Posts Tagged ‘dickens’

I’m always fond of book recommendations. I like to see what the people I love love to read; it’s a way for me to approach them more nearly, since books are easier for me than people. This rec comes from Virginia Woolf, who mentions it several times in The Common Reader even though it doesn’t get its own chapter. I also saw several references to it back in grad school when I was reading a lot of ecocriticism, because there are not that many Victorians who worked with nature as extensively as he does.

After making a hasty meal at the house, I started, full of pleasing anticipations, for the wood; for how pleasant a place it was to be in! What a wild beauty and fragrance and melodiousness it possessed above all forests, because of that mystery that drew me to it! And it was mine, truly and absolutely – as much mine as any portion of earth’s surface could belong to any man – mine with all its products; the precious woods and fruits and fragrant gums that would never be trafficked away; its wild animals that man would never persecute; nor would any jealous savage dispute my ownership or pretend that it was part of his hunting-ground. As I crossed the savannah I played with this fancy; but when I reached the ridgy eminence, to look down once more on my new domain, the fancy changed to a feeling so keen that it pierced to my heart, and was like pain in its intensity, causing tears to rush to my eyes. And caring not in that solitude to disguise my feelings from myself, and from the wide heaven that looked down and saw me – for this is the sweetest thing that solitude has for us, that we are free in it, and no convention holds us – I dropped on my knees and kissed the stony ground, then casting up my eyes, thanked the Author of my being for the gift of that wild forest, those green mansions where I had found so great a happiness!

Hooray for Victorians! Hudson was born in Argentina to English-speaking parents, so when he finally came to Victorian London he spoke a weird mixture of English and Spanish, but in his writing most of the Spanglish is gone, and he sounds halfway between Stevenson and Dickens. The Argentine literary tradition claims him also, as Guillermo Enrique Hudson, even though he wrote in English.

You may think that growing up in South America would give him a sympathetic view of people of different races, but some people travel all over the world only to find that their culture really is the best and most enlightened. You can’t always heal ethnocentrism with cross-cultural contact. Our protagonist is from Caracas, and while Spanish speakers are always referred to as white and therefore normal (different from modern United States usage, where Hispanic White is a separate category), he has nothing kind to say about the natives. They’re dirty lying superstitious murderous savages, even when they take him in and feed him for several months. This racial tension is the context that drives the main action in the story. The other important context is the white tendency to possessiveness that we see in the passage above. He sees something he likes, he wants to own it completely.

Enter the bird-woman. Hudson was an ornithologist and wrote a few nonfiction works on birds, so naturally the love interest in his romance is extremely bird-like. Protagonist starts spending time in those woods he likes so much, and he hears something that sounds like a bird but isn’t quite one. It turns out that no one hunts there because they believe the wood is protected by a spirit, daughter of the river-god or some such. Protagonist is not very interested in native religions, so he doesn’t explore the mythology. So he spends time in the woods, and learns to recognize the emotional content of the bird-speech, and eventually he meets her. In fairness to the natives, she does get seriously angry if any animals are harmed. She’s a total vegan, and makes a shimmery dress for herself from spider webs.

Like a good sensation novel, we get her background information about two-thirds of the way through the book. Once upon a time, there was a Spanish guy who fell in with a bad crowd. They were running from the law through the woods once, and run across this cave. There’s a young woman inside, and in trying to catch her, the bad guys fall to their deaths. The single good guy takes her out of the cave and they go to live in civilization. (Sound suspicious? This guy tells his own story, and I tend not to trust narrators. Salient facts: seven or eight guys go into a cave, but only one comes out, and he brings a woman with him. What happened in the cave and why the girl is pregnant are a matter of conjecture.) He passes the girl off as his daughter, albeit a weird daughter who only speaks in this bird language that no one else knows. She learns Spanish and gives birth, which kind of makes Rima look like an immaculate conception from nature itself. Rima learns her mother’s language as well as Spanish. When the mother dies, her supposed grandfather takes her far away from the people who think she’s a witch. They live in the greatest seclusion somewhere in the jungle probably on the southern part of the border between Venezuela and Colombia. She spends most of her time alone in the woods, chirping like a bird and hanging out with the animals. Grandpa takes his dogs and goes to a hunting shack, far away from where she lives, so that he can eat some meat. Not all people take to veganism.

