Posts Tagged ‘film’

There comes a time in a person’s life when he realizes that he is collecting the complete novels of Milan Kundera, and he decides to embrace it as a conscious decision. The local bookshop has two more (the two that I haven’t pursued as steadily because I read them first, fifteen years ago), and then it’ll be off to find the either more elusive or more recent books. When you shop primarily in used bookshops, recent novels are rather elusive.

Kundera didn’t publish any novels until he was about the age I am now, and this one, the second, still has a strong focus on youth. It seems a little allegorical, and I wonder if it might not be a little autobiographical as well. It’s about a young poet who comes of age during the Communist Revolution. While there are several important characters, they’re only named according to their function in the poet’s life, so while he is Jaromil, they are the janitor’s son, the artist, the redhead, the cinematographer, the silver-maned poet, etc. The janitor’s son becomes a policeman and a reminder of how far Jaromil is from the stereotypical adult masculinity he wants to achieve, but he only gets called the janitor’s son, even though his father isn’t in the story. This is indicative of Jaromil’s extreme self-centeredness. The ending makes the Narcissus metaphor explicit, but long before that I was sickened by Jaromil’s contempt for other human beings.

In some ways this book feels like a rewrite of Sons and Lovers – Jaromil’s mother is a little too close to him, and he has a relationship with a shopgirl that he knows she will disapprove of. Maman is imaginative, in the sense that she creates a mental reality when the perceived reality is unpleasant, but not in the sense that she is in any way unconventional. Jaromil (Communist poetry) was conceived by an engineer (the educated working class) out in nature, according to his mother, but it was more likely in a disgusting bachelor apartment borrowed from the engineer’s friend. Indeed, nature as landscape or unenclosed space has very little place in this book at all. Nature exerts itself over Jaromil as weather or as disease, or the idiosyncrasies of human biology. Maman was never that crazy about her shotgun husband, so she liked to pretend that a figure of Apollo (classical influences) conceived the boy without the father’s intervention, despite the obvious limitations of such a fantasy. This reading might seem facile and forced, but issues of artistic inspiration, expression, and responsibility are at the center of the book.

World War II figures largely in twentieth-century Czech history. German occupation and redrawing of boundaries is big on a national scale, but in the daily lives of people, particularly children, it seems to have had little effect. Jaromil’s father was killed in a concentration camp because he was having an affair with a Jewish girl, but his father was mostly absent anyway. This lack of a strong masculine presence in his life, coupled with soft delicate features, leads to his preoccupation with his inferiority as a male human. He does have an art teacher, but the teacher is concerned about the philosophy of art changing under Communism, and Jaromil tries to assert his independence by disagreeing with him, which damages their friendship. Jaromil never tries to build up the rest of his body, so he’s a spindly little artist who isn’t brave enough to talk to girls. Eventually he does find someone, and losing his virginity is a huge milestone for him, but his masculinity has turned toxic by this point. A sexual relationship doesn’t relieve his insecurities; it makes them worse. It leads to sexual violence, which brings up some unpleasant memories for me, and reading this part might explain why I’ve been so anxious and angry these last few weeks. Partially, at least – I have good reasons in my real life, too.

The book reaches a crisis at the end of the fifth section, and it seems like Kundera is about as sick of this kid as I was, because there’s this violent wresting of the narrative at the beginning of part six.

Just as your life is determined by the kind of profession and marriage you have chosen, so our novel is limited by our observatory perspective: Jaromil and his mother are in full view, while we glimpse other figures only when they appear in the presence of these two protagonists. We have chosen this approach as you have chosen your fate, and our choice is equally unalterable.

Still, every person regrets that he cannot live other lives. You, too, would like to live out all your unrealized potentials, all your possible lives. (Alas, unattainable Xavier!) Our book is like you. It, too, yearns to be all the other novels it could have been.

That is why we are constantly dreaming about erecting other observatories. How about putting one in the middle of the artist’s life, or perhaps in the life of the janitor’s son or that of the redheaded girl? After all, what do we really know about these people? We hardly know more than does foolish Jaromil, and he knows precious little about anyone. What kind of novel would it be if we followed the career of the janitor’s son, and Jaromil would appear only once or twice in the course of brief episodes about a poet and former schoolmate? Or we could follow the artist’s story and learn at last what he really thought of his beloved Maman, whose belly he had used like a piece of canvas.

And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was so great to get away from Jaromil for a while, even if only for twenty pages. There’s a middle-aged man, widower, who likes to have a sex life but doesn’t like to get attached, so he sees a girl only once in a while, and he has several girls. One of them is Jaromil’s girl, and they discuss him briefly, but this section is a few years after Jaromil’s death, so he’s seen at a great distance, as one who ruined the girl’s life but now has no more power to hurt her.

But who is this unattainable Xavier? Jaromil dreamt of becoming this guy, young and smart and strong and sexy, like a younger Czech James Bond-Indiana Jones hybrid, but there’s more than that. Xavier only exists in dreams – things get tough, he falls asleep and is instantly in another, equally real reality. He works through problems from one reality in the next, possibly nesting several dreams like in Inception (oh, how I love this film), and ultimately wakes back up to solve his problems and escape, even if only as a dream hiding in dreams. Xavier is Jaromil’s ideal self. But much as the poet dreams of freedom, he is continually caged in by his mother’s vampiric love. This is a trope I see in media a lot, and I suppose is relevant to my own life as well, the mother that wants her children to be strong, brave, confident, and successful, but constantly shelters them from experiences that will allow them to develop strength, bravery, self-confidence, and the other qualities that lead to success. Yes, it’s important for parents to show love to their children, but it’s also important for parents to know when their children can handle things on their own, and to sit back and let them do it. I have a lot of animosity built up toward The Ex, but I admit freely that she is an excellent mother, and I see my children growing up as intelligent, confident, capable boys. I know that living with her is the best choice for them. Perhaps not for always, and I keep hoping that I will be geographically close enough to have an emotionally close relationship with them, but for now they are having their best possible life, and I wouldn’t take that from them.

Today is Mothers’ Day in the United States, and while I have some animosity built up toward my mother as well, it’s the day that I pretend that doesn’t exist and call her. Sometimes she feels abandoned, which Jane Austen would call “the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning”; my mom was emotionally unavailable during my childhood because she was coping with the divorce and her own anger issues, and the work of repressing all that kept me at a distance. In my roving life I often regret the type of relationship we have, and I wish I could be closer to my biological family, but the bottom line is that I don’t miss them, the actual people that they are, very much. There’s a big family thing this summer that I’ve been planning to go to, but these days I’m thinking of skipping it. I miss my kids, and I’d rather put my time, energy, and money into seeing them rather than into seeing people that I’m really angry about.

Art and revolution. Poetry seems to have been at the forefront of the Communist Revolution, at least in Czechoslovakia. The arts were bent toward propaganda, which leads the artists in the book to ask the question, How do I adequately express myself? In modern abstract experimental forms, or in the more mimetic forms that will appeal to the uneducated masses? With the Party taking a strong interest in the arts, the question also becomes, How do I adequately express myself without getting arrested? A lot of artists and thinkers seem to have been sent to do manual labor on farms (I’m thinking forward to the guy in Slowness, as well as back to the teacher from The Joke), and while there is value in that sort of life, it’s not the life that they chose for themselves. So, it’s either follow the unstated, unacknowledged rules of the establishment, or be forced to give up art altogether. It’s a dangerous gamble/game.

This was a hard book for me. I’ve got my own issues with mothers, though, and with governments, and this troubled relationship with the idea of being a writer and whether or not that makes me an artist, so it may not be for you. Happy Mothers’ Day.

Oxford, in the rain:

The next day the weather broke. Early in the morning, before the first rays of light had touched the towers and pinnacles of the city, the rain began to fall from a leaden sky. When Nigel woke from a disturbed sleep the streets were already soaking, the elaborate and inefficient drainage systems of Gothic, Mock-Gothic, Palladian and Venetian architecture were already emitting accumulated jets of water on unwary passers-by: From Carfax the gutters streamed down the gentle slope of the High, past the ‘Mitre’, past Great St Mary’s, past the Queen’s, and so down to where the tower of Magdalen stood in solitary austerity above the traffic which ran towards Headington or Iffley or Cowley. Outside St John’s, the trees began to creak and whisper, and the drops rattled with dull monotony from their branches, while a few solitary beams of pale sunlight rested on an architrave of the Taylorian, glanced off southwards down the Cornmarket, and were rapidly engulfed somewhere in the precincts of Brasenose. The cinereous sky echoed the grey of innumerable walls; water ran in streams down the ivy which more or less shields Keble from offensive comment; paused and momentarily glistened on the wrought-iron gates of Trinity; gathered in innumerable runnels and rivulets among the cobbles which surround the Radcliffe Camera, standing like a mustard-pot among various other cruets. The eloquent décor of Oxford is bright sunlight or moonlight; rain makes of it a prison city, profoundly depressing.

And our featured professor of literature, Gervase Fen:

He travelled first-class because he had always wanted to be able to do so, but at the moment even this gave him little pleasure. Occasional pangs of conscience afflicted him over this display of comparative affluence; he had, however, succeeded in giving it some moral justification by means of a shaky economic argument, produced extempore for the benefit of one who had unwisely reproached him for his snobbishness. ‘My dear fellow,’ Gervase Fen had replied, ‘the railway company has certain constant running costs; if those of us who can afford it didn’t travel first, all the third-class fares would have to go up, to the benefit of nobody. Alter your economic system first,’ he had added magnificently to the unfortunate, ‘and then the problem will not arise.’ Later he referred this argument in some triumph to the Professor of Economics, where it was met to his chagrin with dubious stammerings.

Sometimes I think there’s something seriously wrong with me. I’ve been hitting the high culture a little hard lately – looking back, I haven’t read anything that could be considered an easy, relaxing read since October – so I went into the bookstore looking for something “different” (as I framed it to myself), and I came out with Dostoevsky and Kit Marlowe. I tried again a few weeks later, and I bought yet another Kundera novel and one of Joseph Campbell’s books on myth. I’ve also been feeling really tense lately, and I wonder if I even know how to relax any more. Fortunately, I approach the kobo differently. When I browse the website, I actively seek the less snobbish material that I can’t get reconciled to in printed form. Though really, I’m not sure if a book that uses such words as constatation and aposiopesis can really be considered easy, relaxing, or low-culture. I was sent to the dictionary at least five times, not generally a sign of low-stress reading.

Gervase Fen is a literature professor at Oxford, and uses his free time to solve crimes. He loves a good murder. Even though the narrator assures us he’s done this before, I think this is his first appearance in print. He’s delightfully eccentric, alternately exuberant and depressed, as the case progresses. Solving mysteries makes him happy, but the ethical dilemmas prompted by the solution trouble him. Is it right to assist in the conviction, imprisonment, and probable execution of a murderer who has killed someone that no one misses, and in fact most of the victim’s acquaintance rejoice in her demise? Especially when the murderer is an artist who could make a wartime world more beautiful? It’s a tricky puzzle. As much as I value human life and try to consider all lives equal, the damage that surrounds certain individuals makes me think that they and the world would both be happier if they were put out of the way. I’m not planning to murder anyone, I’m just saying that not all deaths are tragic.

The straight man from whose perspective we see the plot unfurl, Fen’s Dr Watson, is Nigel Blake, a former student who now works as a journalist. He quotes a lot, nearly as much as Fen himself, though in truth everyone does in this book. There is a veritable shit-ton of allusion, most of which I didn’t recognize and don’t feel bad about. I mean, how many people are reading Charles Churchill these days? Nigel’s quotations are more recognizable, usually from Shakespeare. The title itself is from King Lear, where he quotes the gilded fly as a symbol of lechery, when he’s praising venery for the illegitimate son who cares for him, as opposed to the honestly-got daughters who throw him out of his own home. One of the characters owns a ring with a gilded fly, a reproduction of an Egyptian artifact, and it’s found shoved onto the finger of a corpse. Hooray for literary theatre puns.

Along with the literature professor who solves crime, there’s a police detective who analyzes literature in his free time. Fen and Sir Richard disagree with each other’s conclusions, but the detective doesn’t play a large role. The Inspector, the more significant police presence, is an old man who is generally appalled and offended by the lax sexual mores of 1940. He spends his time being slowly authoritative and magnificently dense.

And then there are the victims and suspects, a group of theatre people and their hangers-on. The victim, Yseut Haskell, is a total bitch to everyone. She used to be sleeping with the playwright, but he’s moved on to the leading lady and the supporting actress hasn’t got over him. Oxford’s organist is hung up on Yseut, but she ignores him; the prop girl is hung up on the organist, and he ignores her in turn. There are other friends and relations, like the owner of the gun and the half-sister and the stage manager, and there’s more sex going on, but all of it offstage because we are writing in 1943 and things aren’t that lax.

This novel is written and set during World War II, yet the war doesn’t seem to invade Oxford. They have their blackout curtains, of course, and the war had a strong impact on theatre-going (which explains why a famous playwright and talented actors are leaving the West End to put on a show with a repertory company in Oxford), but most people keep doing what they had been doing, studying and teaching and performing, regardless of the Nazi Menace. I suppose if you’re not a soldier, wars don’t hold the attention very long. And since they don’t last forever, the activities that are not directly affected are in some ways more important. Of course, those activities could be ended by a war, but they’re not always. Art flourishes, even in unlikely places. And so does love.

So Nigel turned his attention back to what was left of Yseut. It was curious, he thought, how completely death had drained her of personality. And yet not curious: for her personality had centred entirely on her sex, and now that life was gone, that too had vanished, leaving her a neuter, an uninteresting construction of clay, suddenly pathetic. She had been an attractive girl. But that ‘had been’ was not a conventional gesture to the fact of death. It was an honest admission that without life the most beautiful body is an object of no interest. We are not bodies, thought Nigel, we are lives. And oddly, there came to him at that moment a new and firm conviction of the nature of love.

Yes, this contradicts Poe’s assertion that there is nothing more beautiful than a beautiful woman who has just died, but Crispin’s idea is better, healthier. In a book where sexuality runs rampant, he turns away from necrophilia and makes sure sex is only expressed in healthy, heterosexual ways. Nowadays, when we read that two young men didn’t hear the gunshot because they were listening to German opera and tone poems at high volume, we think that it’s to cover the sounds of gay sex, but they had all the windows and doors open, so less lover-like and more aggressively pretentious. Even in 1943 I imagine that Wagner and Strauss (Richard, not Johann) had a limited appeal. When I was in graduate school I tried listening to them for a class and my newborn son screamed and screamed. He was happy with Donizetti, but could not handle the Germans. But really, who doesn’t like Donizetti? They put some in a Bruce Willis film, and that scene is even more widely remembered and loved than the ending, which is a little anticlimactic. Granted, there’s a crazy electronic cadenza, but it’s still Donizetti.

Life matters. We are who we are because we are alive, and when we die this physical shell, this earthly husk, will become a thing of no worth, something we burn or bury, which is what we do to trash. A body with no breath, a human with no life, is not a thing of great value. Its only use is as evidence – we must find out who or what deprived us of this life. And that’s the conclusion we must eventually come to: Even Yseut Haskell’s life matters and contributes to humanity. Robbing the world of a life is a serious crime, one that people in my home country are only too happy to commit. Our murder rates are rising dramatically, which suggests that people in the United States do not value human life. There are too many bombs, too many shootings, and too much of it is based on identities. People get killed for being black, for being Muslim, for being gay, I mean this guy from Baltimore just ran up to New York because he wanted to kill a black person. Why do you think they’re insisting so much that their lives matter? Because white people think it’s okay to kill them. Yes, all lives do matter, but the majority of American culture does not question the value of white lives. Straight white male Christian lives, to be specific. I was in the mall yesterday, and there were several small-time entrepreneurs setting up booths and tables to sell things, and I heard one of the sellers demean both Jews and Blacks in the space of about twenty minutes. I suppose this is a good community for that, since there aren’t many non-white, non-Christians around, but what a horrible way to see the world. Life is precious, both your individual life and everyone else’s.

Objectively speaking, it has been said that Crispin’s murders are too convoluted, that no one would ever actually kill people in these manners. They’re too unrealistic. Yes, that’s very likely so, and I suppose it’s bothersome if you read mystery novels because you want to figure it out before it’s revealed, but I don’t. I read these stories because I think detectives are interesting people. Intelligent, brave, and eccentric – who wouldn’t want to spend time with them? Crispin’s mysteries, though, are probably best enjoyed by people who enjoy literary quotations and expanding their vocabularies. Like me.

Given the option to teach literature again this month, I was firmly against repeating The Old Man and the Sea, so I chose the other option for a really short book that the company had in inventory. I hadn’t read it before, and reading a new book to teach it was a really strange experience. I kept looking for new vocabulary and literary elements, thinking of ways I could assess my students’ reading instead of enjoying my own. It’s like knitting projects to sell – it turns a hobby into work, and I’m not that fond of working. It takes the joy out of it.

Steinbeck was working on crossing the line between prose and drama, so this novel is set up like a play. Each chapter begins with a description of the scene, and everything happens in that confined place. There’s a lot of dialogue and not really a lot of action. It’s mostly, people walk on, sit, and talk. It’s a three-act tragedy, with each act having two scenes (six sections that are not actually named chapters).

George and Lennie are migrant ranch hands in California during the Depression, a time and place that are practically owned by Steinbeck. George is little and sharp, Lennie is the opposite, large and dull. My international students were fairly familiar and comfortable with the idea of Lennie being a grown man with the mind of a small child (one of them has a relative with Down’s Syndrome), and I don’t have the training to diagnose his particular brand of developmental delay. George grew up in the same town, so he keeps him around. Lennie is a habit he just can’t break, even though he complains about how much fun he’s losing out on. He could be going out and getting drunk and laid like all the other guys if he didn’t have to take care of Lennie. Yet, the two of them have plans for the future precisely because he does take care of Lennie. Other migrant workers drift without a sense of direction, but these two have a definite plan to get some money together and buy a specific plot of land. They’ll have a house and animals, and Lennie will take care of the rabbits. He loves touching soft things. They’re starting a new job, which is the exposition.

The big trouble at the new job is with the boss’s son. Curley is a little guy who likes to fight, and he’s stupidly jealous of his too-sociable wife. He thinks Lennie is laughing at him because of his wife’s wanderings, so he starts a fight that he can’t finish. Lennie breaks his hand. That’s the climactic turning point that leads the wife of the pugilist to cast her eye on the over-big child. Now, at their last job, Lennie started touching a woman’s dress that was soft like a rabbit or a dead mouse, and she freaked out and he couldn’t figure out what to do except close his hand tight and hold on for dear life, while the poor woman is screaming Rape just as loud as she can. George had to whack him over the head with a fence picket and they ran off to keep from getting killed. Curley’s nameless wife lets Lennie pat her hair, and then when he clamps on and can’t release she starts screaming, but he covers her mouth to shut her up and accidentally breaks her neck. At this point all George can do is shoot Lennie before the lynch mob hangs him.

At one point Steinbeck said that this woman wasn’t actually a character; she’s just a symbol of evil, a piece of forbidden fruit. Lennie falls because he can’t resist, even though he remains innocent, just like Billy Budd. I’d like to argue for a minute that she’s a real person. She grew up in a little town, dreaming of something better, and then she met a few men who promised her Hollywood and glamour but didn’t deliver, though I imagine she delivered her goods to them. Then she meets a guy who’s little but strong, and instead of promising fame he promises love. It sounds like a good deal, but then it’s all isolation on a farm outside Soledad CA. Every time she tries talking to anyone, her husband shows up and makes trouble. It’s not her fault there aren’t any other women around. Some people are cut out for solitude, but some aren’t. This girl needs people, society, conversation, but all she gets is trouble and loneliness. I didn’t notice any evidence of domestic violence, but I think more careful readers have made a case for it. Her life is miserable. She found acceptance in the past by treating men a certain way, and now she’s punished for it. The Depression may make the workers’ life miserable, but hers is just downright untenable. Then someone defeats her guardian monster, and she shows a little interest, but the new champion is even worse than the old one. He kills her. Lennie didn’t slut-shame her like everyone else on the ranch, but I’d say death of the body is worse than death of the reputation. The explicit narrative centers its pathos on Lennie, but in a time when there was no good treatment or care options for the developmentally delayed or mentally ill, his fate is inevitable. Hers could have been avoided, if the author had seen the woman as more than the instrument of a man’s downfall. You know, if he had bothered to give her a name.

Race is another isolating identity. Crooks works in the stable, and lives in a little room off the main part of the barn instead of in the bunkhouse with the other hands. He’s crippled from getting kicked by a horse, showing just how little valued the lives of black men are. In his isolation, he becomes misanthropic instead of social, with a sort of self-protective hostility. Lennie doesn’t notice and befriends him, but not too closely.

Candy is isolated by his age. Ranch work is for the young and strong, and he is neither. It doesn’t help that he only has one hand. But he’s the right sort of different, because George and Lennie make space in their plans for him.

When it comes to the others, mainstream society, it’s a toss-up. You could get Slim, who’s compassionate and a real friend to George, or you could get Carlson, who sees that George has just killed his best friend and says,

Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin’ them two guys?

A lot of people are just not good at emotions. Carlson is a bit of a psychopath, intent on killing whoever doesn’t serve him, like Candy’s smelly old dog. It’s unfortunate, but hard times like the Depression bring out the utilitarian in some people. I have to confess to having this unsentimental streak as well, because circumstances in my life are also sometimes difficult and necessitate parting with people or things that I would prefer to keep. It doesn’t help that I love people who aren’t good for me. He’s working at being better, these last few weeks, so I’m hopeful for our future. I know I should be thinking about how good I am to him too – I am a bit self-centered. I do my best for him, but I express my own needs to myself more clearly than he expresses his to me, so it’s easier for me to evaluate whether my own needs are being met than his. Yes, I need a break from these fatalistic modernist texts, but it’s nice to come back to the real world and know that there are people who care about me, and that there’s a handsome man I’m going to sleep next to tonight, and he loves me.

BILLY BUDD

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

And yes, it’s quite gay.

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

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

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

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

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

THE PIAZZA TALES

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

The Piazza

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

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

Bartleby

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

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

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

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

Benito Cereno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lightning-Rod Man

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

The Encantadas; or Enchanted Islands

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

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

The Bell-Tower

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

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

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

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

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

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

The promotion for this book (at least the copy I have) seems to be, “If you loved Possession, you’ll like this.” Yet it was published twelve years earlier, and the author seems to be at a different stage in her thinking and writing. Like Possession, it deals with the private lives of people who give their lives to literature; unlike Possession, these people are not career scholars, they’re teachers at a little school in Yorkshire. Stylistically, she’s writing as an academic instead of as someone who wants people to read her sentences.

He did not look, as she had supposed, perhaps feared, he might, silly.

Do not separate the predicate adjective from a linking verb with a long subordinate clause (and a second clause embedded in the first! Oh my).

This book draws a lot from D. H. Lawrence, explicitly from The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There are also a lot of parallels with The Virgin and the Gipsy. Two sisters growing up and learning about life and love, the older more serious, the younger a bit of a firecracker. Unfortunately, Stephanie and Frederica are being raised by Bill Potter, a verbally abusive, frustrated academic. He’s replaced the Bible and Christianity with Lawrence and the Romantics. It’s a curious trade, and one that leads to results he himself does not condone.

Good teaching is a mystery and takes many forms. Stephanie’s idea of good teaching was simple and limited: it was the induced, shared, contemplation of a work, an object, an artefact. It was not the encouragement of self-expression, self-analysis, or what were to be called interpersonal relations. Indeed, she saw a good reading of the Ode on a Grecian Urn as a welcome chance to avoid these activities.

I agree with Byatt’s comment on the mystery of being a good teacher, but I’m not sure if Stephanie goes about it correctly. Her method was highly valued in the early 1950s, when we were trying to make the study of literature dispassionate and scientific, but my experience with literature professors is that they generally want students to connect with the poem, or with the poet through the poem, or with themselves through the poem. Self-expression, self-analysis, and interpersonal relations are desirable and indeed necessary aspects of today’s classroom, like the time I wrote to my professor that I was having a hard time relating to Shakespeare’s sonnets because I had never been in love. [I glance backward at my twenty-three-year-old self and shake a fist, shouting “Come out of the closet! You’re gay! Pay attention to your crushes on men!”]

Stephanie is the older, steadier sister, and as such, is the one I’m more interested in. She rebels against her father, first by leaving Cambridge and teaching in the same middle-of-nowhere town she was raised in, and then by marrying the curate. Wasting her intellectual talents is one thing, but allying herself so strongly to a professional Christian is just too much. Daniel isn’t actually that great of a Christian; he doesn’t believe or care about the dogma. His interest is in social justice, so instead of spending a lot of time studying and writing sermons, he goes around finding ways to help people. This is a mission Stephanie can agree with. Her feelings don’t seem to heat up that much; he wants her, he’s a logical choice, and he represents a way to escape her father. A common sad story.

Frederica is the titular virgin, an unpopular seventeen-year-old anxious to lose her virginity. It’s the year of Elizabeth II’s coronation, so the local artsy people are doing a celebration of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Apparently there are numerous parallels between the life of Elizabeth and Frederica’s story, but I am no Renaissance scholar. Alexander Wedderburn, her father’s younger colleague at school, has written a play about the queen that will serve as the centerpiece to the Elizabethan festivities. They hire a few professional actors, but Frederica is chosen to act the part of the teenaged Elizabeth. The play gives her license to find someone to have sex with, and by the two-thirds point this is the primary element of suspense. Who? When? Where?

He produced a macintosh and laid it out under a somewhat Wordsworthian thorn bush. Frederica sat stiffly on the edge of it, telling herself that there were certain things that when she knew them would not bother her in the same way any more. She had read Lady Chatterley, true, and The Rainbow too, and Women in Love, but it cannot be said that she expected a revelation from the traveller in dolls. She wished her ignorance, part of it, to be dispelled. She wished to become knowledgeable. She wished to be able to pinpoint the sources of her discontent.

She’s not discontented because she’s a virgin. If she were, she wouldn’t have so many near-misses. There are a few times she has the opportunity to have sex but backs out at the last minute. She gets called a cock-tease, but I don’t think it’s intentional. She means to have sex, but gets disgusted with the men. There are a lot of disgusting men out there, and those who want to sleep with a teenager (after they’ve passed into their legal majority) are among them. Austen heroes, I’m looking at you – Colonel Brandon and Mr Knightley, especially. They are both my age when they marry, but Marianne Dashwood is only nineteen and Emma Woodhouse twenty-one. I have no business running after little boys like that. Frederica’s discontentment comes from her social isolation and her volatile father.

When she finally creates the right mixture of partner, place, and time, she finds that sex is different from what she had expected.

She had learned something. She had learned that you could do – that – in a reasonably companionable and courteous way with no invasion of your privacy, no shift in your solitude. You could sleep all night, with a strange man, and see the back only of his head, and be more self-contained than anywhere else. This was a useful thing to know. It removed the awful either/or from the condition of women as she had seen it. Either love, passion, sex and those things, or the life of the mind, ambition, solitude, the others. There was a third way: you could be alone and not alone in a bed, if you made no fuss. She too would turn away and go to sleep.

I found that out too, but since my first time was on my wedding night, it wasn’t immediately. At first it was this cosmic force binding us together, but in time I could also see it driving us apart. I had to learn to accept love without a physical component – love and sex became divided for me because I got love without sex, not sex without love the way most people seem to.

I suppose the reason I don’t find Frederica very interesting is that different versions of her story get told over and over and over again. Bookish teenage outcast finds her place in society? How many times have we told that story?

I identified more with their brother Marcus. He’s sixteen, but I kept visualizing him as younger. Like me, he has family-trauma-induced mental problems, including hallucinations and sporadic extreme sensitivity to light. I pushed it all into religion, where you can pass that kind of stuff off as proof of divine favor (or at least attention – Old Testament prophets did not lead peaceful lives). Marcus’s father doesn’t allow of religion, so he pairs up with a teacher who has some weird beliefs about the natural and supernatural worlds. In another time, Lucas Simmonds would have been a ghostbuster or an internet conspiracy theorist, tracking ley lines and all that good stuff, but in the 1950s the information isn’t available to him. He keeps trying to make something happen, find some proof that the supernatural is real (The Truth Is Out There), and in the process lose himself. There’s something suicidal about his desire to vanish into the air, cast off this mortal flesh and join the elementals or whatever he wants to do. Marcus isn’t really into this like Lucas is, and the self-dissolution aspect of it worries him, but Lucas has answers (however wonky) and gives him time and attention, which no one else is willing to do. It seems like Lucas’s biggest problem is one he won’t face: he’s gay. His flight from the body is really a flight from his own sexuality. If chemical castration were offered to him, I think he would take it. Instead he ends up really going off the deep end. Marcus ends the book in a bad place too, primarily because he feels responsible for Lucas. Lucas’s insanity isn’t Marcus’s fault though; you can blame society for denying the viability of homosexuality as a mode of existence, you can blame Lucas for refusing to accept himself, but none of this can be traced to Marcus. He got to the party too late to be responsible for it. I do wish that Lucas could have danced by the pond with flowers twined through all the hair on his body without being crazy – if I ever have a nervous breakdown, I hope it’s beautiful like that.

I’ve been visiting my kids this week, and I first saw them on a playground. My oldest ran up to me and commented on how many children were there and how scary crowds are, and I thought, “Oh good, you’ve inherited my social anxiety.” I’m happy for any connection with my kids. He unwrapped the book I got him and was really excited – The Ex and I both enjoyed Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence when we were his age, so Over Sea, Under Stone was a good choice – so excited, in fact, that by the time I left the next day he had finished the entire book. It’s sometimes harder to see similarities with my middle boy – he’s more Emilio Estevez than Anthony Michael Hall – but he has my preference for showing love through physical contact and my impatience with unnecessary conversation. The youngest is still sort of a mystery to me; it’s like he’s a batch of muffins that have only been cooking for seven minutes. Just not done yet. He’s sensitive and affectionate, and likes whatever his brothers are into.

I saw my dad a few weeks ago, and I’ve been crying ever since. It’s not that I miss him, though I did, it’s that my parents are kind of horrible. In the course of one evening he pointed out that even though I’ve lived in the Midwest/Southwest for two years, he’s the first one to come visit me [subtext: I’m the only one who loves you and you can’t trust anyone else], AND that he had way too many kids and he jokingly/not-jokingly wishes abortion had been more socially and morally acceptable back in the 1970s [subtext: I wish you were never born]. He tried to give me a handshake instead of a hug [subtext: You’re a stranger to me, stay out of my personal space, keep your gay filth to yourself]. This whole love/rejection thing is toxic and hard and makes the concept of family very difficult for me, so I’m not participating in my guy’s holiday family get-togethers the way he’d like me to. I’m not sure what he wants, maybe another version of his brother’s partner, but my relationships with my family (or The Ex’s family) have not prepared me for the kind of interactions he wants me to have with his parents and extended family.

I worry about my family life. I don’t know how to do any of this, being a good son or a good father or a good partner to someone who is close to his family. I try to be myself and act in ways that are natural to me, and show love whenever I can, but lately I’ve been feeling like it’s not enough. The collapse of the Potter family feels like a warning, but I don’t know how to profit from it. There must be a way to hang onto love without losing the self, there must be a way to reach out to loved ones without hurting them, and there ought to be a way to interact with my parents that doesn’t leave me sobbing for months afterward. But twentieth-century literature may be the wrong place to look for them.

Yes, this is a book about the pace of modern life. Partially.

We begin with Kundera and his wife driving out to a castle-turned-hotel for the evening. As he’s driving, he’s thinking about the modern tendency to road rage (yes, I’m pointing at myself) and our insane hurry to do everything. After they arrive, they enjoy a quiet evening and go to bed early. So, for most of the book, he’s imagining it, and his wife is dreaming what he imagines, like their minds are in the same vehicle but he’s driving. Every now and again she’ll wake up and comment on the story, or a piece of music that he mentions. This is the frame.

Because this is a Milan Kundera novel, he moves quickly to the subject of sex. He thinks that our sex lives must be as hurried as the rest of life, and he finds this unfortunate. He remembers a short erotic story from the eighteenth century, Vivant Denon’s Point de Lendemain. This is a real story; you can read it at Project Gutenberg, if you read French. Denon was more famous for his Egyptology; his travel book on Egyptian archaeology fueled the orientalist fads of the late eighteenth to the nineteenth century, which sort of culminated in Aida – because why not set an Italian opera in Egypt – or possibly in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – because why not send an American teacher to fight Nazis in Egypt. Frankly, if you’re looking for eighteenth century smut, Fanny Hill is much more detailed, with less not-sex. A young man sees a married friend of his mistress, and she takes him out to her home in the country (the same castle Kundera is staying in, of course). Over the course of the evening, she works a slow seduction, the type designed to end in sex but in such a way that the man thinks it’s his ardor leading the charge. There are a few changes of scenery; she leads him all over the garden. She flirts him in a little, then pushes him away with that classical French pout. Finally she takes him to a secret room in the castle and they do what she brought him for; the next morning he runs into the guy she’s been fucking and he reveals that the whole night was just a smokescreen so that her husband would focus his jealousy on Young Protagonist instead of on the real lover.

So of course Kundera reimagines the story in the modern world (twenty years ago, before we all had cell phones). Kundera’s pal Vincent is at the same hotel, attending a conference of entomologists. He meets Julie, some kind of admin assistant working the conference. They bond over the fact that they both feel young and undervalued, so they abuse the other attendees over a few drinks and decide to go up to her room. They get sidetracked by the new swimming pool, so they swim naked for a bit and do it poolside. Then she runs away all flirtatious-like and he follows her but not quite fast enough (A lady clutching a dress to her nude front is all right, but a gentleman ought to put on the trousers in his hand). He can’t find her, so for both young men, the love affair has no tomorrow. I feel like I ought to be sad about that, but a one-night stand is one of my favorite memories, so I’m really not.

Because this is a Kundera novel, there’s also a socio-political element, this time focused on performance. Some people grow and expand like a rose blooming when they have an audience. So they play to that audience; Kundera calls it dancing, and he has quite a lot to say about dancers. Most of it not great. We wear masks in public, and sometimes we confuse the mask for the real self. People who don’t even know a person’s real self can reject a mask, but the rejectee feels it in the real self. The good politicians and academics know how to manage their personae to get ahead. Čechořipsky is less skilled in this area. He may at one time have been a brilliant entomologist, but he failed to ingratiate himself with the Soviets when they took over Czechoslovakia. He tries to see it as a successful rebellion now, but at the time it was just cowardice. So he’s spent the last twenty years as a construction worker, not studying bugs. He’s so emotionally overwhelmed at the conference he forgets to present his paper, and when he realizes his mistake he feels like a big idiot, so he comforts himself by thinking of his physique. Working in construction like that, he’s stronger than any of these guys who have spent their lives in laboratories. Boys have always comforted themselves for the fact that they’re not comparatively smart by asking themselves who would win in a fight. But the other scientists don’t see him as buff or hot or anything. They seem to see him more as a Quasimodo figure.

So he goes down to the pool to do some lengths and feel better about himself, and he sees these two people fucking next to the pool, and he thinks what a strange and wonderful country France must be, where lovers can do that in public without drawing unwanted attention. What he doesn’t realize is that Vincent’s dick is not at all engaged. It’s in its resting state, dangling about but not actually inside her. This sex act is a performance. Vincent and Julie are each performing their rebellion against society for an invisible audience, possibly each other, so there’s no need for them to actually touch. Just like in Denon’s story, where the lady takes the young man to prove to her husband that he doesn’t have to worry about the man she’s sleeping with habitually – it’s all performance. Our lives are full of performance too; we’re all dancing about in front of the cameras, hoping to get our pictures taken. Our cultural conversation insists that fame is ephemeral, but that doesn’t stop us from wishing for it. Kundera points out that we all think we are the elect, and that we will somehow get our image preserved forever. It’s hard for us to cope with our equality; we believe we’re special, that we somehow deserve nice things even when no one else has them. Or maybe I’m just talking about me, who secretly never gave up his dream of becoming a rock star. Even though he’s 37 and has only a basic musical talent and a complete disdain for autotune. It makes people sound like robots.

So, to complete this book on fame and sex (and the informal spaces where the two interact) and pacing, there’s this weird little apostrophe on the last page that doesn’t seem to fit with the novel.

I beg you, friend, be happy. I have the vague sense that on your capacity to be happy hangs our only hope.

Is that really what the whole thing has been about? Happiness? and Hope?

What does it take to be happy? What does ‘happy’ even mean?

Against my expectations, I’m reminded of a bit of St Paul, where he says that external circumstances don’t matter to him because his contentment comes from within (Phil 4:12-13). Much as I dislike supporting Paul, this one makes sense. The characters in this book are mostly unhappy, but it’s primarily themselves they are unhappy with. Vincent and Julie and Čechořipsky and the other dancers are all acting out their obvious insecurities, while the characters he borrows from Denon seem happy, even the young man who was manipulated and used. I guess that makes sense, according to the codes of the time he protected a woman (read weak, defenseless creature) from the vile aspersions of her husband (however true they may be). I guess people like being helpful, even if the help is kind of strange. In context, though, I think Kundera would link their happiness to their slower pace of life. Their actions are more deliberate: Julie takes the opportunity when it comes, but Madame de T creates the opportunity and orchestrates the entire experience. My modern self wants to be special, unique, not so easily predicted, but Denon’s lad finds happiness in the utility that comes from being so utterly conventional. Less individuality, less fame, but more happiness.

As I’m sitting here considering times I have been both happy and slow, I think that the connection has to do with the amount of control I feel I have over my own life. If I let modernity have its way, I get swept into the rush of things. When I can control my life, I slow it down. When I feel in control, I feel happy. And frankly, reading seems to play a large part in all this. He got me an iPad a month or two ago, and it’s a nice toy for checking my friends’ facebook posts, but when I try to read an article they share, the ads load very slowly, so I read a few sentences and the screen goes blank to reload the next ad, so I find my place and read a few more words before the screen goes blank again. If I get through an entire paragraph and have to scroll down, when the screen goes blank it will leave me at the top of the page again. It’s one of the most frustrating reading experiences I’ve ever had because I’m forced to rush. But reading an actual book is wholly different. The artifact is already intact, so I don’t have to wait for ads or buffering. It’s always immediately available, and it never reloads. There’s no pressure to hurry before the words disappear. Any pressures are purely internal, so I’m in control of the experience. I can choose to read quickly if the book is exciting, or I can slow down if the writing is complex or beautiful. With a printed book, I can make choices because there is so little technology mediating my experience of the text while I’m reading it.

Choice might actually be a better way of thinking about this than control. When I make choices, I’m happiest if I can take them slowly. Modern life does have a way of insisting that choices be made immediately, whether the matter is actually urgent or not. It’s better to have time to deliberate, weigh the options, think on it for a bit. The slower pace gives me confidence that I’m making a good choice. So. Slow is good. Taking time with/for people shows them that they are important to you. Taking time is how we escape from that twentieth-century French conviction that everything is meaningless. Slowness makes things matter.

This is the first of a trilogy that people have called The Roads to Freedom, but I don’t think it’s so much about journeying to freedom. At least, the journey isn’t a pleasant one, and freedom is no triumph.

This book is largely about the life of homosexuals in Paris, the summer of 1938, just before the whole Second World War starts. It’s about an era of enforced closets, where even young philosophy students can’t admit it to themselves.

The man was with a pansy who looked rather attractive from a distance, a fair-haired lad with delicate features, devoid of the usual mincing airs, and not without charm. Boris hadn’t much use for homosexuals, because they always were pursuing him, but Ivich rather liked them; she said: “Well, at any rate they’ve got the courage not to be like everybody else.” Boris had great respect for his sister’s opinions, and he made the most conscientious efforts to think well of fairies.

Boris is as gay as any of them, but just won’t face it.

Of course he preferred Mathieu’s company because Mathieu wasn’t a girl: a man was more intriguing all the time. Besides, Mathieu taught him all sorts of tricks. But Boris often found himself wondering whether Mathieu had any real regard for him. Mathieu was casual and brusque, and of course it was right that people of their sort shouldn’t be sentimental when they were together, but there were all sorts of ways in which a fellow could show he liked someone, and Boris felt that Mathieu might well have shown his affection by a word or a gesture now and then. With Ivich, Mathieu was quite different. Boris suddenly recalled Mathieu’s face one day when he was helping Ivich put on her overcoat; he felt an unpleasant shrinking at the heart. Mathieu’s smile: on those sardonic lips that Boris loved so much, that strange, appealing, and affectionate smile. But Boris’s head soon filled with smoke and he thought of nothing at all.

I lived most of my life with that smoke, though I thought of it more as a sharp turning of the head. When there’s something you really don’t want to see – I don’t mean like those church people who see a porn mag in the gutter and can’t stop looking at it, I mean when you really, deeply cannot see it – you always look away, even if it’s right in front of you. It took me seven years to come out because I could not look at it. I kept having near-miss experiences, like this one:

Sereno burst out laughing. He had a warm, attractive laugh, and Boris liked him because he opened his mouth wide when he laughed.

“A man’s man!” said Sereno. “A man’s man! That’s a grand phrase, I must use it whenever I can.”

He replaced the book on the table.

“Are you a man’s man, Serguine?”

“I – ” began Boris, and his breath failed him.

“Don’t blush,” said Sereno – and Boris felt himself becoming scarlet – “and believe me when I tell you that the idea didn’t even enter my head. I know how to recognize a man’s man” – the expression obviously amused him – “there’s a soft rotundity in their movements that is quite unmistakable. Whereas you – I’ve been watching you for a moment or two and was greatly charmed: your movements are quick and graceful, but they are also angular. You must be clever with your hands.”

Boris listened attentively: it is always interesting to hear someone explain his view of you. And Sereno had a very agreeable bass voice. His eyes, indeed, were baffling: at first sight they seemed to be brimming with friendly feeling, but a closer view discovered in them something hard and almost fanatic. “He’s trying to pull my leg,” thought Boris, and remained on the alert. He would have liked to ask Sereno what he meant by “angular movements,” but he did not dare, he thought it would be better to say as little as possible, and then, under that insistent gaze, he felt a strange and bewildered access of sensibility arise within him, and he longed to snort and stamp to dispel that dizzying impulse. He turned his head away and a rather painful silence followed. “He’ll take me for a damn fool,” thought Boris with resignation.

I couldn’t have told you why I liked certain guys so much (that gorgeous blond river guide in my Faulkner class, for example, or the older boy who wandered out of the showers naked at Scout camp), I just did, and I wanted them to like me. I saw in them qualities that I wanted; they were the kind of guys that I wanted to be, confident and muscular and handsome, so I liked being around them. They’re straight, though. I was attracted to them, but there was a strange, different sort of connection with homosexuals. There’s always been a conflict between what I am and what I want to be. Even now that I know I’m gay, I still want to be more confident, more muscular, and more handsome. When I meet men as beautiful as Daniel Sereno, I’m still afraid that they’ll take me for a damn fool.

Boris and Daniel are both quite definitely homosexuals, but they’ve both established relationships with women. Daniel’s been around the gay block a few times and knows the tricks. There are a few places where the gay men hang out, so he meets them and arranges casual hookups. But homosexuality seems more like a compulsion than a desire. It’s not so much what they want or whom they love as what they need, what they can’t stop themselves from doing. Daniel has sex with a guy he finds revolting simply because he can’t stop himself. There are few choices, so he takes the least bad of a bad bunch. With the greater awareness that we have now, eighty years later, I don’t have to resort to this, but I think back to my last closet days, when I knew that this was burning inside me and I couldn’t let it out where people could see it. When sexuality can’t be expressed in healthy ways, it assaults you in unhealthy ways. Daniel knows of two gay men who live together, but they have no sort of social standing and they sleep with other people, possibly for money. And that’s the extent of the courage that Ivich admires so much. I’m not criticizing gay men who lived in less forgiving times, I’m just saying that men who were as open as Oscar Wilde went to jail, so they had to be a lot more careful than I do today. Even in Trump’s America I’m not afraid of the fact that my boss and coworkers know I’m gay, and that one of my coworkers half-outed me to a student. I’m a little irritated at that last, but not afraid.

Since the election people have been writing #gayandscared all over campus, with all sorts of other slogans like #notmypresident and #blacklivesstillmatter, and yes it’s odd to see a hashtag in sidewalk chalk, but I’m not scared. Probably because I grew up in North Carolina, where our state identity is “Just leave me alone.” We pretty much just leave each other alone. HB2 seems to refute that, but if you look at the conservative fear that prompted it, it’s actually just another expression of “Just leave me alone.” They’re afraid of people not being left alone in restrooms. Yes, that fear has led to a law that refuses to just leave a different group of people alone, but it’s the same concept at work. Most transpeople I know identify so strongly with their gender that you can’t tell it’s different from their gender expression at birth, and I can pretty much guarantee that we don’t have police officers stationed at restroom doors, checking genitalia, so “Just leave me alone” also means that the law is largely unenforceable. And now I sound like the gay Arabs who say that it doesn’t matter if the law says they can be beheaded if no one actually reports them to the police. Probably because I’m a white cis-male and I know that the deck is stacked in my favor. I was talking today to someone who’s worried about his friend because, not only is she a single mom, she’s also a Muslim lesbian American citizen.

This paragraph is going to be politically controversial, so skip it if you must. I am very concerned that our country elected an unqualified, repulsive person as president who is putting together a cabinet of equally unqualified, repulsive persons to make the entire country into a scheme for making themselves rich. As such, Trump’s election puts us one step closer to Stalin’s Russia. However, American liberals, you asked for it. Yes, you fucking did. You alienated rural whites while forgetting just how many of them there are. Think about that moment in Ted where Mark Wahlberg reels off a list of all the supposedly trailer-trash female names he can think of – those are the names of almost all the girls I grew up with. Poor rural whites have been the butt of liberal jokes for too long; of course they voted for the candidate who told them it’s okay to be who they are. One of my friends at work has a friend who always looks like she just wandered out of a film about Depression-Era Mississippi, but she can quote every Shakespeare play from memory, in her country-hick accent. Geography does not guarantee level of education, and level of education does not indicate level of intelligence. And even if it did, level of intelligence is no indicator of the worth of a human life. Stop making them the bad guys, and teach them that when we say Black Lives Matter we are not saying that white lives don’t. Women’s rights do not encroach on the rights of men, and gay marriage does not detract from straight marriage. However, you have to show them that, and making memes about how stupid they are is not showing them that you value their lives. If we want to be Stronger Together, we have to make sure that all people feel welcome in our movement, not just the black lesbians. The internet has had a really polarizing effect, which means that we don’t understand people who don’t think like we do any more. We often don’t even respect them. We need to build some bridges, not based on the intersectionality of our own identities (straight white liberals to gay white liberals), but across the wider political divide to the people who are wholly different than we are. If we’re going to value difference, we have to value people who are different, and believe me, my conservative family is very different to me. I’m not saying I’m better than the rest of you, I’m just as ethnocentric as the rest of them. When I read an internet rumor that Kate McKinnon’s character on Ghostbusters is gay, my response was, Of course she is, she’s awesome. Being liberal doesn’t equate to being open-minded. A lot of my friends are sharing articles on facebook written by rabidly fanatic liberals who do not see the value of conservative [poor white Trump-voting] lives, and by devaluing these people they contribute to the divisive atmosphere that led to Trump’s election. We can disagree with their opinions, we can point out how their policies oppress minorities and women, but we cannot make ad hominem arguments that demonize poverty, lack of formal education, whiteness, or men. We cannot tell them that their lives are unimportant. Because it invites them to retaliate and we get Trump as president. It’s like the guys at the beginning of Fight Club who grow breasts after taking testosterone. Quit trying to fight hate with hate. You need love for that.

Political rant over.

Unfortunately (in my opinion), neither Boris nor Daniel is the protagonist. It’s not even Ivich, Boris’s sister. No, it’s Mathieu, whom I find quite unlikable. He’s in his mid-thirties and obsessed with the idea of freedom. By which he doesn’t really mean freedom, he means control over his own life.

“No,” he thought, “no, it isn’t heads or tails. Whatever happens, it is by my agency that everything must happen.” Even if he let himself be carried off, in helplessness and in despair, even if he let himself be carried off like an old sack of coal, he would have chosen his own damnation; he was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this dead weight about with him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no one had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good nor Evil unless he brought them into being. All around him things were gathered in a circle, expectant, impassive, and indicative of nothing. He was alone, enveloped in this monstrous silence, free and alone, without assistance and without excuse, condemned to decide without support from any quarter, condemned forever to be free.

He is determined not to let fate, destiny, or anyone else control him. But he’s in a bit of a jam, and his style of freedom means that no one will help him. You see, Mathieu has been seeing Marcelle a few times a week for the last seven years. He pursues other women too, of course, like the thing he has for Ivich, who actually seems like a young lesbian. And now Marcelle is pregnant and Mathieu rushes off to find the money for an abortion. He spends the entire book trying to arrange this money, and it’s not until rather late in the day that he stops to wonder whether Marcelle actually wants one. Easy access to abortions does not guarantee that this is the lady’s choice. But the baby represents a significant commitment, and Mathieu isn’t willing to make that commitment. He isn’t really willing to make any commitment, not to her, not to his friends, not to the Communist Party (yes, that comes up – he feels like he should be fighting in Spain instead of dithering in Paris, but he just can’t commit to signing up). And in the end, he realizes that his refusal to commit has made him a nonentity. He sees himself as a vacuum, devoid of personality or ideals or friends or even life. Because he is unwilling to secure himself to anything, he doesn’t have anything.

In many ways, Mathieu reminds me of the qualities that I dislike in myself. Depression and low self-esteem, unwillingness to commit. A tendency to decide which course is best without consulting other people who are involved, and then a blind adherence to that course no matter what difficulties or obstacles present themselves. A habitual lack of funds. I got into a fight with him this week about my level of commitment to his family. I still don’t feel as if he heard what I was saying, that his parents take advantage of people (specifically me), but we’re not fighting anymore, and there will probably come another time for that discussion. He doesn’t see that the concept of taking advantage applies to families, that ‘family’ means they can ask for whatever they want and he has to do it, and now I have to do it too. All I can say is, No. Unfortunately, they literally have no one else in their lives to ask for help, and I’m beginning to think it’s because people don’t like being manipulated or taken advantage of. I’m not even that committed to my own family. Commitment scares me, because (a) circumstances outside my control sometimes prevent my keeping those commitments, (b) committing to someone gives them power to hurt me deeply, like he did this week, and (c) if you commit to one thing, people will take it for granted that you’re committed to other things as well (whether or not they’re directly related), or that it’s okay to expect you to extend a time commitment beyond what you’re really willing to do. Commitment creates the opportunity for rejection and manipulation, and for me, those have been the results. I know that there are also opportunities for love and intimacy and closeness, but I have less experience of those things.

Looking back over the entry I wrote two years ago on Sartre’s philosophy, I think that it’s harder to see existential philosophy in narrative form. Yes, Mathieu comes to see himself as a tabula rasa, existence that has not yet achieved essence, but he’s wrong. He has a personality, it’s just an ineffective one. Personal responsibility, again yes. No one is willing to help Mathieu reach his goal of finding enough money to buy an abortion, so he has to take matters into his own hands. But, and I think this is important, people decide that he’s doing such a wretched job of handling the situation that they take it from him. The solution he works for with his own hands does not solve the problem, and Marcelle makes it clear that it’s not even his problem anymore. He’s not the only string to her bow. But I don’t see anything positive or life-affirming here. Mathieu is more of a cautionary tale; he clings to this idea of freedom so strongly that everyone wishes he would just grow up. Grown-ups recognize that people live in and contribute to communities. Mathieu just takes and takes and takes until he loses it all.

It isn’t that that’s repulsive.

It took me longer to read this than it should have because Mathieu is not a protagonist I want to spend time with. Perspective shifts around a lot, but his friends aren’t really nice people either, except maybe Sarah. This is the type of book that people read to tell themselves that it’s okay not to become an existentialist because they lead wasted lives of self-centered navel-gazing and will probably die alone in a drunken misery.