Posts Tagged ‘dickens’

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (J. K. Rowling)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J. K. Rowling)

Harry Potter undergoes a transformation here, and I’m not sure if people talk about it. In Book Three, having become fed up with his nonmagical family, he grabs his school things and wanders into the night. He takes a bus to London and puts himself up in a public house for a week or two, at the age of thirteen. Harry is no longer a poor boy who suddenly finds himself with money; he’s a rich kid who didn’t have access to his accounts over the summer. The Dursleys are no longer the permanent reality; they’ve become a temporary inconvenience while he waits to get back to his ‘real’ life. Harry has begun to act privileged. And while I love this book a lot, it might be my favorite of the four I’ve reread this year, I don’t really have a whole bunch to say about it.

In the fourth book Hermione responds to the privilege being enacted around her by trying to unionize the house-elves. There’s some discomfort here in Rowling’s portrayal – it’s a common thread in British literature that some people are born to be servants and they’re only happy if they have a firm master who knows how to keep them in their place. We often call it colonialism, though it seems to apply to Dickens’s servants as well. There’s less of a sense of personal obligation and affection with the house-elves, but it’s just as alarming. They are almost all happier as slaves because their sense of identity comes from their service. Without a master, a house-elf sees herself as nothing, a failure. Winky is so programmed this way that of course she ends up an embarrassing drunk.

I also wanted to complain about the message of gender roles that the film teaches that isn’t supported in the book. In the book, there’s a mix of genders from both of the foreign schools, but in the film Durmstrang has boys and Beauxbatons has girls. Why? Is it so inconceivable that Fleur Delacour could be chosen as a champion when she’s competing against boys? Are Frenchmen unfilmable? Their movie industry would lead me to believe that isn’t true, nor does being French make a man effete. I also don’t think there’s anything especially masculinizing about Eastern Europe – their women are strong and beautiful, quite the equal of women from any other part of the world. Okay, so now I can’t remember any moments with Durmstrang girls in the book, but if there is sexism in the selection process we can blame it on the fact that Karkaroff is a bad guy.

Just a quick review – in Book Two the government responds ineffectually to a crisis; in Book Three two innocents are condemned to death and the main characters help them escape; and now in Book Four the highest government officials refuse to accept what is happening in front of them and begin the policy of denial that leads to so much trouble later on. It’s not often a series of children’s books represents this type of authority figure as being neither good nor evil, just stupid in a realistic, non-cartoonish way. It reminds me of the importance of choosing the right people to lead the community, as if living in the United States for the last three years hasn’t been enough of a lesson in that.

 

The Coming of the Quantum Cats (Friederik Pohl)

I was really disappointed by the lack of interstellar feline companions in this book. The title comes from Schroedinger’s cat, the thought experiment about how observation influences reality. By now, most of western culture is familiar with the idea of multiple dimensions of reality, or the multiverse: every time you make a choice, reality splits to create two parallel worlds, one where you turned right and one where you turned left. In this book Pohl explores the idea of travelling between these alternate realities. When we first meet Dominic Desota, he’s a mortgage officer in a world where North America has been taken over by Arabs. He gets arrested for taking his shirt off at a public swimming pool. There’s another world where he’s a senator, and a third where he’s a quantum physicist, and a fourth where he’s a mid-ranking soldier. Major Desota’s America has decided to invade and colonize the other realities, which makes the boundaries between thinner and thinner, so that people, objects, and weather events start slipping into the wrong reality. It’s really interesting to see the same group of characters cast in different roles, but when things get going Pohl pulls a deus ex machina out of thin air, so the plot ended up being disappointing. The bad thing about Cold War-era environmental novels is the idea that there’s always somewhere else we can go. If we screw up this planet, we can just blast off in a rocket to another. If we damage this reality, there’s always an unspoiled Eden dimension we can shift to. In the 1980s we never had to learn from our mistakes, no matter how destructive they were.