The love affair between Abel and Rima is as weirdly Victorian as it gets. Two beautiful people meet each other, and he is the first man of her ethnicity that she’s seen since before puberty (Grandfather doesn’t count). She thinks he listens to her and treats her as more than just a ghost, even though he never really understands her. He sees that she is beautiful, so he wants to force her into his model of a conventionally beautiful woman. He doesn’t bring her a literal corset, but continually asking her to explain things in Spanish instead of her preferred language is like a mental corset. Language is a very important part of a person’s identity – when I first got back from Brazil, it was still hard for me to talk about emotional subjects in English, but I could open up more easily in Portuguese. There are some concepts that make more sense in other languages – every word was once a poem, and other languages blend meanings differently than we do in English. Even though we translate, the flavor of the meaning changes. Abel refuses to learn Rima’s language; he just keeps insisting she speak Spanish. He tries to control her in other ways too, like wanting her to walk next to him instead of running all over the place like a bird circling around him. She wants to be understood, but he can only understand through dissection.

Victorian modesty strikes a false note here. This girl has wrapped herself in spider webs, but how does she perform essential bodily functions? I’m particularly concerned about menstruation, which apparently never happens. Abel talks in vague terms about the loveliness of her form, but for her to be wrapped in spider webs and still climb trees and do the other things she does, that dress has to be sheer and tight up top and either split like trousers around the legs or considerably looser in the skirt. These details we ignore; he talks about the opalescent shifting colors, but not the shape. And then, nature girl meets the guy she wants to keep for life, and they never have sex. Her distance from society should make her less bound by sexual mores, but no. She’s as chaste as a Dickens heroine, and more chaste than some of them. I suppose you could read it that she’s so far removed from conventions that she doesn’t even have conventional desires, but it seems unnatural in a character so tightly bound to nature.

In some ways, Rima could be read as surprisingly feminist because she resists so much. The modesty and affinity with nature are classical indications of femininity, but the conflict between her and Abel is because she refuses to adopt the passive role with him. She won’t speak only in Spanish because she wants him to learn her bird language. She can travel faster and farther than he can with less food, so she goes off on a journey and leaves him to follow at his own pace. She also recognizes the landscape after having only seen it once, so even after traveling across all of Venezuela, parts of Brazil, and into Guyana, she can get home in half the time it takes him. And she is independent enough to do it. Unfortunately, the solitude that results from this leads to her death, but this relationship wasn’t going to end happily anyway. In the time and place that the novel was written, leading female characters had three options, to be wed, mad, or dead, so death was probably the best choice because it means she doesn’t have to compromise who she is in order to please some man. Rima is hunted down and killed for being different, and there is no man to save her because no man is her physical and spiritual equal. She seems like an entirely other species, one better adapted to the environment but poorly adapted to human society.

Abel reacts to her death the way you would expect: he goes to a neighboring tribe and starts a war that kills the entire tribe that killed her. Everyone who knew her and consented to her death dies. Such a white man thing to do. So much the opposite of anything she would have wanted. Then he goes off and lives like a crazy hermit in the woods, nearly starving to death before finally settling in Georgetown.

This issue of solitude is important to me. As Abel mentions in the quote above, when we’re alone we are free from social conventions and expectations. When you grow up in a difficult family situation, of the type that I did, figuring out what people want and giving it to them quickly is an essential survival pattern. It gets deeply ingrained at a very early age, so now people are hard for me because as I age I become less interested in conforming to what is expected of me. There’s often a dissonance between what I do/say and what I want to do/say, like watching his daughter’s shows with the family instead of reading by myself, because he thinks something is wrong if we aren’t all together in the evening. And he is similar enough to my dad in size and personality that I’m kind of afraid of making him angry, which is probably why I haven’t yet told him that I’m moving out in four weeks. That conversation needs to happen soon, though.

I need to find someone who makes me feel so accepted that I don’t have to be afraid of disagreeing with him. Or in other words, someone I can trust. I have friends like that, so I know such people exist, I just need to locate one who’s interested in me romantically.

 

This book glories in the use of pronouns. So much so, that at the beginning of a chapter it can be difficult to know whose perspective we are reading from. So much so, that the main character in the book is never named, but we have enough clues to deduce that he is Sherlock Holmes, nearly ninety, living in the country during World War II, keeping bees.

