Posts Tagged ‘class’

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.

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

And lo, from the very beginning, I am in love again.

There is something about this book, this woman, that makes me feel all relaxed and happy, Smollett’s ‘agreeable lassitude.’ I read the first page, the first line, and I am instantly more composed, more reconciled to the world I live in. I’ve been analyzing myself on this reading, trying to figure out why Mrs Dalloway should affect me in this way, and I think it’s her approach to life.

And of course she enjoyed life immensely. It was her nature to enjoy (though, goodness only knows, she had her reserves; it was a mere sketch, he often felt, that even he, after all these years, could make of Clarissa). Anyhow there was no bitterness in her; none of that sense of moral virtue which is so repulsive in good women. She enjoyed practically everything. If you walked with her in Hyde Park, now it was a bed of tulips, now a child in a perambulator, now some absurd little drama she made up on the spur of the moment. (Very likely she would have talked to those lovers, if she had thought them unhappy.) She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, saying things she didn’t mean, blunting the edge of her mind, losing her discrimination.

Mrs Dalloway enjoys life indiscriminately. Everything and everyone pleases her. Her servants love her because she makes their work easy for them without losing the ineffable sense of glamour that she casts on everything. I find her enthusiasm compelling and irresistible, though not quite infectious. She awakens in me the desire to love the world as she does, but I’m not quite there yet. She has a gift for making things beautiful that I do not possess. She certainly has a way with people that I do not. For all I try, I do not have the manners that make strangers feel comfortable, and that deficiency makes it harder for me to make new friends and enjoy large parties as she does.

Though I suppose that I lack discrimination as well, and this is one of the reasons that I didn’t quite succeed in academia. Edmund Wilson said that the true connoisseur is the one who can distinguish between the various qualities of literature and always prefers the highest; I’m more in love with the B-List. I can read and enjoy Dickens, but I get much more pleasure from Wilkie Collins, who is not quite as reputable. Indeed, I even find my appreciation for George Eliot fading a bit, though my late-20s self thinks it sacrilege to admit the possibility. As you can see from this blog, I mix classics with zombies and sci-fi. I may be able to distinguish between the various cuts of literature, but I don’t insist on the absolute best. The apathy toward discrimination keeps me from being a true literary connoisseur/critic.

And now Clarissa escorted her Prime Minister down the room, prancing, sparkling, with the stateliness of her grey hair. She wore ear-rings, and a silver-green mermaid’s dress. Lolloping on the waves and braiding her tresses she seemed, having that gift still; to be; to exist; to sum it all up in the moment as she passed; turned, caught her scarf in some other woman’s dress, unhitched it, laughed, all with the most perfect ease and air of a creature floating in its element. But age had brushed her; even as a mermaid might behold in her glass the setting sun on some very clear evening over the waves. There was a breath of tenderness; her severity, her prudery, her woodenness were all warmed through now, and she had about her as she said good-bye to the thick gold-laced man who was doing his best, and good luck to him, to look important, an inexpressible dignity; an exquisite cordiality; as if she wished the whole world well, and must now, being on the very verge and rim of things, take her leave.

Mrs Dalloway as a mermaid here makes me think of that line from Prufrock, and to Peter Walsh she does seem a little inaccessible, uninviting. She and Peter and Sally Seton spent a lot of time together thirty years previously; Peter and Sally were both in love with her, and Clarissa and Sally even shared a kiss that Mrs Dalloway still lingers over in memory. Peter proposed, which she finds much less agreeable. And yet, she chose Richard Dalloway, who seems so much less of a person than the other two. There’s a much clearer portrait of him in The Voyage Out, chapters three through six. It was published ten years earlier, and the Dalloways serve as a type of ideal for the young protagonist. In the earlier novel they travel briefly with a group of academics and/or artists, of that type that you’re not sure if they create art, criticize it, or both. The Dalloways bring a certain elegance to the party, however much the other members may dislike it. But what I really wanted to point out from the earlier story is that Clarissa explains why she chose Richard. He was the first person she felt truly understood her. Despite their devotion, Peter and Sally don’t see to the heart of her. I think that in order to see something in other people, the same quality has to exist in ourselves. Clarissa Dalloway is essentially different from Peter Walsh and Sally Seton. A part of it is class, a larger part is patriotism and duty. It sounds a bit mad to me, but the parties, the clothes, the house in town, the frivolity, all that Peter can’t comprehend, is her responsibility to England. The upper classes have a duty to adorn the nation. The desperate poor need something to hope for, and the wealthy give them that ideal. To many people it seems like selfishness, but Mrs Dalloway sees it as service.

I read The Voyage Out three years ago, and in response I wrote, “I read to escape as most fiction readers do, but I also read for the people. I see patterns of being that I would like to emulate, models of what I could be. Some are happy, some are sad, some are lovable, some are evil, but I see the seeds of them in myself, and I see that it’s possible for me to be other than as I am. Novels serve as a mirror in which I see my own potential.” It continues to hold true. I love Mrs Dalloway because she has a grace and social talent that I don’t have but that I would like to develop. My social anxiety and social position keep me from large parties with the Prime Minister, but the comfort under observation would be a real benefit.

Mrs Dalloway is all light and beauty and elegance, but for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Her dark Other is Septimus Warren Smith, a young man still suffering from the post-traumatic stress of World War I. The officer he loved and served under died in the War, and five years later Septimus is still insane with grief.

So they returned to the most exalted of mankind; the criminal who faced his judges; the victim exposed on the heights; the fugitive; the drowned sailor; the poet of the immortal ode; the Lord who had gone from life to death; to Septimus Warren Smith, who sat in the arm-chair under the skylight staring at a photograph of Lady Bradshaw in Court dress, muttering messages about beauty.

Paranoia, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur . . . It’s bad. Many of his symptoms were Woolf’s own, such as the belief that the birds were giving him messages in Greek, which he does not speak. The thing that touches me about the portrayal is not so much him as his wife. He married Lucrezia in Milan before he came back from the war, and she does her best to take care of him. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be afraid of going crazy, and then inventing a character who loves you and takes perfect care of you. And then acknowledging that it isn’t enough. Rezia can’t save him. The doctor comes again, but he just can’t take it any more and escapes.

Even though they never meet, Mrs Dalloway hears about what happened and she understands. She knows that the pressure of doctors could drive someone to suicide, and she doesn’t judge him for it. She knows, and feels sympathy. Between The Voyage Out and Mrs Dalloway, there was the influenza epidemic, and Clarissa fell deathly ill. She recovered, but with a fresh awareness of death, which follows her throughout the day of this story. Facing the reality of her death takes some of her sweetness away. There is strong rage hiding under the white or red roses and mermaid gowns. Most people see only the surface; Peter and Sally see only the depths; but she is both. Mrs Dalloway is a real human being, which means she has rivals and hatreds and friends and loves and everything that makes a life. She sees all of life, whether good or evil, and values it all. She loves life so much that she loves even the pain. She accepts herself completely.