 

The City and the City (China Miéville)

Now, remember all that alternate reality stuff and imagine applying it to just one city. At some point in the past, we’re not sure how or why, the city bifurcated into two realities – Beszel is eastern European and Ul Qoma is southwest Asian, but they overlap. Some areas of the city are completely one or the other, and some are crosshatched. There are strict laws about crossing from one to the other, so people have developed a set of visual cues to establish their reality – colors and mannerisms are defined by which city you’re in. The people train themselves to see only their reality, and they ignore (unsee) the people and buildings in the other. Protagonist lives in Beszel, but an Ul Qoma commuter train goes right by his front windows, which he is partially aware of some of the time, as the commuters are only ever partially aware of him. There is a border crossing with customs agents and everything, but you can shift between cities if you start noticing what you’re not supposed to see. It’s illegal and the mysterious secret police will come, but you can do it.

All that being said, this isn’t a sci-fi book like the Pohl was. This is a Raymond Chandler-style noir murder mystery. The critics invite Kafka comparisons, but I think that’s out of place. Orwell is a little nearer the mark, but this isn’t a representation of where we could be going, and I guess you could make arguments about immigration and open borders, but it doesn’t seem closely related to our world at all. Miéville does follow the dialectic structure – Thesis/Beszel, Antithesis/Ul Qoma, Synthesis/Breach – but the government isn’t the primary antagonist like it is in 1984. It’s much more of an old-school mystery than it is anything else, so as ever, just ignore the quotes from critics that are chosen to convince you to buy the book. Besides, comparing any author to our cultural monoliths does him a disservice. If you spend your time thinking about how similar (or not) he is to Kafka, you don’t notice how great he is in himself. This is a fantastic, compelling book in its own right, a fascinating mashup of two of my favorite genres, so let’s celebrate that.

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Let’s take a moment to remember what Stevenson has written up until this point: Treasure Island, Prince Otto, and Kidnapped. All three of these were adventure stories, written primarily for a younger, male audience. His style represents a transition from the loquaciousness of his Victorian contemporaries to the bare, “hard boiled” narration of twentieth-century genre fiction. But apparently that style hasn’t suited everyone, and before the story he references specifically “The Critic on the Hearth,” both a play on the Dickens title and an appropriate yet affectionate title for his wife. In The Black Arrow, he claims to be trying to merge his boy adventures with the type of story (and writing) that traditional novel readers enjoy – in other words, he says that he’s going to infuse some Dickens and Brontë into this one. I suppose it’s because he’s finally writing about a young man who is interested in a woman.

As the subtitle suggests, this story takes place during the Wars of the Roses, though Stevenson seems to avoid taking sides in the York/Lancaster debate. His message is at least partly that it doesn’t matter what side of a war you fight on, because in the end war is a way for the rich to get richer and the poor to die. The poor, realizing this, are hesitant to involve themselves. It doesn’t help that in a civil war of this type, the people they are fighting and killing are their friends and neighbors, all hyped up over one cause or the other. It’s not a happy world to drop your characters into. Displacing the characters in time gives Stevenson the chance to use some archaisms, but not enough to make it seem written back in the fifteenth century.

This is the story of Dick Shelton, told in five acts. In Act I, he’s a young teenager who’s more interested in fighting than in girls. In his guardian’s house he meets a young man on the opposite side, and incautiously promises to guide him to Holywood. So they run off on a secret adventure, and it’s all very homosocial and Kidnapped-esque. But this time, lest anyone think Dick is actually gay, Stevenson pulls a Shakespearean stunt and Jack Matcham is really Joan Sedley, so all those jokes that people were making about Jack being a girly boy were quite accurate. And remember, it’s okay to fall in love with someone of the same sex if they turn out to have been lying about their sex all along. They don’t quite make it to Holywood before Dick’s guardian Sir Daniel recaptures them

In Act II, Dick has to face some home truths about Sir Daniel – his guardian killed his father and persuaded him to believe it was someone else. His life and the love of his new father figure is all a lie, so he goes all rampage and joins The Black Arrow, a group of outlaw archers who live in the forest and are bent on killing Sir Daniel for having killed Dick’s father, among others. Sir Daniel has flipped sides in the war a few times, so The Black Arrow is not wedded to a white or a red rose either. They just care about avenging the wrongs of Sir Daniel and his cohorts. Dick decides that he wants to marry Joan, which is a bit of a challenge because Sir Daniel is keeping her captive so he can sell her in marriage to a rich noble. Doesn’t matter which one, so long as he’s rich and is willing to pay for a really young wife.