Holmes enters our story as a crazy old man yelling at children. More specifically, at a young German Jew who’s been evacuated to the English countryside to avoid the concentration camps. The boy is about to piss on the third rail that carries electricity to the train cars and the aged detective is trying to save his life, but since the boy rarely speaks and rarely understands English, all he sees is the crazy old man. The boy is always accompanied by a parrot who repeats strings of numbers. British spies keep trying to figure out the secret of these numbers, believing them to be a kind of code. This book even becomes a murder mystery because of the bird and his numbers. But Holmes is more interested in finding the kidnapped bird than the killer. I suppose retirement gives people a different perspective.

Throughout the story, people react to Holmes in different ways, but they seem to regard him as a relic of the past, a Victorian curiosity to have survived almost into the Postmodern Era. Yet, at the end, he comes to a very Modern, very un-Victorian conclusion:

The application of creative intelligence to a problem, the finding of a solution at once dogged, elegant, and wild, this had always seemed to him to be the essential business of human beings – the discovery of sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life. And yet he had always been haunted – had he not? – by the knowledge that there were men, lunatic cryptographers, mad detectives, who squandered their brilliance and sanity in decoding and interpreting the messages in cloud formations, in the letters of the Bible recombined, in the spots on butterflies’ wings. One might, perhaps, conclude from the existence of such men that meaning dwelled solely in the mind of the analyst. That it was the insoluble problems – the false leads and the cold cases – that reflected the true nature of things. That all the apparent significance and pattern had no more intrinsic sense than the chatter of an African gray parrot. One might so conclude, really, he thought, one might.

There were a few Victorian writers and thinkers who saw the lack of meaning in the world around them, who understood that human meaning is a human construction, but they were largely disreputable (which is not to say that their books didn’t sell). Dickens was so successful because you could read his books aloud to your children without the fear of any unchristian ideas entering their heads. He was a social reformer, it’s true, but he always approached his unpalatable subject matter with circumspection. He wouldn’t have made his doubts so explicit.

Much as I find the Victorian novels’ certainty about the world so comforting, in my own mind I side with Chabon’s Holmes. We have the inborn need to bring order to chaos – part of my discomfort with children is their apparent comfort with chaos – but the order is essentially manmade, not intrinsic to the things we arrange. Why do I fold towels the way that I do, or keep them in the places where I do? It doesn’t matter to the towels. Left to themselves, they’d end up on the floor in a heap. They want to become an undifferentiated mass of terrycloth, and I’m standing very firmly in the way. One of the things that I find difficult about living with a family is that my ordering hand is not master here.

For all that this book is a mystery, and the subtitle links it to detection, it is not so much a story about finding as it is a story about losing. The boy loses his parrot. The minister loses his faith, and his son. Holmes walks into a clearing and for a few seconds cannot bring meaning to the shapes he sees – he loses his ability to interpret optical data. I suppose this could be my own sense to the book, since some of the lost things are found, but most of them are not. The numbers are a secret between the boy and the parrot, and not even Holmes discovers their sense. Life seems to be unravelling, which is not a sensation I particularly enjoy. And indeed, there’s some of that in my life – sleep is not knitting up the ravelled sleeve of care – I’d like to be able to bring the issues to a swift decisive conclusion, but that is not really realistic. By summer’s end, things will be done.

This week I had a student preparing to enter a course of study that I felt was completely wrong for her, so we took the Myers-Briggs personality test, and that helped steer her in a better direction. It reminded me of a lot of truths about myself that I don’t often think about, or that I think of as pathological when they’re really not, like my aversion to conflict. It made explicit the fact that an aversion to conflict and a strong desire to help people can make me popular to others, but that it’s very hard for me to trust them. The doors of my heart are made of heavy steel, and once shut they do not open easily. It’s unfortunately sort of easy to shut them – don’t do something you say that you will, lie to me, don’t try hard at your job or schoolwork, don’t finish things that you start, treat my relationship with my children as if it were unimportant simply because I don’t see them very often, take delight in the conflicts of others, tell me not to trust someone close to me, use the phrase ‘the gay lifestyle,’ that sort of thing. The high standards I have for friendship sometimes makes it seem miraculous that I have any friends at all, and truthfully I don’t keep many people close to me. Those people I do don’t always realize how close they are to me, or how few people are as close to me as they are. I was interested at the way www.16personalities.com added a fifth element, so now I’m INFJ-T, the T meaning Turbulent. This refers to my habit of second-guessing all my decisions and actions, which has a strong effect on the way my Counselor/Advocate personality expresses itself.

