Posts Tagged ‘great depression’

Let’s go ahead and talk about the discomfort straight away. When I was a kid, my mom and church taught me to fear and look down on other religions. I’ve tried to get over this – I even married someone from another faith tradition – but it’s not completely gone, when the religion is something as far removed from conservative American monotheism as Haitian voodoo. Despite the discomfort, I made it through the book and actually found it quite interesting. I can see from the internet that some of the words are being spelled differently these days, but I’m going to stick with Hurston’s spellings because they were right when she was writing, and I’m not going to insist on knowing better than she did.

The subtitle outlines the book in reverse: the part on Jamaica is first, then life in Haiti, and finally the section on Haitian voodoo, which is longer than the other two combined. The book is the result of a grant from the Guggenheim people, who paid for Hurston to travel to the Caribbean to study their societies. It gets a little confusing, though – it’s as if she wrote essays as they came to her and then chose an arrangement later, as if we wandered into the room in the middle of a lecture and missed the introduction that may have explained what all this is about. This is particularly noticeable in the section on voodoo, where unfamiliar vocabulary is used for three or four chapters before it is defined. I suppose the advantage is that any chapter could be excerpted and make the same amount of sense.

In our time, scientists of all types, including anthropologists, insist on objectivity; they take themselves out of the equation and describe what they observe as precisely as possible. Hurston makes no such effort.

It is a curious thing to be a woman in the Caribbean after you have been a woman in these United States. It has been said that the United States is a large collection of little nations, each having its own ways, and that is right. But the thing that binds them all together is the way they look at women, and that is right, too. The majority of men in all the states are pretty much agreed that just for being born a girl-baby you ought to have laws and privileges and pay and perquisites. And so far as being allowed to voice opinions is concerned, why, they consider that you are born with the law in your mouth, and that is not a bad arrangement either. The majority of the solid citizens strain their ears trying to find out what it is that their womenfolk want so they can strain around and try to get it for them, and that is a very good idea and the right way to look at things.

But now Miss America, World’s champion woman, you take your promenading self down into the cobalt blue waters of the Caribbean and see what happens. You meet a lot of darkish men who make vociferous love to you, but otherwise pay you no mind. If you try to talk sense, they look at you right pitifully as if to say, “What a pity! That mouth that was made to supply some man (and why not me) with kisses, is spoiling itself asking stupidities about banana production and wages!” It is not that they try to put you in your place, no. They consider that you never had any. If they think about it at all, they think that they are removing you from MAN’s place and then granting you the privilege of receiving his caresses and otherwise ministering to his comfort when he has time to give you for such matters. Otherwise they flout your God-given right to be the most important item in the universe and assume your prerogatives themselves. The usurpers! Naturally women do not receive the same educational advantages as men.

As you can hear, her style is fairly consistent, whether she’s writing fiction or nonfiction. She wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God during this trip to Haiti, so it’s not surprising that the style is so similar. The difference here is that she has no interest in telling a story. She takes her experiences thematically rather than chronologically, which is another way of disorienting the reader, though I suppose it provides focus. How does one then choose which themes are important? I don’t know, but she does. Another thing to point out is the way that, sometimes, sentences are dropped into paragraphs where they don’t seem to belong, like the last sentence of the passage above. Why would you end the paragraph that way? I don’t know. As a writing teacher, I want her to finish the paragraph at the exclamation point and use that last sentence to start a paragraph about female education, but she moves on to another subject, dropping that little ideological bomb in an only-tangentially-related paragraph and wandering away from it to explore something else. It’s weird.

I suppose that for her the entire experience was weird, but she doesn’t much talk about her own sense of culture shock. I guess that part of the reason is her response to voodoo – she saw the rituals, believed, and was converted. Since she had already published essays on similar religions in the American South, it was probably an easy transition for her; people originally from West Africa had been brought to both the United States and Haiti, so the traditions would have grown in different directions, but from the same source.

In fact, some of her statements about religion in general are similar to things that I have thought, in my own private meditations on belief:

Gods always behave like the people who make them.

I like the stories from the ancient Europeans, where their gods are more like supernatural heroes with passions and fallibility. I don’t like the stories from the ancient Middle East, where the god is the destroyer who occasionally loves, but is always singular and alone. Hurston discusses the pantheon a little, but it seems that, as with the Lares of ancient Rome, everyone makes their own deities, so an exhaustive list is impossible. Thinking back over the book, I remember her as being more interested in practice than in theory. During the rituals, the gods possess the bodies of the believers and make them act in strange ways. It’s compared to the way people ride horses, so “Tell my horse” means that the god is giving the people a message they should repeat to the one possessed after the possession has passed. Hurston admits the possibility that this could be a way for people to express ideas that are repressed most of the time, to let the id come out and play while the ego is voluntarily submerged. I think she could be right; throughout the South we have what we call charismatic churches, and this means that they open themselves to a similar possession/id-freeing experience, but they claim to be possessed by The Holy Spirit instead of by one of a number of holy spirits. The names are different, and the people are white instead of black, but the service sounds very similar to ones I have attended in Georgia and North Carolina. There’s a lot of singing and praying, until someone gets possessed and acts in a way that would get them locked in an asylum in any other context.

I fail to see where it would have been more uplifting for them to have been inside a church listening to a man urging them to “contemplate the sufferings of our Lord,” which is just another way of punishing one’s self for nothing. It is very much better for them to climb the rocks in their bare clean feet and meet Him face to face in their search for the eternal in beauty.