In Act III, Dick tries to rescue Joan the first time. He and his Arrows steal a ship and try to come around by the shore, the only ingress unguarded. A huge storm blows up and his men are too sick and scared to fight, and they come into conflict with Lord Foxham and his men. Foxham is Joan’s rightful guardian, and he’s also trying to get her back from Sir Daniel. After they end the first battle, Foxham and Dick team up. They try again, and are unsuccessful again. This time Foxham is seriously wounded and has to go recuperate for a long time. The message here? (1) You’re not going to get the girl and resolve the action in Act III of a five-act play, and (2) Stealing boats is not the right way to go about doing anything.

In Act IV, Dick teams up with the only guy who kept his head during the storm at sea. They disguise themselves as friars to sneak into Sir Daniel’s but they just end up captured and needing to break out again. Dick does meet up with Joan for a short time, but they are quickly separated. We also meet her friend Alicia, Lord Risingham’s niece. Both girls are kind of badass, but hindered by the gender roles of their time. It’s hard to run in a medieval princess dress. At least they didn’t have to wear those cone hats with the veils.

Act V. Dick ditches Lawless and becomes an officer under the Duke of Gloucester, he who will become King Richard III. Gloucester is presented as ruthless and efficient, but still young. Reading Shakespeare I always pictured Richard III as an older man, but when he died he was five years younger than I am now, so maybe young and stupid was always part of his problem. He never outgrew the adolescent need to see everything in terms of black and white. Dick does well with a barricade and is knighted, then drops from favor just as quickly when he pisses Richard off. He saves the girl, forgives the bad guy (but in forgiving holds him in one place long enough for the leader of The Black Arrow to shoot him), and they almost all live happily ever after. Well, until their natural deaths. There is no living ever after in a story set four hundred years before it’s written.

If there’s a big lesson here, it’s that Dick has to learn that his actions have consequences. He’s so focused on his goal of saving the girl that he bumbles around doing shitty things to other people and being surprised when they respond negatively, and when they turn back up in town and respond negatively again. The story takes place in and around one town; it’s kind of dumb to think that people are going to just go away. There is a war on, but you can’t expect the people you don’t like to die and the people you do like to live. Life isn’t that tidy.

So. Did Stevenson succeed? Well, he finally does have realistic female characters, and Dick realizes that he’s turned on by a girl who’s going to call him out on his shit, but this is still the same kind of adventure story he’s been writing before. The girls are awesome, but we don’t get to see them much. They’re damsels in distress, but that distress is mainly caused by the fact that they can’t wear trousers or take fencing lessons. Given the chance, I’m sure they could manage their own problems. There’s an independence of mind that Stevenson’s previous novels haven’t afforded women, so in that sense this book is a step forward. People who read novels for psychological studies and mature themes are still going to be disappointed; it’s still aimed at the younger male audience, full of unnecessary violence and idiotic attempts at heroism. I suppose that could be another message, don’t set people up as heroes because they’re as fallible as you and will inevitably let you down. But it’s an early Stevenson novel, fun in a late Victorian sort of a way.

What a disappointing experience.

The textual history reveals a lot: Dumas published The Black Tulip in France in 1850, at a time when international copyright laws were either nonexistent or poorly enforced. The book was immediately translated into English in New York. In Belgium, the original French text was slightly abridged, cutting roughly 5% of the text. The Belgian edition was then taken to England. Therefore, the American edition is more authentic than the British, but Oxford UP chose to use the British text (the only reason I can think of to do this is nationalistic fervor). The editor of this edition seems to have a lot of doubts as to which text to use: he seems a little snarky about having cut some parts, and also a little snarky about the Romantic excesses that were cut. I got the impression he wasn’t happy with the project or the finished product. And one of the important things is, I like the Romantic excesses. The longwinded descriptions of the setting, the melodramatic situations and speeches, the weirdly out-of-place moralistic commentary, all of these are reasons I like to read nineteenth-century novels, but they are the parts of the book the Belgians excised. The book was already noticeably shorter than Dumas’s previous novels, so why cut anything?