Last week, when I went back to North Carolina, I was baffled by these last six months. How could I have imagined I could be content in the Midwest, when so much of what I love is hundreds of miles away? My children, the friends who helped me through my divorce and coming-out, so much of what really matters to me, so much of what I consider my life is there. I want to go home. And when I think of Mrs Dalloway, I’ve been realizing that I don’t have faith in myself. I don’t think that I will be able to make it there. The him that I’m with now I think can really help me reconcile myself with my family, as well as give me the courage to go after what I really want in life, even if it’s without him. He can show me the way, but I have to do the work myself. I need to continue to decide that my happiness is worth working toward. That could involve a new life, a new career, all kinds of scary things. But if it gets me home, that will be worth it. I just can’t bear the thought of dying here.

 

This is a short collection of short pieces, some of them very short. When I finished, I honestly felt as if I hadn’t read anything; the most characteristic quality of the text is evasion. It’s a book about the inability to express oneself, so by the end I felt as if she hadn’t. I mean, one of the longer pieces is a transcription of conversations overheard as people pass by a spot in Kew Gardens on a Sunday afternoon. It could be the beginnings of a story, the source of a novel, but in isolation, it feels as if there’s no story at all. When we sit in public and eavesdrop, it may pass the time, but it doesn’t satisfy. We get a few seconds of dialogue with no context; we may invent a story for them, as Woolf does again in “An Unwritten Novel,” but it feels fake. I once tried to get a Brazilian to tell me the Portuguese word for eavesdropping, but the best he could come up with was “lack of education,” their way of indicating “bad manners.”

Of course, this is Virginia Woolf, so there are some things we know to expect, like beautifully descriptive passages:

Now to recollect by the fireside on the white square of marble. From ivory depths words rising shed their blackness, blossom and penetrate. Fallen the book; in the flame, in the smoke, in the momentary sparks—or now voyaging, the marble square pendant, minarets beneath and the Indian seas, while space rushes blue and stars glint—truth? or now, content with closeness?

Lazy and indifferent the heron returns; the sky veils her stars; then bares them.

But they don’t really go anywhere, here. The heron doesn’t lead us to truth. Monday or Tuesday is like having dinner with a famous writer when she really has nothing to say.

The most famous piece from this collection is “The Mark on the Wall,” a stream-of-consciousness essay in which Woolf stares at a mark on the wall and wonders what it is, letting her attention wander down different paths but without reaching any destination. She always returns to that mark, which might be a bit of soot, or a protruding nail, or a snail that wandered in out of the garden. She says a number of things that are right and true and beautifully expressed and almost instantly forgotten.

The piece that hangs in my memory most firmly is “A Society,” Woolf’s version of Rasselas. A group of women decide to infiltrate the institutions of men to determine if they produce good men and good books. Some have to go undercover; one of them ends up pregnant. But the end is alarming, and disappointing.

But more significant than the answers were the refusals to answer. Very few would reply at all to questions about morality and religion, and such answers as were given were not serious. Questions as to the value of money and power were almost invariably brushed aside, or pressed at extreme risk to the asker.

It seems clear to me that men don’t answer because it would expose their privilege in uncomfortable ways; indeed, privilege-exposing is one of the ways people use the internet a lot, but it doesn’t seem to gain them any friends. I have one friend that I felt close to in high school who frequently makes me feel ashamed of myself for white cis-male privilege, even though some of that privilege is canceled by poverty and homosexuality. And that’s a weird identity to have; spending time with the gay community makes it seem like coming out is a luxury of the wealthy. And yet Woolf’s women don’t speculate on male privilege, or how their incomes and ethnicity make them privileged as well. [Mental note: check on immigration figures in the early twentieth century. How much exposure would Woolf have had to Asians or Africans?] I can’t say for sure why these women stop talking; all I can say is that the answer to their questions, are men good and do they produce good books, eventually becomes unsayable. I suspect that the answer is no, but they don’t say it. The more Woolf’s women know, the closer they get to the sources of power, the less comfortable they feel criticizing ineffective social institutions. In this story, education and experience do not give women a voice the way that modern readers expect; they rob women of their speech. Maybe they do see their privilege and don’t yet have a vocabulary for it; maybe they see their privilege and don’t yet have a solution for creating a more equal society. Or maybe they don’t want to implicate people they’ve grown to love and respect. They say that innocence and purity are hardly worthwhile goals, but ignorance can feed self-satisfaction in a way that education and experience cannot.

Stranger still, after Woolf died, her husband rereleased this collection and cut “A Society” from it. The more I think about things, this fact seems stranger and stranger: the author of A Room of One’s Own at some point changed her name because of a man. Maybe she loved him, maybe she wanted to get out of her father’s house (when I try to think of what I’ve read about the relationship between her and her father, I get it confused with Maria Edgeworth), maybe society dictated and she acquiesced, I don’t know. But for a woman who writes so passionately for women’s voice and independence, it seems strange. Maybe it would have been just as strange to call her Virginia Stephen, since her maiden name is a man’s first name [Try starting a sentence, “Stephen says that women . . .”].

It’s a weird collection. They’re not quite stories and they’re not quite essays. They don’t really seem to fit well together. It’s like one of those Russel Stover samplers – here are some little bitefuls of Woolf. We hope you like them.

Enfin, here’s a bit from the end of the “Kew Gardens” piece:

Thus one couple after another with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower-bed and were enveloped in layer after layer of green blue vapour, in which at first their bodies had substance and a dash of colour, but later both substance and colour dissolved in the green-blue atmosphere. How hot it was! So hot that even the thrush chose to hop, like a mechanical bird, in the shadow of the flowers, with long pauses between one movement and the next; instead of rambling vaguely the white butterflies danced one above another, making with their white shifting flakes the outline of a shattered marble column above the tallest flowers; the glass roofs of the palm house shone as if a whole market full of shiny green umbrellas had opened in the sun; and in the drone of the aeroplane the voice of the summer sky murmured its fierce soul. Yellow and black, pink and snow white, shapes of all these colours, men, women, and children were spotted for a second upon the horizon, and then, seeing the breadth of yellow that lay upon the grass, they wavered and sought shade beneath the trees, dissolving like drops of water in the yellow and green atmosphere, staining it faintly with red and blue. It seemed as if all gross and heavy bodies had sunk down in the heat motionless and lay huddled upon the ground, but their voices went wavering from them as if they were flames lolling from the thick waxen bodies of candles. Voices. Yes, voices. Wordless voices, breaking the silence suddenly with such depth of contentment, such passion of desire, or, in the voices of children, such freshness of surprise; breaking the silence? But there was no silence; all the time the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear; like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another the city murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air.

