism, and I personally love North Carolina quite passionately, but I don’t believe any community is served by extreme conservatism. Things change. Cultures change. It’s what happens. But Doctor Fine and his followers are devoted to preserving one aspect of culture as Turkish and rejecting the ways that their culture is changing. No culture can be distilled to a single issue, and choosing the making of local goods and crafts instead of mass-produced imports only makes sense to them because they are dealers trying to preserve their livelihoods. As with our conservatives, they assume that what is good for them personally is good for the nation as a whole, and as with our conservatives, they pick and choose which parts of the country and the culture are Turkey and deny the existence of others. A significant portion of Turkey is European, it borders on Greece and Bulgaria, but European influence is bad for Turkey, which they perceive to be an Asian, Muslim country. And how much of America is heterosexual, white, and Christian? Not all of it. Not even most of it. A recent study showed that white Christians have become a minority group (comprised mostly of people over 30), and if you subtract the gay white Christians, they’ll be even smaller.

The pleasure of reading, which natty older gentlemen complain is lacking in our culture, must be in the musical harmony I heard reading the documents and murder reports in Doctor Fine’s mad and orderly archive.

It’s not that reading was lacking, but that people weren’t reading what their parents read. Just consider the furor that this book is raising, not because young people weren’t reading but because they were reading the wrong thing. Like that time I almost got into a fight with an older colleague over the value of graphic novels. Really? Your worst fear is that your students would rather read Death Note or Black Butler than The Canterbury Tales? What if they never stepped foot in a library or read anything at all? Wouldn’t that be worse? And isn’t that happening? In the place where I used to live in the Midwest, the libraries only serve people who live in the cities. If you live in the county, but in a small town or village outside of the two main cities, you have to spend $75 to get a library card. People in the rural areas are unlikely to be able to afford that, or to prioritize it. I may have ended up spending more than that at the used bookstore, but it wasn’t all in a lump sum. This is just one of the ways that American society punishes people for being poor. If a kid lives out in the country, where cell towers are few and internet signal is weak, his only access to information is through his school library, and teachers are often so pressured to spend every moment of class time preparing to meet state and national standards that they don’t have time to take their classes to the library. Kids can go to the library before or after classes begin, but if students ride the bus, they arrive at school with only a few minutes to get to class and they have to leave immediately after classes end. Again, no time for the library. In that part of the Midwest, access to information is limited to children whose parents can afford to live in the city. How are we supposed to have an educated populace if we restrict who can use the library, or if we dictate which books are to be read? I think we’ll be much better served if we teach children that the world is knowable and available to them and that learning is interesting and rewarding than if we explain patiently to them all the metaphors in Chaucer or lock them out of the library because their parents are poor farm workers.

There and then, as here and now, the conservatives blame foreign influences for the natural changing of culture. Trump’s immigration policies show a great deal of prejudice and a great deal of ignorance about how our country actually works. We’re in a less extreme version of what’s happening in Saudi Arabia: as higher education becomes more available, fewer Americans are taking ‘vocational’ positions. We are expecting a produce shortage soon, because most of the fruit pickers in California are being deported and Americans are not willing to take those jobs. We’ve been conditioned to believe that we won’t get hired for that work, and that we’re too good for that sort of manual labor anyway. You want to get rid of the people doing the lowest paid work? Okay. That means that pretty soon we’ll have no electricity, all the toilets will be clogged, there won’t be any good fruit, and new construction will grind to a halt. In Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes there’s a janitor at the library who spends half the night reading the books after the building is closed to the public. This character felt unrealistic to me in a way that I wish he didn’t – he combines a lifelong love of learning with a contentment to work in a low-paying job that doesn’t require an education. We invest education with this sense of vocation, as if I have a duty to work in the field of literature because I have a degree in it. And now I’m unfit to do manual labor because employers expect me to be too snobbish to do the work. We need to instill a sense of pride in all sorts of work, and relax our expectation that every American needs to go to a four-year university. We need plumbers and construction workers, and right now we need them more than we need more English teachers (a dime a dozen, we are). We need to forget this idea that the life of the mind and the work of the hands are incompatible, and raise up more young students to become like Bradbury’s janitor.

Drifting back to Pamuk. Protagonist does finally find Mehmet, living under a new name and copying the book for select friends and acquaintances. His life is like that of the monks before the printing press, writing the scripture over and over again.

What I do might appear simple, but it requires great care. I keep rewriting the book without missing a single comma, a single letter, or a period. I want everything to be identical, right down to the last period and comma. And this can only be achieved through inspiration and desire that is analogous to the original author’s. Someone else might call what I do copying, but my work goes beyond simple duplication. Whenever I am writing, I feel and I understand every letter, every word, every sentence as if each and every one were my own novel discovery. So, this is how I work arduously from nine in the morning until one o’clock, doing nothing else, and nothing can keep me from working.

