Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

And lo, from the very beginning, I am in love again.

There is something about this book, this woman, that makes me feel all relaxed and happy, Smollett’s ‘agreeable lassitude.’ I read the first page, the first line, and I am instantly more composed, more reconciled to the world I live in. I’ve been analyzing myself on this reading, trying to figure out why Mrs Dalloway should affect me in this way, and I think it’s her approach to life.

And of course she enjoyed life immensely. It was her nature to enjoy (though, goodness only knows, she had her reserves; it was a mere sketch, he often felt, that even he, after all these years, could make of Clarissa). Anyhow there was no bitterness in her; none of that sense of moral virtue which is so repulsive in good women. She enjoyed practically everything. If you walked with her in Hyde Park, now it was a bed of tulips, now a child in a perambulator, now some absurd little drama she made up on the spur of the moment. (Very likely she would have talked to those lovers, if she had thought them unhappy.) She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, saying things she didn’t mean, blunting the edge of her mind, losing her discrimination.

Mrs Dalloway enjoys life indiscriminately. Everything and everyone pleases her. Her servants love her because she makes their work easy for them without losing the ineffable sense of glamour that she casts on everything. I find her enthusiasm compelling and irresistible, though not quite infectious. She awakens in me the desire to love the world as she does, but I’m not quite there yet. She has a gift for making things beautiful that I do not possess. She certainly has a way with people that I do not. For all I try, I do not have the manners that make strangers feel comfortable, and that deficiency makes it harder for me to make new friends and enjoy large parties as she does.

Though I suppose that I lack discrimination as well, and this is one of the reasons that I didn’t quite succeed in academia. Edmund Wilson said that the true connoisseur is the one who can distinguish between the various qualities of literature and always prefers the highest; I’m more in love with the B-List. I can read and enjoy Dickens, but I get much more pleasure from Wilkie Collins, who is not quite as reputable. Indeed, I even find my appreciation for George Eliot fading a bit, though my late-20s self thinks it sacrilege to admit the possibility. As you can see from this blog, I mix classics with zombies and sci-fi. I may be able to distinguish between the various cuts of literature, but I don’t insist on the absolute best. The apathy toward discrimination keeps me from being a true literary connoisseur/critic.

And now Clarissa escorted her Prime Minister down the room, prancing, sparkling, with the stateliness of her grey hair. She wore ear-rings, and a silver-green mermaid’s dress. Lolloping on the waves and braiding her tresses she seemed, having that gift still; to be; to exist; to sum it all up in the moment as she passed; turned, caught her scarf in some other woman’s dress, unhitched it, laughed, all with the most perfect ease and air of a creature floating in its element. But age had brushed her; even as a mermaid might behold in her glass the setting sun on some very clear evening over the waves. There was a breath of tenderness; her severity, her prudery, her woodenness were all warmed through now, and she had about her as she said good-bye to the thick gold-laced man who was doing his best, and good luck to him, to look important, an inexpressible dignity; an exquisite cordiality; as if she wished the whole world well, and must now, being on the very verge and rim of things, take her leave.

Mrs Dalloway as a mermaid here makes me think of that line from Prufrock, and to Peter Walsh she does seem a little inaccessible, uninviting. She and Peter and Sally Seton spent a lot of time together thirty years previously; Peter and Sally were both in love with her, and Clarissa and Sally even shared a kiss that Mrs Dalloway still lingers over in memory. Peter proposed, which she finds much less agreeable. And yet, she chose Richard Dalloway, who seems so much less of a person than the other two. There’s a much clearer portrait of him in The Voyage Out, chapters three through six. It was published ten years earlier, and the Dalloways serve as a type of ideal for the young protagonist. In the earlier novel they travel briefly with a group of academics and/or artists, of that type that you’re not sure if they create art, criticize it, or both. The Dalloways bring a certain elegance to the party, however much the other members may dislike it. But what I really wanted to point out from the earlier story is that Clarissa explains why she chose Richard. He was the first person she felt truly understood her. Despite their devotion, Peter and Sally don’t see to the heart of her. I think that in order to see something in other people, the same quality has to exist in ourselves. Clarissa Dalloway is essentially different from Peter Walsh and Sally Seton. A part of it is class, a larger part is patriotism and duty. It sounds a bit mad to me, but the parties, the clothes, the house in town, the frivolity, all that Peter can’t comprehend, is her responsibility to England. The upper classes have a duty to adorn the nation. The desperate poor need something to hope for, and the wealthy give them that ideal. To many people it seems like selfishness, but Mrs Dalloway sees it as service.