Rereading this book, I was a little surprised to see how strongly my life and especially my bloglife are influenced by it. Unlike some of my colleagues, I see the value in people like this:

The common reader, as Dr Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

Notice the reflection of my reading habits here. Yes, I get into these high-culture moods sometimes, but I mix Thomas Hardy with Christopher Moore, and French Enlightenment thinkers with mid-twentieth century sociologists, and it’s all a big mishmash of words. I may impart some knowledge, but I’m more interested in receiving it; I have little interest in correcting the opinions of others if those opinions are thoughtfully considered. That both gives me some value as a teacher and keeps me from realizing my full potential in the field – I refuse to become an authority figure (an INFJ trait).

This book came about because Woolf was writing reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and other periodicals, which means that to some extent she and I are engaged in the same pursuit. However, she would probably not have approved of how very personal I get.

Once again we have an essayist capable of using the essayist’s most proper but most dangerous and delicate tool. He has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr Beerbohm the man. We only know that the spirit of personality permeates every word that he writes. The triumph is the triumph of style. For it is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of your self; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist. Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.

Woolf was still looking for essays that say something universal about the human condition. While there is some possibility of that in the way that I write, if people want universality from me they usually have to be able to extrapolate the message from my relation of my experience. I understand that my experience is unique to me, composed of the intersections of all my different identities, and while some experiences are common to certain groups of people, there’s no guarantee that I will have anything in common with another former academic/gay man/ex-Mormon/addictive personality/emotionally abused person.

Though Woolf keeps her experience away from her reviews, there are some qualities and preferences that become clear. A somewhat academic adherence to factual accuracy, as seen in her scathing review of a biography of Mary Russell Mitford, where she refers to the author as Mendacity (with a capital M). She also derides the author’s lack of passion for her subject:

What considerations, then, had weight with Miss Hill when she decided to write Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings? Three emerge from the rest, and may be held of paramount importance. In the first place, Miss Mitford was a lady; in the second, she was born in the year 1787; and in the third, the stock of female characters who lend themselves to biographic treatment by their own sex is, for one reason or another, running short. For instance, little is known of Sappho, and that little is not wholly to her credit. Lady Jane Grey has merit, but is undeniably obscure. Of George Sand, the more we know the less we approve. George Eliot was led into evil ways which not all her philosophy can excuse. The Brontës, however highly we rate their genius, lacked that indefinable something which marks the lady; Harriet Martineau was an atheist; Mrs Browning was a married woman; Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, and Maria Edgeworth have been done already; so that, what with one thing and another, Mary Russell Mitford is the only woman left.

I believe that the homophobia and slut-shaming and elitism in the above quotation are qualities that Woolf ascribes to Miss Hill, not attitudes that she herself embraced.

Woolf also had a good value for solitude, as when she describes Elizabethan drama:

But gradually it comes over us, what then are we being denied? What is it that we are coming to want so persistently, that unless we get it instantly we must seek elsewhere? It is solitude. There is no privacy here. Always the door opens and some one comes in. All is shared, made visible, audible, dramatic. Meanwhile, as if tired with company, the mind steals off to muse in solitude; to think, not to act; to comment, not to share; to explore its own darkness, not the bright-lit-up surfaces of others. It turns to Donne, to Montaigne, to Sir Thomas Browne, to the keepers of the keys of solitude.

Sir Thomas Browne, though unknown to me, is one of her heroes, like Max Beerbohm of the above quotation. This volume is arranged roughly chronologically, but there’s some fracturing and avoidance toward the end. We go from Chaucer to the Elizabethans and through the eighteenth century to Jane Austen, but then there’s an essay on modern fiction (compared unfavorably to the novels of the past) before she goes on to the Brontës, George Eliot, and the famous Russians (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, of course, but there are others), but then she jumps back to the Romantic-Era Miss Mitford and a few other earlier writers before she gets on to talking about writing itself for a bit, and only ends with an evaluation of the writing current at the time. Of her contemporaries, Beerbohm gets some special attention:

But if we ask for masterpieces, where are we to look? A little poetry, we may feel sure, will survive; a few poems by Mr Yeats, by Mr Davies, by Mr de la Mare. Mr Lawrence, of course, has moments of greatness, but hours of something very different. Mr Beerbohm, in his way, is perfect, but it is not a big way. Passages in Far Away and Long Ago will undoubtedly go to posterity entire. Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster. And so, picking and choosing, we select now this, now that, hold it up for display, hear it defended or derided, and finally have to meet the objection that even so we are only agreeing with the critics that it is an age incapable of sustained effort, littered with fragments, and not seriously to be compared with the age that went before.