His encounter with Mehmet closes this portion of his life, and I felt like it would have been a good close to the book, but like Mulholland Drive, just when it ought to end it doesn’t, and a dozen years go by in the course of a few pages, and there are fifty more pages that tell about Protagonist’s life when he’s my age, and he goes on another, shorter quest to find out about the book. He reads all the source material, disappointed to find out how much of The New Life is based on La Vita Nuova, and then tries to track down another source of inspiration, the New Life candy wrappers that were around when he was a child. Throughout the book he seeks The Angel, and at first he identifies her with Janan, and later he identifies her with the angel on the candy wrapper, and he finally realizes that The Angel of Desire is really The Angel of Death. There’s been a conflation of Eros and Thanatos since the beginning, experiencing a new life while looking for bus crashes. I suppose there’s some accuracy to the idea that change is a sort of death, but I don’t think that literal death is necessary. Change is one of the characteristics of life; Death is an existence that does not change, where nothing is desired.

As I implied earlier, there is a lot of bitterness in this book. The conservatives long for death so much that they are actively killing the people who disagree with them, and the adherents to the book find madness and death. There are a few, very few, who can give the book a place in their lives without letting it flood everything and take away the good things they had, but our protagonist ends up feeling betrayed by both sides. He’s serious about that line, ‘the world is a cruel place.’ He describes the Turks of his peer group as being like himself, hollow shells of adults who are too tired by the conflicts they live among to do anything toward resolution, change, or happiness.

I wonder if a big part of my problem with this book and the similarities with my own society is my disenchantment with materialism. Here and now, as there and then, most people’s life is about things, whether books or houses or furniture or ornaments or clothes or whatever. The identity of the characters, and even of the book, is unfixed and mutable, while things remain the same. When protagonist borrows some old books, unread for more than a decade, the old woman who owns them asks him to return them quickly so they don’t leave her with an empty shelf. Books containing ancient wisdom and original thought are treated as mere knickknacks. I’m holding onto books that I haven’t read in years, but it’s because they’re hard to find and they mean important things to me. Her books are a reminder of the dead husband who loved his books more than he loved her, but she likes the way they look on the shelf. I suppose I see my books as living things, dear to me because of their uniqueness, and not things like a glass unicorn. They’re not status symbols or proof of wealth. Considering how much money I spend on books that I could be devoting to other things, they’re rather a proof of poverty.

I suppose what I’m saying is, this isn’t a happy book, and it reminds me of all the things in the world that I’m not happy with. If you want a happy book, read something else. If you want to be convinced that people are all basically the same, regardless of time or place, and the same dramas keep getting acted on different stages, by all means. Read this book and compare it to the news from the United States. Collectively, humanity does not learn quickly.

The plan?

Simple.

Murder multiple motherfuckers, save one asshole.

McCrary has a few lines that are absolute gems, like this one. Most of the book, though, was not very satisfying. It’s a tawdry action flick written down. The titular Remo is a New York defense attorney, severely alcoholic and addicted to Ritalin (keeps him focused because he comes to work drunk), who is on the run because of the singular good deed he’s done in his life. He threw a robbery case, found and dug up the money, and donated it to a charity that supports the families of the people who were killed in the robbery. He’s sort of worthless as an action hero, but that can lead to funny situations sometimes. However, McCrary’s is a grim sort of humor, at its best.

Leslie likes to fuck men. Sometimes she ends up fucking some dudes that she doesn’t really like. It happens.

So what?

When you’re a thirty-three-year-old woman living in New York and you like to fuck men, you may find yourself bedding a few pricks. Yes, the literal nature of that statement is understood, but you get it. An attractive woman in a demanding job, working ridiculous hours, surrounded by men of loose moral fiber may have to drop her standards in order to get some.

Sex or the high road. The low road has an impressive win/loss record. Again, it happens. All of this swirls around Leslie’s pretty little head as she nudges back and forth on her back. On a desk. In the dark. Having sex with one of those previously-mentioned pricks.

Reading this book and wondering why anyone would either write or enjoy it, it seems like pure wish fulfillment. Remo is rich as anything (and we poor people would love to be rich like that), but he’s also miserably depressed (and we poor people want to believe that rich people are deeply unhappy and morally bankrupt). Yet, he is also approachable, because most of us can identify with being bored with our jobs and yearning for a life with more meaning and focus. I know, since I’m a teacher it’s practically blasphemy to admit that my professional life is not a constant blend of Mr Holland’s Opus, Freedom Writers, and To Sir, With Love, but there you have it. It’s a job, not a divine calling. My life feels focused and meaningful not when I’m teaching writing, but when I’m actually writing – using words instead of explaining their use.

And, in the end, justice is done. The bad guys get killed, Remo connects with the son his ex-wife keeps away from him, and the get-away driver who converted to Jesus takes it as his life mission to keep saving Remo. The Acknowledgements section implies that he was killed in an early draft, but that a test reader encouraged McCrary to keep Lester alive. Saving Lester does make for a better book, and since this one spawned a whole series, I’d predict that he becomes a sort of sidekick. I find the idea of my continuing the series to be rather unlikely. There’s so much unhappiness, and not much humor to lighten it up. If you like tight, action-packed thrill rides, go for it. It reads quickly and easily. But I’ll go back to my Victorians.

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.