Here, I wholeheartedly agree. I am not into the kind of ritual Hurston describes at the sources of rivers, but the fact that people feel at peace with the world around them is much better than the guilt and self-hatred prescribed by the American religious tradition, including the church I grew up in. I don’t think of my hikes as worship, but I know that when I get knocked off balance by life, nothing is so certain to set me right again as spending time with trees. And when the cold and snow make hiking impractical, there is still peace to be found in human love.

In thinking back to my time in southern Brazil, they use different vocabulary, but the religion is very much the same. In Brazil though, people spoke of voodoo as being about malice, casting spells on people you don’t like. There is not much of that in Hurston’s book. She talks about a secret society of cannibals, and she does devote a chapter to zombies (she saw one!), but for her this is not what the whole thing is about. People also told me that there were a lot of homosexuals in voodoo, which makes sense since it allows for men to be possessed by female spirits and vice versa. Hurston also seldom mentions this – she mentions one story where a lesbian was possessed by a god who told people to stop her being homosexual, but that’s the only one. She tells about how some men give up women under the influence of the goddess of love, and she tells about the rituals that they perform to devote their sex lives to a goddess who will admit of no female rival, but she does not tell about how these men have sex with each other, even though that is apparently common. It seems clear to me that she never loses sight of her American Depression-Era audience, and that her goal is to make voodoo understandable and accessible to mainstream America. While this is definitely not a how-to guide, she does include several of the songs in the back, complete with the melodies written on staff paper.

The main feeling that I get from this book is that it’s normal for me to feel uncomfortable with it because it is about discomfort, or fear. Voodoo seems to be a religion based in fear and ways to overcome it by becoming what is feared. People are afraid of being poisoned with grave dust, or of being eaten by cannibals, or of being turned into zombies after they die, or of having malicious magics practiced against them, so they placate the gods and invite them in for a brief possession. It might seem strange to us in the techno-centric West, but it’s no crazier than what we do at Halloween, dressing as monsters and asking for favors. As usual, when I persist in studying another culture, I find the similarities more compelling than the differences.

We had gotten to the place where neither of us lied to each other about our respective countries. I freely admitted gangsters, corrupt political machines, race prejudice and lynchings. She as frankly deplored bad politics, overemphasized class distinctions, lack of public schools and transportation. We neither of us apologized for Voodoo. We both acknowledged it among us, but both of us saw it as a religion no more venal, no more impractical than any other.

No matter where we go, people are the same. They love their families and they want to keep them safe, which usually means having power in the way that their culture defines power. That manifests in different ways, depending on the culture, and when the culture is different it can seem really strange, but the similarities are always there. I’m not saying that we then have to adopt every culture as our own, nor that I find all cultures equally attractive (not interested in living in a place where I could be kidnapped and eaten by a group of people who call themselves Grey Pigs, or murdered because someone needs a field hand but doesn’t want to pay for the labor), but I am saying that it is possible to understand and respect one another. One of the problems my culture has is that we confuse understanding with agreement, but as our conversation on tolerance progresses, I think we’re going to be able to separate the two.

If you’re looking for an objective analysis of the totality of culture in the western Caribbean, this book is not for you. If you’re trying to find a guide on how to start your own hounfort, this book is not for you. If you’re looking for a book of observations on a foreign culture by an intelligent observer with an eye for detail and skill in relating anecdotes, stop looking, you’ve found it. Hurston is a gifted writer with a great talent for using the English language, and her books reward people who can be satisfied with that.

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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.

A new kind of novel by Ray Bradbury, master of miracles, fantasy and terror, and the author of THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, A MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, and SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES.

False advertising. There was nothing new about this sort of novel. Cranford, The Pickwick Papers . . . A group of episodes joined by their common setting and characters. You see, Ray Bradbury grew up in a small town in the Midwest, in town with his enormous, amazing extended family. He wrote a bunch of stories about them, some realistic, some re-imagined with supernatural effects. The realistic ones were gathered with a bit of framing narrative, and became Dandelion Wine. The supernatural ones, when joined with the work of Charles Addams, led to The Addams Family, and then later were collected in their original state as The October Country. But there’s nothing earth-shattering about this book.

That being said, it’s really good.

This is a story of childhood, based on Bradbury’s own, but fictionalized. The detail I’ve been pondering on the most is the timing: summer of 1928. Summer is the most intense experience of childhood; away from school and responsibilities, children are free to be themselves. But the important thing is the year. The next year, the stock market crashed, and the world slid into the Great Depression. The United States got out of the Depression by supplying World War II, and since the introduction of nuclear weapons we haven’t had a moment’s rest. 1928 was the last peaceful time for the United States, when we weren’t afraid. Three generations now, who don’t understand what it was like in 1928, when there was no fear. My grandfather, who was five years old in 1928, died six months ago, and there are not many people of his age left in the world.

I grew up in the 1980s. When my parents were kids, they were taught that they could be safe in a nuclear attack with Duck and Cover, but my generation didn’t have that false hope. We knew that at any moment we could all be killed. Everything we knew and loved could be destroyed by the menacing, somehow simultaneously inept and dangerous enemy, there on the far side of the world. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, we had spread extra nuclear weapons in the Middle East to contain the Soviets, and then those weapons were turned on us. The Clinton years were less fearful, but then there were the September 11th attacks, and we now have a Department of Homeland Security, because even though we put more money into Defense than any nation should require, we still don’t feel safe. I voted for Obama primarily because he promised to get us out of our most dangerous conflicts in the Middle East, and he took his own sweet time doing it. When I lived in Saudi Arabia, my son called me to ask if I was in danger, because he was learning about current events in school. I want my kids to see the world as beautiful and exciting, not scary and war-torn.