When it comes to the past, scholars are seldom entitled to publish their own opinions. No one wants to be the Victorianist who says that Dickens was nothing special. The monoliths of the past are monolithic in that we can’t disagree with them. Shakespeare was the greatest dramatist in the English language, but that’s because people decided he was a couple of hundred years ago, and few playwrights have even tried to compete. We don’t have different opinions on that now. When it comes to the present, the experts in the past can disagree and be extreme in their devotion or antipathy and it’s all right. The thing is, though, that even scholarly fads change. Walter Scott was once considered one of the most important early nineteenth-century poets who wrote some very influential historical novels, but now he’s largely ignored. Or at least he was when I was getting my degrees ten or fifteen years ago. The trend for the last forty years or so is to look away from the white men and recover works by women and minorities; after all, Byron felt seriously threatened by Mrs Hemans’s popularity, and the first American bestseller was a classic fallen-woman narrative written by a woman. Conrad is held at a distance because of his subhuman portrayal of Africans and Asians, even though in Woolf’s time he was beloved both by the masses and by the critics. And those writers considered obscure or nonacademic in Woolf’s time (evidenced by the fact that they’re included in this book), many are now canonical, like Austen, Brontë, and Eliot. This book focuses on biographies and volumes of letters, so those who only published letters or journals are not as easily embraced by academia. We like poetry and fiction, so this passage about journal-writing is itself a little dated:

Should you wish to make sure that your birthday will be celebrated three hundred years hence, your best course is undoubtedly to keep a diary. Only first be certain that you have the courage to lock your genius in a private book and the humour to gloat over a fame that will be yours only in the grave. For the good diarist writes either for himself alone or for a posterity so distant that it can safely hear every secret and justly weigh every motive. For such an audience there is need neither of affectation nor of restraint. Sincerity is what they ask, detail, and volume; skill with the pen comes in conveniently, but brilliance is not necessary; genius is a hindrance even; and should you know your business and do it manfully, posterity will let you off mixing with great men, reporting famous affairs, or having lain with the first ladies in the land.

Woolf seems most interested in those who refrain from these last three. She assumes her readers to have read the canonical works, and she introduces us to the less frequently taught.

Gently, beautifully, like the clouds of a balmy evening, obscurity once more traverses the sky, an obscurity which is not empty but thick with the star dust of innumerable lives.

Circling back, it’s not just that she’s writing for a general audience, showing them less-known literature, she’s also writing about the general audience. The essays in this volume tend to champion the lives of the not-so-great, the ordinary people who get passed by and whom few consider great. [Perspective: I once read a book that conducted a detailed scientific analysis of nineteenth-century prose styles, counting the ratio of words of dialogue to words of narration, the number of words per sentence, average number of adjectives per noun, that sort of thing. The author, Karl Kroeber, actually felt like he had to apologize for using Austen, C Brontë, and Eliot, because they were clearly inferior to Dickens, Thackeray, and Hardy. The analysis was interesting, he found that Mansfield Park is empirically the most boring Austen novel because it uses dramatically less dialogue and more narration than the others, but the patronizing misogyny was upsetting.] The message seems to be, obscurity does not imply triviality. It’s hard to find anything about me through a Google search, but my friends and family love me, and there are many ways in which my life matters, and has mattered to many different people.

And of course, my favorite essay about writing is here, “The Patron and the Crocus,” with my favorite quotation about writing,

To know whom to write for is to know how to write.

Here on this blog I have several dozen followers, but I don’t deceive myself about their actually reading what I write. There’s a small group of four or five people who read and comment occasionally, and those are the people I write this blog for. If other people read and enjoy it, great. Little bit of trivia: most people who find my blog through an internet search are trying to find out whether Hesse’s Demian is about a gay relationship or not.