I read The Voyage Out three years ago, and in response I wrote, “I read to escape as most fiction readers do, but I also read for the people. I see patterns of being that I would like to emulate, models of what I could be. Some are happy, some are sad, some are lovable, some are evil, but I see the seeds of them in myself, and I see that it’s possible for me to be other than as I am. Novels serve as a mirror in which I see my own potential.” It continues to hold true. I love Mrs Dalloway because she has a grace and social talent that I don’t have but that I would like to develop. My social anxiety and social position keep me from large parties with the Prime Minister, but the comfort under observation would be a real benefit.

Mrs Dalloway is all light and beauty and elegance, but for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Her dark Other is Septimus Warren Smith, a young man still suffering from the post-traumatic stress of World War I. The officer he loved and served under died in the War, and five years later Septimus is still insane with grief.

So they returned to the most exalted of mankind; the criminal who faced his judges; the victim exposed on the heights; the fugitive; the drowned sailor; the poet of the immortal ode; the Lord who had gone from life to death; to Septimus Warren Smith, who sat in the arm-chair under the skylight staring at a photograph of Lady Bradshaw in Court dress, muttering messages about beauty.

Paranoia, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur . . . It’s bad. Many of his symptoms were Woolf’s own, such as the belief that the birds were giving him messages in Greek, which he does not speak. The thing that touches me about the portrayal is not so much him as his wife. He married Lucrezia in Milan before he came back from the war, and she does her best to take care of him. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be afraid of going crazy, and then inventing a character who loves you and takes perfect care of you. And then acknowledging that it isn’t enough. Rezia can’t save him. The doctor comes again, but he just can’t take it any more and escapes.

Even though they never meet, Mrs Dalloway hears about what happened and she understands. She knows that the pressure of doctors could drive someone to suicide, and she doesn’t judge him for it. She knows, and feels sympathy. Between The Voyage Out and Mrs Dalloway, there was the influenza epidemic, and Clarissa fell deathly ill. She recovered, but with a fresh awareness of death, which follows her throughout the day of this story. Facing the reality of her death takes some of her sweetness away. There is strong rage hiding under the white or red roses and mermaid gowns. Most people see only the surface; Peter and Sally see only the depths; but she is both. Mrs Dalloway is a real human being, which means she has rivals and hatreds and friends and loves and everything that makes a life. She sees all of life, whether good or evil, and values it all. She loves life so much that she loves even the pain. She accepts herself completely.

Last week, when I went back to North Carolina, I was baffled by these last six months. How could I have imagined I could be content in the Midwest, when so much of what I love is hundreds of miles away? My children, the friends who helped me through my divorce and coming-out, so much of what really matters to me, so much of what I consider my life is there. I want to go home. And when I think of Mrs Dalloway, I’ve been realizing that I don’t have faith in myself. I don’t think that I will be able to make it there. The him that I’m with now I think can really help me reconcile myself with my family, as well as give me the courage to go after what I really want in life, even if it’s without him. He can show me the way, but I have to do the work myself. I need to continue to decide that my happiness is worth working toward. That could involve a new life, a new career, all kinds of scary things. But if it gets me home, that will be worth it. I just can’t bear the thought of dying here.

 

When I try to remember the house where we lived when I was young, the thing I remember most clearly is a picture of a dog with enormous eyes that was hanging high up in the living room. Not big anime eyes, big 1970s eyes, the kind when someone wants to draw a picture of a sad dog that is going to make everyone who sees it just as sad because the dog watches them with a forlornness and a desperation that they can never comfort or heal. The picture always made me feel very small and afraid. But after we moved when I was twelve, I never saw it again. I’m not sure if I’ve ever spoken to any of my family about it; by now, I’m not even sure if the picture really existed or if I’m superimposing this image of a depressing decoration on my depressing childhood. I’m kind of afraid to bring it up; I’d prefer not to be told I hallucinated the whole thing.

Stephen King’s short stories are what you would expect from reading his novels or watching his films. They’re him in miniature, a workshop where he can see how ideas play out. I’m interested in the number of first-person narrators he uses; like Pamela or Dracula, these stories are interested in their own production; it’s not enough to tell the story, he also has to tell how the story is told. There must be eyewitnesses telling their account.

It’s a great relief to write this down.

And as a writer, sometimes that’s true. But it’s not always a great relief to read what’s been written.

It is not surprising to me that Stephen King originally published some of his stories in the more literary pornographic magazines. I’m not saying that they’re trashy (some porn is actually well-filmed; I like it when the director pays attention to the way light reflects on skin. Light is beautiful); horror and pornography share a common ideology: There are opportunities for the fantastic all around us that most people don’t notice or take advantage of. In pornography, those opportunities are for pleasure; in King’s novels, those opportunities are for terror. But I appreciate the reminder that there are opportunities for a life that is bigger and stranger than the one I habitually lead.