 

I may not have to remind you that I am a mental illness hypochondriac. Reading a book with an autistic narrator may not have been the wisest move for me. I kept finding connections between his thought processes and my own, particularly when I was his age. The thing is, though, that if we follow current medical theory, we can talk about autism spectrum disorders; spectrum means that autism is more of a continuum than a toggle switch, and that means that we are all on it somewhere. Most people are grouped at one end that we call normal, and a few people are grouped at the other end that we call low-functioning autistic. Somewhere in between there’s a range that we call Asperger’s. These divisions are arbitrarily defined, and probably not very clearly defined. I really don’t know enough to say whether the idea of a continuum is even accurate; there may be more than one variable involved, which would take us from situating ourselves on a single line to finding our place on a plane, which is exponentially more complicated. So maybe I’m closer to the autistic side than most people, but that doesn’t mean that I have a disorder. It certainly doesn’t mean that if I ever talk to a doctor he’s going to prescribe medicine that I don’t want to take, so I probably don’t have to hide from all doctors ever. Though I do a pretty good job of that. As an example, I am not this extreme:

It takes me a long time to get used to people I do not know. For example, when there is a new member of staff at school I do not talk to them for weeks and weeks. I just watch them until I know that they are safe. Then I ask them questions about themselves, like whether they have pets and what is their favorite color and what do they know about the Apollo space missions and I get them to draw a plan of their house and I ask them what kind of car they drive, so I get to know them. Then I don’t mind if I am in the same room as them and don’t have to watch them all the time.

I don’t ask lots of questions, and it takes less than a few weeks of seeing someone every day for me to grow accustomed to them. But there are some people I feel instantly comfortable with, and some I don’t. I can tell how comfortable I am around someone by how often I look directly at him. If I’m uncomfortable, I will refuse to look at the person. Not consciously, it just sort of happens that way. Christopher’s narration is much more self-aware than I typically am; it’s only within the last few years that I’ve been trying to figure out why I do what I do and feel what I feel, and some of the answers I’ve come to in the last couple of months are epiphanies for me, and I’m twenty years older than the narrator of this book.

Christopher is a fifteen-year-old boy with autism who lives in Swindon. He’s writing a mystery story because the dog across the street got stabbed with a garden fork (which I imagine we have a different name for in the United States). The mystery is only the beginning of the book, though; halfway through the mystery is solved and we skew into a less-genre-specific, more generic journey/coming of age story. Christopher is being raised by his single working-class father, in a community that seems nice enough. Many Americans have a distorted perception of England because most of the media we get deals with the upper middle class or higher; it can be difficult for us to imagine rednecks with British accents, but they’re there. They just call them by names other than redneck.

Mr Jeavons said that I was a very clever boy.

I said that I wasn’t clever. I was just noticing how things were, and that wasn’t clever. That was just being observant. Being clever was when you looked at how things were and used the evidence to work out something new. Like the universe expanding, or who committed a murder. Or if you see someone’s name and you give each letter a value from 1 to 26 (a=1, b=2, etc) and you add the numbers up in your head and you find that it makes a prime number, like Jesus Christ (151), or Scooby-Doo (113), or Sherlock Holmes (163), or Doctor Watson (167).

Mr Jeavons asked me whether this made me feel safe, having things always in a nice order, and I said it did.

I play number games in my head too, but more often when I’m driving. Instead of multiplying as Christopher does, I factor. I’m very pleased with houses with numbers like 1326, because 26 is twice 13, which means that 1326 is a multiple of 102, so it’s 26 x 51, which is 2 x 13 x 3 x 17, or 34 x 39. If you asked me off the cuff what is 34 x 39, I wouldn’t be able to say. But I play the game anyway. It keeps my brain occupied, so I don’t have to think about all the other gleaming silver death machines trying to kill me. Or the red death machine that I drive, which may also be trying to kill me.

Another difference between me and Christopher is our relation to static. He embraces it; the white noise covers the things he doesn’t want to hear or can’t process. I don’t. When I get overstimulated (either through external things or strong emotions), I hear a buzzing in my head similar to static. It’s a sign to me that I need to get out of the situation and be alone to deal with things. It’s often associated with feelings of embarrassment or shame. For me, static means my brain isn’t working right.

A more significant difference, though, is our relation to the truth. Christopher can’t handle any sort of lie, including fiction. I escaped into fiction throughout my childhood (and adulthood too, if I’m honest), so it’s the life I’m accustomed to. I can hold multiple truth values in my head simultaneously and respond to people using the worldview that they themselves ascribe to. It’s convenient for getting along with different types of people, but it also keeps me from facing the question of what I really believe. And I’m not surprised when people lie to me, and sometimes I’m not even hurt by it. Like Mr Labor Day, who I’ve been thinking of again. He probably lied about nearly everything he told me because he didn’t want to start a committed relationship that night. The different things he said just don’t fit together. That being said, if I were to see him again, I’d still be interested in dating/fucking him, and I still hope that he’s happy, wherever he is.

A tendency that I see in myself (that I find alarming) is how quickly I will lie about things. It’s very strange, but I’ve been given to understand that it’s fairly typical of people from abusive homes, even after they become adults. If there’s someone I don’t want to get close to, I will lie inexplicably. I will refuse to give him accurate information about myself. It’s one of the ways I protect myself. I’ve tried to adjust this by being vague but still truthful, but sometimes the lies fly out before I can stop them. And the ways that I have lied to myself, all in the name of protecting the ego, well. It’d be startling if it weren’t such a common thing.

So when Christopher discovers the ways that he’s been lied to, because his father wants to protect him, he goes completely off the rails, as only an adolescent with autism can. As I certainly would not have. I would have simply classed this as yet another thing that we know deep down to be true but that we don’t talk about, like the fact that my cousin’s husband who just died a few months back was her second husband and not the biological father of her first child. Or the way that I figured out pretty early on that what we accept to be true at church and what beliefs we build our real lives upon are often different and contradictory.

Perhaps one of the most fundamental differences between me and Christopher is that he has complete faith in his ability to save and protect himself, which I have never had. Even when there’s clear evidence that I am an intelligent and capable person who can handle and survive any situation that he’s placed in, it’s hard for me to believe it. It’s part of the upbringing that I still haven’t overcome: the fundamental belief that terrible things are going to happen, both in the world in general and to me specifically, and there’s nothing I can do to prevent them. In the end, I think it’s likely that Christopher has ruined the lives of all the people around him in his quest for self-actualization, but he doesn’t feel it. All he sees is that he’s brave and strong and going to succeed in life.