This novel is about time. It slips and slides away from us. . .

“John!”

For John was running, and this was terrible. Because if you ran, time ran. You yelled and screamed and raced and rolled and tumbled and all of a sudden the sun was gone and the whistle was blowing and you were on your long way home to supper. When you weren’t looking, the sun got around behind you! The only way to keep things slow was to watch everything and do nothing! You could stretch a day to three days, sure, just by watching!

“John!”

. . . and the timeframes of our lives don’t match up, as when a thirty-year-old man falls in love with a ninety-year-old woman.

“Do you know, it’s lucky we met so late. I wouldn’t have wanted you to meet me when I was twenty-one and full of foolishness.”

“They have special laws for pretty girls twenty-one.”

“So you think I was pretty?”

He nodded good-humoredly.

“But how can you tell?” she asked. “When you meet a dragon that has eaten a swan, do you guess by the few feathers left around the mouth? That’s what it is – a body like this is a dragon, all scales and folds. So the dragon ate the white swan. I haven’t seen her for years. I can’t even remember what she looks like. I feel her, though. She’s safe inside, still alive; the essential swan hasn’t changed a feather. Do you know, there are some mornings in spring or fall, when I wake and think, I’ll run across the fields into the woods and pick wild strawberries! Or I’ll swim in the lake, or I’ll dance all night tonight until dawn! And then, in a rage, discover I’m in this old and ruined dragon. I’m the princess in the crumbled tower, no way out, waiting for her Prince Charming.”

“You should have written books.”

“My dear boy, I have written. What else was there for an old maid? I was a crazy creature with a headful of carnival spangles until I was thirty, and then the only man I ever really cared for stopped waiting and married someone else. So in spite, in anger at myself, I told myself I deserved my fate for not having married when the best chance was at hand. I started traveling. My luggage was snowed under blizzards of travel stickers. I have been alone in Paris, alone in Vienna, alone in London, and, all in all, it is very much like being alone in Green Town, Illinois. It is, in essence, being alone. Oh, you have plenty of time to think, improve your manners, sharpen your conversations. But I sometimes think I could easily trade a verb tense or a curtsy for some company that would stay over for a thirty-year weekend.”

Yeah, I could use a pleasant houseguest who stays for a lifetime. The first time I wanted someone who was beautiful, virtuous, and talented; I found it, but now I want someone who is kind, financially stable, and who loves to have sex with me. And male. The ex was none of those things. The first three qualities are still favorable, but the latter four have become more important.

Bradbury also describes what it’s like to be depressed, in terms intelligible to a twelve-year-old with that mental colour.

“Doug,” he said, “you just lie quiet. You don’t have to say anything or open your eyes. You don’t even have to pretend to listen. But inside there, I know you hear me, and it’s old Jonas, your friend. Your friend,” he repeated and nodded.

He reached up and picked an apple off the tree, turned it round, rook a bite, chewed, and continued.

“Some people turn sad awfully young,” he said. “No special reason, it seems, but they seem almost to be born that way. They bruise easier, tire faster, cry quicker, remember longer and, as I say, get sadder younger than anyone else in the world. I know, for I’m one of them.”

He took another bit of the apple and chewed it.

“Well, now, where are we?” he asked.

He tells this to our protagonist, who had a dangerous fever at the time. He mentions later that this night that Mr Jonas visits, he chooses to live. This is why I’m still here; I have chosen to live. Sometimes this decision is in danger of changing, but I will continue to choose to live. I found a clear medical reason for my recent cloud of gloom, unrelated to my financial, romantic, or spiritual difficulties. I’ve always figured that sushi was safe for someone with coeliac disease, because it’s rice, raw fish, and vegetables. So the local grocery store has a sushi counter – hooray for the randomness of Texas – and I’ve been treating myself to some cheap sushi when I want to comfort-eat. But it turns out that they use fermented wheat protein to bind the rice together; in other words, the part of the plant that is poisonous to me is the part I’ve been eating. Depression and rage are a normal part of my body’s response to gluten. I really need people to start reminding me of that when I get that way.

So, time. When I get depressed, I want time to slow down. I binge-watch TV programs until I fall asleep, or I read in the tub late at night, unwilling to go to bed because that means the day is ending and I’ll have to start the next one. But moments don’t last. I wake up at half past midnight, sweat-stuck to the leather loveseat with a crick in my awkwardly bent neck, or up to my chin in cold water with hands and feet so wrinkled they hurt. I’ve been so unwilling to let time move along that I’ve been putting off my blogwriting – I’ve finished another book since this one, and am nearly half-way through the next. But a good friend once told me of the antidepressant qualities of really strong chili peppers, so I’ve been eating spicy foods and cutting out the sushi and getting better. I’m letting go of my need to control time.

I may have passed my childhood in a time of fear, but I don’t have to stay that way. As I think over the films I love from that time, yes, I see the fear, but I also see the hope. We may have had Red Dawn, but we also had Back to the Future and Footloose, media that remind us we can make positive changes in the world. Even kids can make the world a better place. I may not be Michael J Fox or Kevin Bacon, and I’m certainly not a teenager, but I can give my children a better world than the one I received from my parents. Maybe this is why I’m still teaching; I believe in the ability of teachers to improve worlds, one life at a time. I may find hope by leading others to it.

