Posts Tagged ‘gothic’

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.

This book is sort of like an Alfred Hitchcock mashup, so of course I loved it. It’s a mystery that has echoes of Vertigo, Psycho, and North by Northwest. The author worked in cinema in the 1960s, so the influence can’t be an accident. You may not see his pen name on the screen, though; some of his work was done under his real name, Jean-Baptiste Rossi. I’m impressed with the fact that he gave himself a sobriquet that is an anagram of his real name.

It’s easy to kill, it’s easy to die. Everything is easy. Except, maybe, to console for a minute the child who is still trapped inside of us, who has not grown up, who never will grow up, and who never stops calling for help.

Dany Longo is a nice girl, pretty, shy, like a Joan Fontaine character. She borrows her employer’s Thunderbird while he’s on vacation and goes on a trip of her own, but as she gets away from Paris, people keep claiming to have seen her the day before. Shopkeepers, garage mechanics, hotel concierges, everyone saw her passing along yesterday, even though she knows that she’s never been down here before. It’s all very Gothic and unsettling, but she’s not so weak as people think she is. At one point a guy steals the car after seducing her, so she tracks him down and within two hours she’s in a different city taking the car back. There is a (very) handsome truck driver who helps her with some of this, but like a good Gothic book/film, most of the suspense comes from the protagonist’s response to circumstances that are revealed through ordinary people/minor characters.

She was living, fully awake, in a dream. Neither a good dream nor a bad dream; an ordinary dream, the kind she sometimes had and forgot afterwards. But this time she was not going to wake up in her room. She was already awake. She was living in someone else’s dream.

Do such things exist? To take a step indistinguishable from all the other steps you have taken in your life and, without realizing it, cross a frontier of reality; to remain yourself, alive and wide awake, but in the nocturnal dream of, let’s say, the girl next to you in the dormitory? And to keep on going in the certainty that you’ll never leave it again, that you are the prisoner of a world modeled on the real one but totally absurd, a world which is monstrous because it may vanish at any moment into your friend’s brain, and you along with it?

As in dreams, in which motives change as you go along, she no longer knew why she was on a road driving through the night. You walk into a room where – click – a little picture shows a fishing port, but Mama Supe is there, you came to confess to her that you have betrayed Anita and you can’t find the words to explain it to her because it is obscene, and you hit Mama Supe again and again, but she has already turned into another old woman whom you came to see about your white coat, and so forth. What was clearest was that she was supposed to get to a hotel she had already been to, before they could tell a policeman that she had never been there. Or the other way around. They say that when you’re crazy it is other people who seem to be crazy. Well, that must be it. She was crazy.

And of course, it’s hard to see who is significant and who isn’t, who is the murderer and who is mad. Maybe the Mama Supe (Mother Superior to strangers) who raised Dany and now lives as the voice in her head is really malevolent and not the part of her subconscious that protects her from the suicidal urges she feels sometimes. It’s hard to tell, until you get to the end and Dany figures it all out.

Of course, there are also moments of humor. It’s a delightful book.

The people of Marseille are very nice. First of all, they don’t insult you any more than most people do if you try to run over them, but they also take the trouble to look at your license plate. When they see that you come from Paris they tell themselves that obviously they must not expect too much of you, they tap their foreheads with their index finger, but without ill will, simply because it’s the thing to do. If at that moment you announce, “I’m lost, I don’t understand anything about your rotten city, the stoplights are out to get me, I’m looking for the freight yard in Saint-Lazare, does it even exist?” they take pity, they blame the good Mother for your misfortune, and a dozen of them crowd around to give you information. Turn right, then left, and when you get to the square with the Arc de Triomphe, watch out for the streetcars, they’ll run you down, my cousin’s wife’s sister stopped one of them and now it is she who has stopped in the family plot, and since she’s at the Canet cemetery it’s too far to bring flowers.

I guess people are pretty much the same everywhere. Even I once caught myself giving directions that included as a landmark that house on the corner that used to be painted chartreuse with yellow trim. Oh you know which one I mean, the guy only painted his house like that because his friend bet him fifty bucks he wouldn’t do it and leave it that color for a year. The joke was on the friend, because he lived happily in the chartreuse house for years. I think it’s white with dark trim now, but it may still have one green side. Then you turn again at the house that always has the dogs lying in the sun on the porch roof. You know the one.

If you’re looking for a great little mystery from the pre-cell phone age, this is it. Of course, there are some triggers: date rape seems to have been very common in France in the 1960s, and once Dany escaped only to leave her friend Anita in her apartment with two horny guys. She feels guilty about it, but she’s also dealing with post-abortion guilt. An important thread to the narrative is Dany’s journey toward valuing herself. At the beginning she’s so weighted by guilt that she’s murmuring “Kill me” in her sleep, and by the end she’s winning the fight to save her life and her sanity from the people who threaten her. She doesn’t have a Jimmy Stewart or a Cary Grant to save her (sexy truck driver isn’t around all the time), so she learns to do it herself. Not just how to save herself, but that her life is worth saving.

Life is full of pressures from within and without, and we have to learn to choose ourselves. For some of us, that’s a hard lesson. And we keep having to repeat it. But our happiness won’t come on its own; we have to learn to value it, to work for it, and to enjoy it when it comes.