And that’s another hugely significant difference: he can only interpret the most basic emotional cues. Anything more nuanced than a happy grin or a sad frown is lost on him. He even sometimes imagines that all the people who can interpret emotions are dead and the world is left to him and his severely autistic friends, whom he is certain must exist somewhere out there. I’m the opposite. I pick up on everything. A therapist friend once explained that it’s a defense mechanism of kids in abusive homes; we become hyper aware of other people’s emotional states because that’s how you keep from getting beaten. At least I’m learning to be better about understanding which emotions are mine and which are other people’s.

Sometimes I catch my brain asking myself, “Are you okay? Are you okay?” over and over. I tell myself that I am, even though a book like this can make me question that conclusion. I had started reading Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, but it might be wise to put that one down for a bit.

 

According to Hardy’s own preface, this was meant to be a bit of a joke, a funny story between the more dramatic Far From the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native. Don’t let that make you think it’s any shorter than the others; it’s quite as long as any late Victorian novel can expect to be. And personally, I didn’t think the joke was very funny. I’ve spent too much time on the edges of society to be amused by the struggles inherent in the position.

In some ways, this book feels a little like a sequel; the exposition is pretty serious, as in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Four years ago, Christopher Julian was in love with Ethelberta Chickerel. He was rich and she was a butler’s daughter, so nothing came of it. Instead, she married even further above herself; her husband died a few weeks later, still a minor, so she was sort of adopted into the in-laws’ family. Now he’s fallen in the world; she’s the young, wealthy, beautiful widow Mrs Petherwin, and he’s just Kit Julian, the local music teacher and church organist. It seems like they’d be a good fit for each other, but one of Hardy’s jokes is the way that things build up and then come to nothing.

‘I thought at one time that our futures might have been different from what they are apparently becoming,’ he said then, regarding her as a stall-reader regards the brilliant book he cannot afford to buy. ‘But one gets weary of repining about that.

In the end, he gets a happy finish, a happier one than Ethelberta gets, I believe.

Ethelberta is not a woman to be envied.

A talent for demureness under difficulties without the cold-bloodedness which renders such a bearing natural and easy, a face and hand reigning unmoved outside a heart by nature turbulent as a wave, is a constitutional arrangement much to be desired by people in general; yet, had Ethelberta been framed with less of that gift in her, her life might have been more comfortable as an experience, and brighter as an example, though perhaps duller as a story.

She’s precisely the type that people enjoy reading about, but very few would actually want to be. She was always intelligent and sensitive, so her family gave her a better education than her brothers and sisters received. She became a teacher, then a governess, then married the boss’s son and became a lady. She’s acutely aware of how precarious her social position is and is determined to keep that position no matter the cost. During the first third of the story, she lives with her mother-in-law with a cover story to explain where she came from, so she’s fairly secure and has time to say things like:

Well, no; for what between continually wanting to love, to escape the blank lives of those who do not, and wanting not to love, to keep out of the miseries of those who do, I get foolishly warm and foolishly cold by turns.

But when the mother-in-law dies, she has to shift for herself. How does a single woman work without losing her social position? This is the 1870s, not the 2010s, so this is a serious question for her. The dilemma is easier to understand if we see the social position not only as a circle of friends, but as an identity. Ethelberta is struggling to maintain the vision she has of herself, to continue being the person she truly believes herself to be. It’s more serious than most modern readers would consider.

Persons waging a harassing social fight are apt in the interest of the combat to forget the smallness of the end in view; and the hints that perishing historical remnants afforded her of the attenuating effects of time even upon great struggles corrected the apparent scale of her own. She was reminded that in a strife for such a ludicrously small object as the entry of drawing-rooms, winning, equally with losing, is below the zero of the true philosopher’s concern.

She’s apparently not a true philosopher, because this is only a brief flash on her consciousness. She sets herself up running a rooming house for wealthy, respectable foreigners; since she can’t advertise too extensively (she can’t seem to need money), it never pays well. She supplements her income by becoming a public storyteller, one step removed from an actress. That one step preserves her respectability and position. Unfortunately, she doesn’t go about it sensibly; one show a week, or a fortnight, would keep her audience coming back and preserve the novelty of the entertainment. Going out every night, people get used to it. She loses her popularity and her position declines.

She stood there, as all women stand who have made themselves remarkable by their originality, or devotion to any singular cause, as a person freed of her hampering and inconvenient sex, and, by virtue of her popularity, unfettered from the conventionalities of manner prescribed by custom for household womankind. The charter to move abroad unchaperoned, which society for good reasons grants only to women of three sorts – the famous, the ministering, and the improper – Ethelberta was in a fair way to make splendid use of: instead of walking in protected lanes she experienced that luxury of isolation which normally is enjoyed by men alone, in conjunction with the attention naturally bestowed on a woman young and fair.

And thank God for the improper. They introduce the world to new possibilities. They may be shunned for their audacity, but they are eventually copied and end up setting the ton of the next age. There is no question for Hardy that the fact of her being a woman is the defining feature of her life. As a man, Ethelberta would have been able to fight up the social ladder through education and success in some public enterprise; as a woman, the education is indispensable, but success in public enterprise would prevent her attaining the position she’s after. For a woman to be a public personality is too vulgar. Her only avenue to success is marriage.

Which is why poor Kit doesn’t stand a chance. It doesn’t matter how she feels about him – he’s not moving in the right circles any more. There are several other suitors to her hand, but she doesn’t love any of them and she’s afraid that they wouldn’t love her if they knew about her family. The poor old woman who ‘owns’ the rooming house where she lives is really her mother; the cook and the housemaid are her older sisters; the footman is her fourteen-year-old brother. And her father, of course, is still butler to one of the gentry’s best families.