Speaking of the overlap of horror and daily life, King takes a few minutes to explain why people enjoy the stories he writes:

I remembered talking with a writer friend who lived in Otisfield and supported his wife and two kids by raising chickens and turning out one paperback original a year – spy stories. We had gotten talking about the bulge in popularity of books concerning themselves with the supernatural. Gault pointed out that in the forties Weird Tales had only been able to pay a pittance, and that in the fifties it went broke. When the machines fail, he had said (while his wife candled eggs and roosters crowed querulously outside), when the technologies fail, when the conventional religious systems fail, people have got to have something. Even a zombie lurching through the night can seem pretty cheerful compared to the existential comedy/horror of the ozone layer dissolving under the combined assault of a million fluorocarbon spray cans of deodorant.

Real life has quite a lot of horror in it already. Look at 2016. Artists who make us happy die by the truckload, while the least electable candidates are fighting for an election that a great many Americans just don’t want any part of. A workmate and I were talking about politics, and we agreed that while neither of us likes either of the mainstream candidates, I’ll vote for anyone who can defeat Trump and she’ll vote for anyone who can defeat Hillary. So when you’ve got this going on, a tiger in the kindergarten bathrooms seems familiar and reminds us that things must not be too bad if they could get this much worse.

In King’s stories, and I suspect in his mind, regular society is a pretty awful place.

The third thing that struck me was The Eye. You know about The Eye once you let your hair get down below the lobes of your ears. Right then people know you don’t belong to the Lions, Elks, or the VFW. You know about The Eye, but you never get used to it.

People are pointlessly cruel to each other, and I don’t comprehend it. For example, he tells the story of a 350-pound woman getting married. People laugh at her all the time, as if an obese woman is somehow amusing. I used to be friends with a woman who weighed more than this, but no one ever laughed at her. She always looked nice; the type of girl who never goes out without makeup and seldom wears an outfit twice. And in small-town North Carolina, she was always completely accepted. She even had a pretty busy love life. The United States today is pretty evenly divided into three groups these days: regular weight, overweight, and obese. That wasn’t the case forty years ago. People in the story are also pretty weird about race, which is more obvious to me. That was a struggle I have always been well aware of. This week, I was sitting in the university library and some kid started making Harry Potter jokes in my direction, and I kind of wanted to beat his ass and say, “Harry Potter didn’t wear a bowtie, mother fucker!” but then I remembered that all white people look alike, so he probably couldn’t tell the difference between me and Daniel Radcliffe.

I will say that Stephen King seems to honor and respect women, even though his genre isn’t known for that. For example, here’s a female character explaining the gender divide:

But in her heart what every woman wants to be is some kind of goddess, I think – men pick up a ruined echo of that thought and try to put them on pedestals (a woman, who will pee down her own leg if she does not squat! It’s funny when you stop to think of it) – but what a man senses is not what a woman wants. A woman wants to be in the clear, is all. To stand if she will, or walk . . .’ Her eyes turned toward that little go-devil in the driveway, and narrowed. Then she smiled. ‘Or to drive, Homer. A man will not see that. He thinks a goddess wants to loll on a slope somewhere on the foothills of Olympus and eat fruit, but there is no god or goddess in that. All a woman wants is what a man wants – a woman wants to drive.’

People are people, and are happier when they are treated primarily as a person. Gender is an attribute, it’s often the first one other people notice, but it’s not the most helpful in determining someone’s personality, goals, or desires. One of my sisters wanted to become an astronaut, and the other was a gifted athlete. The astronaut dream didn’t play out, but she’s now studying neurophysics, and the track star trained as a police officer. Either of them would be more handy in a fistfight than I would be, and they’re both more conservative politically. The science genius and I once talked about political labels as working more in a circle – extreme left and extreme right can actually be pretty similar if you let go of the party names. Which is why we get on so well.

That sense of doom had hung about the boy so palpably that there had been times when Richard had wanted to hug him, to tell him to lighten up a little bit, that sometimes there were happy endings and the good didn’t always die young.