Bradbury’s stories are not always hopeful. People die, streetcars are replaced by buses, the happiness machine brings unhappiness and is destroyed, eras end. But the eras of happiness and peace existed, and when we’re threatened by poverty and war, we can remember when things were different, and as long as we know that life doesn’t have to be this way, we can change it. Perhaps this piece of nostalgia can benefit our future.

Isak Dinesen is the pen name of Karen Blixen, a Danish writer of the mid-twentieth century. Those of you who have seen Babette’s Feast will recognize the characteristics that make Dinesen a little challenging for current American audiences: long exposition, tons of narration. Seriously, sometimes in this book she’ll spend thirty pages narrating exposition for twenty pages of story. That being said, like Babette’s Feast, the stories in this book are often beautiful, and worth working your way through. Just be sure to give yourself time to enjoy them for what they are instead of asking them to be something they aren’t.

These stories were first published in 1934; Blixen had published some isolated stories in periodicals, but this was her first book. She was fifteen years older than I am now, so a mature adult, but sometimes it feels like she’s still a beginning writer. She consciously copies nineteenth-century Gothic models, even the phrases in foreign languages. She writes in English, but throws in French, German, Italian, and Latin, another obstacle to the casual American reader. The Gothic tradition did eventually lead to modern horror, but these stories are hardly frightening. Maybe I’m a bit jaded after seeing films with Norman Bates and Pamela Voorhees, but there’s not much scary stuff going on. They’re not exactly mysterious, either. Four people get trapped in a hay loft during a flood; the only real element of suspense is whether they’re going to drown or not, but knowing literature of the 1930s, you know the answer to that question.

The stories use recurrent family names and settings, so it feels like they’re in a shared version of nineteenth century Europe, though everyone shares ties to Copenhagen or Elsinore. There are also recurrent figures of speech. The Monkey was my personal favorite; one of two that rely on a supernatural ending. I think I liked it because the protagonist is such an idiot, but fancies himself quite the charmer. The Dreamers has the most complex narrative structure, frame upon frame upon frame. The Roads Round Pisa feels exactly like the sensation novels of the 1860s that I love so much. The Supper at Elsinore has nothing to do with Hamlet, but it has the most poignant emotional moment. The Deluge at Norderney and The Old Chevalier were kind of forgettable. The Poet is a fit ending for the book; it’s a little Owl Creek Bridge-ish, but with Blixen’s lengthy setup.

The thing that fascinated me the most about this book, as a whole, is the attitude toward gender. Blixen acknowledges the traditional attitudes, but also points out that they are arbitrary and not inherent. She bends gender when she can – women are mistaken for men, men have feminine characteristics, and there’s a fluidity that may have shocked some people (maybe this is an element of horror that doesn’t feel horrific to me). Witness Boris with his aunt:

Boris kissed her hand for this, and reflected what an excellent arrangement it might prove to be, and then all at once he got such a terrible impression of strength and cunning that it was as if he had touched an electric eel. Women, he thought, when they are old enough to have done with the business of being women, and can let loose their strength, must be the most powerful creatures in the whole world.

When the only way a woman could manage to support herself was through marriage, she had to play up to men, acting dependent on them whether she felt herself to be or not. But when they’re too old to marry (throughout the book it seems agreed upon that a first marriage must happen before the woman reaches thirty or it won’t happen at all) and have their portion of the family income settled on them for life, they can do precisely as they like. Some people who have been beaten back their whole lives lose the ability to act for themselves. In others, the desire for independence grows so strong that it takes over their entire personalities. When a woman has hidden her strength for decades and finally lets herself feel and show it, that can be either inspiring or terrifying, but it is certainly dramatic.

In all of this attention to genderbending, Blixen presents the first coherent case for homophobia I’ve read. Too bad it only works for women rejecting gay men. In this passage, rumors of a regiment in the army that is almost entirely homosexual reaches the ladies of a home for older single women, and they react:

Few things could have stirred their natures more deeply. It was not only the impudence of the heroes of the pulpit and the quill attacking warriors which revolted the old daughters of a fighting race, or the presentiment of trouble and much woe that worried them, but something in the matter which went much deeper than that. To all of them it had been a fundamental article of faith that woman’s loveliness and charm, which they themselves represented in their own sphere and according to their gifts, must constitute the highest inspiration and prize of life. In their own individual cases the world might have spread snares in order to capture this prize of their being at less cost than they meant it to, or there might have been a strange misunderstanding, a lack of appreciation, on the part of the world, but still the dogma held good. To hear it disputed now meant to them what it would mean to a miser to be told that gold no longer had absolute value, or to a mystic to have it asserted that the Lord was not present in the Eucharist. Had they known that it might ever be called into question, all these lives, which were now so nearly finished, might have come to look very different. To a few proud old maids, who had the strategic instincts of their breed developed to the full, these new conceptions came very hard. So might have come, to a gallant and faithful old general who through a long campaign, in loyalty to higher orders, had stood strictly upon the defensive, the information that an offensive would have been the right, and approved, move.

Their society is built on the ideal of heterosexual marriage. Their primary mission in life was to marry because in their socioeconomic class, there was no other accepted way for a woman to make her living. These women didn’t succeed, but at least they could cling to the idea that they had been desired, that they had an opportunity to marry (or at least play around) but chose not to. And then, to be told that women are not necessary to men? That men can love and fuck each other? What use are women, then? When marriage is a woman’s only proof of value, gay men call their self-worth into question. In the conservative circles the ex was moving in at the time of our breakup, this was pretty much the same. Her blog from that time is a hymn to wifely submission and gratitude for her faithful loving husband. So when I said that I wanted to have sex with men, it broke her concept not just of our relationship but of herself. She had to reshape her entire identity, but without the convenient label that I was claiming. This is a process that I cannot imagine.