I could really feel where Ethelberta is coming from, for most of the book. My parents were not well suited to one another – my father started working on a farm when he was fourteen, and the highest he ever rose was to an HVAC technician, the kind of maintenance worker who fixes your heating and air conditioning. My mother studied French and Latin at school and became a teacher, one of the most respectable positions for middle-class American women in the late 1960s. But pregnant women couldn’t teach in elementary schools in the early 1970s, so she had to leave work before my oldest brother was born. Then followed more than a decade of poor financial decisions, six more children, and a divorce. I grew up with a sense of decayed grandeur, surrounded by the feeling that we’re somehow better than the other people in our economic position and the only way to get what I truly deserve is to get a scholarship to a good university, work hard, get a good job, and never come back to rural North Carolina again. I wanted my mother to be proud of me, so I did get the scholarship and work hard, though the rest of that hasn’t quite played out. Some of my siblings got out like I did, but others accepted the reduced circumstances and found work as electricians and auto mechanics. Ethelberta’s family accepts her snobbery and the inequality of their positions, but my family hasn’t been quite as successful. We’re all pretty sensitive, so the fact that our ambitions have led in different directions has created some possibly irreparable conflicts. I try to keep peaceful relations with everyone. It’s not always easy to mix with the more country siblings because I still talk like I’m from Massachusetts, but I find that the rewards are worth the effort. My oldest brother’s wife has invited me to stay with them when I come Down East for Christmas, and this weekend my youngest brother drove twelve hours in one day so that he could see me for about ninety minutes. He’s been listening to the news, so he’s been worried about IS detaining or killing me. He held me so tight – I have a hard time believing in my ability to produce such intensity of feeling, but I can’t doubt that it’s there. The friends I’m staying with were impressed with our similarities: they knew one of my more ambitious brothers ten years ago, and apparently #3 and I have enough resemblance that you can see it, but #7 and I look like we’ve spent years studying each other to get our mannerisms exactly identical. Yet he loves big trucks, Mustangs, and wearing baseball caps, and I read Thomas Hardy novels when I’m vacationing in Paris or São Paulo. Cultural differences that arise from economic disparity may determine whom we feel comfortable living with, but with a little forbearance and good manners, those differences don’t have to limit whom we love.

Hardy’s characters don’t necessarily practice the forbearance unless it’s within their own family circle. Ethelberta’s brother and future brother-in-law end up traveling together one night, and the carpenter and the peer don’t really see eye to eye.

If every man of title was as useful as you are to-night, sir, I’d never call them lumber again as long as I live.’

‘How singular!’

‘There’s never a bit of rubbish that won’t come in use if you keep it seven years.’

In the final third of the novel, Ethelberta’s secret is in danger of getting out, so she determines that a hasty marriage is the only solution.

Life is a battle, they say; but it is only so in the sense that a game of chess is a battle – there is no seriousness in it; it may be put an end to at any inconvenient moment by owning yourself beaten, with a careless “Ha-ha!” and sweeping your pieces into the box.

Hardy says this, but Ethelberta can’t own herself beaten. She can’t see her quest for social position as unimportant or a game. She’s serious; she plays for keeps. She angles for the guy with the highest title, even though he’s older than her dad and has a very low character. Toward the end the novel gets a little Radcliffean, with the vicious viscount in the castle with the beautiful young heroine married in ignorance and partially against her will, but it turns out all right. This book is supposed to be funny, after all.

There are some jokes I appreciated, but they’re generally one-liners.

Ethelberta breathed a sort of exclamation, not right out, but stealthily, like a parson’s damn.

Or

‘O Joey, you wicked boy! If mother only knew that you smoked!’

‘I don’t mind the wickedness so much as the smell.

Or

Like the British Constitution, she owes her success in practice to her inconsistencies in principle.

There’s one little piece that I enjoyed because it seems so realistic, and I think must have happened rather frequently, despite its absence from most novels. Two maids and a footman have just prepared the upper dining room for the dinner in the middle of a ball, and while the quality are dancing on the lower floor,

Away then ran the housemaid and Menlove, and the young footman started at their heels. Round the room, over the furniture, under the furniture, out of one window, along the balcony, in at another window, again round the room – so they glided with the swiftness of swallows and the noiselessness of ghosts. Then the housemaid drew a jew’s harp from her pocket, and struck up a lively waltz sotto voce. The footman seized Menlove, who appeared nothing loth, and began spinning gently round the room with her, to the time of the fascinating measure

‘Which fashion hails, from countesses to queens,
And maids and valets dance behind the scenes.’

One of the most important messages of the novel is the reminder that servants are real people too. They may be treated like furniture, but the only difference between them and their supposed masters is the accident of birth. Their emotional lives are as rich, their pleasures both as simple and as complex. A good servant can still be a man of feeling who takes a bit of fun when no one’s looking.

Hardy introduces some new vocabulary that I like, such as ‘man-famine.’ In the 1870s, young men were being sent out to the colonies to build the empire, so there weren’t many at home. Another example of the hidden effect of imperialism that Said talks about. He also gives us the word ‘indifferentist,’ which I rather like. It seems to imply not only that someone doesn’t care about a given situation, but that he’s studied his indifference and employs it as a tool.

There are also some passages that strike me as beautiful, even in a book that treats serious questions of gender and class as jokes. When Christopher Julian meets Mr Chickerel for the first time, he responds to the family resemblance without knowing that this is Ethelberta’s father.

Ethelberta’s face was there, as the landscape is in the map, the romance in the history, the aim in the deed: denuded, rayless, and sorry, but discernible.

I’m kind of surprised that this novel isn’t more popular with the critics. Hardy is more explicit in his criticism of social structures and gender strictures than in his other books, so it would seem that the Marxists and feminists would have been all over it. But I guess not; some people can’t understand the concept of serious comedy.

I don’t really understand J. D. Salinger’s intense popularity. I first read The Catcher in the Rye in my late 20s, and I was really disgusted by it. Holden Caulfield has more money than problems, and that itself is becoming a problem in his teenage life. He lands himself in a mental institution, apparently so that he can finally suffer authentically. I spent my teenage life suffering in poverty and isolation, so it’s really hard for me to relate. However, I have friends who really get behind Franny and Zooey, so I gave it a try. It’s much easier for me to get into – much less whining and more of a struggle that I understand.

Franny and Zooey is basically a story of three conversations. Since the book is two hundred pages long, the conversations are a bit lengthy. This is not the sort of book to read if you’re into action; more My Dinner with Andre and less Andre the Giant. The main issue is that Franny is trying to ‘pray without ceasing,’ as the Bible recommends. But it’s really stressing her out and not really enlightening her.

The book begins with Franny meeting her boyfriend Lane for lunch. They’re a couple of college kids (attending different schools; this is the 1950s) who are having lunch before a football game. Franny feels kind of sick, which pisses Lane off. Franny’s preparing to drop out because everything is so fake. There’s the established conformity, and there’s the equally established bohemian alternative conformity, and no one is really himself, not even the professors. She’s looking for some kind of authentic experience, so she looks to religion. Religious writers have been saying for centuries that repeated chants can induce a trance state that fosters mystical experiences, and that’s what she’s doing. She found a book in the library about a peasant that wanders around Europe saying The Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a miserable sinner), so that’s her mantra. Franny’s spiritual search is played off of Lane’s materialism: he focuses his attention on objects, what coat is she wearing, what does she order for lunch, that sort of thing, and he reflects with satisfaction on the fact of being seen in the right restaurant with the right sort of girl. Too bad Franny’s behavior is becoming erratic; she’s not the right sort of girl after all. She just looks like it. A sample of their conversation:

“I don’t know what a real poet is. I wish you’d stop it, Lane. I’m serious. I’m feeling very peculiar and funny, and I can’t – ”

“All right, all right – O.K. Relax,” Lane said. “I was only trying – ”

“I know this much, is all,” Franny said. “If you’re a poet, you do something beautiful. I mean you’re supposed to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything. The ones you’re talking about don’t leave a single, solitary thing beautiful. All that maybe the slightly better ones do is sort of get inside your head and leave something there, but just because they do, just because they know how to leave something, it doesn’t have to be a poem, for heaven’s sake. It may just be some kind of terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings – excuse the expression. Like Manlius and Esposito and all those poor men.”