It seems a bit odd to acknowledge to myself that even though my favorite book is Ragnarok and I went through four-year obsessions with As I Lay Dying and Mansfield Park, that this is the book that seems to have shaped me the most, the book whose philosophy vibrates in tune with my own heart, one of the most important books to me, even though I haven’t read most of the material she’s reviewing. I love Woolf’s novels, but I love her nonfiction even more – the way that her voice reaches out to me and holds me gently, the way she affirms much that I had already believed, the polite manner in which she sometimes disagrees with me, the way that I feel her to be speaking in my own mind, across the abyss of years, gender, and mental illness. When I read Woolf’s novels, I love her writing and her characters; when I read Woolf’s nonfiction, I love her.

 

BILLY BUDD

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

And yes, it’s quite gay.

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

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

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

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

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

THE PIAZZA TALES

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

The Piazza

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

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

Bartleby

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

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

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

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

Benito Cereno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lightning-Rod Man

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

The Encantadas; or Enchanted Islands

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

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

The Bell-Tower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

I’ve been having trouble with the books I’ve been reading lately. I just don’t have much to say about them. Even if I sit down to write a simple plot summary, I feel absolutely uninspired. I think this one’s going to get me out of the rut, so let’s give it a go.

At this point in his career, Hammett had been publishing short stories for six or seven years. Many of them featured a private investigator with the Continental Detective Agency, San Francisco branch. The Continental Op is never named, but he’s been played on the screen twice, by James Coburn and Christopher Lloyd. Though I’m familiar with them, Coburn from Charade and Lloyd from Back to the Future and The Addams Family, I read the entire book in Humphrey Bogart’s voice. For some reason, every hard-boiled detective I read turns into Bogart, even though I’ve seen more films with William Powell in that role (my favorite is Star of Midnight, with Ginger Rogers). Red Harvest is Hammett’s first novel. Like The Dain Curse, published later the same year and also featuring the Continental Op, it was published serially, which gives it a choppy feel, like Cranford or The Pickwick Papers. But this one is not as choppy as Dain. There’s a nice stop at the end of the first section, but after that it flows pretty well.

The Op never meets his client. He’s supposed to meet a man named Donald Willsson, but Willsson dies before they can meet. Willsson’s father Old Elihu then hires the Op to investigate the death, but the Op tricks him into paying him to clean up the town. You see, Elihu Willsson used to own Personville (aka Poisonville), but then he couldn’t hang onto it, so he brought in some organized crime to keep everything in his own pocket. But the gangsters preferred things in their own pockets, so he lost control. At the time of the story, there are three principal gangs, those belonging to Whisper Thaler, Lew Yard, and Pete the Finn. Then, of course, there’s the police, but Chief Noonan is as bad as the other three. Cleaning up a town like this takes a lot of killing, and this book has a chapter titled “The Seventeenth Murder,” and that’s not the end of the book (or of the murdering). It’s a bit like watching Game of Thrones; if there’s a character in the book, he’s probably dead by the end.

This is 1929, and the writing is more commercial than artistic, so comments on sexuality are kept to a minimum, but some things got me thinking.

On the edge of this congregation I stopped beside a square-set man in rumpled gray clothes. His face was grayish too, even the thick lips, though he wasn’t much older than thirty. His face was broad, thick-featured and intelligent. For color he depended on a red windsor tie that blossomed over his gray flannel shirt.

You see, back when I was a student, I read an article on The Sound and the Fury that claimed that in the late 1920s red neckties were a signal for gay men to recognize each other. The author makes a convincing case for the circus guy that Quentin runs off with, but I haven’t really seen any evidence of it outside of the one book. And then the Op:

I put out a finger and touched a loose end of his tie. “Mean anything? Or just wearing it?”

It turns out that the guy is a leader of the IWW, so communist instead of homosexual. But still, it got me paying attention to some of the other descriptions.

I looked past the beefy man and saw Thaler’s profile. It was young, dark and small, with pretty features as regular as if they had been cut by a die.

“He’s cute,” I said.

Another description of Thaler:

A smallish young man in three shades of brown crossed the street ahead of me. His dark profile was pretty.

He just keeps reminding us that Thaler is pretty:

There were five of us. Thaler sat down and lit a cigarette, a small dark young man with a face that was pretty in a chorusman way until you took another look at the thin hard mouth. An angular blond kid of no more than twenty in tweeds sprawled on his back on a couch and blew cigarette smoke at the ceiling. Another boy, as blond and as young, but not so angular, was busy straightening his scarlet tie, smoothing his yellow hair. A thin-faced man of thirty with little or no chin under a wide loose mouth wandered up and down the room looking bored and humming Rosy Cheeks.

Which sounds more like the opening scene of a gay porno than the eye of the storm in a shootout. Maybe the red tie means something after all.

And another guy:

At the First National Bank I got hold of an assistant cashier named Albury, a nice-looking blond youngster of twenty-five or so.

And him again:

The flush in his pleasant young face deepened and he spoke hesitantly.

So there are all of these handsome men running around, all orbiting around a single female star:

She was an inch or two taller than I, which made her about five feet eight. She had a broad-shouldered, full-breasted, round-hipped body and big muscular legs. The hand she gave me was soft, warm, strong. Her face was the face of a girl of twenty-five already showing signs of wear. Little lines crossed the corners of her big ripe mouth. Fainter lines were beginning to make nets around her thick-lashed eyes. They were large eyes, blue and a bit blood-shot.

Her coarse hair – brown – needed trimming and was parted crookedly. One side of her upper lip had been rouged higher than the other. Her dress was of a particularly unbecoming wine color, and it gaped here and there down one side, where she had neglected to snap the fasteners or they had popped open. There was a run down the front of her left stocking.

This was the Dinah Brand who took her pick of Poisonville’s men, according to what I had heard.

The Op’s description of Miss Brand is lavish, detailed, voluptuous even, more so than that of any of the men, but what is missing? There is no appraisal. The Op doesn’t tell us she’s beautiful, or pretty, or cute, or any such thing. He scans her for clues, not for attraction. You could read some scenes as implying that he sleeps with her, but there are equivalent private drinks with Albury and other men. I’m not saying that either the Op or Hammett was gay; I’m just saying that it’s a possibility, and that bisexuality was a lot more common before we put a name to it.

This is not a book for people who grow attached to their characters, nor is it a book for people who are uncomfortable with books about people dying left and right. People die, sometimes because the protagonist shoots them. Them’s the breaks, kid. On the other hand, Dashiell Hammett is a monolith of detective fiction, and this, his first novel, is on a few lists of “Best American Novels.” It’s good, gripping, and despite all the death, Hammett’s prose seems to live. There is something vital and compelling about his work. It’s hard to let go of one of his stories. Fortunately, they’re not that long. Short and suspenseful; good adjectives for detective fiction. It’s what makes him one of the best.

This one has been floating at the edge of my life for quite a while now. My ninth grade students had to study it this past spring, and now some of my intermediate language students are reading a simplified version. One of the advanced students retold it for her “Write a love story” assignment, so I decided to stop fighting the world’s tide and reread it.

One of the things that strikes me is how unified the play is. Typically Shakespeare gives a minor plotline that converges on the main story, like the Fortinbras part of Hamlet, or the Beatrice and Benedick love story in Much Ado. There’s some displaced focus when we think of the Capulets’ scheme to marry Juliet to Paris, but that part is so closely tied to Juliet’s despair that it doesn’t feel like an interlude.

When I was in grad school, my Shakespeare professor made the comment that things don’t make much sense to us in Twelfth Night because it’s a world run by teenagers, Olivia and Orsino being fairly young. I think R+J has the same feel, even though the parents are more adult. I’ve met some people who became parents as teenagers and have become unusually mature for their age group; I’ve also met some who abdicate responsibility for their children (giving them to Juliet’s Nurse, for example), and so they never really grow up. Lady Capulet is actually a sizable role, but she’s not the type of parent I want to be.

Reading it this time, my attention was centered on Friar Laurence. I suppose that’s because, as a teacher, he is the main character I have the most in common with. He wants to fix all of society’s problems, but in aiming too high he kills his students – an outcome I have avoided, and hope to continue to avoid. I was also struck with the similarity between him and Benvolio; they both try and fail to keep the peace, and they serve the same function, the innocent witness who reports the murders. And for all that he is typically portrayed as getting drunk with Mercutio at the Capulets’ party, there is something a little monastic about Benvolio.