It is not only women who derive their sense of worth from the opposite sex, according to Blixen. Here’s a little digression about the De Coninck sisters:

If these sisters could not live without men, it was because they had the firm conviction, which, as an instinct, runs in the blood of seafaring families, that the final word as to what you are really worth lies with the other sex. You may ask the members of your own sex for their opinion and advice as to your compass and crew, your cuisine and garden, but when it comes to the matter of what you yourself are worth, the words of even your best friends are void and good for nothing, and you must address yourself to the opposite sex. Old white skippers, who have been round the Horn and out in a hundred hurricanes, know the law. They may be highly respected on the deck or in the mess, and honored by their staunch gray contemporaries, but it is, finally, the girls who have the say as to whether they are worth keeping alive or not. The old sailor’s women are aware of this fact, and will take a good deal of trouble to impress even the young boys toward a favorable judgment. This doctrine, and this quick estimating eye is developed in sailor’s families because there the two sexes have the chance to see each other at a distance. A sailor, or a sailor’s daughter, judges a person of the other sex as quickly and surely as a hunter judges a horse; a farmer, a head of cattle; and a soldier, a rifle. In the families of clergymen and scribes, where the men sit in their houses all their days, people may judge each other extremely well individually, but no man knows what a woman is, and no woman what a man is; they cannot see the wood for the trees.

Maybe it’s because I’m not a sailor (though living in the Middle East I can go for months without seeing a woman’s face or figure), but I’ve never really been interested in Woman as a concept. I’ve been attracted to one or two individuals of that type, but the mysteries of femininity do not charm me. Someone told me recently that the ex had always had a really masculine energy; I suppose that’s why we were together for so long. But I always felt at a disadvantage; she and her friends tended to see me as insufficiently masculine because I couldn’t change the oil in my own car (I’ve learned since), or keep my attention on a televised sporting event (still can’t do it). I also burst into tears every time I see Kate Winslet walk into Johnny Depp’s imagined world at the end of Finding Neverland. I read recently that scientists have determined that ovulation gives women uncannily accurate gaydar, so maybe they were picking up on that subconsciously (or consciously, in some cases). Something about fertility and biological imperatives lets women know who’s not interested, and in our Southern culture where a ‘real man’ is one who produces and provides for a nuclear family, gay men are left outside. If Southern masculinity is a log cabin, we live in tents in the backyard. I have recurrent fantasies about things to do out in the woods, though, so maybe that’s the best place for me.

At the end of their story, the De Coninck girls are having dinner with their brother’s ghost, and the clock strikes midnight and he has to go back down to hell. Fanny throws herself at him and

“Morten!” she cried in a long wail. “Brother! Stay! Listen! Take me with you!”

Love isn’t always sexual; Blixen seems to understand pretty clearly that love and sex rarely go together. It makes sense to me that when Disney made a movie about true love that wasn’t heteronormative, they came to the same culture that produced this scene. Fanny loves her brother so much that she would rather be in hell with him than on earth without him. She’s lived with their sister her whole life, so it isn’t as if she’s alone in the world, but if she could choose . . . There is no person in my life that I haven’t had to give up. Even my children I’ve had to release to the ex’s weird conservative Christianity. My seven-year-old came back from camp this summer talking about AK-47s, and I’m deeply disturbed by this, but there’s nothing I can do about it. She’s going to raise the boys as she sees fit. At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of someone hanging onto me so tightly that he’d follow me to hell. I’d like to fall in love with someone and really make it to ‘death do us part,’ but I’m going to need a certain amount of independence. When I go, let me go.

These stories aren’t the type that I normally think of as Gothic. Only one ghost, one bit of magic, no insane asylums or inquisitions. They are appropriately distanced from the audience in time and usually in place, but the landscape is seldom the locus of terror. People are evil enough without any help from Hawthorne’s traveler in the woods. And sometimes people aren’t evil at all, but bad stuff still happens. It’s the way the world is: flawed and somewhat indifferent to the individual human, but beautiful nonetheless. Blixen describes one of her characters as being

Of a strange, slow and angular, unexpected gracefulness in all his movements,

and I think this is the best description of her book itself. It rewards your patience with it.

Evelyn Waugh writes about Britain’s upper middle class during the Great Depression; a bit like Jane Austen a hundred years later, or Aldous Huxley when he’s not being science fiction-y, but without the comedy of either of them. There are a few vague attempts at humor, but this is not a funny story.

The book opens introducing John Beaver, a young man whose family was once wealthy though he is not. He lives with his mother, who does dreadful interior decorating, and survives by getting invited to lunch or dinner. No one actually likes him, but he’s useful in filling up the numbers at a party because he’s always available and knows how to look and act in a drawing room. In a world where one of the worst possible things is to have an odd number of guests at dinner, this is an invaluable skill. However, Beaver’s not the protagonist, and soon sinks into obscurity. His existence in the novel is more important than his actual presence.

