Posts Tagged ‘family’

August

Hide and Seek (Wilkie Collins)

In this novel Collins starts his interest in writing about the disabled, with Magdalen as his deaf heroine. She’s a real angel in the house, and we conclude with the same brother/sister ending that we had in Basil. I’m kind of hoping that he gets off of this kick, because while I do acknowledge the validity of love between people who aren’t having sex, the fact that Collins keeps replacing the traditional married couple with a pair of siblings makes me wonder about the nature of the relationship, especially in a story like this one where the two kids don’t know about their consanguinity for most of the birth-mystery plot, so they toy with romance a bit before they realize. One of the strongest themes for me is the suspect nature of visibly excessive virtue – the people who are strictest with others have the most to hide, as in all those leaders of conversion therapy camps who later come out as gay. And not the quiet, domestic sort of gay that I am – we’re talking rowdy rent boys in loud techno sex clubs gay.

Sunjata (Bamba Suso and Banna Kanute)

This is a west African epic, in this edition transcribed from a couple of performances by famous bards. It is difficult to capture the magic of a live performance in a written medium, but the editor sure tries his hardest. I think this edition is useful for those of us who are interested in traditional stories but don’t have our own immediate access to traditional African bards.

Zeus is Undead: This One Has Zombies (Michael G. Munz)

The sequel to Zeus is Dead, which I read back in June. The characters who annoyed me in the first book are either absent or only appear in cameos, so I prefer this one. Instead of drifting around to several different characters, Munz keeps a much tighter focus on a single protagonist, Athena trying to win back her divinity by solving the mystery of the zombies’ origin. As with any good sequel, this book is about the consequences of what happened in the previous book, and you can’t just go around killing goddesses and expect nothing bad to happen.

Sugar and Other Stories (A. S. Byatt)

Reading this book, I was actually wondering what I was going to write about it here. I thought about aboutness, a real word/concept we use in cataloging. This book is about the emotional lives of intelligent women. [Find me a Library of Congress Subject Heading for that.] Like many of the women in this book, I was a smart child who grew up and wanted to be known for his heart rather than his brain. So many people treated me like a disembodied intellect, and I went along with it – it’s rather a job to make up for lost time and balance myself out now. I recognize that it’s easier for me to be smart because I’m a man and people either expect me to be intelligent or at least to believe in my own intelligence, which is the opposite of what they expect of women. Byatt’s argument, here and in many of her other early works, seems to be that women have both heads and hearts, and can use both effectively, even simultaneously.

The Lord Won’t Mind (Gordon Merrick)

Okay, so I recognize the groundbreaking nature of having written a gay romance in 1969. I know the cultural issues surrounding coming of age in the United States in 1940. But the protagonist of this book is so racist, so misogynist, so homophobic, so toxic that I had a hard time reading about him. Charlie is a terrible person who, when a girl sets boundaries about what he can do with her body, thinks that he ought to rape her because she ‘deserves’ it. There is a lot of explicit gay sex in the first part of the novel, and it’s really hot and really works for me, but then Charlie gets all stupid and breaks up with Peter and marries the first woman he can find. Then he gets abusive and breaks up with her, after he’s beaten her so hard that she’ll never act again, and go finds Peter again. Peter has been nothing but sweet, honest, and tolerant this whole time, so I really worry that Charlie’s going to beat the shit out of him too, leaving him too disfigured to turn tricks, so I don’t want to read the sequels. Charlie’s not anyone I want to spend my time reading about.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

A novel without a real plot. Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan about the cities he’s visited and heard of in his travels, most of which are impossible to really exist. They all have women’s names, so I wonder if he’s speaking metaphorically about people he’s met. As the stories go on, it becomes less easy to know what’s real and what isn’t, who’s speaking and who’s listening, and where the story is being created, if there even is one. It might be a bit destabilizing, but I thought it was very good.

Weight (Jeanette Winterson)

Yes, I’ve read this book before. I enjoyed it thoroughly; I’m allowed to reread. It’s easy to focus on Atlas, the man carrying a heavy burden who learns to let it go. This time I saw the story of Heracles, the bragging, self-centered idiot who is changed by carrying a weight too heavy for him that he dare not lay down. It’s not just the physical weight of the world; it’s the weight of being alone, afraid that the loneliness will never end. When it does end, he’s still changed by it.

The Invention of Heterosexuality (Jonathan Ned Katz)

If you will recall, a little more than a hundred years ago people in the United States created the concept of whiteness as a way to pacify the masses of poor immigrants, I’m thinking of the Irish and southern Europeans. Yes, your lives are shit and no one will hire you or speak to you in a language you can understand, but at least you’re not black. You’re white, and there will always be a place in our slums for you. Katz gives a similar historical survey of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, tracing the formation of the heterosexual identity. As gays and lesbians became more vocal about their existence, innate dignity, and basic human rights, heterosexuals began to examine their own sexual orientation identity and to codify what it means to be ‘straight’. In what situations is it acceptable for same-gender heterosexuals to express affection, and how should it be expressed? What habits of dress, mannerism, and behavior characterize the heterosexual American? The book is very interesting in looking at the changing nature of ‘normal’ and the codification of homophobia; I don’t think it should be labeled for gay/lesbian studies (eh-hem, publisher who printed that on the back of the book). I think that in some places Katz’s analysis is a little slap-dash, and his understanding of American history seems a bit incomplete (we didn’t all land at Plymouth Rock), but there’s still a lot of value here. I think this book is a good starting place, but that we need more granular perspectives, a closer reading of specific times and places. The United States is hardly a single monoculture, even today. Katz tends to homogenize the country as he decries the homogenization it performs on itself.

Let’s Talk About Love (Claire Kann)

YA asexual romance. Protagonist is a biromantic asexual college student, starting with the breakup from the girlfriend she loves but doesn’t want to have sex with and working through the friendship that becomes her next relationship. Our culture puts so much emphasis on sexual license for people in their late teens and early twenties that a young woman of color really has to fight for her right not to have sex. She works at a library, which makes me happy, and falls for the guy who volunteers for storytime. He’s straight, so when they do finally have the talk about sex (after having already broken several touch barriers), it’s a struggle for him to deal with the fact that they’re not going to do it. There’s a happy ending, where he says that all the passion and connection he looks for in a sexual relationship are already present with them, but I personally tend to doubt what he says. He loves her, yes, and he’s not a rapist, but I don’t think he’s going to be long-term happy with lifelong celibacy. It’s very much a happily-for-now, not a happily-ever-after.

 

September Books

The Hangman’s Daughter (Oliver Pötzsch)

Historical mystery. The author comes from a long line of executioners, so he did some research into life in small-town Bavaria in the seventeenth century and wrote a murder mystery featuring his however-many-greats-grandfather. Kids are being killed during the week of Walpurgisnacht, and when found they have alchemical symbols drawn on their bodies, so everyone assumes witchcraft. Despite the potential for emphasis on women’s wisdom (and the title referring to a woman), female characters are not really terribly important (the woman of the title is identified by her relationship to a man, not anything inherent in her). This is a book about the hangman and the doctor in love with his daughter, their interest in herbal medicine and modern surgical methods as opposed to the traditional four-humors style of healing by opening veins and forcing laxatives. When women appear, they are fantastic and strong and wise, but we spend most of our time in the heads of the men investigating and perpetrating the crimes. As with the witchcraft itself, women are a distraction or a misdirection, red herrings all. Some of the characters I read in the voice of angry Nazi officers in films, both American and German, which adds a layer of fear that I don’t know was intended. The fact that I can do this seems to point to the quality of the translation – I take it it’s very good.

The Mill on the Floss (George Eliot)

“If the past is not to bind us, where can duty lie?” Maggie Tulliver is a girl who holds tightly to the ties of mutual history that bind her to her family, no matter how miserable they make her. Eliot spends a good bit of time setting up the tug-of-war tragedy of Maggie’s adult life, so it can seem a bit slow at the beginning, when everyone is talking about the future. The foreshadowing is heavy, and then the reflection on the past is heavy as well, and the weight of all that is not present tense crushes her. I really want Maggie to focus on right now for a few minutes, but when she does she breaks convention so strongly that she’s shunned for the rest of the book. I identified very closely with Maggie on this reading; my family vexes, ignores, and intolerates me, but I feel equally unable to cut the ties, no matter how loose they have become, no matter how many Stephen Guests tell me it’s okay to do it. Sometimes I feel so distanced from them that my own last name seems foreign to me. Spending time with them feels like I’m complete, as if I’ve misplaced a part of my identity that only lives with them, even though/even while they constantly reinscribe my role as Lost Child, the tabula rasa who hides his own personality like a palimpsest, wanting to be valued but afraid to be seen.

Where Angels Fear to Tread (E. M. Forster)

This is a story of cultural contact, looking at the way Englishpeople respond to Italy. The fools rushing in, implied by the title, are the English family who seem determined to destroy the life of a handsome young Italian. All the English know that while Italy is beautiful, both by nature and as home of Renaissance art, actual Italian people are dirty and evil, no matter how sexy (probably because they’re so sexy – there’s no way someone that pretty and that dark could be good). It’s easier to stay racist at a distance, so when the English come to Italy they can’t hold onto their resolutions, leading to blunders and foolishness and ruined lives. It’s not always clear when Forster is speaking in his own voice or narrating the inner monologues of his characters, so it’s not always clear where the racism is coming from, but the broad strokes make it clear that the English are idiots and the Italians are better off without their meddling. Misogynistic philanderers, maybe, but also close to nature, closer to the marrow of their own lives. If you can stop thinking of love as monogamous and possessive, then modern Italian culture as Forster portrays it can be really beautiful as well. They just experience chivalry differently than the English do. There’s a strong sense that the English experience goodness as passivity and part of Italian evil is the willingness to act, but I think that good and evil are not easily mapped onto passivity and activity – I don’t think either of these binaries actually exists except on a spectrum from one extreme to another, and that inherent nature (which I perceive to be good, distinct from the dominant culture’s perception of good) always lies somewhere in the middle.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury)

Another book about Man’s relationship to Time. I use Man in the gender-specific sense because women are not prominent in this story. They can act as ideals for men to practice their chivalry upon, but if they take up any space in the narrative at all it’s as the fallen woman or the evil witch. It’s a story of men learning to accept the aging process, not trying to speed it up when we’re younger or reverse it when we’re older, not placing sole value on our existence between the ages of twenty and thirty-five. Will and Jim are thirteen-year-old best friends, and in one of the easily-forgotten-yet-foundational early scenes, they watch while a couple has sex with the window open. I guess pornography wasn’t readily available in Bradbury’s Illinois, so Jim is continually drawn back to staring in the window of adulthood while Will keeps pulling him back toward childhood. The dark carnival arrives almost immediately, turning the literal growth of sexuality into surreal metaphor. Will’s father Charles occupies the opposite end of things, older than most first-time parents, so much older than his wife that people mistake him for her father. Realistically, she’s probably only ten or fifteen years younger, but Charles looks old for his age. He’s the janitor at the library, which I find interesting because (a) there’s no stigma attached to his work, and (b) there are no librarians. Librarians were mostly female at this time, and the profession was consciously trying masculinize itself in its rebranding as library SCIENCE. Charles Halloway manages to use the library resources in the absence of the trained library employees, as if to point out that all that education women get in organizing and providing access to resources is unnecessary to a man who is determined to root out evil. The book has a way of erasing women, ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities, leaving us with a world of ‘straight’ white men eradicating evil through the power of their contempt and desperate self-control. I do appreciate the lesson that we see later on in Harry Potter’s boggarts, that the best way to deal with fear is to laugh at it, but Green Town is such a restricted view of the United States that I find it claustrophobic, creepy even without Cooger and Dark’s. Bradbury’s writing is beautiful, but very firmly rooted in the conformist part of the early 1960s.

That We May Be One: A Gay Mormon’s Perspective on Faith and Family (Tom Christofferson)

I wrote a 3500-word entry on this book alone, but after watching Hannah Gadsby several times I’m not convinced that I want to publish my anger. There’s a fury that I’m not really dealing with – when I came out, this church told me that I’d be better off dead, and my mother wants me to go back to it. The fact that I like having gay sex does not mean that my life does not have value, either for me or for the rest of the world. Christofferson decided that God was more important, so he dropped his partner of twenty years, repented of all his ‘sins’, and seems to be embracing a celibate old age. This is not the life I want for myself. I don’t want to trade abusive human lovers for an abusive divine lover; I want people in my life who show me love in ways I can understand it. This is a book for faithful Mormons who want to love gay people but don’t know how; it should not be read by gay people who have already been hurt by the church and are not interested in rejoining it.

Grave Sight (Charlaine Harris)

Grave Surprise (Charlaine Harris)

An Ice Cold Grave (Charlaine Harris)

Harper Connelly is a nice girl with a traumatic past and an upsetting gift. She was struck by lightning, and ever since she can sense the presence of dead bodies. When standing over or touching the body, she can experience the last few seconds of the person’s life. So, not content with giving her a nightmare of a childhood, the author also has her experience death over and over and over again. Harper travels around the country as a consultant for law enforcement and grief management. Her stepbrother Tolliver Lang manages the business aspect of her career, and she clings to him as the only thing steady and comforting in a world determined to keep retraumatizing her. One of the things I did not like here is the reliance on a negative stereotype about the South: that we all have fucked up families. I’m happy that Harper and Tolliver are happy at the end, but their quasi-incest is just the tip of a murdering iceberg of Faulknerian proportions (there’s no genetic link between them; when the children were teenagers, their parents married). I was also disappointed at the way that characters from Arkansas and Memphis had unmarked speech, but when the narrative came to North Carolina in book three people started saying you-all. I will admit that Doraville is set to the north of Asheville and I’m more familiar with the areas to the south and west, but I’ve lived in North Carolina most of my life and I’ve rarely heard anyone say ‘you-all’. ‘Y’all’, as one syllable, is more common, and in some parts you might hear ‘yuns’, but not a two-syllable ‘you-all.’ There has been a strong influx of people raised in other parts of the country, due to tourists staying and academics coming to work (there are a ton of colleges and universities in the mountains of North Carolina), so a lot of people just use ‘you’ as the second-person plural pronoun. Good fluffy little paranormal murder mysteries, but I may need a little space from the genre. Mysteries tend to find the worst in people, and I don’t want that in my head. The last one, about a serial killer, is especially harsh; it’s like Harris has to punish Harper for being happy.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (Truman Capote)

It’s a bit like Goodbye to Berlin and The Great Gatsby had a literary baby. I don’t understand all the fuss, and I don’t understand why Audrey Hepburn would play the protagonist. Holly Golightly is a social climbing, gold digging woman who gets pregnant from a man who is not her husband. Capote does his best to present her tenderly, but I just don’t see the appeal. Is he fictionalizing someone he knew in real life? Is he trying to show how much harder it is for women to get ahead than men? I mean, Gatsby gets ahead by having money, and Holly Golightly gets ahead by having sex. She’s bisexual, which I guess is progressive for the time, but she calls all homosexual women dykes, and that’s a problematic term these days. I think it’s one of those words that you can use if you belong to the in-group, but that is very offensive if used by someone outside of it. I preferred the short stories included: House of Flowers, A Diamond Guitar, and A Christmas Memory. They felt more original, though Christmas stories generally feel overly sentimental to me, and this is no exception.

Games People Play (Eric Berne)

This is a popular psychology text from the 1960s, explaining the unhealthy ways that we act in relationships. I’ve taken some pride in thinking of myself as a straightforward person who doesn’t play games, so finding myself in this book was humbling and unpleasant. To roughly quote Elizabeth Bennet, “Until that moment I never knew myself, and I had no one to comfort me.” I recognize that these games are socially conditioned – my mom’s wooden leg is her divorce, mine is my mental illness – but I don’t want my adulthood to be controlled by my fucked-up childhood. I’m trying not to play these games anymore. Changing my conditioning is a challenge, but I think it’s worth it.

Trouble in Taco Town (Jordan Castillo Price)

Something Stinks at the Spa (Jordan Castillo Price)

Second and third installments of a series of novellas I began last month. I think that ‘Quill Me Now’ is the best of the set so far – these two lose their sense of direction. The first one is a gay romance with a bit of mystery, but what do you do with your happy couple when they’re already together? It is good to see Yuri reevaluating his expectations for the world because of his relationship with someone he can’t predict or understand, and it is nice to see Dixon continually finding new things to love about Yuri, but the author has placed them in a world where they don’t have to fight to stay together; they’re seldom even in different rooms for more than an hour. Their relationship has become the type of story that is only interesting to the people involved. The mystery part of the series is also a bit less interesting; there’s less a sense of dramatic irony or potentially unreliable narrators. These are stories about magic gone wrong, words and images becoming misinterpreted and altering reality in inconvenient ways. The problems are caused by Dixon’s Uncle Fonzo, and then Yuri and Dixon fix them. I’m hoping that when they catch up to him (maybe in the as-yet-unpublished fourth?) the stories will regain what I enjoyed about the first one.

The Goblin Reservation (Clifford D. Simak)

A sci-fi/fantasy mystery, from the late 1960s when people weren’t ashamed of their misogyny. Protagonist was duplicated in a transporter accident, diverted to a crystal planet of beings older than the Big Bang, while his other self went on an anthropological expedition in deep space, came back early, and was killed. I quite like the solves-his-own-murder plotline because it forces complacent protagonists to really examine their own lives and figure out the question that privileged people are still asking: Why would anyone want to hurt me? This book took a lot of work for me; even though these are genres I enjoy, this is still a fairly dull book, despite the goblins, trolls, banshees, Neanderthal, Shakespeare’s ghost, and a dragon.

The Damnation Game (Clive Barker)

A retelling of the Faust legend. I’ve been trying not to seek out so many mystery novels lately because I feel like they focus on what is worst in humankind, so it was kind of strange to me that I would dive right into (and devour) a horror instead. In thinking about it, I realized both why Barker’s horror isn’t a problem right now and why I love it generally. For Barker, humanity isn’t the source of evil. Evil comes from trying to become something other than human; the drive for supernatural power (especially the power to escape death) robs people of their compassion, pity, and empathy. When people strive to be more than human, they invariably become less than. Barker’s heroes tend to be the kind of people society ignores, the paroled convict working as a bodyguard for a wealthy eccentric, so even though people die in horrifying ways, there’s a paradoxical affirmation of the value of living an average human life. Barker’s novels help me to become reconciled to living the life that I have.

Upside Down (N. R. Walker)

The usual gay romance story is, boy meets boy, they fuck, something happens to separate them, they overcome their obstacles and live happily ever after. I enjoyed this book a lot because it’s not the usual gay romance. Jordan and Hennessy are asexual, meaning that they don’t use sex as a way of pair-bonding in relationships. I’ve had a few friends talk about this in their own lives: it’s not that they get bored with sex, or that they’re too religious to enjoy it, it’s that they don’t want it. My hetero friends don’t want to have sex with the same gender, my homo friends don’t want to have sex with a different gender, and my asexual friends don’t want to have sex with anyone. So in the book, the two guys meet each other, get to know each other, go out on dates, hug each other, enjoy kissing, but neither of them wants to have sex. This clearly does not describe me – my interest in other men is so explicitly sexual that I stare in public and make others uncomfortable – but it’s a style of relationship that I could learn from. My counselor has said that I should spend more time with the part of romance that isn’t having sex so that I can make better choices about whom to be involved with. I could use a bit more patience, finding out if I have anything in common with someone aside from being lonely.

The Throme of the Erril of Sherill (Patricia A. McKillip)

A very early novel. This is the story of a Cnite who gets sent on a quest to win the hand of his lady-love, but the narrative rejects the toxic masculinity that the fantasy quest story sometimes encourages. The Cnite loses his horse, his armor, and his sword, searching for a book that doesn’t exist. Eventually he has to sit down and write the story that he wants to see in the world. McKillip is acting out the rejection of some of the values typically found in 1970s fantasy, but the clearer sense of what she does believe and want to see in her imaginary world is still developing. I enjoy the later books more.

Hector and the Search for Happiness (Francois Lelord)

An allegorical French psychiatrist travels the world, trying to understand happiness. Hector recognizes his privilege in many areas, but he has an essentialist view of gender that I find a bit outdated. While I do appreciate allegories, the way that Lelord keeps reviewing his main points makes me feel a bit too much like I’m reading a textbook. Ignoring the heavy-handedness of the didacticism, however, this is a nice story about a guy who wants to make people’s lives better and finds out that most people don’t need his help. People around the world have found ways of being happy, no matter what the external circumstances of their lives are. It seems to have a lot to do with positive relationships, though that’s hardly the only point he makes in the book. Happiness is most often found indirectly, as we feel effective in encouraging the happiness of others. Apparently there’s a film version starring Simon Pegg – I’d quite like to see it.

As much as I do love me some du Maurier, I understand why this is one of the less frequently mentioned. It’s a multigenerational novel like The Loving Spirit, but it doesn’t have the clean-cut feel, where the person whose name and date range is the title of the section doesn’t always die at the end. There isn’t someone who lives through all the eras of the book, either, so it doesn’t feel as tightly focused as the earlier book. She’s also not setting most of the novel in Cornwall, and there’s something missing when someone isn’t writing about the thing she loves. England and Ireland have had a troubled history, and I honor the courage it takes to tackle that in a work of fiction, especially the courage to see things from the side of the colonizer rather than the more fashionable colonized.

COPPER JOHN, 1820-1828

John Brodrick owns a considerable property in Ireland. Now, remember your history before 1820. Vikings were taking Irish slaves back in the Middle Ages, and they took around half of England and mixed into the local populace. So, remember that the Irish are Celtic while the English are a weird mix of Celt with Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Romans, and whomever else came stomping onto the cliffs of Dover. In the seventeenth century, there was all that unpleasantness with King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, but there was also a great deal of unpleasantness between Cromwell and the Irish, which resulted in English nobles taking control over the Irish land, in a style that was already a throwback to feudalism. The Irish have been unhappy about this ever since it happened, and many of them are still unhappy about sharing their island with the United Kingdom.

Sometime in the eighteenth century, Brodrick’s grandfather bought their estate from the Donovans because they couldn’t afford to keep it. The Donovans have never lost their idea that the land is theirs, even though everything about the sale seems to have been legal and at least partially initiated by their side. They hated Brodrick for buying their land, I assume because he had the money for it and they didn’t. Later one of the Donovans shoots Grandfather Brodrick in the back. The sale and murder create a dynastic feud between the two families.

The current Brodrick has the idea to mine for copper on Hungry Hill, which is a symbol for Ireland itself. His older son Henry is on board, but the younger, John, is against it, in the manner of a younger son whose opinion is never consulted and whose pursuits are never respected. John loves Hungry Hill, and his mostly unvoiced opinions lean toward environmentalism and conservation of natural habitats, though those phrases are anachronistic for a Regency character. He’s a real businessman, this eldest John Brodrick, and he seems to care for little apart from his mines. He puts in a lot of work to make an agreement with the guy who owns the other side of the hill, but he is eventually successful. He hires a bunch of Cornish miners to emigrate and start the work, and also to train the Irish workforce who will eventually replace them. He has so much zeal for the mine and everything connected to it that he is called Copper John, a convenient nickname to differentiate him from his son.

Watch how the colonialism works. The copper comes up in Ireland, but they don’t have the technology to transform the raw materials into a usable resource, so the copper has to be taken across the water to be processed and sold. Copper John needs to keep an eye on both the mines and the factories, so when he can afford to, he buys an estate (or two) near the refineries and lives part of the time in Ireland and part in England. His daughters prefer living in England, so as a family the attention is directed away from Clonmere Castle toward the English estates, which means that they are using the money from their Irish mine to support the English economy instead of buying Irish goods and services. The Irish fight back by stealing the copper, breaking the machinery, and doing poor work, so Copper John has to take a closer hand in it. By which I mean explosives and murder.

Copper John has five children, and two of them die in connection with the mine. It’s like an exchange, John’s payment for all his wealth. It’s a shame, because these were the two children that everyone liked.

GREYHOUND JOHN, 1828-1837

John has a sense of perpetual insecurity. He knows that his father would have preferred Henry, but he often wonders whether his love Fanny-Rosa would also have preferred the older brother. He loves his dogs, and racing is the thing he really cares about. It would be easy to frame this as a discussion about gambling, but du Maurier doesn’t pursue that angle. It’s an expression of his love for nature and his ability to make a scant living by caring for a natural, renewable resource instead of making a fortune by destroying the natural beauty and going through nonrenewable resources as quickly as possible. John loves his dogs, and when they and he are too old and fat to keep racing, there’s a contented early retirement for them all.

That Fanny-Rosa is a real piece of work.

A louder splash than usual caught his ear – there must be some big trout in the lake, after all – and he climbed over a boulder to have a sight of the fish, and oh, God! it was no fish jumping at all, but Fanny-Rosa, naked, with her hair falling on her shoulders, wading out into the lake, throwing the water aside with her hands.

She turned and saw him, and instead of shrieking in distress and shame, as his sisters would have done, she looked up at him, and smiled, and said, “Why do you not come in too? It is cool and lovely.”

It takes a few years before John will be ready for that, but they do get married and have a baby seven months later (full term). Fanny-Rosa has an un-self-conscious joy of life that the Brodricks lack, they being weighed down by the responsibilities of money and respectability.

 

So. The generational pattern here is a pair of brothers named John and Henry. Henry is blond and popular, and John is dark and brooding and isolated. They both love the same girl, but Henry doesn’t figure it out because he’s kind of clueless and John is tortured and so, so dark, but not in a sexy way. Greyhound John has five kids, and Wild Johnnie is just that, until he drinks himself to death because he’ll never be with Henry’s wife, who is truly awesome. Of course, Henry’s son Hal combines both John and Henry traits, and he witnesses the collapses of the mines. There’s an epilogue from the 1920s, where we see the Donovans finally regaining power over the land while Clonmere Castle is a decrepit ruin.

This book is a representation of why colonialism is awful for the colonizers. You put all this effort in, but eventually it just drifts into a muddy jumble of disappointment and depression. Even Fanny-Rosa devolves into a gambling addict dying in a mental institution in the south of France. Everyone dies, everything ends, so it’s better to treat people with respect instead of the way the British have treated the Irish for nearly all of recorded history.

Hungry Hill is an important document for the history of colonialism, especially white-on-white, but despite du Maurier’s gifts with prose, it’s not delightful. The 1940s were a tough time, what with moving directly from the Great Depression to World War II and all, and it seems that she was having a hard time finding happy things to write about. There’s beauty, but even though I find joy in the midst of the depression and anxiety, there’s not much in du Maurier’s book. Which is probably why it’s taken me so long to write about it. I mean, I finished this book more than a month ago, I think.

I feel like there really isn’t a whole lot to say about this book, except that this is how colonialism works. Or would work under this set of circumstances. In previous readings I’d focused on the first part of the book, all the different initial contacts between America and Mars, but this time I was more interested in what happens to the earth. The stories are placed between 1999 and 2026, so of course his timeline is off (In 2018, the extent of our Martian travel is a droid that sings Happy Birthday to itself once a year), but that is what science fiction is all about – telling us about human nature, revealing the cultural moment, it’s never about A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, it’s about the here and now. Bradbury’s here and now is the United States of the late 1940s; several of these stories were published in periodicals in 1948, though the entire collection came out in 1950.

Bradbury’s Martians are telepathic and technologically advanced. Stage One is killed by a jealous husband – his wife connects with the Earth Man in a way she can’t with him, so he meets the man at his landing site and prevents him from stepping foot on Mars. Stage Two is believed to be insane – when you’re telepathic you project your hallucinations onto other people’s minds, so they think the Earth Men are projections and kill them. Stage Three is just trapped – the Martians build a town modeled on Green Town, Illinois (the one from Dandelion Wine) and disguise themselves as beloved relatives, then they kill them all. Stage Four is successful because by this time almost all the Martians have been wiped out by the chicken pox. And thus we see American strategy: just keep throwing men into the meat grinder until you get lucky.

Most of the book happens before the end of 2005, so there’s really just six years of colonization, in which time the Americans manage to kill an entire planet and do their best to recreate their own in its stead. One guy wanders all over the place planting trees, and they grow up unexpectedly quickly, providing the necessary oxygen. The Americans of color (pre-civil rights, if you’ll recall) all band together to leave their center of oppression and create a new community far away from the white men, who seem anxious to perpetuate their privilege at the expense of women and ethnic minorities. I read an article recently that commented on the destructive logic of terms like Third World and developing countries, so it used ‘minority-world’ to describe the United States and other countries whose lifestyle is similar to ours, and ‘majority-world’ to describe those countries that continue to suffer from food insecurity and a less technological standard of medical care. Which makes sense because worldwide they are in the majority and we are the minority. It’s like we stamped out apartheid in South Africa while ignoring the global similarities, a minority of white Europeans running the world at the expense of the numeric majority of darker-skinned peoples. Can we all take a moment to ponder just how Eurocentric the UN is at a structural level?

In “Usher II,” all the conformity of mid-century America comes to Mars. One man combats it by building a house modeled on Poe’s House of Usher, and it’s full of scenes from Poe’s most famous stories, with a bit of Lewis Carroll thrown in for good measure. He kills the rightmindedness committee and replaces them with robots who will keep the heat off. Now that I think of it, it’s sort of astonishing how many of these stories are about murder, but I guess that’s part of The American Way as well. Why else would we need a movement that calls itself Black Lives Matter, and why else would people get angry about it?

Then, in 2005, nuclear war breaks out and all the Americans get called back to Earth to fight in the war. This is an excellent example of Bradbury’s bending the facts to fit his theme – if nuclear war had broken out, we wouldn’t have asked the Mars colonists to come back. Nuclear wars aren’t fought by numbers of men – it only takes one to press a button, and if you took all the button pushers it would require to destroy the entire planet, you could invite them over to your house for a party and still have plenty of room for them each to bring a plus-one. It’s the same meat-grinder mindset that began the colonies, the idea that in order to accomplish anything the United States needs a lot of men who are willing to die for their country. Because they will. Because we can’t imagine any other way to do things. Because human life is not something our culture values. Because we see death as poignant and beautiful as long as it is happening to someone else. Because it’s better that people should die than that we should be inconvenienced or grant the privileges we enjoy to someone who seems different from ourselves. Because the only way to make sure that your life matters is to be exactly like the people in power – conformity saves lives, because white American men need to destroy everything that is different and replace it with themselves.

But wait! I hear you say. Aren’t you a white American man? Indeed I am. You’ll also notice that I’ve spent most of my adult life in areas where the white majority is particularly strong. Now that I’m in a city with a higher concentration of people of color, I am constantly interrogating my attitude toward them because it comes up so much more often than it used to. And I do sometimes have problems with difference, like when I see people blatantly not recycling or wearing lime green T-shirts with khaki slacks or speaking loudly in public. I’m not running around murdering people, but I definitely understand the desire to force the world to conform to my own ideas. I have to concentrate on not judging people for the decisions I don’t agree with, and most people make decisions I don’t agree with, which is why it’s so much more relaxing to hide at home instead of going out. People are hard because they are different, and the difficulty is frustrating, but that doesn’t give me an excuse to wipe them out. Difference is valuable, however difficult. We have to stare that reality in the face, just not all the time. It’s exhausting.

As ever, Bradbury’s stories are worth reading and thinking about. His prose is lucid and unadorned, as people preferred it in 1950. I know that I’ve talked about colonialism without bringing up the colonization of the American continent by European settlers, but the comparison is too obvious and too painful to go into. I’d like to think of my ancestors as having been more peaceful, but we were among the first. It’s not realistic for me to imagine that. Colonists didn’t survive by being peaceful; they survived by being tough and killing people who were different than they were. That’s where I came from; that’s what America means; that’s what we have to be proud of. Murder, conformity, and the ability to endure long enough to reproduce. It’s a wonder anyone lets us near global decision-making processes. But I guess if they stood in the way of our making the world exactly as we want it, we’d kill them too. Sometimes I think that 45 may not be the president we wanted, but he may be the president we deserve.

Oh! And I almost forgot about the body-shaming! The last man on Mars meets the last woman, and she can finally eat as much as she wants without people shaming her for liking sweets. Through the man’s perspective, Bradbury fat-shames this woman like nobody’s business. I was really uncomfortable with this story, both because it makes food seem gross and because the guy would rather never see or speak to another human being for the rest of his life than marry a fat girl. It’s a terrible thing to see. I think some readers would have found this story humorous, but our culture is swinging away from body-shaming now, and I think that’s good. It’s just one more way we have failed to celebrate difference.

This book may have been written seventy years ago, but the themes are still pertinent. It still points out to me the ways that I’m not completely satisfied with myself or the culture I grew up in. It’s worth reading because we haven’t learned our lesson yet. I hope we do. I hope my children are more tolerant of difference than I am. I hope the world is moving toward justice and equity. I hope that I’m part of the solution and not the problem.

This novel was originally published in 1980, and the quotes on the cover are all about how Graham Swift is the literary novelist of the decade. And to some extent, they’re right. His book fits all the conventions for the literary novel of his time. It felt like something I’d read before, even though I’ve never read anything of his before, because there’s nothing to mark it as different or distinctive. It’s the same literary novel that people have been writing since the mid-1970s.

We meet Willy Chapman on the last day of his life. He knows that it is, and there are almost constant references to this fact, even though it’s never explicitly stated. Because it’s his last day, he tries to make it both completely normal and a form of leave-taking, so of course he fails. People catch on to the fact that something’s weird, but they don’t know what.

But of course this isn’t the real story. The real story is his life, told in a series of flashbacks, sometimes in order, sometimes not.

Past the winning post, round the first bend, the shadows on the grass swivelling round mockingly in front of them. Barely half the race run, but already – you can sense it – they are getting lost in their struggles. A grimness setting in. They don’t notice the wails of the crowd or the encouragement of the figures clustered round the winning post and the judge’s desk – sports masters, house monitors in blazers and flannels, Mr Hill, bending over the track, waving what seems a threatening fist as they approach; the clock-tower, the spire. Don’t they see, the secret is not to think of the race? But they notice only the endless dark circuit of the track. A grimness. The crowd senses it. The cheering changes tone. They like a battle.

This is written close to the end, but it’s from one of the earlier scenes. Chapman was a high-school track star in 1931, where he realized that for most people life becomes a constant struggle, a battle that never ends. Until it does. People like that; they enjoy watching the fight. But that’s not what Chapman lives for. He wins the race by thinking of the encouragement, or the crowd, or anything but the struggle, the difficulty of filling lungs while moving too fast for the air to be drawn in naturally, the ache of tiring muscles, and the inevitable slowing. Chapman hangs back until the last lap, then races past for the win. His primary opponent, Jack Harrison, pushes himself to be faster than everyone else, and finally comes in second.

Irene Harrison is a reasonably nice girl from a wealthy family. They run a chain of laundries, I think all in London. Her parents pick a suitor from a similarly ‘good’ family with a ‘good’ future, so of course he date-rapes her. They insist she go out with him again, and he does it again. The family had drummed her head full of all this nonsense about feminine purity, so premarital sex kind of destroys her. She ends up going to a mental institution for a few weeks, but that only keeps her from acting out. It doesn’t heal anything.

Literature from this time seems to require a rape, or an abortion (either unwanted and forced or wanted and denied), or both. It’s like the fiction of the twentieth century is fueled by trauma inflicted on women. Thinking about it this morning, it’s like the last century went along steadily denying people the comfort of traditional gender definitions. The wars became so obscene that men doubted their masculinity simply because they refused to lose their humanity. I hate the fact that masculinity is so often defined by violence – not only because it destabilizes the gender identity of men who like peace, but mainly because it leads men to perform acts of violence simply to understand who they are. Defining masculinity through violence means that every man needs a victim, usually a woman or a child. Drawing our attention to toxic masculinity is important, but it’s most helpful to pair it with the nontoxic variety. Pointing out toxic masculinity without providing an alternative expression of male gender identity has the tendency to normalize the unhealthy attitudes. “Don’t rape women” is a fantastic rule, but we also need “Do treat women with respect, as you would any other equal.” Provide Do’s for all the Don’t’s to avoid creating a behavior vacuum, that people will then fill with other forms of bad behavior.

Chapman is sort of like the good example – the rapist and the girl’s brothers treat him like a patsy, just like in all those eighteenth-century novels where the cast-off mistress is married to a sidekick or lesser hero. But really, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with marrying a girl whose hymen is already broken, or even understand why everyone is laughing behind their hands at him. She’s pretty, he likes her, she tolerates him, so what else matters?

Throughout the book, they talk about their deal. Irene is marrying Willy because she thinks he’s the only one who will have her. He’s not her equal, either socially or intellectually. Handsome, athletic, and malleable, yes. Willy is marrying her because she’s amazing: beautiful, rich, smart. They never talk about their deal, but it runs something like this. Irene can offer Willy everything he wants except love, so he won’t bother her with that. They’ll go through the forms of marriage without ever offering or eliciting the word Love.

When they marry, he’s a lower employee in a printer’s office. His hands are almost permanently dyed black with newsprint. She buys him a newsstand so that he can own his own business, though he leans more toward offering the candy and marketing to children than focusing on the papers. Eventually he also starts selling toys, and expands to a second location. Professionally, Willy Chapman is very successful. Unfortunately, before he opens for the first time, as he’s hanging the new sign, he falls off the ladder and breaks his leg. Due to the state of medicine in 1938, this is a life-changing accident. Now, a man in his 20s can break a leg and heal without it materially affecting his movements a year later. Chapman gets a permanent limp. You could read the runner’s sudden inability even to walk comfortably as a castration, but again, it doesn’t seem to bother him too much. Or at least, his feelings aren’t important enough to dwell on.

There’s a lot of talk about World War II, but they get through it without too much trouble. He works in the quartermaster’s, and she goes to live in the country for a while, but then comes back and gets a job (pointedly not working for her father). It seems to be a theme in the British literature around World War II – just keep buggering on. Irene’s brother, the runner, dies, but she’s not that sorry to have one fewer family member to boss her around, disrespect her husband, and gaslight her.

Then there’s Dorothy. Part of the deal, what Willy and Irene give to each other, is a child. Just one. He loves children, but he’s working all the time, so Dorry is really Irene’s daughter, imbued with all of her mother’s values and faults. She’s the classic baby-boomer, as seen in the early 1970s – entitled, rude, rebellious, ungrateful. So, sort of how the baby-boomers see the millennials. Takes one to know one, I guess. Swift himself was born the same year as his character, so I want to see him identifying with her, but I never found her all that sympathetic. He seems to be celebrating his parents’ generation and partially condemning his own.

I’m tempted to discuss the differences in values in terms of gender, but it is probably more accurate to frame the discussion around class. Willy Chapman has little in common with the family he marries into, and we see it most clearly in his interactions with his wife and daughter. He’s from a working class background, and pushed his way to the lower middle before marrying a girl from the upper middle. This being the twentieth century, there are no titles, but the Harrisons are definitely gentry while Chapman would normally be permitted to shine their shoes for a nickel if he washed his hands first. Remembering the emphasis on feminine purity, Irene inherited a great deal of money from her mother, who got it when her brothers died. It’s sort of like the payment she receives for holding herself together and marrying someone the family can tolerate. She’s being paid for not going too far off the rails – or in other words, for letting her rapist get away with it, for staying silent and accepting injustice. She invests some of the money in dish sets, china that will keep its value (she insists). When she dies, it seems logical that the fifteen thousand pounds should go straight to Dorothy, but the new generation isn’t into purity. She’s been living with a fellow student without marrying him, and the sense of social outrage is too much. No inheritance from her dead mother. She’s furious, of course, and comes around to take the china, which makes Chapman very sad. He hates the idea that his daughter is so obsessed with the money – he’s not seeing it as a symbol of familial acceptance, an acknowledgment of worth. Eventually he does write her the check (it’s not like anyone else in her family is still around to care), even though he doesn’t understand why it’s so important to her. She’s going to inherit when he dies anyway, but I think he wanted her to know that he’s giving it to her of his own free will, not as a default.

Contrast that with Chapman’s work, selling newspapers and candy.

Memorials. They don’t matter. They don’t belong to us. They are only things we leave behind so we can vanish safely. Disguises to set us free. That’s why I built my own memorial so compliantly – the one she allotted me, down there in the High Street. A memorial of trifles, useless things.

Newspapers are, by their very nature, disposable. I’m always sad when I hear of people who hoard the papers, because they lose their value very quickly. I don’t mean their financial value, I mean their use value. What good is last year’s newspaper? If you buy them daily, what use is it to keep one from last month? I’ve heard that one of my father’s sisters (he has two, I’ve never met either) is one of these, and it’s sad. The trajectory of my life has been away from physical possessions, toward finding my sense of permanency within myself. Wandering through a house with floor-to-ceiling stacks of newsprint is not how I want to pass my old age, nor how I think anyone should. For the Harrisons, the newsstand is kind of a Fuck you, you don’t deserve anything permanent; for Chapman, it’s also kind of a Fuck you, I’m devoting my life to the transient, disposable things of life, not your lasting value.

And none of it – that was the beauty of it – was either useful or permanent.

The irony is that in the end, they live on Chapman’s business and not his wife’s family or inheritance. The Harrisons wither and collapse while Willy’s business expands. He assumes that Dorothy will sell the business after he dies, but he’s really built something that the most mercenary of materialists would be proud to have, despite his celebration of the temporary.

The thing that really struck me about this book, aside from seeing a valorization of my own principles, is the way that the world shrinks. He’s in London, one of the most exciting cities on the planet, but his world consists of his house, his shop, and the road he drives to get between them. It’s not even a very long road. There’s a lot more to the city than he ever sees; a lot more to England, a lot more to Planet Earth, but he tightens his gaze to a handful of buildings and a few short streets. Having traveled as much as I have, I don’t understand it. I can’t comprehend the type of fortitude and courage it takes to live according to the same routine in the same narrow orbit for thirty years. I haven’t been able to manage it for three. My life has taken me around a continent and onto three more, but Chapman’s life is circumscribed within a few miles. I’m not even sure I want to understand.

Is Graham Swift going to be studied in literature classes in fifty years as a preeminent British novelist of the late twentieth century? I don’t know. I’m inclined to say not, because there’s nothing really too experimental, nothing to grab the eye. Will I remember this book in six months? I’m not sure. Like Willy Chapman, the book itself is like a small pebble dropped in a large pond, that makes a ripple or two and then is lost. Within reach, but not important enough to retrieve.

 

During the course of his career, Forster published two collections of short stories, and then they were combined to form this volume. There were several other stories that he didn’t publish, and they came out posthumously as The Life to Come and Other Stories. The posthumous volume consists of stories that are overtly gay, and this one contains the stories that aren’t. In many of these stories, the gay content is still there, if you’re willing to look at it that way. I know I am.

My edition has no information about the writing of these stories, but if I remember the introduction to The Life to Come correctly, all of these were written before World War I, even though the second collection came out in 1928. If you’re accustomed to Howards End or A Room with a View, these stories are likely to strike you as strange. Many of them are allegorical fantasies, and while I love those, they don’t seem to be much in vogue at the moment. Critics pounced on Collateral Beauty, for example, because the personifications of Love, Time, and Death are portrayed differently than expected. I’ll admit that I had a hard time with Love the first time I saw it, but then you could argue that love doesn’t come easily to me in real life either. I idealize the concept based on the fictions I’ve read and watched, and then get upset when it doesn’t turn out the way I want. I guess that makes Keira Knightley better than I expect her to be.

THE STORY OF A PANIC

Of the supposedly not-gay stories, this one is probably the gayest. A conventional English family is on holiday in Italy, and during a picnic, everyone feels a rush of panic and runs from the scene, all but the teenage son. He feels a delicious languor and stays, but doesn’t talk about the experience. It seems like they’re running from a suddenly blossoming gayness, and he welcomes it. Their guide warns them to let him stay out at night so that he doesn’t die of unfulfilled longing, but of course they lock him up and he has to escape. His longing is for nature and privacy with a lovely Italian boy, so of course I see it as gay. It’s like he was touched by the god Pan, but it’s traditional society that starts to panic and constrain him. Life and health are to be found in the fulfilling of desire, while following societal conventions leads to illness and death.

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE HEDGE

Imagine life as a path we’re all walking down, bounded on both sides by thick hedges. We see the dusty road and the hedges look dying and wilted. Protagonist slips to the other side, and sees that reality is wider and more full of life than he had imagined. Of course the hedge is death and he discovers an atheist nature lover’s heaven, with grass and trees and streams. It’s nice.

THE CELESTIAL OMNIBUS

Does this sound like Hawthorne? It should. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a story called “The Celestial Railroad,” a parody of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In Bunyan, the pilgrim has to travel a long and difficult road full of temptations to reach the Celestial City, the allegorical heaven. Hawthorne’s story is about taking the train instead of walking – you skip all those distractions (temptation, suffering, exertion) and go straight to the gates of the City. However, the train doesn’t go through the gate; it turns sharply down and drags you to hell instead. Hawthorne wanted people to understand that you can’t skip over the hard things in life, and there’s no way to keep someone both sheltered and worthwhile. Truly decent people have enough experience of the world to have compassion for others and the ability to help them in their troubles, so you can’t become decent by shutting yourself up and reading your Bible all day long.

Forster’s omnibus doesn’t go to the Christian Heaven. The boy who rides the bus goes to the place where stories come from and live, so he meets Achilles and Tom Jones and all the other characters from the books he’s read. He tries to take his tutor there, but the older man insists that these stories should be kept separate and that these are good and those are not, so of course he suffers and can’t stay. The story is about leaving children free to find joy in literature where they can instead of telling them which books to appreciate and why. To some extent, this is why I wasn’t so great at teaching literature: I can’t always articulate why I love a book, or why students should. I don’t know how to communicate my own sense of beauty and wonder because I’m so frequently left speechless by them. It’s a bad idea to try to teach a book that leaves you without words. I also share the protagonist’s universal love of literature; I love all the wrong things.

OTHER KINGDOM

It’s a common enough story. A girl who is pretty and imaginative catches the eye of a man who is rich and conventional. He claims to value her for the wildness she brings into his life, but he immediately contains it and forces her into his own conventionality. It was never about valuing her sense of adventure; it was about taming her to prove his own power. It’s a sad story about a woman who wants a place of her own and the husband who ruins it for her.

THE CURATE’S FRIEND

I took myself in, and for a time I certainly took in Emily. I have never known a girl attend so carefully to my sermons, or laugh so heartily at my jokes. It is no wonder that I became engaged. She has made an excellent wife, freely correcting her husband’s absurdities, but allowing no one else to breathe a word against them; able to talk about the sub-conscious self in the drawing-room, and yet have an ear for the children crying in the nursery, or the plates breaking in the scullery. An excellent wife – better than I ever imagined. But she has not married me.

The curate meets a faun in the woods and gets blocked from the heterosexual marriage narrative. He took the girl and a neighbor boy on a picnic, and the faun (invisible to them) got the girl and boy together instead of helping the curate get the girl for himself. There’s a bit of Midsummer Night’s Dream in this. In the end, the curate realizes he’s happier without marriage, which has often been the conclusion of homosexuals who strike out with the opposite sex. As with the panic story above, proximity to nature and existence outside the marriage narrative seems to indicate there’s some gayness. Were I directing this as a play, the gayness would be more obvious, but a closeted first-person narrator isn’t going to slip up and reveal anything.

THE ROAD FROM COLONUS

This is the story I’ve seen anthologized the most, but I don’t see it as all that different from the others. I guess someone just picked this one (having an old man who changes might appeal to the old men who made the selections long ago) and then everyone else kept picking it because it was cheaper than asking the printer to set a different story.

Another conventional English family is traveling in Italy when their old man finds a spring of water bubbling up inside a dead tree. He stands inside the tree, in the spring, and feels a sudden restoration of youth and energy. He wants to stay, but his family insists he push on with them. They literally sneak up behind him, pick him up, and place him on the donkey when he tries to stay. With the best intentions, they ruin the end of his life. After they leave, there’s a natural disaster and the area is destroyed. Did nature throw a tantrum because he left, which he could have averted by staying? Did his children steal him from a happy death and force him into a miserable life? However you choose to interpret it, it seems that no one is free from the bonds of society – young and old, male and female, rich and poor, we’re all circumscribed by the people we live among. It seems so necessary to choose carefully whom we live among instead of accepting life’s default by living among our closest blood relations.

THE MACHINE STOPS

This begins the second group of stories, published in 1928. This also seems to be the story with the most scholarly work done on it. This is unusual for the collection because it’s high-concept science fiction, more H. G. Wells than D. H. Lawrence. It’s also very timely; people live in isolated, Matrix-like cells and communicate through the internet, constantly on a version of Facebook where they spend all day sharing their thoughts and watching videos. Forster makes them more like TED talks than like that one of the cat wearing a shark costume and riding a Roomba, but the concept is the same. The Machine feeds them and caters to their physical needs, except exercise and genuine human interaction. People are allowed to go outside, but they are discouraged from wanting to, and the guy who wants out eventually folds to peer pressure. Of course, what happens when the machine breaks down? They have to come up to the surface and try to live in the real world they’ve never seen. There are obvious ties to Huxley’s Brave New World.

THE POINT OF IT

The protagonist ends up in hell because he doesn’t understand the point of it. Forster’s Bloomsbury friends claimed that they didn’t get the point of it either. Scene 1: A sickly boy insists on rowing a boat across a difficult river, even though his companion is much more physically fit than he is. The effort kills him, but he dies happy. The friend doesn’t understand. Scene 2: The friend goes on to live a quietly ordinary life following the path of least resistance that his class privilege lays before him (also race and gender privilege), never making waves, always going along to get along. He never understands the point of doing otherwise. Scene 3: The friend is in hell, a bleak desert of prone figures. He eventually figures out that he can stand up, walk to a river, and cross it into heaven, but he first has to understand what the point of it is. It seems obvious to me, the point is that exertion is its own reward, that resistance is necessary to a life worth living, that we all need to see ourselves as heroes. The path society sets before us leads to complacency, tedium, bleakness, and hell. The Stonewall patrons weren’t trying to make history; they just got sick of being told they couldn’t choose their own identities. The point of it is to resist enslavement by society’s conventions, even if it kills you, because the alternative is a long, slow death and a longer, slower hell.

MR ANDREWS

Mr Andrews has died and is going on up to heaven. He meets a Turkish fellow who is doing the same. They find heaven to be exactly as their religions taught them to imagine it, but with enough space for them both to have the heaven they believe in. They both find it boring after a while, and decide to join the World Soul instead, which is a far more ecstatic experience than they could have dreamed. The forms of organized religion are so limiting, and can’t take us to ultimate happiness. For that, we have to let go of the forms and let reality take us where it wants us to go.

CO-ORDINATION

Protagonist is an unhappy music teacher. She has to teach pairs of girls the same duet all day long. It’s part of the school’s system of coordination, which means that everyone teaches the same topic in their different subjects. So, suppose this month the topic is Napoleon. The kids will read stories about the Wars in literature class, get the real history in their history class, see French armies in their word problems in math class, and study ballistics in science class. Some educators find it to be effective, but the forced conformity is here presented as stifling, and as with The Celestial Omnibus, Forster seems to advocate an educational system based on following the students’ interest, with the chief aim to provoke delight rather than correct test answers. Aesthetic sensibility triumphs over strict regulation, and if the teacher is released from her position, that’s really not such a bad thing.

THE STORY OF THE SIREN

As with many of the stories from the first half, we have a journey to Italy and a classical allusion. It starts with a young man losing his dissertation in the water (a similar thing happened in one of the stories from The Life to Come), and then he meets someone who tells him the story. You remember the sirens from the Odyssey; beautiful women who sing to men and lure them to their deaths. In this telling, you can only hear the song once, and if you’re prevented from following it, you spend your whole life wasting away from desire, likely to drown yourself to be able to hear it again. Being touched by magic unfits you for the life of society, and you have to plunge into nature like the boy who gets fucked by Pan in that Panic story. You don’t plunge, you die; you do plunge, you likely die anyway. Everyone dies; the question is, how? Do you live the life of daring and die reaching for a goal you can’t reach, or do you live a life of quiet desperation and die with the knowledge that your life was wasted? This seems the question the siren asks, as well as Forster, but people are obviously better off if the question never occurs to them. It’s easier to hate your life if everyone else does too; being called into a life of fulfillment is scary and could lead to death, but I think it might be better to taste fulfillment and die young than live to an old age and never feel complete or satisfied. Long and empty, or short and full? Realistically I know those aren’t our only options, but it’s hard to have a life you value if you don’t risk it every now and again.

THE ETERNAL MOMENT

An elderly author comes back to Italy, where she had fallen in love with the young local who inspired her first novel. They each followed the conventional paths society chose for them: she remaining single and virginal, he becoming vulgar and overweight. Athletes who let their figures go can be so disappointing.

For she realized that only now was she not in love with him: that the incident upon the mountain had been one of the great moments of her life – perhaps the greatest, certainly the most enduring: that she had drawn unacknowledged power and inspiration from it, just as trees draw vigour from a subterranean spring. Never again could she think of it as a half-humorous episode in her development. There was more reality in it than in all the years of success and varied achievement which had followed, and which it had rendered possible. For all her correct behaviour and lady-like display, she had been in love with Feo, and she had never loved so greatly again. A presumptuous boy had taken her to the gates of heaven; and, though she would not enter with him, the eternal remembrance of the vision had made life seem endurable and good.

Which is why it’s better to go ahead and enter the gates. A handsome man takes you off into nature and offers a pleasant, consensual experience, I say take it. I don’t regret the sex I’ve had, but I do regret the opportunities I let pass by.

I seriously loved this story collection. It’s weird and different and a little bit gay, and I think it’s great. As I said, not typical of the novels of his I’ve read, but I like them so much more. In a shorter form, he really hits the theme of resisting conventions because society strangles people faster and harder than in the novels. These are good stories, and should be read more often than they are.

 

It seems strange to admit that I hadn’t really heard of this book, when I consider how devoted its fan base is. In my studies, I’d run into Carmilla, but Uncle Silas is apparently not much considered in this country, not even in academia, not even in the small circle of literary scholars who study Gothic. The publisher and editor, of course, make a number of claims to the book’s singularity, but please, set those aside and remember that they’re trying to sell a product. Le Fanu is heavily indebted to Ann Radcliffe, which he acknowledges through several references to The Romance of the Forest, and he follows her strategies fairly conventionally.

Maud Ruthyn is a standard Gothic heroine. Probably beautiful, but that’s not really important. Brought up in isolation by an emotionally distant father, so most of her life takes place inside her own head. She narrates the story several years after it’s finished, so our experience comes through the lens of her perception and memory. They’re likely to be flawed, what with the constant gaslighting and other terrorist tactics used on her.

But the valley of the shadow of death has its varieties of dread. The ‘horror of great darkness’ is disturbed by voices and illumed by sights. There are periods of incapacity and collapse, followed by paroxysms of active terror. Thus in my journey during those long hours I found it – agonies subsiding into lethargies, and these breaking again into frenzy. I sometimes wonder how I carried my reason safely through the ordeal.

Maud’s father is a Swedenborgian, and the occult religion provides a rationale for the isolation so Maud doesn’t question it. Unlike most Gothic novels, though, this one doesn’t use religious difference as a sign for evil. The Swede club is composed of good guys who might be a little weird and antisocial but are also essentially kind and concerned for Maud’s well-being. The evil comes from someplace else.

Volume I is largely concerned with Madame de la Rougierre, Maud’s new governess. The book was written in 1864, so of course being French makes Madame evil. She’s drunk and careless about Maud’s education; her primary concern seems to be manipulating Maud’s father. She lies and steals and at a couple of points tries to put Maud in compromising situations. Maud’s good sense pulls her through, relatively unscathed.

Along with the bad female role model, we also have the good, Monica Knollys, a cousin of Maud’s father. Cousin Monica is older, but fun and affectionate and sometimes a little shocking. She doesn’t see through the conspiracy instantly, but she knows when things aren’t right. She doesn’t have the power to fix everything, no one person does, but she has a position in society that could really help Maud understand the social class she belongs to. The sight of Monica shocks Madame out of her French accent for a couple of sentences, so while we never explore her past, I’m inclined to think her nationality is not all it’s presented to be.

In Volume II Maud goes to live with her Uncle Silas, the secret head of the conspiracy. She’s never really met him before, but she spent her entire childhood in a house with his portrait, and as an isolated teenager she thought he was pretty sexy. There was also a mystery surrounding him, which Cousin Monica finally explains to her. It’s the now-classic locked-room mystery setup, where someone was murdered in Silas’s house but no one could figure out how. The official ruling was suicide, but everyone knows he did it, except his brother. Maud’s father thinks that he’s innocent, so Maud’s residence with him is intended to prove to everyone that Silas is no murderer, even though if she were to die he would inherit a fortune that would relieve his debts, because of which he’s about to lose his house and possibly end up in prison. In Volume II he’s rather similar to Frederick Fairlie of The Woman in White – of too delicate health to abide the stimulus of other people, so he isolates himself and throws occasional tantrums. There’s a marked change in Volume III, when he becomes more of the Count Fosco type.

Silas’s daughter Milly is Maud’s companion for most of Volume II. She’s been given almost no education, and while her father frequently insults her for her ignorance, he does nothing to remove it. She runs wild, wearing dresses short enough to climb trees in, and uses the broadest country dialect she can manage (Derbyshire).

‘Will you tell – yes or no – is my cousin in the coach?’ screamed the plump young lady, stamping her stout black boot, in a momentary lull.

Yes, I was there, sure.

‘And why the puck don’t you let her out, you stupe, you?’

Despite their obvious differences (the Gothic heroine is always dressed fit for an aristocrat’s drawing room and has a natural elegance of mind that makes her a welcome addition to the highest social circles, whether her education and experience make that realistic or not), Maud and Milly become close friends very quickly. Milly gets sent to a boarding school in France for Volume III so that the conspiracy can assault Maud more easily. If Monica and Madame are contrasting mother figures, Milly is Maud’s reflection, the example of what she could have become in different circumstances.

Silas also has a son, Dudley. He’s quite as rustic as Milly, but rather more threatening because he’s a man. As her cousin, he’s entitled to more intimacy than most men, but he’s also a viable marriage partner. His role in the conspiracy is to attract and marry Maud to save his father and himself from financial ruin, but unfortunately, he has no idea how to attract a girl like her. She’s not impressed with his bragging about himself, nor is she pleased with his prowess in fistfights or hunting. I mean, if a girl doesn’t swoon over your muscles, what else can you do? A hundred and fifty years later I can shout, You can get a job and pay your own bills, but Dudley doesn’t have the training to do any mental work, and he is too proud of his position in society to do the work he is fit for. He’s one of the idle no-longer-rich, an aggressively useless sort of person.

Rounding out the conspiracy are Dickon Hawkes and his daughter Meg, because apparently Le Fanu was caught up with alliterative names. Dickon is a one-legged abusive father; he’s the real muscle in the group. Meg gets sick and Maud takes care of her, so Meg’s loyalty to the conspiracy’s intended victim makes her the weak link. She does her best to warn Maud, even if she gets beaten for it later. She’s a good kid, but unused to kindness or even civility.

Some people have called this the first locked-room mystery, but I’m disinclined to agree – Maud is no detective. She makes absolutely no effort to find clues or solve the mystery; she only discovers the truth because the conspiracy puts her in the same locked room and tries to kill her the same way. Speaking of genre conventions, the Gothic is a bit different here than it was in Radcliffe’s time. Le Fanu spends dramatically less time describing the scenery, so I guess the picturesque nature books were out of fashion seventy-five years later. In No Name, written only a couple of years earlier than Uncle Silas, Wilkie Collins describes the scenery in the different places we go to, but it seems like he’s working for a tourist commission rather than being artistically Romantic. Le Fanu’s story takes place in more private places, but Radcliffe would have been much more rhapsodical. While there’s a general air of mystery and vague threat, the real standard plot points don’t really happen until Volume III – secret messages crying for help being discovered, servants disappearing, heroine getting drugged and taken on a mysterious journey that ends in being concealed and imprisoned inside her own house, threats of bigamy and murder, that sort of thing. In Volumes I and II there are other possible interpretations of events, but in Volume III we finally make it all the way Gothic.

Maud doesn’t go into this question, but the narrative makes me wonder: Is reform possible? Do people ever really change? It depends on what you mean by change. For example, in the last six years I’ve worked through a lot of emotional stuff, and I’m happier and more confident than I was. But I think that at bottom, who I am is still the same. I am the same person I’ve always been, but my expression of my self is less clouded by fear, pain, and shame. I am freer to be who I am. But what about murderers? I think it depends on who they are and what circumstances led to the murder. For example, I think the man who killed my uncle did it as a consequence of fear and desperation, not out of hatred or anger. They didn’t even know each other. Fear and despair can be healed and managed, so that killer learned to deal with the mess of himself before the state killed him – or in other words, they reformed him and made him no longer a murderer, and then they killed him for what he had been before. The fictional murderers seem entirely different to me. Silas spends fifteen or twenty years not growing or changing, so he deals with problems the same way he did before. Two locked-room murders in the same house, in the same room, might be a little hard to explain, but he’s not concerned about that. Hawkes doesn’t change either – some people are so self-justified that they don’t see why they should. His daughter’s bruises are no one else’s concern. Maud, on the other hand, frequently refers to her own ignorance and stupidity, leading us to believe that as an adult she’s a lot wiser and less Gothic-heroine-y than she was at seventeen. Maybe the capacity for growth is a signal for moral quality. After all, Milton’s Lucifer is defined by his refusal to grow or change, so Le Fanu made his villains adopt the same quality. In real life, people are seldom so easy to define and categorize.

In some ways, you could argue that Uncle Silas is transitional, looking both backward and forward, like Disney’s Little Mermaid. There are some allegorical touches in the film that hark back to Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, but there’s also a psychological realism and a modern representation of the female protagonist that foreshadows Beauty and the Beast and Mulan. Uncle Silas relies heavily on the Radcliffe tradition, but that wave of Gothic fiction belonged to the 1790s and was pretty much finished by 1820. The locked-room mystery aspect also looks forward to Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and the modern mystery writers. There were other Gothic heroines after 1864 (I’m thinking of Gwendolen Harleth and Mrs de Winter), but Le Fanu’s book occupies this weirdly anachronistic limbo, of not being quite one thing nor quite another. It is very enjoyable, for those of us who enjoy the Gothic fiction of previous centuries, but not as easy to categorize as scholars might desire. The strange thing is that it is so determined not to be a sensation novel, even those were so popular at the time. I think it’s better than East Lynne or Lady Audley’s Secret, but why insist so hard on not being Wilkie Collins that you end up being Radcliffe instead?