So, the morning after I finished the last book, I was rooting through the boxes of books in the living room, looking for whatever would come next, and I thought, “Oh yeah, I’ve been thinking of Melmoth lately,” so I pulled it out. I wasn’t thirty pages into it before I was thinking, “Really, OccMan? Melmoth? Really? With the depressed mood you’ve been in lately, you’re going to read fucking Melmoth?” It ended up not being as depressing as I remember, and I’m actually noticeably happier than I was two weeks ago, so Melmoth was a win.

Melmoth the Wanderer marks a turning point in Gothic literature. There was a strong wave starting with Walpole in 1764 that reached its crest with Ann Radcliffe in the 1790s, waning toward the parody Northanger Abbey and what may be the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein, both of 1818. In 1820, Melmoth is sort of the last of this wave. The writer of the foreword, though, seems to think it could also be a bridge to the next type of Gothic, the sensation novels of the 1850s-70s, with Mrs Gaskell and Mr Collins in the thick of it, and Dickens and Brontë representing the more respectable crowd. It’s harder to connect Maturin to Dickens, in my opinion, because of the time period. People still read novels from nearly every year from 1790 to 1820 (and when I say people I mean I do), but there’s a big gap in British fiction from Melmoth in 1820 to The Pickwick Papers in 1836. I read the first chapter of an LEL novel from I think 1824, but my professor didn’t think the book worth following up on, and if a Romanticist/Victorianist who teaches graduate courses isn’t into it, and it’s nearly impossible to find, I really think it wouldn’t repay the effort. I mean, there are also some Scott novels, but I really think that the best thing to come out of Sir Walter Scott is the Donizetti opera. Aside from the time, I also think Maturin fits better with the conventions of Radcliffe than those of Collins. Most of the novel takes place in Spain, and about half of it in the seventeenth century, and it was Radcliffe’s crew who distanced the Gothic from themselves in time and place. The Victorians bring the horror right up close to themselves.

The premise. Melmoth is a type of the Wandering Jew, condemned to wander the earth for an unnaturally long period of time, serving as a representative of ultimate evil on the earth. He’s kind of like Cain, one of the heroes of the Romantic poets. Like Victor Frankenstein, Melmoth wants to know the secrets of nature, to penetrate beyond the human limits of knowledge. So he makes a deal, whereby he can pass through any wall or door and travel at incredible speeds, in order to learn more than anyone ever has, but with the understanding that when he dies, after one hundred fifty years, he’s going to suffer in hell for eternity. The only loophole is, that if he can find someone who will take his place – someone so desperate to escape that he will risk his soul – he can recover his salvation. But, this condition is unutterable, literally. People who try to denounce him drop dead on the spot. It can only be revealed in the safety of the confessional. He spends a lot of time hanging out in Spain, perhaps because of the intensity of the Inquisition there.

The structure. This novel is a whole mess of interpolated stories. Most novels with this type of structure lend an air of reality by being terribly interested in verisimilitude, creating a logical reason for the stories to be gathered as they are. Not Maturin. Someone reads a scroll in the underground library of a hundred-year-old Spanish Jew, and we have to accept it as realistic, even though there’s no character who could know all the story relates (Maturin favors third-person omniscient narration). The frame story is about John Melmoth, a young man who was raised in comparative poverty with the expectation of inheriting a fortune from a miserly eccentric uncle. The uncle dies, warning Young Melmoth about his ancestor. Melmoth then finds a half-legible manuscript about someone who met the Wanderer after being wrongfully imprisoned in an insane asylum. The story gets him all worried and excited, and (coincidentally) a few nights later a ship crashes on the coast, with the survivor being another of the Wanderer’s prospects. He tells his story, and with its interpolations, it takes up the rest of the book.

The Tale of the Spaniard. Monçada tells your classic Radcliffean Gothic tale: raised in obscurity, he discovers that he’s an illegitimate son of the nobility. Manipulated by the clergy, he’s forced to join a Madrid monastery and take vows. He tries to escape, but in the end he gets sent to the Inquisition, and no one escapes the Spanish Inquisition. Except him. He takes shelter with a Jew, who sets him to copying manuscripts about Melmoth. The most significant of these manuscripts occupies nearly half the book:

The Tale of the Indian(s). Not really about Indians. Immalee is a white girl shipwrecked on an island off the coast of India in the late seventeenth century. The Indians take her for the goddess of love and leave her offerings. Somehow she survives in almost total isolation until she’s a beautiful teenager, when Melmoth meets her. They discuss life and philosophy and fall in love. Melmoth leaves her, but meets her again three years later after she’s been rescued and returned to her parents in Spain. The child of nature, she doesn’t take well to Catholicism and the society it has produced. She elopes with Melmoth and they marry, but secretly. Her father brings her someone to marry, but she’s so pregnant she’s about to drop Melmoth’s baby any second. The secret comes out and she gets sent to the Inquisition (Seville this time), where eventually she and her child die. The night before her ill-fated marriage, though, Melmoth met with her father and told him a couple of stories about himself, but Aliaga doesn’t profit by the knowledge.

The Tale of Guzman’s Family. Guzman was this really rich guy whose sister ran off to Germany and married a heretic Protestant. He cut her off with a shilling, so to speak, but later in life regrets his decision and invites her to come back to Spain and live under his protection. He pays for an education for the children and all their household expenses, but under the influence of the priests he refuses to see them. When Guzman dies, everything goes to the Church instead of to the Walbergs. They are brought to the very brink of destitution before the correct will is located and they all live happily ever after.