Beaver was sort of half-heartedly invited to go down to the country for a weekend, but the host forgets he had said anything to him, so it’s rather a surprise when he shows up. Tony Last, the actual protagonist, introduces him to his wife and then manages to avoid him for most of the weekend. He apologizes to Brenda, but she says it really wasn’t that bad. Their house was redone in the neo-Gothic style of the mid-nineteenth century, and it symbolizes Tony’s adherence to tradition. It’s out of fashion and a bit isolated, it evokes an idealized past that never quite existed, and his wife only pretends to be happy there.

Brenda goes up to town and begins an affair with Beaver, one of those discreet affairs that is only a secret from the husband. Tony has his son and his farms, but as Brenda spends more time in London, he gets increasingly lonely. She hires a bedroom in a block of flats, the sort of room that really only has one purpose. All the fashionable people are getting such rooms in a city where they already have a house or apartment so they can carry on their affairs. She pops down to the country to see Tony on the weekends, or not, and always brings a group of friends with her. For a while she tries to get him interested in one or two young ladies, but he’s not interested. Some people are congenitally faithful.

Then their son dies in an accident and Brenda petitions for a divorce. They decide that it’s better for her to be the plaintiff, so he goes off to Brighton with a lady-for-hire. This was really funny in The Gay Divorcee, but in the novel it’s just pathetic. Tony’s not happy and barely goes through the motions (of seeming to have sex, not of actually doing it) and the lady brings her eight-year-old daughter. Then he finds out that her lawyers are asking for a settlement large enough to support her and Beaver in their new marriage, and he quits being reasonable. Eventually he goes off to Brazil to let things adjust in his absence.

There’s a film, done in 1988. It seems as faithful as film could possibly be. The movie opens with a scene in Brazil, after Tony’s camp is destroyed but before he meets Mr Todd, so the majority of it is a flashback with a slight air of delirium. It seems strange to me to see James Wilby and Kristen Scott Thomas leading a film (who are they again?) when names I know so much better have such minor roles – Judi Dench, Anjelica Huston, and Alec Guinness are all supporting cast. The book’s attitude toward the Brazilians is quite sufficiently colonial, as expected for an English author writing in 1934, but the film actually makes it worse by having the Indians steal all of Tony’s stuff. Waugh is careful to point out that they do not take anything that doesn’t belong to them. The film does tone down some of the misogyny, but I actually regret that. When men are rejected by a woman, they spread their anger to all women. This is just what we do; I understand that women often do the same to us. In the wake of the divorce, I’ve had moments when I’m very misogynistic indeed, so when Jock’s girl cancels on him and he says,

It’s the last time I ask that bitch out.

I almost cheered. It seems so natural. When men are alone and unhappy, this is how they really talk, even today. Generally, novels sanitize this sort of thing. It’s not the misogyny that I celebrate, but Waugh’s freedom in portraying it. A moment of unlooked-for realism.

At some point I’m going to have to stop thinking of myself as recently divorced. Books like this tend to bring that time closer to me, but at least the old wounds aren’t opening back up. This novel didn’t hurt the way that some others have done. In some ways my divorce was exactly the same as Tony and Brenda’s, and in other ways it was completely different. My ex never had an affair, but having children can create that distance too. All of the ways that she had shown me affection went to them; my role became more functional, paying the bills and fathering the children. Over time, love becomes an assumption that you don’t examine closely. I’ve had to stop talking about this part of things because people tend to assume that the fact that I was unfulfilled in my marriage means that I’m not really gay, I only came out to create a situation where I could get a divorce without it being anyone’s fault. Throughout the proceedings, though, we both tended to act like it was someone’s fault – mine.

When you’ve been together for eight years, you tend to have all the same friends. The ex didn’t much care for most of my previous friends, so the only people I spent time with only knew us as a couple, not as singles. They tried to get us back together, but only drove us further apart. When people talk to your very recent ex and then talk to you, they distort things to make it seem like reconciliation is possible. They mean well, but it’s just not helpful. There are times when offering hope is just cruel. Waugh captures this aspect of divorce quite well. Brenda might be tired of Beaver by now, but until she figures that out herself, that piece of information is not going to help Tony. She may not want Tony to be sad, but she doesn’t want to be with him either. My divorce had a great deal of confusion on this topic for a few weeks, until she and I met and she made her feelings clear. Then I had to tell people to stop helping, that we were not going to get back together. I tried to avoid telling them flat-out that they were wrong about her feelings; I don’t remember whether I succeeded.

There comes a point when you realize suddenly that everything is over. At first, it’s like this:

For a month now he had lived in a world suddenly bereft of order; it was as though the whole reasonable and decent constitution of things, the sum of all he had experienced or learned to expect, were an inconspicuous, inconsiderable object mislaid somewhere on the dressing table; no outrageous circumstance in which he found himself, no new mad thing brought to his notice could add a jot to the all-encompassing chaos that shrieked about his ears.

Then, something happens, and

His mind had suddenly become clearer on many points that had puzzled him. A whole Gothic world had come to grief . . . there was now no armour, glittering in the forest glades, no embroidered feet on the greensward; the cream and dappled unicorns had fled . . .

You lose your illusions about the situation and about the person you had been married to. Once the unicorns flee, you can face your future resolutely, realistically. You can let go.