dumas

But, focusing on what we do have. Like A Tale of Two Cities, this is a historical novel that deals with the danger of crowds in foreign countries. We begin with the murder of the De Witte brothers in 1672 (I’m using Dumas’s spellings, which are different than the original Dutch). To refresh your Dutch history, the De Wittes were prominent figures in national politics. Cornelius (the older) was involved in some important naval victories, and John (the younger) became the Grand Pensionary, a high government position that some claim is very similar to Prime Minister, and others claim is nothing like. However, they were republicans, which made them very popular with Dumas and other Frenchmen a hundred and fifty years after their deaths, but not so popular with the people of their own time. The wealthy were in favor of a republic, but the middle and lower classes preferred a monarchy under the House of Orange. William, chief representative of the family, was still a very young man at the time, and had even been tutored by John De Witte. The first four chapters tell about their deaths – Cornelius was imprisoned for treason and sentenced to a life of exile (not convicted because he didn’t confess on the rack), but when John was taking him to the carriage to leave the country a mob pounced on them and killed them both. They were hanged by their feet, disemboweled, and cannibalized. Dumas’s descriptions are graphic but economic.

When the evil spirit has once taken hold of the heart of man, it urges him on without letting him stop.

Our real main characters are Cornelius Van Baerle, Cornelius De Witte’s godson, and Rosa Gryphus, the jailer’s daughter.

He was one of those choice spirits who abhor everything that is common, and who often lose a good chance through not taking the way of the vulgar, that high road of mediocrity which leads to everything.

Cornelius is one of those unworldly characters who seems to have money without knowing where it comes from. He’s obsessed with tulips, and when the Horticultural Society offers an obscene reward for cultivating a black tulip, he gets right to it. His next-door neighbor is also obsessed with tulips, but Van Baerle is so successful that Isaac Boxtel eventually gives up growing anything on his own account and just stares at his neighbor through a telescope. When Van Baerle has the bulbs that will grow the black tulip, Boxtel denounces him to the Orangist government and he’s imprisoned. Van Baerle and Rosa fall in love, though she gets jealous of his flowers. She finds a way to grow his black tulip, and when it comes to flower, Boxtel steals it and passes it off as his own. She proves her ownership, though, as well as Van Baerle’s innocence, and they two live happily ever after while Boxtel falls dead for no apparent reason as soon as his guilt is proven. It’s a short, syrupy little story, about an extraordinary woman raised in ordinary circumstances who proves her own worth to the highest personage in the land.

I’ve heard that the protagonist is really the person who changes the most, and while Van Baerle does learn to love a woman more than a flower, and Rosa gains confidence and freedom through literacy education, I think the biggest change is in that shadowy character William of Orange. Initially he engineers the mob’s murder of the De Wittes (that’s not historical fact, by the way), but by the end he orchestrates Van Baerle’s public exoneration. He goes from villain to hero. Because of this radical change, I want to see more of him. Can I have at least one interior monologue about his remorse and desire for redemption? Apparently not. These characters are more puppets than people, and we don’t look for emotional depth in a Punch and Judy show.

If you read this book, please keep in mind that Dumas did not care about historical or scientific accuracy. The historical events didn’t quite happen the way he writes them, and his botany is atrocious. Do not use this book as a manual on how to grow any tulip, black or otherwise. Don’t even look for verisimilitude in his scientific methods. All he cares about is the story, and everything else can go to hell. If all you want is a short fluffy romance with a sprinkling of historical flavor, then go ahead and read this one. If you’re deep into Victorian novels, you’ll be as disappointed as I was.

 

I’ve been in the mood for this book for a while, and I think it’s because my subconscious has been trying to remind me of this:

I never think those men wise who for any worldly interest forego the greatest happiness of their lives.