Lane took time to light a cigarette for himself before he said anything. Then: “I thought you liked Manlius. As a matter of fact, about a month ago, if I remember correctly, you said he was darling, and that you – ”

“I do like him. I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect. . . . Would you excuse me for just a minute?” Franny was suddenly on her feet, with her handbag in her hand. She was very pale.

I like Franny’s ideas of poetry, particularly of mid-twentieth-century poets. I wish more artists were interested in making the world a beautiful place, instead of merely reflecting the fuckeduppedness they see around them. The world is beautiful, and there are lovely things in it, and I’d like to contribute to that. I want the world to be more beautiful for my having been in it, not angrier.

The second conversation takes place a few days later, in the bathroom. Zooey is reading a letter he received years ago from his brother Buddy while sitting in the tub. Buddy steps forward for a few minutes to identify himself as the narrator and to explain a bit about the family – five brothers, two sisters, just like mine, two dead, not at all like mine. Salinger writes about this family in several other stories; Seymour seems the most important, he being the oldest, and the rest of his family’s stories seem to revolve around him, or the lack of him. He commits suicide in 1948. Seymour and Buddy are only two years apart, and they seem to have been inseparable. Buddy’s narrating the stories might be why Seymour seems so paramount. Seymour and Buddy were in college when Zooey and Franny were young, and they taught their youngest siblings all about Eastern philosophy when they were young children. Franny and Zooey have often felt like freaks ever since, but when Franny has her religious crisis, Seymour’s the one she wants.

I feel more than one pang of envy when I read about the Glass family. Yeah, we have the same complement of boys and girls, but my family is closer in age and further in character. The scene where Zooey goes into Seymour and Buddy’s room hits me the hardest – the two oldest Glass kids had all the same reading interests, so while their room is odd, it’s clear that it is the result of two minds that work in unison. I don’t have that in my family. The brother closest to me in age told me he’d rather have me dead than gay, so he pretends that I am. At almost exactly fifteen months, he and I are the chronologically closest in our family, but we’re pretty far removed in terms of priorities and values. The next older is almost three years older than me. When he flunked out of college and came home in disgrace, we discovered that we had a lot in common. Upon reflection, I think a lot of it was isolation and the need to connect. A few years later he came to the same university I was attending, and over the next three years it became clear that we weren’t quite as similar as we had thought. Eventually I felt like I was valued so long as I was his Mini-Me; when I asserted myself, we tended to drift apart. In general, my family tends to think of me as a useless sort of blank slate. The ex really helped for a while; she presented me to my family in a way that they could understand and like; my solitary visits post-divorce have reminded me that I really do need an interpreter between me and my own family.

Anyway, this second conversation is between Zooey and his mother. She’s concerned about his television career (both parents are old vaudevillians), and she wants him to talk to Franny about whatever’s going on with her. Like Lane, Zooey seems to swear with unnecessary force at strange times in the conversation. Also, they favor the religious swear words, the ones I never use. I will say shit or fuck with somewhat reckless abandon, particularly when upset, but I never use goddamn, and seldom damn or hell. I also do not swear in my mother’s presence, so Zooey swearing at his mother puts me off. I can understand his desire to get her out of the bathroom while he’s in the tub, but the rudeness he uses to accomplish that (which fails, by the way – this conversation is about twice as long as the previous) makes me feel uncomfortable. There’s another treasure trove for the thing theorists when she opens the medicine cabinet – so much useless stuff crammed into a little space.

The third conversation, the one you’ve all been waiting for, is between the two titular characters. Zooey tries to talk Franny into a better frame of mind, and by ‘better’ we mean ‘more similar to his.’ I think that taking on her discontent with academia is a good start, probably because I get frustrated with it too. I think that my frustration may come from my perceived rejection from it – I applied to doctoral programs for years, and never got accepted. In the end, I gave up, because they’re not interested in giving people time and space to develop ideas. They’re interested in finding people who are going to contribute to The Profession and training them to do it properly. Not much caring for The Profession, I don’t get accepted to their programs.

Way back in the early Aughts, I saw a sign up for a demonstration against the impending invasion of Iraq. I (still) think it is/was a bad idea, so I went to the protest. I was fine and happy as long as we were protesting against war, but the person with the megaphone then started making personal attacks on the president and going on about environmental policy. I was never a big fan of Bush Jr, and I’m a big fan of conserving and protecting the environment, but I wasn’t there for that. If we’re here to protest the war, let’s focus on the war instead of mixing the war into a mass of other issues that just foster Bush-bashing. Keep a clarity of purpose. Zooey accuses Franny of making the same mistake.

If you’re going to go to war against the System, just do your shooting like a nice, intelligent girl – because the enemy’s there, and not because you don’t like his hairdo or his goddam necktie.

Haircuts and fashion sense don’t make someone a good teacher. Yet, when students dislike a teacher, they seldom think through precisely what they disagree with. Instead, they’ll launch into this sort of personal attack, as if style were the essential thing. I remember one of my favorite teachers in high school was once criticized for wearing a brown belt with black shoes. To his face.

I think it’s much more important that a teacher feel a vocation to teach. I think that’s what Zooey is trying to get at in this section on ego.

Take your Professor Tupper. From what you say about him, anyway, I’d lay almost any odds that this thing he’s using, the thing you think is his ego, isn’t his ego at all but some other, much dirtier, much less basic faculty. My God, you’ve been around schools long enough to know the score. Scratch an incompetent schoolteacher – or, for that matter, college professor – and half the time you find a displaced first-rate automobile mechanic or a goddam stonemason. Take LeSage, for instance – my friend, my employer, my Rose of Madison Avenue. You think it was his ego that got him into television? Like hell it was! He has no ego any more – if ever he had one. He’s split it up into hobbies. He has at least three hobbies that I know of – and they all have to do with a big, ten-thousand-dollar workroom in his basement, full of power tools and vises and God knows what else. Nobody who’s really using his ego, his real ego, has any time for any goddam hobbies.

When I was in school, I liked just about everything, and was good at the academic subjects. It’s great for being a student, but terrible when you have to specialize. I don’t think there’s any one profession that could consume my entire life like Zooey expects it to. Besides, as much as I like handcrafts, I don’t think I could support myself and my kids with my knitting.