Tony and Brenda agree on a settlement privately, but when the lawyers get involved the amount quadruples, at least partially on the insistence of Beaver. He doesn’t have an income large enough to support himself, much less her. Part of the advantage of the affair is that she feeds him; when that’s done, so is he. The larger amount, though, would require Tony to give up his house, which he refuses to do. When we split, my ex gave notice on the apartment without consulting me, so I ended up homeless for a while. Tony draws the line at that, and cuts Brenda off with nothing. Since the weekend with the girl is obviously faked and everyone knows about the affair with Beaver, it’s not hard to get away without being required to pay her anything. I didn’t have a single turning point when I was suddenly ready to stick up for my rights; it came on slowly. The ex and I settled on an amount of child support that was reasonable for three kids, but completely out of proportion to my income. I spent the next year trying not to starve to death, and only barely succeeding. When you’re raised on the Protestant work ethic, you see your ability to provide for yourself and your family as a marker of self-worth. Economic anorexia is a dangerous thing, because while you can justify it because you can’t afford to eat, the truth is that you feel like you don’t deserve to eat. That can take the joy out of food that you don’t pay for as well. Eventually, I had to sell my car to pay my child support.

I find that emotions are often tied to places. When I came back home after vacation, all the loneliness and depression I had left behind were waiting for me at the door. I am rather anxious to relocate when my contract is over. But when separating from a spouse, it can be good to put some physical distance between yourself and the situation. Tony and I both thought an ocean would be enough. He left England for Brazil, and I left America for the Middle East. Tony’s such a quiet, stay-at-home sort of fellow that it’s strange when people start calling him an explorer, but he really does go off to the Amazon to look for El Dorado. Instead he finds Mr Todd, a missionary child left in the jungle when his parents died. Now he’s an illiterate old man with the complete works of Charles Dickens. He captures people who know how to read English and forces them to keep reading aloud. One of his favorites is Little Dorrit, a book about the different types of imprisonment in Victorian England; part of the absurdity of the situation is that Tony clings to his Victorian home and values, only to end up imprisoned by the literary embodiment of them. Living where I do is a bit like Mr Todd’s. Of course I have the freedom to leave when I like, but there’s nowhere to go. The difficulty of getting anywhere makes it an effective prison. It was good for me to come here and sort out my issues with being divorced, being gay, yet still being worth keeping alive, but I’m beginning to fear that I’m going to end up like Tony. It’s time to find something else to do, to go live another life.

There are some events that seem to divide a person’s life into two equally important halves, even though there are many years before and only a few days or hours after. Marriage, the birth of a child, moving to a foreign country. Divorce is one. But given time, the event becomes a part of your past and you can see it in its proper perspective. I thought that getting divorced was going to kill me. I thought it was the worst possible thing ever. But now I’m quite pleased that it happened. I’m free in a way I could never have been when I was still married. Maybe this is why I don’t get all excited about gay marriage. I’ve been a husband once; I’m not in a rush to try it again.

This volume has three short pieces, each fifty or sixty pages in length, so they fall right on that line between short story and novel. Maybe they’re short novels, maybe novellas, maybe there’s no need to classify them based on length. It also reminded me of the buyer-beware aspect of used bookshops, since every page from 137 to 162 is torn neatly across from the edge into the binding [proof that it didn’t come from my two favourite shops, since they have such high standards that they always refuse around half the books I try to trade in]. The tears start close to the bottom of the page and move progressively upward, as if someone was trying to rip the book in frustration but got a bit twisted up. But nothing is missing, so after reading, I don’t think there’s any reason to be so angry at this little book. Porter’s delightful.

OLD MORTALITY

The story begins with a portrait of an ideal, Aunt Amy, and the two little girls who grow up in her shadow. Throughout their lives, everyone is compared unfavourably with the deceased Aunt Amy, who was apparently more beautiful, more charming, and more daring than any other woman anyone had ever known. In an era when women’s actions were carefully guarded, Amy did whatever she liked, bugger the consequences. She could bat her eyelashes and smile her way through nearly any situation, and when her brother shot at (or possibly just shot) a man to protect her honour and had to move to Mexico for a year, he was happy to go on an adventure for her. There are worse places than Mexico during the Old West for a Texan who’s just committed a violent crime on his sister’s behalf. There are some people who can get away with stuff and become legend while the rest of us learn to behave. My older sister was one, and I suspect that my middle son is becoming one. I was not – too much conscience, too little popularity. Examples: as a teenager, my sister once locked all of the adults at her summer camp in their cabin, and my son sang several verses of “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” in McDonald’s when he was three years old.

And what happens when we meet the stuff of legend?

They had just turned their dollars over to the bookmaker for the fourth race when a vast bulging man with a red face and immense tan ragged mustaches fading into gray hailed them from a lower level of the grandstand, over the heads of the crowd, “Hey, there, Harry?” Father said, “Bless my soul, there’s Gabriel.” He motioned to the man, who came pushing his way heavily up the shallow steps. Maria and Miranda stared, first at him, then at each other. “Can that be our Uncle Gabriel?” their eyes asked. “Is that Aunt Amy’s handsome romantic beau? Is that the man who wrote the poem about our Aunt Amy?” Oh, what did grown-up people mean when they talked, anyway?

He was a shabby fat man with bloodshot blue eyes, sad beaten eyes, and a big melancholy laugh, like a groan. […] Miranda and Maria, disheartened by the odds, by their first sight of their romantic Uncle Gabriel, whose language was so coarse, sat listlessly without watching, their chances missed, their dollars gone, their hearts sore.

Like so many stories from the 1930s, this is a story of losing faith in ideals. We build up hopes and dreams, a Technicolor Oz of the imagination, only to wake up in gray Kansas. When Miranda follows in Amy’s footsteps, the family that laughed over the aunt condemns the niece. So. Not so ideal after all.