The Tale of the Lovers. Some of the politics of mid-seventeenth century England can be difficult to follow, but the Mortimers were a royalist family even when that loyalty put their lives and livelihoods in danger. Three cousins live together there for a while; if the boy marries one, he gets the entire family fortune. If he marries the other, he gets enough to live comfortably on for his life. Of course he loves the one who would leave him not filthy rich, but he’s tricked into thinking he can’t marry her, so he leaves her at the altar and marries the other one after a suitable period. Then the wife dies and he goes crazy, so the lover gets to take care of him for the rest of their lives after all.

After Monçada finishes The Tale of the Indian, it seems like Maturin suddenly realized how long his book was getting, and he finishes it in ten pages, with one last interpolated story, The Wanderer’s Dream, in which Melmoth dreams of himself in hell.

So much for plot. Like most of the Gothic novels of the 1790s, Melmoth is violently anti-Catholic. All that “trapped in a convent” and “imprisoned in the Inquisition” stuff may have some basis in reality, but the writers of the time let their imaginations run riot because it sells more books. These authors were successful because people hated Catholics so much back then (cf Dickens, Barnaby Rudge). Good Gothic relies on fears and prejudices shared by the audience, and Catholics freaked them out. It’s why so many films with homosexual characters have been Gothic, like Deathtrap (gay murderers, 1980s) or Rebecca (Damn, Mrs Danvers is creepy, and in love with Rebecca, 1940).  It’s also why a film like Grand Piano doesn’t become a big success. Even though it stars John Cusack and Elijah Wood, no one’s heard of it because it’s a thriller that takes place during a concert of classical music. Who beside music students would freak out at the words, “Play one wrong note and you die”? Having been a music student, I get it, but being one no longer, I also get how it’s so absurd that you want to laugh.

Aside from the plot devices, Maturin also goes on explicit tirades about religion and its place in culture and people’s lives. These rants are sometimes voiced by Melmoth – being ancient, learned, and evil, he can relate all the bitterness that comes from devoting your life to God and living it among human beings (I did mention that Maturin is a priest, right?). Immalee, being the child of nature, can also be the author’s mouthpiece, advocating the supposedly natural religion of his version of Protestantism, so when the two of them discuss religion, it’s like the sermon-writer possesses the novelist’s hand for a bit.

‘Then you do not feel your new existence in this Christian land so likely to surfeit you with delight as you once thought? For shame, Immalee – shame on your ingratitude and caprice! Do you remember when from your Indian isle you caught a glimpse of the Christian worship, and were entranced at the sight?’ – ‘I remember all that ever passed in that isle. My life formerly was all anticipation, – now it is all retrospection. The life of the happy is all hopes, – that of the unfortunate all memory. Yes, I remember catching a glimpse of that religion so beautiful and pure; and when they brought me to a Christian land, I thought I should have found them all Christians.’ – ‘And what did you find them, then, Immalee?’ – ‘Only Catholics.’

As the third-person narrator of the frame story, Maturin also preaches in his own voice:

Vice is always nearly on an average: The only difference in life worth tracing, is that of manners, and there we have manifestly the advantage of our ancestors. Hypocrisy is said to be the homage that vice pays to virtue, – decorum is the outward expression of that homage; and if this be so, we must acknowledge that vice has latterly grown very humble indeed.

The thing is, that when I see someone so manifestly ethnocentric that he portrays everyone other than himself as evil, I want him to be wrong all the time. There are a number of really good Catholic people, and as a body the Catholics do a lot to relieve suffering. But when Maturin talks about ideas of religion instead of groups, he almost always gets it spot on:

Don Francisco crossed himself repeatedly, and devoutly disavowed his ever having been an agent of the enemy of man. ‘Will you dare to say so?’ said his singular visitor, not raising his voice as the insolence of the question seemed to require, but depressing it to the lowest whisper as he drew his seat nearer his astonished companion – ‘Will you dare to say so? – Have you never erred? – Have you never felt one impure sensation? – Have you never indulged a transient feeling of hatred, or malice, or revenge? – Have you never forgot to do the good you ought to do, – or remembered to do the evil you ought not to have done? – Have you never in trade overreached a dealer, or banquetted on the spoils of your starving debtor? – Have you never, as you went to your daily devotions, cursed from your heart the wanderings of your heretical brethren, – and while you dipped your fingers in the holy water, hoped that every drop that touched your pores, would be visited on them in drops of brimstone and sulphur? – Have you never, as you beheld the famished, illiterate, degraded populace of your country, exulted in the wretched and temporary superiority your wealth has given you, – and felt that the wheels of your carriage would not roll less smoothly if the way was paved with the heads of your countrymen? Orthodox Catholic – old Christian – as you boast yourself to be, – is not this true? – and dare you say you have not been an agent of Satan? I tell you, whenever you indulge one brutal passion, one sordid desire, one impure imagination – whenever you uttered one word that wrung the heart, or embittered the spirit of your fellow-creature – whenever you made that hour pass in pain to whose flight you might have lent wings of down – whenever you have seen the tear, which your hand might have wiped away, fall uncaught, or forced it from an eye which would have smiled on you in light had you permitted it – whenever you have done this, you have been ten times more an agent of the enemy of man than all the wretches whom terror, enfeebled nerves, or visionary credulity, has forced into the confession of an incredible compact with the author of evil, and whose confession has consigned them to flames much more substantial than those the imagination of their persecutors pictured them doomed to for an eternity of suffering! Enemy of mankind!’ the speaker continued, – ‘Alas! how absurdly is that title bestowed on the great angelic chief, – the morning star fallen from its sphere! What enemy has man so deadly as himself? If he would ask on whom he should bestow that title aright, let him smite his bosom, and his heart will answer, – Bestow it here!’

I had a difficult experience this Sunday. It was All Saints’ Day, and during part of the service they showed a slide show of pictures of all the people in the congregation who have died in the past year. It’s a bit overwhelming to me, how many of the gay community die young. Then in the sermon the pastor described being a young and hot-headed priest during the AIDS crisis, ministering in hospitals to people who couldn’t get medical staff to enter their rooms. I cried and cried and cried, or at least, I did the silent sobbing that serves the function of crying when you can’t bring out a tear in public. Leaving the service, I got in line to see the priest and hugged him long enough to make us both uncomfortable. Describing this to a friend, he said that it’s really strange how strongly this affected me since I didn’t know anyone involved back then (During the 1980s, I was a kid in middle-of-nowhere North Carolina; gay people lived in New York and San Francisco and decent people didn’t go to those cities). I wonder if my faith in God is coming back. That thought troubles me, because with my family history of mental illness, I just don’t trust myself. I used to seek mystical experiences, but now I think they might have been “the very coinage of your brain: This bodily creation ecstasy is very cunning in” (Yes, I’m still quoting Hamlet all the time. Sorry if that’s a problem.) I’m not sure what’s a vision and what’s a hallucination, what is inspiration and what is insanity. I mean, I write a blog that blends book reviews with autobiography; I’ve never been good at distinguishing between fiction and reality. I like having the community that faith provides, and I generally like people who have faith, but I don’t want to become unstable again. Not that I’m exactly a paragon of mental health, but I’ve been a lot worse than I am now.

I miss having confidence in my own perceptions. I miss the certainty of faith. I had to cut my mind in half back then, like Solomon’s baby, because my faith couldn’t stand up to the scrutiny of my critical thinking, but that life did have its good points. I want to find something I can believe in wholly, as a complete person. I don’t want to live at war with myself, cleaving good from bad and setting them against each other. I want to live in peace with myself, with others, with the world around me, and if that includes a God, I want peace with him too. Despite his hatred of Catholicism, Islam, and paganism, Maturin seems to favor the peaceful lifestyle as well. The problems he has with other faiths is that he sees them as manipulating and torturing their practitioners; Protestantism is good at that too, he just doesn’t use that as his sole definition of his own community.

Despite my initial doubts, Melmoth has been a good experience. I can take quite a bit of religion when it’s sheltered inside a good story, and while this novel isn’t perfect, it is quite good. It’s not very commonly available, though, so if you can find it, take advantage of it.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. It is a joy to read an author who knows her tradition, and no one understands two hundred years of Gothic fiction like Daphne du Maurier. Stephen King also knows the tradition he’s writing in, but somehow when I read his short fiction I start recognizing his plots from old episodes of The Twilight Zone; not an issue with du Maurier. She’s more likely to draw from Radcliffe or Brontë. This book is a collection of shorter pieces, but since they’re each around fifty pages (or a little more), I have a hard time calling them short stories. Maybe novellas? Each story involves travel, the fear of being in an unfamiliar place, sometimes finding strangely familiar things in the unfamiliar, sometimes the self itself becomes strangely unfamiliar. While Stephen King sometimes mixes in stories that are sweet – ghost stories about love beyond the grave or something of that nature – du Maurier’s collection is all spooky, uncanny, and while the stories end ‘correctly,’ with a feeling of fitness, there’s no sense of good things continuing. The transformations don’t make the protagonists happy.

DON’T LOOK NOW

Tourists in Venice meet a stranger with psychic powers. She tells them of a vision of their recently deceased child, then warns them to leave town. There’s a bit of that familiar British fear of Italians and distrust of the Scottish. Difference is weird and bad. According to the cover of my paperback, this story became “a spine-chilling film!” starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. A more complete treatment of a similar theme can be found in Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers.

THE BREAKTHROUGH

Very Dr Moreau-ish. The only story to take place primarily in England. Down on the east coast, a conventionally mad scientist is working on psychic machinery, communicating between minds at long distances. His principal experiment involves capturing a person’s soul, the electrical impulses of the brain that determine identity, at the moment of death and thus preserve the soul indefinitely.

NOT AFTER MIDNIGHT

A good old mystery, in the vein of Dashiell Hammett or John Franklin Bardin. Things do become a bit supernatural at the end, but most of the story is very realistic. A misanthropic teacher goes off to Crete on vacation, hoping to do some painting. With the way he describes himself, he sounds kind of gay, but that’s never pursued.

I am a schoolmaster by profession, or was. I handed in my resignation to the headmaster before the end of the summer term in order to forestall inevitable dismissal. The reason I gave was true enough – ill-health, caused by a wretched bug picked up on holiday in Crete, which might necessitate a stay in hospital of several weeks, various injections, etc. I did not specify the nature of the bug. He knew, though, and so did the rest of the staff. And the boys. My complaint is universal, and has been so through the ages, an excuse for jest and hilarious laughter from earliest times, until one of us oversteps the mark and becomes a menace to society. Then we are given the boot. The passerby averts his gaze, and we are left to crawl out of the ditch alone, or stay there and die.

If I am bitter, it is because the bug I caught was picked up in all innocence. Fellow sufferers of my complaint can plead predisposition, poor heredity, family trouble, excess of the good life, and, throwing themselves on a psychoanalyst’s couch, spill out the rotten beans within and so effect a cure. I can do none of this. The doctor to whom I endeavored to explain what had happened listened with a superior smile, and then murmured something about emotionally destructive identification coupled with repressed guilt, and put me on a course of pills. They might have helped me if I had taken them. Instead I threw them down the drain and became more deeply imbued with the poison that seeped through me, made worse, of course, by the fatal recognition of my condition by the youngsters I had believed to be my friends, who nudged one another when I came into class, or, with stifled laughter, bent their loathsome little heads over their desks – until the moment arrived when I knew I could not continue, and took the decision to knock on the headmaster’s door.

The story ends a little abruptly, so when I got to the end I flipped back to the beginning to read these first two paragraphs again, to fix the sequence of events clearly in my mind. I had to do the same when reading du Maurier’s Rebecca, where the aftermath of the final crisis is alluded to in the first chapter, and the final resolution is tucked away in the middle of the book.

A BORDERLINE CASE

Shelagh Money is a nineteen-year-old actress preparing to play Viola in Twelfth Night when her father dies. She decides to go see her father’s old friend from whom he has been estranged for years. She goes to Ireland and finds that Nick is even more eccentric than she had thought. He’s into practical jokes, including photographic fakery, and he also organizes bombing raids to protest the English occupation of Northern Ireland. He stays on his side of the border and warns the locals so there aren’t any casualties, but buildings go up in smoke. Shelagh learns the dangers of deception, and there’s a little gender-bending, as in the Shakespeare play. Nick doesn’t jump straight into her pants, so she jumps to conclusions a bit. What can you do? She’s rich, pretty, and nineteen, therefore accustomed to getting what she wants.

Nick was a homo. They were all homos. That was why Nick had been sacked from the Navy. Her father had found out, couldn’t pass him for promotion, and Nick had borne a grudge ever afterward. Perhaps, even, the dates she had copied from the list referred to times when Nick had got into trouble. The photograph was a blind – homos often tried to cover themselves by pretending they were married. Oh, not Nick . . . It was the end. She couldn’t bear it. Why must the only attractive man she had ever met in her life have to be like that? Goddamn and blast them all, stripped to the waist there down by the megalithic tomb. They were probably doing the same in the control room now. There was no point in anything anymore. No sense in her mission. The sooner she left the island and flew back home the better.

Of course, less than ten pages later he’s proving just how very wrong she is.

She could see nothing in the darkness of the van, not even the face of her watch. Time did not exist. It’s body chemistry, she told herself, that’s what does it. People’s skins. They either blend or they don’t. They either merge and melt into the same texture, dissolve and become renewed, or nothing happens, like faulty plugs, blown fuses, switchboard jams. When the thing goes right, as it had for me tonight, then it’s arrows splintering the sky, it’s forest fires, it’s Agincourt. I shall live till I’m ninety-five, marry some nice man, have fifteen children, win stage awards and Oscars, but never again will the world break into fragments, burn before my eyes. I’ve bloody had it . . .

There is some fear of mental illness, but in the end, I don’t think that’s the problem. You don’t need nonstandard brain chemistry to rebel against society, to do questionable things just because you can. I mean, visiting your best friend’s wife while he’s out of town, getting her drunk and date-raping her simply because she doesn’t like your jokes, is criminal, not funny. And while some of that can be explained by the possibility of Nick being mentally ill, explaining it does not excuse it.

THE WAY OF THE CROSS

A group of people come to Jerusalem to see the holy sites. Unfortunately, their minister becomes ill and has to stay on the boat in Haifa, and they adopt another churchman to guide them. However, Jerusalem is a disorganized mess, and so are they. People get lost, overhear things about themselves they weren’t meant to, make mistakes, nearly die. These aren’t humble pilgrims, they’re vacationers (there’s even a couple on their honeymoon), and they’re almost all wealthy and proud. So the story is a course of humiliation, crowds, danger, fear. Many of the important events of the Biblical story of the Passion are parodied. This story is less straightforwardly Gothic than the others; it’s more often sad than scary.

So, not only am I fond of reading Gothic stories, but I’m also fond of watching scary movies and TV shows. It’s given me a lot of time to ponder fear, and what our culture is afraid of. It seems that the answer is, death. We tend to be afraid of what we don’t know or understand, and death is fundamentally unknowable. Culturally, we turn to the supernatural in order to cope with the fear of death. Religions have grown up as a way of helping us handle fear and grief. The ancient mythologies are full of assurances that life continues after death, with a system of rewards and punishments for the activities of our current lives. I heard someone saying recently that she’s not too upset about her twelve miscarriages because she believes that she’ll raise those children in the afterlife. Her version of Christianity negates death altogether. It makes sense, then, that Gothic experiences a revival when faith is in recession. It seems a human trait that we need some experience with the supernatural, whether it’s God or the devil or the spirits of nature or vampires or zombies or mummies or whatever. We don’t need to believe in it; we need to experience it, either for ourselves or vicariously through fiction. The desire to elude death through supernatural powers seems to be a human trait. At least in Western cultures, we can’t get away from the need to get away from death. If we become comfortable with the idea of our own mortality, we’re called a danger to ourselves and others and prescribed medication. Death is natural and inevitable, so I try to accept it with the same equanimity with which I accept my same-sex attraction.

Du Maurier writes some beautiful stories. These aren’t exceptions, they’re just shorter than the pieces I’m used to working with. Each one can be read in the length of time it takes to watch a movie. So, bite-size du Maurier, like a little snack. Enjoy it.

I ran across this little book in my critical reading on Gothic fiction; otherwise, I’m not sure I would have purchased it. It’s the sort of book one can borrow from a library. I mean, far be it from me to discourage the buying of books, but really. Library.

Vathek is like a mixture of Johnson’s Rasselas and Lewis’s The Monk. From Johnson, we have a stylized version of the Middle East with a strongly allegorical feel. It’s the type of writing that makes Edward Said rub his hands together with glee as he prepares to rip a new asshole for authors who have been dead for two hundred years. It’s a weird mixture of Biblical imagery with stereotypes about Muslims and a smattering of the world familiar to northern Europeans in the late eighteenth century. From Lewis, we have the plot: a religious leader turns to the Dark Side, deceiving everyone so they believe he continues in undisturbed piety while he pursues Satanic practices right up to the bitter end, when he’s been abandoned by the devil to suffer for eternity. Since there’s a hundred pages of wickedness for five pages of punishment, you get the impression that he’s jealous of the protagonist’s downward slope, and the final hellfire is more of a sop to the religious readers than an ineluctable conclusion.

As is to be expected from a book written in the 1780s, there’s some unnecessary, vicious misogyny:

This Princess was so far from being influenced by scruples, that she was as wicked, as woman could be; which is not saying a little; for the sex pique themselves on their superiority, in every competition.

And for most of the book, that’s the most memorable passage. There’s some unnecessary, vicious racism too, but that’s kind of bound up in the misogyny, as people of darker skin are represented by fierce negresses, mutes who delight in graphic violence and torture. There are no chapter breaks, so we just rush from one ridiculously excessive evil to the next, right up to the end.

The Caliph and Nouronihar remained in the most abject affliction. Their tears were unable to flow, and scarcely could they support themselves. At length, taking each other, despondingly, by the hand, they went faltering from this fatal hall; indifferent which way they turned their steps. Every portal opened at their approach. The dives fell prostrate before them. Every reservoir of riches was disclosed to their view: but they no longer felt the incentives of curiosity, of pride, or avarice. With like apathy they heard the chorus of Genii, and saw the stately banquets prepared to regale them. They went wandering on, from chamber to chamber; hall to hall; and gallery to gallery; all without bounds or limit; all distinguishable by the same louring gloom; all adorned with the same awful grandeur; all traversed by persons in search of repose and consolation; but, who sought them in vain; for every one carried within him a heart tormented in flames. Shunned by these various sufferers, who seemed by their looks to be upbraiding the partners of their guilt, they withdrew from them to wait, in direful suspense, the moment which should render them to each other the like objects of terror.

In my opinion, this is the moment of their supreme suffering. Once they choose to separate from each other, it’s done and over with; you can move on from that. But when you can figuratively see the axe suspended over your head, waiting for it to drop . . . the anticipation of suffering makes it more poignant than the suffering itself. Which is the moral of the story:

Such was, and such should be, the punishment of unrestrained passions and atrocious deeds! Such shall be, the chastisement, of that blind curiosity, which would transgress those bounds the wisdom of the Creator has prescribed to human knowledge; and such the dreadful disappointment of that restless ambition, which, aiming at discoveries reserved for beings of a supernatural order, perceives not, through its infatuated pride, that the condition of man upon earth is to be – humble and ignorant.

I’ve never been comfortable with ignorance. Humility is fine, but ignorance is not. I’ve always wanted to know and experience everything; it’s only recently that I’ve begun to accept that some places I will never visit, some things I will never live through. Like Japan. I have no real desire to go to Japan. I have nothing against it, I’m sure you’re a lovely country with delightful people, beautiful fruit trees and sublime mountains – but there’s no strong pull. I’d like to know France and the United Kingdom a little better than I do, and my heart is in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but other than that, it’s people I want to visit, not places. Besides, I’m a teacher; my life has been dedicated to ending ignorance. It’s not the preordained preferred state of humanity. It’s an evil in itself.

As you can imagine, I’m not really fond of the place of reward, either:

He admitted without fear the congratulations of his little friends, who were all assembled in the nest of the venerable genius, and vied with each other in kissing his serene forehead and beautiful eye-lids. – Remote from the inquietudes of the world; the impertinence of harems, the brutality of eunuchs, and the inconstancy of women; there he found a place truly congenial to the delights of his soul. In this peaceable society his days, months, and years glided on; nor was he less happy than the rest of his companions: for the genius, instead of burthening his pupils with perishable riches and vain sciences, conferred upon them the boon of perpetual childhood.

I’m all for a heaven that is populated by handsome, affectionate young men, but for God’s sake, let them grow up and pass through puberty. Perpetual childhood is less a boon than a curse. But then again, I suppose not everyone has my inner drive toward maturity and responsibility. Not that I’m great at those qualities, but I value them immensely, and I tend to value myself in the same degree that I reflect them.

So. A couple of weeks ago I was feeling lonely so I went to the local branch of the church I grew up in. Last week I didn’t go, so a couple of guys came out to the house to talk with me. They tried talking me into becoming a regular church-goer again, but without much success. I don’t like being called names, and saying that it’s arrogant for anyone to think he can understand God when you think that’s what I’m doing is name-calling. I suppose there’s some arrogance in my attitude, but I don’t think that’s the biggest problem. You see, I’ve got some religious books, including the Holy books of Christianity and Islam, and I think about reading them sometimes, but I don’t think they’ll fix my problem. Religious writers tend to try one of two things: convince people that God/Jesus/Muhammad really is who/what they claim, or teach people how to respond to this belief/fact. They always, always assume that to believe in God is to love Him. As I meditate on my own feelings, I think I do believe in God – that’s not the problem. The problem is, I hate him. I try to be a good person; I love people, I love the world I find myself in. My only problem is with God. I really fucking hate him. I think this sort of hatred and anger are toxic, and I don’t want them inside me, but there they are. I think about the ways that I’ve always been taught to overcome hatred, and they don’t make sense in this context. “Let God into your heart” – not helpful when it’s God you hate. “Pray for them and try to make their lives better” – not helpful when it’s God. That’s part of the whole omnipotent gig: God doesn’t need anything, least of all the good wishes of an obscure English teacher in the Midwest. Isn’t it a greater form of arrogance to assume that the all-powerful creator of the universe needs anything I can do for him? “Just forgive and forget” – like it’s easy under normal circumstances, much less when I contemplate the suffering of someone I love. What did the ex ever do to him? She just loved and worshipped him for her whole life, and he gave her a gay husband and then a divorce just when she was finally relenting and becoming Roman Catholic. How cruel is that? I object to being made the instrument of someone else’s suffering, so I suppose this is really about me. Regardless of the precise things I’m angry about, I have this boiling rage that I keep pushed down in public, but if I think about God or praying it rises up and makes itself known. [My recent prayer life: Dear God, FUCK YOU.] I want to be rid of it, but I don’t know how. I’m open to suggestions, particularly if they come with book recommendations.

But, um, Vathek. It’s short; it’s not really substantial; it’s offensive; it’s blatantly moralistic and simplistic. If you just love the eighteenth century, go right ahead; otherwise, find something else. You’ll be happier with just about anything else.

Update on the God-hating thing: I sat down with a friend (M.Div, eastern European mission experience) to talk it over, and while I didn’t get a lot of direct benefit from what he said, it was good to say these things out loud. In talking about it, I came to a little epiphany; you see, unless there’s a clear case of injustice, anger is about what’s inside me instead of what’s around me. The problem isn’t with God, it’s with me. I am not grateful for the life I’ve been given. I love my friends and family; I love the earth, particularly in the spring; I even like myself – I’m a handsome, intelligent man, inclined to be serious and silent but still worth knowing. It’s my place in the world that I object to. I dislike my role, not my character. I don’t like the way that I’ve hurt people (not just the ex) by being honest about myself. Life, specifically my life, is a parade of unrelenting suffering, and no amount of alleviating the suffering of others has changed that. I turn an optimistically blind eye to it most of the time, but deep down there is a pain that never ends, a black bitterness unrelieved by the transient joys of social intercourse or woodland hikes. I push it down so much that it seldom surfaces directly; it comes out in these tortured, sublimated ways, like the whole I-hate-God thing. My acupuncturist friend once labeled it grief, and we did a series of emotional healing treatments to set it to rest. That was five years ago, so I guess it’s time for another go-round. He’s getting out of acupuncture, though, and he lives too far away for me to be treated there anyway, so I need to find a different solution.

One of the delights of reading du Maurier novels is that she knows her tradition. Rebecca, her most famous novel, is rather similar to Jane Eyre. My Cousin Rachel is close to Wilkie Collins’s Basil. Her earliest novel, The Loving Spirit, uses some ideas from Wuthering Heights. She doesn’t copy directly from the writers of the past; she uses enough material to remind us of our Gothic past, then transforms it for the twentieth century. The Flight of the Falcon is a great example of this. She pulls from the Ann Radcliffe novels of the 1790s, but changes the theme and mood at the end.

Following Mrs Radcliffe, we open in a benign situation: Armino Fabbio is a tour guide, hauling a bunch of American and British tourists around Rome (notice that we are distanced from our readers in either place or time; the time is contemporary, but our story is safely tucked away in central Italy), fielding questions, keeping the guests happy, dodging passes made by lonely men willing to pay for his time. Then he starts experiencing some cognitive dissonance, hearing a homeless woman on the street wailing his childhood nickname, wondering what connection is being formed between the present and the distant past.

Also following Mrs Radcliffe, Fabbio picks up a false sense of guilt. That guy who dropped a ten thousand lire tip trying to get him in bed? Fabbio gives the fortune to that homeless woman, and she’s killed that night. Some of his guests want to go to the police, but he doesn’t tell them about the money. When they show up later, asking for him, he assumes that he’s being accused and runs. He hasn’t done anything wrong, but he doesn’t trust the law enforcement, so he panics anyway.

An essential early step, of course, is to trap the heroine in an ancient castle or otherwise big scary house. [Sorry, Radcliffe always went with heroines – Fabbio is in a traditionally feminine role.] To get there, Fabbio leaves Rome and works his way back home, to the little village in the north where he grew up. His father had been in charge of the former duke’s estate, giving tours and maintaining the property and household goods. The father and older brother had died in World War II, and he and his mother left town. The castle is still there waiting for him, complete with a legend or ghost story about the evil man who used to live there.

The Falcon was duke five hundred years ago. He was a terrible leader; his courtiers and he grew ever more decadent, ever more violent, dismaying and upsetting the villagers who supported them. The legend is that one day the Falcon got so crazy that he climbed up to the highest tower and jumped off, something similar to the temptation of Christ only he actually did jump, proving that angels don’t protect people from stubbing their toes. The historical records are a little different: the way they tell the story of the flight, he hitched up eighteen horses and galloped through the town square on a busy market day, killing several supposedly worthless peasants. The people rioted, pulling him from his chariot, and killing him en masse. It’s not du Maurier’s style to scare us with ghosts, though; we need a real villain.

Armino’s brother didn’t actually die in the war. When his plane was shot down, he started working for the resistance. Unlike his living family, he came home after the war. While Armino was getting a degree in European languages and becoming a tour guide, Aldo Donati was also getting a couple of degrees and taking over his father’s former position. The estate is now owned by the university, so Donati has a sort of professorship. Things seem less rigidly codified in the 1960s. Every year he puts on a bit of a pageant with the university students, and the whole town gets a big kick out of it. This year he’s recreating the flight of the Falcon. He takes advantage of the existing rivalry between the modern economics majors and the more traditional arts students. He whips up the emotions with a series of pranks against leading faculty members; one of them even involves rumours of rape. I was shocked by just how casually everyone takes the supposed rape of the leading matron of the women’s dormitory. Even an educated woman, a university professor, thinks it’s funny and exactly what she deserves for being so strict. She isn’t actually raped, but she is tied up and passes out, and the boys let her think she was violated.

Aldo makes some good speeches, though:

It is essential that every volunteer should believe in the part he plays, should think himself into his creation. This year you will be the courtiers at the Falcon’s palace. You will be that small body of dedicated men. You, the Arts students of the university, will, by your very nature, become the élite. You are so already. For this you are here in Ruffano, for this you have your reason for living. Yet you are a minority in the university, your ranks are small, the immense numbers swamping the other Faculties are barbarians and goths and vandals who, like the merchants of five hundred years ago, understand nothing of art, nothing of beauty. They would, if they had the power, destroy all the treasures we possess in the apartments here, perhaps even pull down the palace itself, and put in its stead . . . what? Factories, offices, banks, commercial houses, not to give employment and an easier life to the peasant who lives no better now than he did five centuries ago, but to enrich themselves, to better themselves, to own more cars, more television sets, more biscuit-box villas on the Adriatic, thus breeding ever greater discontent, poverty and misery.

And, to the other group of students:

If they could get rid of me they would. Just as they would get rid of you, the whole fifteen hundred of you, if that’s what you muster – I haven’t the figures before me, but it’s near enough. Why do they want to get rid of you? Because they’re frightened. The old are always frightened of the young, but you represent a threat to their whole way of life. Any one of you who passes out of this university with a degree in Commerce and Economics is a potential millionaire, and, more than that, he will have a chance of helping to run the economy not only of this country but of Europe, possibly the world. You are the masters, my young friends, and everyone knows it. That’s why you’re hated. Hatred is bred of fear, and your contemporaries who haven’t your brains and your technical knowledge and your enthusiasm for life as it will and must be lived tomorrow are frightened of you. Frightened blue! No schoolteacher, no grubby lawyer, no chicken-livered so-called poet or painter – and that’s what the students of the other faculties are trying to become – will stand a chance beside you. The future’s yours, and don’t let any half-baked set of decaying professors and their pathetic dwindling band of followers stand in your way. Ruffano is for the living. Not the dead.

He’s playing both sides, working the crowds into a frenzy, with things getting complicated by the little family drama of his baby brother, supposed dead, appearing in town just before his moment of triumph. Family is very important to Aldo; du Maurier extends this to all Italians. I’m not saying it is or it isn’t, but it seems like a stereotype. The emotionally violent Italian is also a stereotype that du Maurier perpetuates, much as she defies their supposed tendency to physical violence. This book starts as a murder mystery, but all the stuff between Armino and Aldo distracts from the murder for a while. The book is short enough, though, that she keeps things moving along fairly quickly. It starts a little slow, but it doesn’t stay at that pace.

I’ve been running into my own problems with past and present. Five years ago, I lived in a little place with the ex-wife and kids, and we stored stuff with her parents and my parents and friends and left little pieces of ourselves scattered about the South. Then we split up and I left the country for a while. I got a storage unit and gathered stuff from my parents’ places – after coming out of the closet, the less I rely on them the better – so everything was either in the shed or with me. Now I’ve cleared out the storage shed and everything I own is finally in one place. I’m surrounded by things I hadn’t thought of in so long I had forgotten I owned them, as well as recent acquisitions. It’s like all the pieces of my life are jumbled up together, a temporal pastiche, gifts from Saudi students and the brother who disowned me, postcards from the Mapplethorpe exhibit in Paris last spring and letters from when I was a missionary in Brazil when I was nineteen, and then there’s the painting of a teddy bear that my mom did the night before I was born, the blanket I slept on as a baby, the blanket I carried around for far too long as a child, the dragon blanket I got as a teenager, and the afghan I made last week. Possessions used to belong to times and places, and now they’re all here and now. It’s even more disorienting than facebook. Despite some internal confusion, it’s good for me. It’s a way of demonstrating that I’m finding peace with all the different people I have been. I am still all the people I have been, and I don’t hate any of them. I’m learning to be healthy.

The Flight of the Falcon starts a bit like a regular murder mystery, but du Maurier follows an older model. It may not be what you expect, du Maurier shows more faith in humanity than most mystery writers, but it’s still satisfying. She writes beautifully as ever, though this novel is more plot-driven and less nature-loving than some of her other novels, significantly less nature-obsessed than Radcliffe herself. It’s good, fairly typical of this stage of her career. Read it, it’s nice.

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.