And this is precisely what I’ve been doing, accepting the fragments of love from someone who has been financially useful to me, finding jobs far away from my children, seeing my dearest friends on Facebook instead of in real life. Now, my life in the last five years has been amazing – reading Gone with the Wind in a New York subway station at two in the morning, kissing the man I’ve loved since I was nineteen (and watching him run away), flying over the Mediterranean and the Sahara, seeing the Moulin Rouge and the Eiffel Tower with a handsome North African, watching an enormous religious pageant in Nauvoo with a group of gay Mormons, attending The Big Gay Church in Dallas with more than a thousand strangers, playing house with a Midwestern man who is determined to be as conventional as possible – but my happiest times have all been right here in North Carolina. I don’t know if this is the residence I’ll settle down in, but this is clearly the best place for me. As I was looking back through the summer’s entries last week, it struck me that my search for happiness has been a dominant theme these past months, and I hope that I’ve found it. I’m underemployed, and threatened with eviction if I don’t find more work, but I don’t feel nearly as frantic as I should. There is a feeling of deep contentment here, which I have missed. This move may have been foolish from a financial standpoint, but there are other considerations which I hope will prove this to have been a wise decision.

There is nothing more difficult than to lay down any fixed and certain rules for happiness; or indeed to judge with any precision of the happiness of others, from the knowledge of external circumstances. There is sometimes a little speck of black in the brightest and gayest colours of fortune, which contaminates and deadens the whole. On the contrary, when all without looks dark and dismal, there is often a secret ray of light within the mind, which turns every thing to real joy and gladness.

Perhaps some day I will meet a man who will give me such a secret ray of light, but I can assure you he is as yet hypothetical.

Fielding is writing in 1751, which means that while his earlier novels were delightfully bawdy with a few too many lurid details, he is more reserved now. This is after the Fanny Hill trial, which proved that writers can be fined and imprisoned for obscenity. In many ways this story is much more serious than Tom Jones or Joseph Andrews, with more sharply pointed satire. Think of it as a predecessor of Bleak House. Our protagonist, William Booth, is always falling into some legal scrape or another – I think he ends up in jail three times – and his devoted wife Amelia is always (indirectly) rescuing him. Booth’s problems generally come about because he trusts people and institutions, and only in the end do others figure out how to make the system work for him.

Fielding has dropped much of the mock epic from his style, but there are several allusions and quotations to the ancient Latin and Greek authors, and our story is divided into twelve books like the Homeric epics. We also begin in medias res, with Booth being brought before the justice, and we get the backstory later, Books 2, 3, and 7 being taken up with flashbacks. The editor claims to have corrected Fielding’s spelling, or at least modernized, but he changes the spelling of ‘gaol’ to ‘goal,’ which is a very different word and even an indifferent Enlightenment scholar like myself recognizes the mistake. He does, however, preserve the variations on Amelia’s name, which are more due to sound than spelling – she can become Emily at a moment’s notice.

This is a book about sex and money, the different ways that one can be exchanged for the other. As I said, the racy bits are all glossed over in such a way that even the most prim reader would be hard pressed to find something to complain about, though I imagine that if the most prim reader were reading eighteenth-century novels, she actually wouldn’t mind a little hard pressing.

Booth gets locked up in Book 1 because he’s poor. The justice examining his case knows and cares little about the law and always sides with whoever looks richest. There, he runs into an old flame, Miss Matthews. He tells her about his happy marriage with Amelia, despite their difficulties, and Miss decides to sleep with him. Because this preliminary type of jail is co-ed, he spends the better part of a week fucking her while she pays for the room and food. He feels terribly guilty about it, but not guilty enough to stop, and not guilty enough to confess when Amelia finds him and brings him home.

Booth’s major problem is that he’s poor. He was an officer in the army, but a couple of injuries sent him back to London on a fraction of his former salary. He spends this latter two-thirds of the book trying to find favor with powerful friends who can effect a return to gainful employment by using their influence to get him a new commission. While Fielding’s satire is mainly directed against his own profession, the law, this system of patronage comes under close scrutiny as well. Booth doesn’t know how to do anything except be a soldier, but in order to get that sort of job again, he has to bribe the right guy, whether a higher ranking officer like Colonel James or a peer like the unnamed lord, and then hope that his patron’s word is good enough to get him into a good position, or any position at all. As a result, Booth spends most of the book in debt, too afraid of the law to leave the house. He does get arrested for debt twice, but Amelia is keeping a closer eye on him this time, so he doesn’t get to spend his jail time in another woman’s bed.