I watched the video of a performance at the Globe Theatre, which I can now compare with the Zeffirelli and Luhrmann films. In this performance, Romeo and Tybalt are black; I can appreciate the effort to get some different ethnicities into the play (Friar Laurence is a nonwhite New Zealander), but did they have to make the two murderers black? And no one else? In terms of racial stereotypes, this is not exactly a step forward. I prefer Luhrmann’s choices, of using black actors as the authority figure and the victim. Mercutio gets caught in the middle of a fight between white people, which is sort of what happened to the entire continent of Africa. If Adetomiwa Edun were amazing as Romeo, like Harold Perrineau is as Mercutio, I might not have been too bothered, but frankly, I thought most of the Globe’s cast was fairly wooden. Romeo bounces all over the stage like a nutter on Ritalin, even when he’s supposed to be desperate because of Rosaline’s indifference. Benvolio is one of those guys whose acting style is, “The director told me to stand here and talk, and on this line he told me to walk to this point and watch Romeo talk.” There’s very little natural movement or heartfelt emotion. I was impressed with Fergal McElherron, who plays three of the minor parts but plays them all very differently, and their Mercutio, Philip Cumbus. The audience pretty much ignored the verbal sparring and laughed only at the sex jokes, but Cumbus managed to do both very well. I like my men to be a little cocky, and Cumbus and Perrineau both do Mercutio very well. That being said, I prefer Zeffirelli’s take on the death scene: in his film, Tybalt and Mercutio only play at fighting; it’s not serious until Romeo comes between them and Tybalt accidentally kills him. The Montagues laugh all the way through his “plague on both your houses” speech because they still haven’t figured out that he’s being serious, or that he’s been seriously injured. Luhrmann’s film is more violent in general, so when Mercutio gets stabbed with a shard of glass it’s upsetting but not surprising. The Globe’s fighting is always straightforward, which in some ways robs it of the shock that the other two films have.

I have never been terribly interested in Romeo. He’s always so generic. All anyone cares about is whether he’s handsome, and actors generally are, so there’s not much to say about him. I’m a much bigger fan of Tybalt. Especially John Leguizamo. He’s so badass. I suppose there’s a part of me that responds to Tybalt’s rage; for a single-emotion character, I always find him very appealing.

But what about Juliet? I find Zeffirelli’s Juliet completely forgettable (my apologies, but that’s the most complimentary I can be). Claire Danes is fine I guess; her Juliet is very similar to her Beth March, sweet and innocent and affectionate, the kind of girl every boy wants to marry. But Ellie Kendrick really makes Juliet interesting. Danes is educated and intellectual in her real life, but I didn’t see much of that in this performance. Kendrick’s performance is the first smart Juliet I’ve seen. Unlike most of the actors, with her I could tell that she knew what her lines meant. She doesn’t just reel them off as quickly as she can so that no one can understand her (Romeo and Benvolio, I’m looking at you); she puts thought and expression into everything. I found myself growing impatient with the scenes that didn’t have her in them; she was clearly the best part of the show. I especially liked the scene where Juliet learns of Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment; I felt like I was watching a mad scene in an opera, as in Lucia di Lammermoor. Her Juliet has an Ophelia quality that most of them lack.   When Danes pulls the gun on the priest I’m always a little confused at her sudden intensity, but Kendrick makes a believable transition between happy innocence and suicidal grief. And yes, her characterization here is similar to her role in Being Human, so maybe she’s a cute nerdy girl in real life, but that’s not really a problem for me. Every actor brings to a character some aspects of her real self; the trick to good acting is knowing which aspects to bring to which character. Like any other art form, acting is a mode of self-expression.

No matter what people say, Romeo and Juliet is not the greatest love story ever. It has become one of the most recognizable, the most copied, the most archetypal, but never the greatest. Two kids fall in love and kill themselves a few days later – this isn’t a grand passion, it’s deranged. Let them live in love for more than a week. Let them overcome obstacles instead of faking suicide (and then really committing suicide) at the first hurdle. Capulet has nothing but good things to say about Romeo at the party, but Juliet never gives her parents a chance to approve of the match. Basically, these kids would rather die than tell their parents they’re dating. The behavior of the fathers at the end of the play makes me think that they could have buried the hatchet without their children dying – the marriage with no possibility of divorce (or annulment, since they consummated) would have done the trick. It’s not like they took ten minutes to think about it; they jumped straight into reconciliation as if they’d been wanting this for a long time without knowing how to do it without a pretext.

Maybe this play is like Oliver Twist; I’m getting too old to enjoy it. My own love stories are very different. I might be attracted to someone at first glance, but I need more than a few flirty puns to fall in love. And I can recognize the difference between infatuation and real love. I may fall in love quickly, but I’m not going to let it cripple or kill me. I’m determined to stay alive no matter what my emotional state may become. If getting divorced didn’t kill me, I’m not going to let anything else.