The one thing that I differ from Stephen King the most on is the idea of a happy ending. I think that happy endings are much more useful than tragic ones, because I believe so strongly in integrating all elements of a society. People die in real life because they get sick or are in accidents. In real life death is random and unfair and doesn’t make sense. In fiction, people die because at some level the author believes they deserve to. Victims are in some ways as guilty as the murderers; it’s not random, it’s not an accident. The author kills them because he can’t fit them into the reintegrated world at the end of the story. So I think that horror authors must have a lot of people they’d like to kill (or parts of themselves they’d like to kill) because that’s what their imaginations enact when they sit down at the typewriter. In this collection, there are twenty stories and two poems. Happy endings, where I felt good about the story I’d just finished? Three. “Word Processor of the Gods,” which fits my own sense of justice. “Mrs Todd’s Shortcut,” where like-minded people end up together and live in a natural world of speed and divinity. And “The Reach,” where death comes as a big reunion where you sing with all your friends. Saying that the story that is most explicitly about a woman dying has a happy ending may seem odd, but I believe that death can be kind, especially when it comes to the old as a reunion with the lovers and friends they’ve missed.

So if I have such a hard time with tragedies, why do I read horror stories? Fear is familiar to me, as I’ve mentioned. But, aside from his troubles with humanity in general, Stephen King writes for someone that he loves, so when I read his prefaces and consider myself the Constant Reader, I feel that he loves me.

Grab onto my arm, now. Hold tight. We are going into a number of dark places, but I think I know the way. Just don’t let go of my arm. And if I should kiss you in the dark, it’s no big deal; it’s only because you are my love.

The language is often gruesome, but it’s also beautiful. He knows how to catch the light reflecting on skin. The skin more often covers a body that is dying horribly than on one that is fucking mechanically, but beauty is beauty, and it can be found everywhere. Find the awe, the wonderment. The opportunity is there, always. Daily life doesn’t have to be mundane. It can be ecstatic, or horrifying, or peaceful, or whatever you like. So make it what you like.

 

 

Well. It has been quite a while since I’ve written something personal here, but sometimes I read long books, and sometimes I read very long books, and I was in the mood for Chaucer, and nothing says springtime like eight hundred pages of Middle English poetry.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour,
Whan that Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tender croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open eye –
So priketh hem nature in hir corages –
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kouthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelonde to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blissful martyr for to seke
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

See? Nothing. This seems to be one of the earliest accounts of the Spring Break road trip, an urge that I still feel even though I’m in my mid-thirties.

One of the strange mental habits I have is to think of Decent People; generally, in contrast to myself. “It’s so nice driving on the interstates after midnight. There’s so little traffic. Yeah, all the Decent People are home in bed.” “It’s Friday night, and all the Decent People of the world are taking their families to Walmart. I guess I’ll go back home and watch Cary Grant and William Powell.” “You still haven’t changed the oil in the car yet? Decent People would have done that a thousand miles ago.” One of the interesting things about The Canterbury Tales is that it’s quite clear who the Decent People are, and one of the interesting things about the way we study The Canterbury Tales is that we more seldom teach the stories told by Decent People. I guess all of us who study literature professionally feel a bit indecent. It’s a good feeling.

In Chaucer, whether people work for The Church or not has little to do with whether they are Decent or not. Behold, my favorite image from the book:

“And now hath Sathanas”, seyth he, “a tail
Brodder than of a carrik is the sail.
Hold up thy tail, thow Sathanas!” quod he,
“Shewe forth thin ers, and lat the frere se
Where is the nest of freres in this place.”
And er that half a furlong wey of space,
Right so as bees out swarmen from an hive,
Out of the develes ers ther gonne drive
Twenty thousand freres on a route,
And thurghout helle swarmeden aboute,
And comen again as faste as they may gon
And in his ers they crepten everychon;
He clapte his tail again and lay ful stille.

I can’t say as I’m completely certain why I love the image of twenty thousand friars spewing out of Satan’s ass, swarming all over hell in their tonsures and long rough robes; I’m sure Freud would enjoy explaining that about me. As I enjoy analyzing The Host: He’s always complaining about his wife, and then he goes and flirts with clergymen:

But, by my trouthe, if thou were seculer,
Thou woldest ben a tredefoul aright;
For if thou have corage as thou hast might,
The were nede of hennes, as I wene,
Ya, mo than seven times seventeen!
Se, whiche braunes hath this gentil preest,
So gret a nekke, and swich a large breest!

I guess the Prioress has good taste in priests. The Nun’s Priest’s mock-epic beast fable is one of the more entertaining, a bit like Aesop meets Alexander Pope and foreshadows Henry Fielding. The Host also has this to say about the Monk:

I pray to God yeve him confusioun
That first thee broghte unto religioun!
Thou woldest han been a tredefoul aright;
Haddestow as greet a leve as thow hast might
To parfourne al thy lust in engendrure,
Thow haddest bigeten many a creature.
Allas, why werestow so wid a cope?
God yeve me sorwe but, and I were a pope,
Nat oonly thow, but every mighty man,
Thogh he were shore ful hye upon his pan,
Sholde have a wif, for al the world is lorn!
Religioun hath take up al the corn
Of treding, and we borel men been shrimpes.
Of feble trees ther comen wrecched impes;
This maketh that oure heires beth so sklendre
And feble that they may nat wel engender.
This maketh that oure wives wol assaye
Religious folk, for ye mowe bettre paye
Of Venus paiementz than may we.