I notice that the passages I’m pulling out are decidedly Zooey-heavy. The story is like that, but I’m a little too close to Franny’s mental state to derive much benefit from her. I’m kind of in the market for a spiritual guide, but I keep rejecting the ones that are available. I’m afraid that I’m going to find something that works for others in my independent reading, try it for myself for a while, then go to pieces when it doesn’t work for me. And,

When you first felt the urge, the call, to say the prayer, you didn’t immediately start searching the four corners of the world for a master. You came home.

I’d like to go home. We can only handle a finite number of stressors at one time; going to a familiar place reduces the stress from the environment. This is an important strategy when internal stress runs high. Mine is becoming problematic, and I’d like to go home now.

Franny and Zooey is a good book. Franny has a major religious crisis, but it remains unresolved, potentially unresolvable (how very 1950s-bohemian). Personally, I’m looking for a little resolution right now, so I may need to file this with Demian as good, but not what I need at the moment. Maybe if I read some of the other Glass family stories; they seem like interesting people, and I’d like to see more of them.

With a book like this, it’s easier to have a conversation about the novel’s history than about the novel itself. Censorship trials everyone hears about, but few people talk about what’s actually going on in the book.

The eponymous lover is Oliver Mellors, and for someone who is so important to the book, his name is used very seldom. He’s more often ‘the gamekeeper,’ or just ‘the keeper.’ When he and Lady Chatterley are alone, he’s just a masculine pronoun, as if his maleness is the most important thing about him. The two of them take on an allegorical quality, just a he and a she, doing what comes naturally. But the title identifies him primarily in relation to her, and her in relation to her husband.

The grin flickered on his face.

‘The money is yours, the position is yours, the decisions will lie with you. I’m not just my Lady’s fucker, after all.’

‘What else are you?’

‘You may well ask. It no doubt is invisible. Yet I’m something to myself at least. I can see the point of my own existence, though I can quite understand nobody else’s seeing it.’

He holds himself and his self-worth independent – as if there are some things about himself that are no one else’s business, not even the reader’s. We seldom see the story from his point of view, except when he’s getting aroused. In some ways he remains a mystery to the end of the book.

Sir Clifford Chatterley is much easier to figure out. Clifford gets married in the middle of World War I and comes back paralyzed. Without the use of his legs or his cock, he goes through some times of depression and anger. At first he devotes his attention to the life of the mind to compensate for his bodily losses. Then they hire a nurse for him, and she changes him. Mrs Bolton quickly becomes the most important person in his life; he becomes the kind of man she expects him to be, a businessman. Under her influence he becomes the representation of industrialized progress – sterile, childish, self-important, mechanized, successful.

The fault lay there, out there, in those evil electric lights and diabolical rattlings of engines. There, in the world of the mechanical greedy, greedy mechanism and mechanised greed, sparkling with lights and gushing hot metal and roaring with traffic, there lay the vast evil thing, ready to destroy whatever did not conform. Soon it would destroy the wood, and the bluebells would spring no more. All vulnerable things must perish under the rolling and running of iron.

Then there is Lady Chatterley herself, formerly Constance Reid, and most frequently called Connie. Daughter of one baronet and married to another, her class position is clear. The novel traces her personal growth and development as she learns to love someone with a dramatically different background. Connie has a democratic sensibility and a hopeful naivete where people are concerned, and I identify strongly with these qualities in her.

Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.

Like Connie, it’s hard for me to admit that the world is not always precisely as it ought to be.

This is history. One England blots out another. The mines had made the halls wealthy. Now they were blotting them out, as they had already blotted out the cottages. The industrial England blots out the agricultural England. One meaning blots out another. The new England blots out the old England. And the continuity is not organic, but mechanical.

Connie, belonging to the leisured classes, had clung to the remnants of old England. It had taken her years to realise that it was really blotted out by this terrifying new and gruesome England, and that the blotting out would go on till it was complete.

People sometimes talk about this novel as if the sex were the only important thing about it, but I don’t think that it’s even the most important thing. It’s about this change, from a life in contact with nature to a life that destroys nature. Clifford is the industrialist who leaves a black swathe on the world, and the gamekeeper is the remnant of the feudal agricultural age, tending to various forms of life. He and Connie wreath flowers into each other’s pubic hair, but Clifford chugs along on his motorized wheelchair, smashing the flowers and everything else.

Tevershall pit-bank was burning, had been burning for years, and it would cost thousands to put it out. So it had to burn. And when the wind was that way, which was often, the house was full of the stench of this sulphurous combustion of the earth’s excrement. But even on windless days the air always smelt of something under-earth: sulphur, iron, coal, or acid. And even on the Christmas roses the smuts settled persistently, incredible, like black manna from skies of doom.

So Connie’s choice of lover is not just a matter of finding a good lay, it’s a choice of lifestyles, of economic systems, of periods of history. She chooses life and nature over money and mechanics.

Another thing about Connie that I identify strongly with is her inability to articulate her ideas in an argument. I can usually express myself well in writing, but when it comes to conversation or verbal disagreement, I end up a sputtering mess, either stuttering or silent.

Logic might be unanswerable because it was so absolutely wrong.

She runs into this problem discussing her gamekeeper affair with her sister:

‘But you are such a socialist! you’re always on the side of the working classes.’

‘I may be on their side in a political crisis, but being on their side makes me know how impossible it is to mix one’s life with theirs. Not out of snobbery, but just because the whole rhythm is different.’

Hilda had lived among the real political intellectuals, so she was disastrously unanswerable.

And in discussing the lives of coalworkers with her husband:

And she wondered with rage, why it was she felt Clifford was so wrong, yet she couldn’t say it to him, she could not say exactly where he was wrong.

‘No wonder the men hate you,’ she said.

‘They don’t!’ he replied. ‘And don’t fall into errors: in your sense of the word, they are not men. They are animals you don’t understand, and never could. Don’t thrust your illusions on other people. The masses were always the same, and will always be the same. Nero’s slaves were extremely little different from our colliers or the Ford motor car workmen. I mean Nero’s mine slaves and his field slaves. It is the masses: they are the unchangeable. An individual may emerge from the masses. But the emergence doesn’t alter the mass. The masses are unalterable. It is one of the most momentous facts of social science. Panem et circenses! Only today education is one of the bad substitutes for a circus. What is wrong today, is that we’ve made a profound hash of the circuses part of the programme, and poisoned our masses with a little education.’

When Clifford became really roused in his feelings about the common people, Connie was frightened. There was something devastatingly true in what he said. But it was a truth that killed.