NOON WINE

I find I don’t have much to say on this story, probably because it addresses one of the issues that is most emotionally laden for me – mental illness. There are aberrations on both sides of my family, and one of my deepest fears is that I’m going to stop perceiving reality accurately. When I was religious, I was into mystic experiences, seeing visions, hearing voices, and so forth. When I think of my life then, I’m relieved that I don’t hallucinate any more, and that I no longer feel like I ought to. Leaving off the delusions of grandeur relieves a lot of pressure, too. But if I were to have a traumatic experience like that of Mr Thompson, I wonder even now if I would do any better at keeping track of what is happening, whose hands are doing what, and what degree of responsibility I have for actions that turn out to be mine.

And what clue do we have of insanity? Silence. Mr Helton doesn’t say much. I don’t say much. The extreme verbosity on this blog is a way of compensating for the extreme silence in my non-virtual life. I seldom talk much, unless I am (a) in front of a classroom, (b) drunk, or (c) with people I know well, or more accurately, with people whom I feel know me well. Mr Helton’s silence seems perfectly natural to me without explaining it with madness; indeed, the behaviour of most mad characters in literature seems normal to me until the author tells me they are mad. Which is one of the reasons that I worry.

PALE HORSE, PALE RIDER

Whenever I realize that a story is set in 1918 and a character begins to catch a cold, my heart quails within me. There are some implications that this is our old friend Miranda from Old Mortality, now in her mid-20s and surrounded by bored soldiers and busy newspapermen. This is primarily the story of Miranda’s delirium, with some moments of lucidity. It reminds me of the Porter story I used to teach, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” though the titular Granny declines steadily instead of by fits and starts. She also doesn’t seem to realize how quickly she’s dying, while Miranda expects and welcomes death. An influenza patient in love with a soldier during a war; of course she’s reconciled herself to the coming death.

Miranda sighed, and lay back on the pillow and thought, I must give up, I can’t hold out any longer. There was only that pain, only that room, and only Adam. There were no longer any multiple planes of living, no tough filaments of memory and hope pulling taut backwards and forwards holding her upright between them. There was only this one moment and it was a dream of time, and Adam’s face, very near hers, eyes still and intent, was a shadow, and there was to be nothing more. . . .

“Adam,” she said out of the heavy soft darkness that drew her down, down, “I love you, and I was hoping you would say that to me, too.”

He lay down beside her with his arm under her shoulder, and pressed his smooth face against hers, his mouth moved towards her mouth and stopped. “Can you hear what I am saying? . . . What do you think I have been trying to tell you all this time?”

For Porter, illness and death isolate us slowly, putting a gradual yet firm distance between the sufferer and humanity. It’s like when you’re trying desperately to stay awake but not quite succeeding, so bits of current sensory information mix with the coinages of the unconscious mind, all in a briary tangle of reality and dream-logic. Disorienting because you don’t know you’re dreaming and it’s just real enough to be utterly convincing.

I once asked a class if they didn’t think Granny Weatherall was a hoot, and they looked back at me in gaping silence until someone said, “But she dies at the end.” I replied, “Yes, but before that?” A story is more than its ending. The end can give a clue to an overall meaning, but the joy of the story is seldom concentrated there (it is in Catch-22, a few hundred pages of stagnation followed by five pages of unbridled joy, but that book is hardly representative). The joy is in the telling; it’s in the language, the moments, everything that makes up the middle. That’s where the important stuff is. That’s why there’s more of it.

So, to me, it doesn’t matter so much if Miranda lives or dies of influenza, if Adam survives the war or gets blown up by a mine, or even if he snatches Miranda’s influenza death from her like the sacrificial lamb she compares him to. For me, it’s a story of hating the war and narrating delirium in a stream of consciousness like Esther Summerson or Quentin Compson. People called it The Great War, but it’s not like it solved that much. This story is set in 1918 at the end of the war, first published in 1939 as the world was moving into the next great war, and this paperback was published in 1962, around the time we were not starting a great war over Cuba.

My grandfather did some very brave things in World War II, but without killing anyone, so he feels a little effete when his friends in the nursing home talk about their experiences. My father spent his war in Thailand, working on the radio most of the time and spending the rest of the war hauling his fellow soldiers out of prostitutes’ beds so they could do their work. After seeing a touring production of Miss Saigon, he spent the rest of the night in tears. And me? I don’t have a war. I don’t feel the lack of one either. I don’t doubt the possibility of there being another world war in my lifetime, I could be around for another forty years, but I’m far too much of a pacifist actually to get involved. And when I hear my students tell me about how they can’t quite get their brains to work right ever since they drove over that IED in Fallujah, I’m grateful that I have a disposition for peace. I also don’t mind having a president whose war record consists of caring for those who survived. I’d rather have someone leading a war who has a clear memory of lost limbs and fractured minds than someone whose mind was fractured and is still caught up in jingoistic rhetoric about the glory of war. There’s no glory. Just confusion, a fog of delirium in which people die. Kind of like an influenza epidemic.

So, three little stories about death, disillusionment, conflicts that cannot be resolved, and being Texan between 1885 and 1919. I suppose the volume is rather sad, but this too is life. None of us can expect an unbroken chain of affirmations; sometimes we have to let the ideal die and accept the world as it is, in which forces beyond our control shatter our dreams and leave us abandoned and dispossessed. But life is still worth living, and hope still flutters its fragile wings. I believe there are bright futures and new dreams to be had, despite the passing crepuscular present.