In our time, all the hot guys don’t become priests; but then, most churches don’t require celibacy of their priests any more. But really, there’s got to be some other problem with the time if all the wives are out offering themselves to men of the cloth. Judging by the less Decent Tales, The Host is not the only one to notice that women have an eye for a man in a cassock. They don’t always return it; The Monk’s Tale is a catalog of the Fall of Great Men, frequently (but not all) because of the women in their lives – Samson, Holofernes, Solomon, and many others.

In general, the less Decent stories are about sex, or at least the battle between the sexes. Perhaps that’s why we love them so – gender roles haven’t really changed that much in seven hundred years. We still want to figure out how to make people love us back. The Wife of Bath has it that men should submit to their wives, and The Clerk implies that women should submit to their abusive husbands, but I think the truth is this:

Love wol nat be constrained by maistrye;
Whan maistrye comth, the God of Love anon
Beteth hise winges, and farwel, he is gon!
Love is a thing as any spirit free.
Wommen of kinde, desiren libertee,
And nat to been constrained as a thral,
And so doon men, if I sooth seyen shal.

The trick is to find someone that you love too much to control, and who loves you the same way. We want to feel free, and loved as we are. I’ve yet to find that person, but I’m still hoping. The hope is a bit foolish since I don’t like to go out and meet people, but only a bit because I still end up meeting quite a lot of people, just not gay men that I’m attracted to.

The Wife of Bath rationalizes the existence of us Indecent People:

For wel ye knowe, a lord in his household
Ne hath nat every vessel al of gold.
Somme been of tree, and doon hir lord servise,
God clepeth folk to him in sondry wise,
And everich hath of God a propre yifte,
Som this, som that, as him liketh shifte.

And there are some pleasures imagined by Decent People, like The Knight:

ne how the Grekes pleye
The wake-pleyes, ne kepe I noght to seye –
Who wrastleth best, naked with oille enoint,
Ne who that baar him best, in no disjoint;

Seriously? If my wake is going to have nude wrestling, I’ll hop out of the casket to watch.

When it comes to Decency, no one on this trip is as Decent as The Parson. He concludes the book with ninety pages of prose, mostly about the Seven Deadly Sins, how to avoid them, and how to repent of them. He likes lists, especially numbered lists, and if those lists can be long, even better. Like this list of little-recognized sins:

Now sith man understondeth generally which is venial sinne, thane is it convenable to tellen specially of sinnes whiche that many a man, peradventure, ne demeth hem nat sinnes, and ne shriveth him nat of the same thinges, and yet natheless they been sinnes soothly, as thise clerkes writen. This is to seyn, that at every time that man eteth or drinketh moore than suffiseth to the sustenaunce of his body, in certein he dooth sinne. And eek whan he speketh moore than nedeth, it is sinne; eek whan he herkneth nat benignly the compleinte of the povere; eek whan he is in heele of body, and wol nat faste whan oother folk fasten, withouten cause reasonable; eek whan he slepeth moore than nedeth; or whan he comth by thilke encheson to late to chirche, or to othere werkes of charite; eek whan he useth his wif withoute soverein desir of engendrure, to the honour of God, or for the entente to yelde to his wif the dette of his body; eek whan he wol nat visite the sike and the prisoner, if he may; eek if he love wif, or child, or oother worldly thing, moore than reson requireth; eek if he flatere or blandise moore than him oghte for any necessitee; eke if he amenuse or withdrawe the almesse of the povre; eke if he apparaileth his mete moore deliciously than nede is, or ete to hastily by likerousnesse; eek if he tale vanitees at chirche, or at Goddes service, or that he be a talkere of idel wordes of folye or of vileinye, for he shal yelde acounte of it at the day of dome; eek whan he biheteth or assureth to do thinges that he may nat parfourne; eek whan that he by lightnesse or folye misseyeth or scorneth his neighebore; eek whan that he hath any wikked suspecioun of thing ther he ne woot of it no soothfastnesse. Thise thinges, and mo withoute nombre, ben sinnes, as seyth Seint Augustin.

Wow. I personally have done a lot of these things, and yet I don’t feel bad about them. I mean, loving your children more than is reasonable? Check. Enjoying good food, a little better than is strictly necessary to choking it down? Check. Showing up at church late? Check. Having sex without considering conception? Check. Forgetting to skip meals when other people are? Check. I’m the sort of person who tells jokes and laughs during funeral services, so I guess that counts as speaking unnecessarily. This enormous weight of sin that The Parson dumps on us all seems excessive to me, and a bit ignorant.

Of leccherye, as I seide, sourden diverse speces, as fornicacioun, that is bitwixe man and woman that ben nat maried; and this is deedly sinne and agains nature. Al that is enemy and destruccioun to nature is agains nature.

Has he seen nature? How many species are monogamous? For that matter, how many species of mammals are strictly heterosexual? It seems to me that religious laws are themselves against nature. If working against nature is a deadly sin, then Christianity has a lot of repenting to do –

But war thee wel that swiche manere penaunces on thy flessh ne make thee nat bitter or angry or annoyed of thyself, for bettre is to caste awey thin heire than for to caste awey the swetenesse of Jesu Crist.

– not in chain mail on bare skin or hairshirts, because that sort of mortification of the flesh defeats the purpose. We have life so that we can enjoy it; whether that’s the sweetness of Jesus Christ or the sweetness of the love that The Parson can’t even name, we must find the goodness in life and taste it often. So much of what The Parson teaches seems to work against finding any joy in life at all, but even he admits that hating the life you live is a bad thing. And lest you think he’s a big old hypocrite, Chaucer says in the General Prologue that this Parson is the real deal. He contrasts him with the bulk of the clergy:

And shame it is, if a preest take keep,
A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.

Another phrase that I love.

It’s true that Chaucer didn’t finish his project, four stories for each of thirty travelers (and when the Canon’s Yeoman rides up he makes thirty-one), but I think he gives us a fairly good picture of what life is like in fourteenth-century England. There’s a lot of bigotry, a lot of hypocrisy, a lot of sex, a lot of love, a lot of hope and despair. It’s like seeing the entire world, or at least the world as they knew it.

I don’t believe the world or the flesh is here to be overcome, as the old Christian Fathers would have it; the world is here to be loved. We have life so that we can be happy in it. For some people, that means a life of perpetual decency; for others, it’s a little more free. We have to be reconciled to ourselves, we have to love ourselves, we have to find peace with who we are, we have to get in touch with our personal nature (which no one else can define) and live it completely. The Parson finds it one way, The Wife of Bath another. They’re different, nearly binary opposites, but the end result is the same. They each are who they are without shame or self-reproach. And if that is something I gain from spending the month of April with eight hundred pages of Middle English, the time will have been well spent.

I normally write here about books or the occasional movie, but music is a very important part of my life. I listen in the car and while doing household tasks, like cooking or cleaning. Most days, I probably spend more time listening to music than I do reading. I even studied music at school – I minored in piano for my undergraduate degree. Even though I took all the theory and music history courses, I still feel inadequate when it comes to writing about music. Part of that is just how patchy my knowledge of the tradition is, and another big part is that my inner hipster is ashamed of the music I enjoy. My inner hipster used to be more outward: I once wore a black turtleneck to an event where I read my own poetry, and I didn’t realize I had become a cliché until halfway through. That wannabe aesthete is still alive and kicking inside me, and he tries to direct my musical and artistic tastes, but the other selves I am don’t always listen. Yes, I like the brooding garage-band indie sound, but I also like the more poppy stuff they play in the shops.

I have begun buying music at Walmart, unapologetically. One such purchase is Christina Perri’s second album, Head or Heart. The sound is a little brighter, the mood a little more upbeat than it was in Lovestrong, just as you would expect from an artist who used to write her music alone when she had time off from waitressing and now has a lucrative recording contract and writes her songs in committee.

So, I’m breaking the silence on music because I wanted to share an experience. The other day, I was driving along and listening to this CD. The third track is a silly love duet with Ed Sheeran that I always sing along with, and suddenly I could see myself singing this with someone in the passenger seat singing the other part. Me and him, singing “Be My Forever” at each other. At the end of the song I was so happy I laughed out loud – I always laugh when I’m happy, even when things aren’t funny – then I kissed my hand and rubbed it down the side of his face, hard so that he’d know I meant it. Then the vision closed and I was alone, but I still have the hope that someday (soon) I’ll meet this guy who will sing in the car with me and make me so happy I can’t contain the feeling.

Steppenwolf has been very important to me. It has been very important to lots of people, but I don’t like to think about that. I tend to feel towards it like it is St Matthew’s pearl of great price, that I go to great lengths to obtain and keep secret. Or maybe it’s a little more like Gollum, stroking my paperback in secret, muttering over My Precious. I take an unjust comfort in the thought that very few people understand it like I do. I try not to be a snob, but when it comes to things that touch me deeply, I get overprotective.

Hesse’s comments in the foreword strengthen this impression. He talks about the many men who identify with the protagonist, but who miss the point. The first hundred pages or so are kind of slow, and describe Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf of the title. But the rest of the book, longer than that beginning, is about how he grows and changes, becoming more complete, though the novel ends with the proof that he’s not finished yet.

Of course, I neither can nor intend to tell my readers how they ought to understand my tale. May everyone find in it what strikes a chord in him and is of some use to him! But I would be happy if many of them were to realize that the story of the Steppenwolf pictures a disease and a crisis – but not one leading to death and destruction, on the contrary: to healing.

Harry begins the novel unhappy and begins a journey to heal himself and find some happiness in his life. If you’re one of these forty-ish-year-old Germans who live lives of Thoreau’s quiet desperation, you’ll identify with Haller at the beginning, when we’re spending a lot of time analyzing him, but you have to be willing to change, you have to believe that you can change, in order to see it as Hesse does, to get the benefit he seems to have intended from the book.

Unfortunately, Hesse’s greatest lyricism is in the passages about the quiet desperation.

He who has known the other days, the angry ones of gout attacks, or those with that wicked headache rooted behind the eyeballs that casts a spell on every nerve of eye and ear with a fiendish delight in torture, or soul-destroying, evil days of inward vacancy and despair, when, on this distracted earth, sucked dry by the vampires of finance, the world of men and of so-called culture grins back at us with the lying, vulgar, brazen glamor of a Fair and dogs us with the persistence of an emetic, and when all is concentrated and focused to the last pitch of the intolerable upon your own sick self – he who has known these days of hell may be content indeed with normal half-and-half days like today. Thankfully you sit by the warm stove, thankfully you assure yourself as you read your morning paper that another day has come and no war broken out, no new dictatorship has been set up, no particularly disgusting scandal been unveiled in the worlds of politics or finance. Thankfully you tune the strings of your moldering lyre to a moderated, to a passably joyful, nay, to an even delighted psalm of thanksgiving and with it bore your quiet, flabby and slightly stupefied half-and-half god of contentment; and in the thick warm air of a contented boredom and very welcome painlessness the nodding mandarin of a half-and-half god and the nodding middle-aged gentleman who sings his muffled psalm look as like each other as two peas.

I find myself stuck in this half-and-half life right now. In this desert, the best thing on offer seems to be not-depressed, so that’s all I’m shooting for when I’m here. I know it’s dangerous to postpone the search for happiness, but I don’t seem able to find much here. The communal culture is not well-suited to my temperament, but living in one means that the solitary joys are few. The locals deal with it by focusing on their religion. The name Islam means submission, so that’s what they do. They resign themselves to life as it is and discourage any attempts to change anything. I have never been good at submission. I can fake it for short periods, but it’s not natural or comfortable to me. This is not to say that I think I’m better than others, or that I’m too much in love with myself. In many ways I am (and have been) like Haller at the beginning:

It was always at himself first and foremost that he aimed the shaft, himself first and foremost whom he hated and despised.

Or, as when Hesse describes the suicide as a personality type:

What is peculiar to the suicide is that his ego, rightly or wrongly, is felt to be an extremely dangerous, dubious, and doomed germ of nature; that he is always in his own eyes exposed to an extraordinary risk, as though he stood with the slightest foothold on the peak of a crag whence a slight push from without or an instant’s weakness from within suffices to precipitate him into the void. The line of fate in the case of these men is marked by the belief they have that suicide is their most probable manner of death. It might be presumed that such temperaments, which usually manifest themselves in early youth and persist through life, show a singular defect of vital force. On the contrary, among the “suicides” are to be found unusually tenacious and eager and also hardy natures. But just as there are those who at the least indisposition develop a fever, so do those whom we call suicides, and who are always very emotional and sensitive, develop at the least shock the notion of suicide.

These days we talk about clinical depression and prescribe medicine, but Hesse cuts to the heart of the matter. I feel this whenever I walk across a bridge or stand on a cliff; I’m not afraid I’ll fall, I’m afraid I’ll jump.

Those of us who feel this self-discontent, which becomes displaced as discontent with the entire world, usually want to be different. We know that life would be better if we changed – we don’t need the great Zachary Glass to tell us that. However, that knowledge is only the first step. It’s like when I came out of the closet and got divorced. Lots of people were telling me that I should go hook up with some random guys to ‘explore my sexuality’ or ‘figure out what I want’ or even ‘you can’t masturbate forever.’ I had accepted that this kind of experience would have some benefit for me, but that doesn’t mean I was ready to do it. It took me a couple of years before I was. When the time was right, I did it and derived what advantages one can. I think that a lot of us make this mistake: we think that when we know we ought to do something (or want to do it), that’s all the preparation we need. Recognizing a need is not the same thing as being ready for its fulfillment.