There’s no doubt that people perform better at their tasks when they only have the education they need to accomplish those tasks, and that ignorant people are often happier than educated ones, but there are types of satisfaction that are unavailable to them without an education. Moving up Maaslow’s hierarchy of needs, or the hierarchy of thinking skills, is difficult without the type of education that Clifford would deny the masses. He would rather they not be actual human beings; while he calls them animals here, I think he’d be happier if they weren’t even that, but just gears in his machinery of wealth. The keeper is an individual that emerges from the masses, but people like Clifford ignore just how hard that emergence is without an education.

And after he’s emerged, it’s not always clear if he’ll do the crowd he came from any good.

If you could only tell them that living and spending isn’t the same thing! But it’s no good. If only they were educated to live instead of earn and spend, they could manage very happily on twenty-five shillings. If the men wore scarlet trousers as I said, they wouldn’t think so much of money: if they could dance and hop and skip, and sing and swagger and be handsome, they could do with very little cash. And amuse the women themselves, and be amused by the women. They ought to learn to be naked and handsome, and to sing in a mass and dance the old group dances, and carve the stools they sit on, and embroider their own emblems. Then they wouldn’t need money. And that’s the only way to solve the industrial problem: train the people to be able to live and live in handsomeness, without needing to spend. But you can’t do it. They’re all one-track minds nowadays. Whereas the mass of people oughtn’t even to try to think, because they can’t. They should be alive and frisky, and acknowledge the great god Pan. He’s the only god for the masses, forever.

Even Mellors wants the mass of humanity to become picturesque peasants. In this elitism he and Clifford agree. Neither of them recognizes that the problem is the wealthy. The people with money give the people without money something to aspire to; since the rich won’t live in sensual simplicity without spending a lot of money, neither will the poor.

Personally, I rather like the life Mellors associates with red trousers. I was converted to a life of the arts at a young age, and I’m fond of singing and skipping and making my own things. I won’t comment on my own handsomeness or lack thereof, but I wish I was a better dancer more than I wish I was better at making money. Unlike Lawrence’s characters (and perhaps the great DHL himself), I think that this life of continuous self-expression, and pride in self-expression, is not incompatible with education. Maybe a different type of education than what we typically receive would be better suited to it, but the problem isn’t the eduation; it’s the type and manner of it. Our educational system in the West teaches children to be good factory workers, to distrust difference, and to value mediocrity. This is the way to get them to be good little cogs winding the machinery of commerce, but it doesn’t help them to be good men and women. Some schools have begun teaching good character, as if it could be learned like arithmetic, but defying society and its obsession with financial gain to express the self is seen as sentimental, quixotic, and ultimately tragic. And that attitude doesn’t help anyone but those with a vested interest in keeping the machine going.

Having lived among the owning classes, he knew the utter futility of expecting any solution of the wage-squabble. There was no solution, short of death. The only thing was not to care, not to care about the wages.

Yet, if you were poor and wretched you had to care. Anyhow, it was becoming the only thing they did care about. The care about money was like a great cancer, eating away the individuals of all classes. He refused to care about money.

And what then? What did life offer apart from the care of money? Nothing.

While Connie does seem to have problems with her husband’s elitism, she doesn’t seem to realize that she has a little of her own.

The world is supposed to be full of possibilities, but they narrow down to pretty few in most personal experience. There’s lots of good fish in the sea . . . maybe . . . but the vast masses seem to be mackerel or herring, and if you’re not mackerel or herring yourself, you are likely to find very few good fish in the sea.

This is a problem I run into, too. There have never been very many people I’ve been attracted to, either as friends or lovers. I try to convince myself that this isn’t evidence that I’m an elitist, and sometimes I succeed. I recognize that some people are good, worthwhile people with valid thoughts and opinions, but that doesn’t mean I want any sort of intimacy with them. My life seems to be spent among genial, uncongenial people.

The gamekeeper gets some criticism for his attitude toward women as well. He is in favor of simultaneous orgasms, and I think that most people are, but he hates women who want to use him to get off on without getting him off as well. He calls them all unconscious lesbians, which is amazingly offensive. But at least he recognizes that this is a completely selfish viewpoint.

‘But do you think Lesbian women any worse than homosexual men?’

I do! Because I’ve suffered more from them. In the abstract, I’ve no idea.’

Lawrence tends to write sympathetic roles for men who might be bisexual, like Birkin and Crich in Women in Love, and there’s a possibility for the gamekeeper to be. He grew close to a colonel when he was in the army, and this colonel got him an officer’s commission. Lawrence mentions that the two loved each other, but he doesn’t go into the details of how. It’s exposition rather than story, so it makes sense for the author not to get explicit here, but it’s fun for me to imagine Oliver Mellors fucking his way up the ranks.

People talk about this novel like it’s second only to Fanny Hill, and while there are a couple of explicit descriptions of sex, those descriptions are actually not a large proportion of the book. The sexy bits are very sexy indeed, but they adorn rather than drive the narrative. People who read it also sometimes complain about the language, and I’ll agree that it’s a bit unexpected to see these words in a book published in 1928.

‘Th’art good cunt, though, aren’t ter? Best bit o’ cunt left on earth. When ter likes! When tha’rt willin’!’

‘What is cunt?’ she said.

‘An’ doesn’t ter know? Cunt! It’s thee down theer; an’ what I get when I’m i’side thee, and what tha gets when I’m i’side thee; it’s a’ as it is, all on’t.’

‘All on’t,’ she teased. ‘Cunt! It’s like fuck then.’

‘Nay nay! Fuck’s only what you do. Animals fuck. But cunt’s a lot more than that. It’s thee, dost see: an’ tha’rt a lot besides an animal, aren’t ter? – even ter fuck? Cunt! Eh, that’s the beauty o’ thee, lass!’

She got up and kissed him between the eyes, that looked at her so dark and soft and unspeakably warm, so unbearably beautiful.

He really makes that word sound like not such an insult. When we’re young we tend to imagine that our profanity is like our slang terms, invented on the moment and only belonging to our time. But Chaucer wrote about piss and shit, and if I had access to the OED I could give other examples of contemporary profanity being used centuries ago.

So, in the end, yes, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a book full of graphic sex and offensive language. But it’s also a book about industry trampling the environment, which is an important precursor to today’s debates on climate change; it’s also a book about the artificial barriers between people created by economic differences, which include education, manners, and speech patterns; it’s also a book about how love can separate individuals from their respective herds and unite them in joy, and how the herds fight to reclaim their own. It’s about society and the direction we’re moving in, and the world we’re destroying in the process. Lawrence doesn’t have any answers about how to resolve these conflicts, how to keep technology without losing the flowers and the pheasants, and the book itself ends unresolved, with a letter from the keeper to his absent love hoping for the future:

John Thomas says good-bye to Lady Jane, a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart.