Posts Tagged ‘faulkner’

Lately it seems that I’ll do anything other than what will conduce to my mental, physical, or financial health.

So. We’re all familiar with the stereotypes of the Irishman – a drunken idiot more interested in carousing than in learning how to do anything the right way, a ready victim for its more self-controlled neighbors. FitzPatrick’s stories do nothing to change this perception. The constant perpetuation of negative stereotypes really turned me off to her writing. I suppose that without conflict there is no story, but there are ways of being Irish that are healthy and constructive. Any people who have maintained a sense of distinct identity and ethnic pride over thousands of years deserve a little more respect, even if you are one of them.

The other stereotype at play here is one I’ve contended with more directly, the one about how people who are good at school are terrible at everything else. Smart people in these stories go crazy, poison the world, die strange deaths, get raped, and are marginalized by a society that refuses to accept them. So. Let’s talk about what a pain in the ass it is to be smart.

When I was in high school, I had a series of seizures which I believe left me less intelligent than I was before. People remark on my brains now, but back then I was brilliant. It was hard for me to relate to other people because my mind worked so much faster than theirs, and could hold more information in short-term memory. This sort of mind represents power, and adults find power in children to be threatening. I spent my childhood being told that I couldn’t do things when all I really needed was a few more tries to get it right. I got locked into this habit of dropping activities that I didn’t excel at initially because people were so happy with my failures, and I was so ashamed. This is what makes people become supervillains, by the way – the keen sense that humanity rejoices in our pain.

There were times that my intelligence was useful, though – administrators liked the fact that I made their schools look good with very little effort on their part. Or mine either, I suppose. When they’d talk about school statistics, I felt used.

Being smart meant that I was isolated from my peers, who laughed if I got any questions wrong. I don’t mean quiet snickering; I mean, a full-class disruption that lasted for several minutes. I suppose I talk less than most people because I had to be right the first time, or suffer the disproportionate response of my classmates. I just couldn’t communicate on their level. I’m sorry, that sounds elitist; it would be more accurate to say that communication was difficult because I had dramatically different interests and a wider vocabulary. Later on, I would meet people who were equally as intelligent, but it was still hard to talk to them because I didn’t have the social skills they developed by having friends.

My younger sister used to warn her teachers at the beginning of the year not to expect her to be like me, because she wasn’t. She was equally exceptional, but in athletics instead of academics. She has always had a facility for being happy that I have never had, and I’ve been envious for most of my life. If intelligence is supposed to be its own reward, it ought to translate into something more positive than a bullet point on your resume, ten years in the future. When she’d joke at home about these conversations with her teachers, I felt rejected. I was busy being rejected by nearly everyone in my life at the time, so I had more urgent pain to deal with, but looking back on that now, it hurts.

Being a smart kid for me meant being alone, unhappy, and unwanted. And sometimes forgotten. I suppose I can’t blame all of this on intelligence – it probably also has to do with manner. I wasn’t reticent about my intelligence, and maybe people would have been different if I had been more patient and more kind. Then again, maybe being friends with me would have been just too much work, and they had their own stuff to go through. There’s a girl that I went through school with, and we reconnected on facebook a few years ago. But it took me a while to recognize her because she’s so happy now. She grins from ear to ear in every photograph she takes, and I have no memories of her smiling as a child. When I mentioned this, she agreed that none of us had much to be happy about back then. Life was so Faulknerian back then – not cheerful, Cash talks Darl into going to Jackson Faulkner, I mean Quentin Compson getting his head dumped full of incestuous revenge tragedies and going to the watch shop before drowning himself Faulkner. Like Quentin, being smart was just depressing, and adding up the pieces of our lives and synthesizing them leads to adult forms of truth we’re not ready for. Being smart was a bit like a disease, and no one wanted to catch it from me.

I’ve passed it on to my kids, though. When I went to college, I met someone who was also smart and felt as rejected as I did, so of course we got married and reproduced. My children seem happier and more socially adjusted than I was, but that could just be me projecting my desires onto them. My youngest seems to have absorbed my childhood habit of saying things that are true and unpleasant, like the fact that he is less drawn to me than his brothers are because he was still just a baby when we got divorced. The fact that he said it so plainly to me makes me think that some adult said this when they thought he wasn’t listening, and he’s been trying to use this fact to make sense of who he is. I worry sometimes that he doesn’t like me the way the other two do, but that might be related to the fact that he’s right, we don’t connect as easily. But maybe I was hard to connect with at that age too.

It’s like the whole teacher thing. A lot of people think that smart people become teachers, but that’s a load of bollocks. People become teachers because they had positive experiences in school, which is why cheerleaders and football players teach high school and late-blooming misfits teach at colleges and universities. I was really unhappy as a child, so now it’s hard for me to relate to children, even my own. I didn’t have any really close friends until I was eighteen, and that’s about the age of students that I can start connecting with. I do better with adults. Even as a kid, I was more drawn to grown-ups than to people my own age.

So, wrapping up. Society seldom values intelligence unless it’s partnered with common interests and emotional accessibility. FitzPatrick’s book was five dollars at a used shop, but you can buy it new on Amazon for only $4.50. There are some funny moments, but I found the cumulative effect depressing, which is sort of to be expected from a self-consciously literary book from the 1990s. Unhealthy stereotypes of Irish people and intelligent people, and putting them together you get characters who are just not suited to the real world.

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The people marketing this book claim that it completes a trilogy begun by The Rainbow and Women in Love, which is of course complete bollocks. The previous two are joined by having the same major characters, and there isn’t even a hint of Brangwens in this book. If we’re talking about theme instead of character, well, doesn’t Lawrence work through issues of love, marriage, sex, and freedom in all his novels? If it were theme, what would separate these three from the rest of the oeuvre?

Aaron is a Midlands coalminer, and on the surface things seem all right – wife, children, tradition, etc. But at Christmas his daughter breaks a glass ball that he had been putting on trees since he was a kid, and without this symbol of unbroken tradition he goes completely off the rails. He runs out to buy candles for the tree and maybe have a pint, but he ends up sleeping with one of the gentry instead of going home that night. From there, he goes deeper and deeper into the Bohemian world, first to London and then to Italy, because there’s a certain inevitable attraction between Lawrence characters and Italy.

The title references the Biblical story of Aaron, Moses’s brother. Aaron used a staff to perform Moses’s magic tricks, including the one where the staff buds and grows flowers like a tree without being rooted in earth. Our Aaron has a flute, and while it’s not magical, it is often the source of Aaron’s power. His friend Lilly makes the comparison explicit and wonders what flowers will grow from the flute – the answer seems to be that with musical talent and a handsome face all sorts of doors are open to one, no matter what his background. His rootlessness begins with sleeping with a man (the first time?), and he has several other opportunities of the same type. This being Lawrence, there’s nothing graphic or explicit about same-sex lovers, but he creates the opportunity for it, and there are some men in his book that seem like gay couples, even though we didn’t talk about that sort of thing in 1922. Aaron has a major emotional crisis the first time he sleeps with a woman – he had had affairs before he left his wife, so I guess he only had to get away from her to sleep with men. It’s the going back and forth that he has a hard time with at first, like bisexuality is harder to swallow than being at either end of the Kinsey scale. By the time he gets to Italy, though, he’s past that. So yes, I suppose you could also argue that Aaron’s rod is his cock because this book is more about what he does with that than what he does with his flute, and we are revving up to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published a few years later.

In his own powerful but subconscious fashion Aaron realised this. He was a musician. And hence even his deepest ideas were not word-ideas, his very thoughts were not composed of words and ideal concepts. They too, his thoughts and his ideas, were dark and invisible, as electric vibrations are invisible no matter how many words they may purport. If I, as a word-user, must translate his deep conscious vibrations into finite words, that is my own business. I do but make a translation of the man. He would speak in music. I speak with words.

The inaudible music of his conscious soul conveyed his meaning in him quite as clearly as I convey it in words: probably much more clearly. But in his own mode only: and it was in his own mode only he realised what I must put into words. These words are my own affair. His mind was music.

Don’t grumble at me then, gentle reader, and swear at me that this damned fellow wasn’t half clever enough to think all these smart things, and realise all these fine-drawn-out subtleties. You are quite right, he wasn’t, yet it all resolved itself in him as I say, and it is for you to prove that it didn’t.

I don’t recall Lawrence speaking quite so directly to the reader like this in his other books, but I might be wrong. As with his other novels, there’s a little bit of action and then a lot of analysis of that action, and a lot of dialogue about abstract concepts, which I suppose is Lawrence’s way of selecting his audience. A lot of the ideas center around Lilly, either because he’s giving them voice or because Aaron is trying to understand his friend’s influence over him. Aaron goes to Italy because he’s following Lilly, and he really loses his sense of peace when he’s too much away from him. It’s sort of like how I’m feeling for New Guy – he works six days a week, so we don’t see each other as often as we’d like. And I get lonely and sad when I don’t see him, as if my equilibrium is becoming dependent on him. This process kind of scares me; with the Midwestern Man, he was only attracted to me as long as I didn’t need him. Once my emotional wagon got firmly hitched to his star, he lost interest, and things only got really great again after I decided to leave him. New Guy doesn’t have the same issues, so maybe he’ll still love me if I rely on him, but it’s hard for me to trust that.

At first, Lilly’s talk about relationships focuses on independence. The ideal is two people who can stand on their own two feet, emotionally, economically, rationally, and in all other ways, but who choose to stand close together. I like the sound of it, it’s an image that appeals to me strongly — probably because I spent eight years being needed, but a lot of that time I didn’t feel wanted. I have no desire to get back into a relationship where I am undesired but necessary. Lawrence’s discussion of Aaron’s relationship with his wife feels uncannily familiar, where a marriage ends up being a struggle for one party to feel powerful and the other to feel loved. In the end, though, Lilly changes his mind and decides that it really is about power and submission – either you’re strong enough to bend the entire world to your will or you find someone you can submit to. This leads to the sort of elitism that I’m not fond of, the sort of thinking that creates Hitlers of us all, and it ends the book with the same sort of abruptness that Women in Love did – that one ends with Birkin realizing he believes in the possibility of romantic love between men, this one ends with Aaron realizing he is in deep submissive love with Lilly, both of them steps too far to pursue at that time. It’s like the book has to end when it gets to the point that society won’t accept, even though that point has been the goal the entire time.

I have a friend who’s working through similar ideas of bisexuality and polyamory in her life. She’s currently got a boyfriend and a girlfriend, and they all know about each other and accept the situation as it is. In talking about it, it seems that she needs to be both dominant and submissive – she’s a forceful person, so she needs someone she can order around and control, but she also needs the experience of being with someone who awes her, who can take command of the situation and make her obey. It’s a little more sadomasochistic than I want in my relationships, but I think about my experience on both sides of the sexual fence, and I can understand it. Being a top makes me feel powerful, but also anxious about my performance. Being a bottom makes me feel loved, but also a little passive. I’m not balancing them both at the same time, though. I don’t need to use sex to make me feel like I’m in control of my own life, and I certainly don’t want to be with someone who will overwhelm me into subjection. A bedroom is one place where I want to be able to set aside issues of power and control and just relax with someone I love.

This is also a novel about coping with World War I. The war is over before the book begins, but everyone is still thinking about it, talking about it, seeing the immediate effects of it. The war may be part of the reason for Aaron to embark on this quest for identity. It’s like the war blew up the entire world, and people haven’t figured out how to put it back together. Aaron didn’t fight because the country still needed coal to operate during the war, but it still left him unmoored, like Darl or Shadrack. And eventually historical events break his flute, so the only thing he has in the end is this friend who will never commit to anything, the one person who refuses to let anyone rely on him. Ultimately we are all alone, which is why it’s so important to enjoy one’s own company. If alone is our natural state, we should learn to love it.

Maybe alone isn’t everyone’s natural state. Maybe not everyone’s nature is the same. Learning to love myself in solitude has been a hard lesson, though, and it’s something I don’t want to lose, no matter whom else I fall in love with, no matter how many times.

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s cute,” I said.

Another description of Thaler:

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

He just keeps reminding us that Thaler is pretty:

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

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

And another guy:

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

And him again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I first knew the name Stefan Zweig when I saw his bust in a park in Paris. It was raining that day, so the statue looked like it was crying, and the idea of a face cast in bronze, weeping and ignored, moved me profoundly. The name seemed familiar, so I started looking for it. When Joan Fontaine died, I watched several of her films and saw Zweig’s name on Letter from an Unknown Woman. I don’t think it’s Ms Fontaine’s best work, but it’s a good role for the star of Rebecca and Suspicion. Then I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Zweig is listed as the screenwriter’s inspiration. So I’ve been meaning to read some Zweig, and one afternoon I was rebelling against the unrelenting sameness of Midwestern life so I was looking for new books to download and saw this one. The subtitle is what really did it for me, being full of longing and looking for liberation.

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“Letter from an Unknown Woman” is in this collection, and if you’ve seen the picture, it’s a much better representation of what Zweig’s stories are like than The Grand Budapest Hotel. The more recent film is all about daring and bravery in the face of adverse circumstances, but the black-and-white is about desire that is unrequited and unfulfilled, suffering that is only resolved through death. The Grand Budapest does prepare you for Zweig’s style – never use one word when you can use twenty, never use twenty when you can use two thousand, be as romantic and Goethe-esque as possible – but the themes are off. For example, “Fantastic Night” gives one of the most beautiful and realistic descriptions of clinical depression I’ve ever seen:

At that moment I was fully aware for the first time how far advanced the process of paralysis already was in me – it was as if I were moving through flowing, bright water without being halted or taking root anywhere, and I knew very well that this chill was something dead and corpse-like, not yet surrounded by the foul breath of decomposition but already numbed beyond recovery, a grimly cold lack of emotion. It was the moment that precedes real, physical death and outwardly visible decay.

After that episode I began carefully observing myself and this curious paralysis of my feelings, as a sick man observes his sickness. When, shortly afterwards, a friend of mine died and I followed his coffin to the grave, I listened to myself to see if I did not feel grief, if some emotion did not move in me at the knowledge that this man, who had been close to me since our childhood, was now lost to me for ever. But nothing stirred, I felt as if I were made of glass, with the world outside shining straight through me and never lingering within, and hard as I attempted on this and many similar occasions to feel something, however much I tried, through reasonable argument, to make myself feel emotion, no response came from my rigid state of mind. People parted from me, women came and went, and I felt much like a man sitting in a room with rain beating on the window panes; there was a kind of sheet of glass between me and my immediate surroundings, and my will was not strong enough to break it.

Although I felt this clearly, the realisation caused me no real uneasiness, for as I have said, I took even what affected myself with indifference. I no longer had feeling enough to suffer. It was enough for me that this internal flaw was hardly perceptible from the outside, in the same way as a man’s physical impotence becomes obvious only at the moment of intimacy, and in company I often put on a certain elaborate show, employing artificially passionate admiration and spontaneous exaggeration to hide the extent to which I knew I was dead and unfeeling inside. Outwardly I continued my old comfortable, unconstrained way of life without any change of direction; weeks, months passed easily by and slowly, gathering darkly into years. One morning when I looked in the glass I saw a streak of grey at my temple, and felt that my youth was slowly departing. But what others call youth had long ago ended in me, so taking leave of it did not hurt very much, since I did not love even my own youth enough for that. My refractory emotions preserved their silence even to me.

This inner rigidity made my days more and more similar, despite all the varied occupations and events that filled them, they ranged themselves side by side without emphasis, they grew and faded like the leaves of a tree. And the single day I am about to describe for my own benefit began in a perfectly ordinary way too, without anything odd to mark it, without any internal premonition.

 

So, protagonist learns how to feel alive again by giving money to the poor, but this newfound life is cut short because his drive to charity leads him to enlist during World War I. Most of these stories take place in Vienna, and they were written at several different stages of Zweig’s career, but most of them do seem to group themselves around WWI. Zweig hates war, by the way. “Compulsion” is about a draft-dodger who gets away. The author paints this as a victory, but I felt like instead of being pacifist, he was just passive. He had to choose whom to obey, the government or his wife, and he eventually chooses to submit to her instead of the state.

Zweig spends a lot of time describing things, and he does it very well:

The villa lay close to the sea.

The quiet avenues, lined with pine trees, breathed out the rich strength of salty sea air, and a slight breeze constantly played around the orange trees, now and then removing a colourful bloom from flowering shrubs as if with careful fingers. The sunlit distance, where attractive houses built on hillsides gleamed like white pearls, a lighthouse miles away rose steeply and straight as a candle – the whole scene shone, its contours sharp and clearly outlined, and was set in the deep azure of the sky like a bright mosaic. The waves of the sea, marked by only the few white specks that were the distant sails of isolated ships, lapped against the tiered terrace on which the villa stood; the ground then rose on and on to the green of a broad, shady garden and merged with the rest of the park, a scene drowsy and still, as if under some fairy-tale enchantment.

Outside the sleeping house on which the morning heat lay heavily, a narrow gravel path ran like a white line to the cool viewing point. The waves tossed wildly beneath it, and here and there shimmering spray rose, sparkling in rainbow colours as brightly as diamonds in the strong sunlight. There the shining rays of the sun broke on the small groups of Vistulian pines standing close together, as if in intimate conversation, they also fell on a Japanese parasol with amusing pictures on it in bright, glaring colours, now open wide.

A woman was leaning back in a soft basket chair in the shade of this parasol, her beautiful form comfortably lounging in the yielding weave of the wicker. One slender hand, wearing no rings, dangled down as if forgotten, petting the gleaming, silky coat of a dog with gentle, pleasing movements, while the other hand held a book on which her dark eyes, with their black lashes and the suggestion of a smile in them, were concentrating. They were large and restless eyes, their beauty enhanced by a dark, veiled glow. Altogether the strong, attractive effect of the oval, sharply outlined face did not give the natural impression of simple beauty, but expressed the refinement of certain details tended with careful, delicate coquetry. The apparently unruly confusion of her fragrant, shining curls was the careful construction of an artist, and in the same way the slight smile that hovered around her lips as she read, revealing her white teeth, was the result of many years of practice in front of the mirror, but had already become a firmly established part of the whole design and could not be laid aside now.

 

And so you think know everything that is necessary to know about this woman, but of course you don’t. Like most good characters, she’s an iceberg, or an onion. There are layers and layers. People don’t become famous fiction writers without knowing something of layered characters.

I had an experience over the last few weeks that reminds me of a Zweig story, so I’ll share it, minus the detailed descriptions of scenery. A couple of months ago I started working in the evening on the freight crew at a big-box retailer. The crew was bigger than I expected, and they interact more aggressively than I do, which turned me off of them. They spend a lot of time ridiculing the gay guy, even when he’s not around to hear it. Because this is the freight crew, and our job involves a lot of heavy lifting, some of them are rather attractive physically. The combination of all this generally led me to work as independently as I could. One guy, Trent, started blaming me for things that went wrong, but in a joking fashion, so I always just agreed. “Sure, it’s my fault. Yeah, I should have done that differently. No, I don’t seem to care much. I know, I’m a heartless bitch.” Agreeing with these people is the best strategy for me, because they’re looking for something that bothers me, so I don’t give them anything. Once they find a button that gets a response, they keep pushing it until they go too far.

Well, one night a woman came in and asked me for some house wash, so I started walking her over to Paint and we ran into Trent. He greeted her with, “Hey, Nana,” and told me, “OccMan, I got this. No, I got this.” Meaning, get the hell away from my grandmother. Apparently the product she uses is in Garden (I don’t understand why some house and deck wash is in Paint and some in Garden. It doesn’t make sense), not far from where I had been unloading freight, so our way lay together for a short time. Not knowing what else to say, I congratulated her on having a fine grandson and went off on my way. After she had made her purchase, Trent came and found me and thanked me for saying that about him. It seems that he’s known as the family fuck-up, and having someone from outside the family remind them of his intrinsic worth was welcome, needed, and unexpected. Of course, if I had said anything different, we would have had to meet by appointment, “so thanks for not making me kick your ass.” I’m no expert in heterosexual male interactions, but I do know enough of The Bro Code to know that there is only one way to interact with the aged relatives of your colleagues: extremely polite with a side helping of slightly hyperbolical compliment. There is no way I could say what I really thought of him: Ma’am, your grandson has a lovely body and a pretty face, but the person inside them is such an asshole that he puts people off. I mean, he can’t even say thanks without implying a threat.

So I watched him over the next few weeks, and I realized that this deal with being treated like the family fuck-up explained pretty much all his behavior. He puts up a big show of braggadocio, but he’s using that to overcompensate for his low self-esteem. He doesn’t always work hard, because (like all the rest of us) his brain will keep him repeating the behaviors that match his self-image. Other members of the crew were annoyed by the braggadocio and either tried to knock him down a bit, thus making the problem worse, or grumbling about him when he wasn’t around. [Just as a sidenote, I don’t know who came up with this idea that gossiping is a female activity. When placed in a single-sex environment, men are just as bad, possibly worse.] But after the grandmother incident, he was a little nicer to me. You can tell when aggressive men are teasing you as they would a friend (instead of as they would a target) because they smile when they do it and they keep their voices light.

Then, a week or two ago, he asked me if I was single. For a very brief instant I wondered if he had realized that I’m gay and was finally ready to see if the grass really is greener on my side of the fence, but then he explained that he knows this girl. Apparently her and my personalities are very similar, she’s a very pretty girl, and he knows that she’s a good person. As he was trying to convince me to go out with her, it became clear that he himself really loves her, but she knocked him back. I just kept thinking of Mr Jason’s conversation with Quentin in Absalom! Absalom! – the one about how the real incest is a man’s attempt to control his sister’s choice of a suitor, so that he can use the future brother-in-law as a substitute for himself, fucking the sister by proxy. But I think it can also work the other way, controlling the sister’s choice of a suitor so that he can use the sister as a surrogate for himself, forming a successful sexual relationship with the other guy where social pressures prevent him from acting for himself, fucking the boyfriend by proxy. I took it as such a strong sign of fellowship and homosocial affection that I didn’t have the heart to share with him my three very good reasons not to go out with her: (1) She wants to be a stay-at-home mom. I’m already supporting three other people (my children); the next person I date had damn well better have a job. (2) When Trent suggested he be the one to provide for her, she told him that she didn’t want him to feel like he owned her. So she wants to have another person meet her financial needs while still remaining independent of him? It sounds like someone who hasn’t thought through what she wants, and I don’t need that kind of drama in my life. (3) I’m gay. I’m gay. I’m gay. I don’t date women. Fortunately, I was able to give him a fourth unanswerable reason: I’m moving out of the state in three days.

If this was really a Stefan Zweig story, there’d be some sort of closure, months or years after this last incident. Trent would have resolved his situation in some way that is realistic, dramatically appropriate without being too happy or too sad. When people write about depression the way that Zweig does, I believe they’re describing themselves. If you’re familiar with The Grand Budapest, Jude Law’s writer character and Ralph Fiennes’s protagonist are modelled not on Zweig’s characters, but on Zweig himself. A bit extreme in action, a bit understated in emotional response, valuing people above ideas or behaviors. A man I’d like to know and be loved by, but whom I would not like to be.

Has it really been seven years since I last read this book? The receipt is stuck in the back, and I don’t think I’ve read it since the first time, so yes. I bought it at the Borders in Tallahassee, two weeks after my birthday. That probably means that the Borders Rewards people sent me a 25% off coupon for turning twenty-eight. Now Borders is gone, Tallahassee is no longer part of my life, and my life is such that I would not then have recognized it as my future. But the books remain.

I’ve read some people say that The Waves most perfectly reflects Virginia Woolf’s ideas about fiction. That may be true; I can’t really speak to her nonfiction or meta-writing. I love Impressionism, as in the earlier Mrs Dalloway, but this one feels like it’s approaching the line of too much. I mean, if what’s happening in my room right now were happening in The Waves, she’d write the lyrics to the music I’m listening to instead of the words I’m writing. This book stays on the periphery and rarely approaches the center, the part of the story that we’re used to caring about. Seven years ago I was reading my first Woolf novel and enraptured with her language; this time around I was looking for a narrative and had a hard time figuring out what, if anything, was actually happening.

There are six narrators: Bernard, Louis, Neville, Jinny, Rhoda, and Susan. This isn’t some weird Faulknerian thing where you have to guess: Woolf makes sure the reader always knows who’s speaking. They’re not really friends, but their lives wind in and out of each other, and once or twice they put some effort into meeting. They begin the novel as very young children in the same school; then they go to their separate schools, finishing schools, universities, careers, lives, death. Throughout the novel there are short passages describing an idealized country house, which passes through different times of a day as the characters pass through different times in their lives. This voice sometimes sounds like Bernard, sometimes like Louis, sometimes Neville or Rhoda. Possibly Susan, but never Jinny, who I doubt would spend a great deal of time studying a house empty of people. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that at different times each of them sounds like it, because this voice is the most consistent.

There’s also Percival, who in some ways seems to be the center of the novel. As with all centers in this novel, his voice is missing. Even he sometimes vanishes from before our eyes. The six narrators get together to bid him goodbye as he leaves for India, and once he arrives the narration ignores him all through dinner until it’s time for him to leave the restaurant. Almost as soon as he gets to India he dies, leaving them all to grieve in their different ways. At one point someone wonders if they aren’t all really a single person, and if they are Percival is probably it.

Heavens! how they caught at me as I left the room, the fangs of that old pain! the desire for some one not there. For whom? I did not know at first; then remembered Percival. I had not thought of him for months. Now to laugh with him, to laugh with him at Neville – that was what I wanted, to walk off arm-in-arm together laughing. But he was not there. The place was empty.

It is strange how the dead leap out on us at street corners, or in dreams.

That first time I read this book I identified most strongly with Bernard. I sometimes feel like we should all bond with Bernard the most on a first read-through: he’s fascinated by stories, so he spends his childhood transforming experience into narrative, which is extremely helpful in a book full of stream-of-consciousness narrations. Bernard also narrates the most, primarily because the final chapter is his, and he rattles away like an old man for sixty pages. He seems to be trying to form some coherent whole out of six disparate lives, remembering his childhood from his advanced age.

But we were all different. The wax – the virginal wax that coats the spine melted in different patches for each of us. The growl of the boot-boy making love to the tweeny among the gooseberry bushes; the clothes blown out hard on the line; the dead man in the gutter; the apple tree, stark in the moonlight; the rat swarming with maggots; the lustre dripping blue – our white wax was streaked and stained by each of these differently. Louis was disgusted by the nature of human flesh; Rhoda by our cruelty; Susan could not share; Neville wanted order; Jinny love; and so on. We suffered terribly as we became separate bodies.

Though, realistically speaking, they always were.

I also felt a good deal of affinity with Louis, that first time of reading, because he is so perpetually an outsider. Even in his early youth he knew he was different than the others because of his Australian accent. It was also clear to him from an early age that his adult life was going to be different. Louis is the most clearly bound by economic necessity. His father, the banker at Brisbane, can’t afford to send him to the university with Neville and Bernard, so he goes to work at eighteen (ish?) even though he was a better student than anyone else. He works in an office and reads Latin poetry at lunch. He embraces this identity, and even after he becomes an economic success story, he still prefers to live in a little attic room with his books and his loneliness. I don’t really like him as an adult – he never seems really happy.

This time around, I connected with Rhoda a little better. She tends to efface herself, so it’s easy to forget that you read from her if you’re in a good place in your life. Now that I’ve been through a great deal of suffering, including suicidal ideation, I can understand her better. Rhoda sees the beauty of the world a little more clearly than the others, but she also sees its horror. The beauty and the horror cross and recross themselves in her mind until running out to buy stockings becomes a tale of Gothic terror.

This is Oxford Street. Here are hate, jealousy, hurry, and indifference frothed into the wild semblance of life. These are our companions. Consider the friends with whom we sit and eat. I think of Louis, reading the sporting column of an evening newspaper, afraid of ridicule; a snob. He says, looking at the people passing, he will shepherd us if we will follow. If we submit he will reduce us to order. Thus he will smooth out the death of Percival to his satisfaction, looking fixedly over the cruet, past the houses at the sky. Bernard, meanwhile, flops red-eyed into some arm-chair. He will have out his notebook; under D, he will enter ‘Phrases to be used on the deaths of friends.’ Jinny, pirouetting across the room, will perch on the arm of his chair and ask, ‘Did he love me?’ ‘More than he loved Susan?’ Susan, engaged to her farmer in the country, will stand for a second with the telegram before her, holding a plate; and then, with a kick of her heel, slam to the oven door. Neville, after staring at the window through his tears will see through his tears, and ask, ‘Who passes the window?’ – ‘What lovely boy?’ This is my tribute to Percival; withered violets, blackened violets.

Percival’s death strikes Rhoda harder than it does most of the others; indeed, everything strikes Rhoda harder than it does other people. She’s so retiring because she is so sensitive. I don’t feel that I know her well yet, but I intend to gain a great deal more of experience and maturity before I die. There will be time for Rhoda and me.

This time around I felt closest to Neville; one of the things this means is that I don’t really identify myself primarily by my isolation and poverty any more. Sexual preference has become more important. Of our narrators, Neville is the one most in love with Percival, and has been since they were hitting puberty.

Now I will lean sideways as if to scratch my thigh. So I shall see Percival. There he sits, upright among the smaller fry. He breathes through his straight nose rather heavily. His blue, and oddly inexpressive eyes, are fixed with pagan indifference upon the pillar opposite. […] He sees nothing; he hears nothing. He is remote from us all in a pagan universe. But look – he flicks his hand to the back of his neck. For such gestures one falls hopelessly in love for a lifetime. Dalton, Jones, Edgar and Bateman flick their hands to the backs of their necks likewise. But they do not succeed.

Percival was a cricketer, and Neville was literary. I’m also stuck rubbing against the edges of words, fascinated by the men who use their bodies in more physical ways.

But I cannot stand all day in the sun with my eyes on the ball; I cannot feel the flight of the ball through my body and think only of the ball. I shall be a clinger to the outsides of words all my life. Yet I could not live with him and suffer his stupidity. He will coarsen and snore. He will marry and there will be scenes of tenderness at breakfast. But now he is young. Not a thread, not a sheet of paper lies between him and the sun, between him and the rain, between him and the moon as he lies naked, tumbled, hot, on his bed. Now as they drive along the high-road in their brake his face is mottled red and yellow. He will throw off his coat and stand with his legs apart, with his hands ready, watching the wicket. And he will pray, ‘Lord, let us win’; he will think of one thing only, that they should win.

Maybe Neville becomes a don at the uni or something; it’s not clear, and not important. Regardless, as he grows up, he wants the same sort of thing that I want.

I want this fire, I want this chair. I want some one to sit beside after the day’s pursuit and all its anguish, after its listenings, and its waitings, and its suspicions. After quarrelling and reconciliation I need privacy – to be alone with you, to set this hubbub in order.

I’d like a quiet, comfortable life with someone I love – someone with whom I feel as if I’ve found privacy when he’s still there. Someone who helps me to rest from the private tortures of a too-sensitive life in public.

I have never really identified with Jinny, and I don’t think I ever will. She’s privileged by being both wealthy and beautiful. At nineteen she achieves everything that she’s ever wanted in her life, and she manages to hold onto it for the rest of her life. She never settles down with one man, but she doesn’t need to either.

All this I see, I always see, as I pass the looking-glass on the landing, with Jinny in front and Rhoda lagging behind. Jinny dances. Jinny always dances in the hall on the ugly, the encaustic tiles; she turns cartwheels in the playground; she picks some flower forbiddenly, and sticks it behind her ear so that Miss Perry’s dark eyes smoulder with admiration, for Jinny, not me. Miss Perry loves Jinny; and I could have loved her, but now love no one, except my father, my doves and the squirrel whom I left in the cage at home for the boy to look after.

Despite this passage from Susan’s unhappy years at school, neither she nor Jinny is a lesbian that we can see. Jinny loves to be admired, and she doesn’t get too picky about who’s doing the admiring. First it’s everyone, then primarily men, then she hangs onto the admiration of much younger men as she ages (apparently she ages very well). Jinny is the perfect personality for the community she lives in; unlike everyone else, she always definitely belongs.

Susan is the type of person that I have always respected, even admired, but that I can somehow never become close to. She loves nature and the country; while everyone else is gravitating toward London, she runs as far from it as she can. Like Louis, Susan knows from childhood what she will be as an adult: a farmer’s wife. She knows that it will be a hard life, but she chooses it and never willingly deviates from it. Her parents send her to a finishing school in Switzerland, which I tend to think of as the acme of stupidity, that sort of finish being the opposite of what Susan actually wants in her life. Susan hits her peak later than Jinny, but I think of her life – with children, a long-term relationship, a close relationship with animals, crops, and soil – as the more rewarding of the two, possibly the most rewarding of the six.

But who am I, who lean on this gate and watch my setter nose in a circle? I think sometimes (I am not twenty yet) I am not a woman, but the light that falls on this gate, on this ground. I am the seasons, I think sometimes, January, May, November; the mud, the mist, the dawn. I cannot be tossed about, or float gently, or mix with other people. Yet now leaning here, till the gate prints my arm, I feel the weight that has formed itself in my side. Something has formed, at school, in Switzerland, some hard thing. Not sighs and laughter; not circling and ingenious phrases; not Rhoda’s strange communications when she looks past us, over our shoulders; nor Jinny’s pirouetting, all of a piece, limbs and body. What I give is fell. I cannot float gently, mixing with other people. I like best the stare of shepherds met in the road; the stare of gipsy women beside a cart in a ditch suckling their children as I shall suckle my children. For soon in the hot mid-day when the bees hum round the hollyhocks my lover will come. He will stand under the cedar tree. To his one word I shall answer my one word. What has formed in me I shall give him. I shall have children; I shall have maids in aprons; men with pitchforks; a kitchen where they bring the ailing lambs to warm in baskets, where the hams hang and the onions glisten. I shall be like my mother, silent in a blue apron locking up the cupboards.

I believe that Susan has a blessing that has always been denied me: she forms a lifelong plan and carries it through. Part of my problem is the reluctance to make plans so far in advance; part is the certainty that forces beyond my control disrupt every plan that I make, so the planning itself often seems pointless. When I do look forward, I seldom see things that I want. I can warn myself away from some forms of future misery, but I can’t lead myself to future fulfillment as unerringly as Susan does.

A businessman, a recluse, a homosexual, a city girl, a country girl, and a family man: perhaps it’s not Percival who is made up of these disparate elements; it’s probably Woolf herself. And in uniting all of these pieces, she makes me feel as if it might be me too. It’s like seeing The Breakfast Club fifty years early. Each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basketcase, a princess, and a criminal, Bernard, Neville, Louis, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda.

Yeah, I should have seen this coming. I know that Edith Wharton writes endings that are right, satisfying because you can’t imagine her stories ending any other way, but not happy. I often wish things could have happened differently, but no. They never do.

In some ways, this story felt a lot like it was written by William Faulkner. No stream-of-consciousness or insanity, that losing of one’s grip on the passage of time that is so important for him, but the plot and characters could be his, if he had been writing fifteen years earlier. Wharton generally gives us a view of wealthy society in New York around the turn of the century, but in Summer New York is only ever mentioned once, as too far away to be imagined. We’re dealing with very small towns in rural New England; Springfield, Massachusetts is the height of splendor in their world, a place that is important in the town imagination but that we never reach. The protagonist’s rich rival Annabel Balch lives there, and she and the town represent everything that Charity wants in her life but cannot have.

Once upon a time, a loose woman named Mary went on off up the Mountain with one of them, a criminal named Hyatt. (They’re all named Hyatt up there.) She lived out the rest of her life in poverty and squalor with the Mountain people. When her lover gets sent to jail, the lawyer decides to take their daughter and raise her in the town. Thus Charity Royall grows up with all the comforts of one of the best houses in town, and the acute knowledge that she doesn’t belong there. She’s one of the shiftless heathens from up the Mountain, and she’ll never be anything else because she lives in a gossipy small town with a long memory.

The story begins (as love stories should) in a library.

Suddenly the door opened, and before she had raised her eyes she knew that the young man she had seen going in at the Hatchard gate had entered the library.

Without taking any notice of her he began to move slowly about the long vault-like room, his hands behind his back, his short-sighted eyes peering up and down the rows of rusty bindings. At length he reached the desk and stood before her.

“Have you a card-catalogue?” he asked in a pleasant abrupt voice; and the oddness of the question caused her to drop her work.

“A what?

“Why, you know –“ He broke off, and she became conscious that he was looking at her for the first time, having apparently, on his entrance, included her in the general short-sighted survey as part of the furniture of the library.

The fact that, in discovering her, he lost the thread of his remark, did not escape her attention, and she looked down and smiled. He smiled also.

Back in the day when card catalogues represented the newest information technology, Charity reluctantly keeps the local library so that she can earn enough money to get out of her little town. Instead, she falls in love. Rumors fly, nothing stays secret, and at the end of the summer he leaves again. The story is simple enough, told many times, but Wharton uses it for a frank representation of attitudes toward sex. She’s writing in 1917, so we don’t get to watch like we did in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but her characters’ thoughts and actions seem rather contemporary. Everyone does it. Everyone knows that everyone does it. No one really feels bad about it. But they feel like they ought to make everyone else feel bad for doing it. The culture creates a situation where a man can sexually abuse the girl living in his house and still remain a pillar of the community, but if she has consensual sex with a boy she loves, then she becomes a pariah. The abortion clinic in the next town over seems pretty successful, financially speaking.

There are three kinds of women: bad women who do it shamelessly, decent women who do it privately, and old maids who don’t do it at all. But there’s only one kind of man: they take their opportunities where they find them without any thought for consequences.

Charity among her own people on the Mountain makes me think of Temple Drake at the Old Frenchman’s place. She has the same fish-out-of-water feeling that would become disdain if it could overcome its own shock. Isolated mountain communities are pretty much the same, whether they’re out in Yoknapatawpha County or up by the border with New Hampshire. They provide a cautionary tale, but like Annabel Balch, they’re more important in their effect on Charity than for anything they actually do.

This story interests me personally because I used to live there. I try to remember that period of my life sometimes, but I never come up with much. That was the last time we lived in a house that was really large enough for all of us, and I really feel as if I ought to remember when my youngest brother was born, but all I get is an image of looking down on what seems like twelve feet of snow from an upper-story window. When you’re little, everything looks big, and I was smaller than average until high school.

My parents are both from the Baltimore-Washington area, but in 1983 my dad was working for the Marriott hotel chain and they transferred him to Springfield. Less than a year later, we skedaddled back down to the South, but somehow my pronunciation got stuck. My family tells me that I had a real thick Boston accent at first; it’s calmed down to regular New England (I’ve learned to pronounce the letter R), but I’ve never picked up the Southernness that almost all the rest of them have. In 2008 I worked briefly with someone from Boston, and I could feel my pronunciation changing to match his, like iron filings shaping themselves around an electromagnet. I hear it in words like dog or talk, when in my mouth they become dowag or towak instead of dawg and tawk. But I do use a lot of Southern words for things, so in the end I don’t feel as if my speech belongs here or there. I try to place myself on a dialect map of the United States, and only come to the conclusion that no one talks like I do.

Summer is a nice little book, a bit sad but nice. It’ll do to while away a few hours in the tub, away from the nearly omnipotent social pressure that Charity has to deal with. I don’t think she makes good choices, but then, she doesn’t actually read the books in her library, does she?