Booth’s major obstacle to advancement is, unfortunately, his wife’s chastity. These guys keep promising to help Booth get ahead, but once they meet his wife they decide not to move on his case until they can move on her. She’s innocent, but her friend Mrs Bennet gives her a timely warning. Book 7, her backstory, is a rather sad story which feels a little too modern for comfort. The unnamed lord promises to help her poor husband advance, all out of deference to her, then engineers a situation where the husband is out of town and the wife is invited to a masquerade. At the masquerade he slips an Enlightenment Rohypnol into her drink and rapes her while she’s too impaired to resist. Apparently this has been the price of preferment all along. When the husband finds out, the stress kills him and she’s left with nothing. Using this story to demonstrate the evils of patronage seems timely to us, but Fielding does stick with some conventional misogyny, using her learning of the Latin classics in the original language to lampoon the idea of women getting a decent education. This is an eighteenth-century novel, after all, so the castoff mistress gets married to a sidekick, eventually deciding that it is better to have a husband who loves her and has common sense than one who can keep up with her in a literary discussion. Indeed, the men who can match her in learning have so entrenched an idea of women’s inferiority that they spend their time insulting her instead of respecting her.

Well, when Amelia finally figures out what’s been going on, why the peer has been making gifts to her children and promises to her husband, she gets out of that trap right quick. And then the colonel tries the exact same trick, with the exact same success. The last few books involve men tricking Booth into debt so that they can imprison him and try to date-rape his wife. Fortunately for Booth, his wife’s fidelity is stronger than any man who tries to tempt her, even after she knows about the affair with Miss Matthews. As a reader, I feel a little cheated that we don’t get to see her reaction to this, but when Booth finally confesses she tells him that she’s known about it for a while now, and already forgiven him. This seems to be the crux, the issue that proves she’s a perfect wife: quick to forgive her husband for straying, but absolutely determined never to stray herself. The double standard feels outdated to me, but in the twenty-first century we have different expectations for women and chastity.

Another significant character is Doctor Harrison, Amelia’s priest. He’s always hovering around, disapproving of Booth, Mrs Bennet, and nearly everyone except Amelia. He represents the voice of Christian morality and all its weird biases. Booth and Amelia spend a lot of the earlier part of the book laughing at other people, but the longer Doctor Harrison is around the more inclined they are to be serious. Booth spends most of the book as a sort of closet atheist, saying things like,

Compassion, if thoroughly examined, will, I believe, appear to be the fellow-feeling only of men of the same rank and degree of life for one another, on account of the evils to which they themselves are liable. Our sensations are, I am afraid, very cold towards those who are at a great distance from us, and whose calamities can consequently never reach us.

Which Doctor Harrison would be quick to contradict with his words and confirm with his behavior. Personally, I think Booth is right. In my life, I have found that living is more bearable if I limit my awareness of the world’s ills. There is so much wrong with the world and so little I can do about it that I used to get depressed over this all the time. I had to learn to stop caring so much about people I will never meet and can do nothing to assist. I need to focus my emotional life on what’s immediately around me or I will drown in the sea of suffering that is 2017. This may sound cold and selfish, but it’s how I attend to my own survival. Compassion has to have its limits, or the one who lives it will destroy herself.

The ending feels a little tacked-on, as if Fielding knew he had passed five hundred pages and needed to end the book quickly. Booth gets reconverted to Christianity in jail, a minor character from Book 1 reappears with the key to Amelia’s fortune, Doctor Harrison pushes his testimony through the court system and they all end up rich. Except for the bad people, who end up unhappy, dead, or both.

This book is great for people who are into dramatic serials, but aren’t intimidated by eighteenth-century language or excessively frustrated by eighteenth-century gender roles and morality. Betrayals, shifting alliances, and sex, it sounds like an HBO show. There was a BBC serial in the 1960s, but it’s been lost. Maybe now that viewers are demonstrating more interest in this type of story, it’s time for a new film. I know I’d watch it.

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.