In analyzing the Steppenwolf, it’s useful to talk about Freud for a minute (not that Hesse does, though he discusses the same concepts). Harry Haller sees himself as a two-part being, a man and a wolf. The two sides of himself are constantly at war with each other, each struggling to dominate. The part he calls the wolf matches with Freud’s idea of the id, the part of the subconscious where all our desires originate from instinctual drives. The id wants to avoid pain, so at first Freud called it the pleasure principle. Hesse points out that a lot of what Haller calls the wolf is actually what makes him a human man. As time went on, Freud started treating soldiers who were trying to recover from World War I, and he realized that he couldn’t explain their traumatic dreams with the pleasure principle. He recognized survivors’ guilt, and theorized that the subconscious has another part – a legislative body where we store our internalized social conventions, which attacks us in the form of guilt and the compulsion to repeat traumatic events in our imagination. Haller thinks that the man part of himself is this superego, even though it’s more often trying to kill him, or at least punish him for the desires that come from his id/wolf. Hesse identifies the bourgeois as those who can comfortably strike a middle path between desire and law, who live the sort of half-and-half contented life mentioned above.

Haller finds comfort in aesthetics. This is the only place where he can reconcile his need to satisfy himself with his need to satisfy everyone else. His ideals are Goethe and Mozart, and judges every other cultural production by its ability to approximate one of these two monoliths. Buxtehude and Haydn are okay, even Schubert, but not Beethoven. Jazz is right out.

You are right, Steppenwolf, right a thousand times over, and yet you must go to the wall. You are much too exacting and hungry for this simple, easygoing and easily contented world of today. You have a dimension too many. Whoever wants to live and enjoy his life today must not be like you and me. Whoever wants music instead of noise, joy instead of pleasure, soul instead of gold, creative work instead of business, passion instead of foolery, finds no home in this trivial world of ours –

His aesthetic sense can help him find peace in mundane things, like a neighbor’s potted plants, but his snobbery keeps him away from a lot of life. He feels isolated, and comforts himself by saying that it’s because the rest of the world is not up to his standards, but he doesn’t recognize the arbitrary nature of those standards. I feel isolated a lot of the time, but I no longer see that as a sign of my self-worth. I don’t want to define myself by the things I refuse to enjoy. I used to reject country music out of hand, but I want to get over that. Yes, I can enjoy a glass or two of wine with my salmon and lentils at an expensive Parisian restaurant, but if I’m at a pig-picking in eastern North Carolina and someone hands me a Mason jar of homebrewed corn whiskey, I’ll enjoy that too. I’m done with being proud of loneliness. After all, don’t wolves travel in packs?

That larger second part of the book is about Haller getting out of this miserable, snobbish, suicidal life. He meets a girl who forces him to learn the fox trot and to listen to recorded music. He realizes that he’s having fun. In order to be a complete person, he has to learn to embrace everything that the world has to offer, even if it’s not the highest art. [I think that’s why I started a blog about books with World War Z – to remind the readers of my former blog that my thought-life isn’t all Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf.] He has to find the value of the ephemeral. This is personified in the vaguely Hispanic saxophone player, who leads him into the allegorical magic gallery.

You have often been sorely weary of your life. You were striving, were you not, for escape? You have a longing to forsake this world and its reality and to penetrate to a reality more native to you, to a world beyond time. You know, of course, where this other world lies hidden. It is the world of your own soul that you seek. Only within yourself exists that other reality for which you long. I can give you nothing that has not already its being within yourself. I can throw open to you no picture gallery but your own soul. All I can give you is the opportunity, the impulse, the key. I can help you to make your own world visible. That is all.

And what he finds there is all the selves he has been. Society has agreed that it’s a terrible crime to reduce a person to one body part, like her genitals; it’s equally awful to reduce a person to a single personality trait, but we do that anyway. It’s easier to hate someone when you only see one quality in them. Haller has reduced himself to two, his anxiety to be respectable and his desire to rebel. But we are all more complex than that. There is no simple duality at the heart of man (good/evil, flesh/spirit, God/Satan, angel/djinn, whatever). We are more than we give ourselves credit for.

In reality, however, every ego, so far from being a unity is in the highest degree a manifold world, a constellated heaven, a chaos of forms, of states and stages, of inheritances and potentialities.

Every possibility is in every person. Given the proper training and stimulus, any person is capable of any action. This is one of the reasons it so ill becomes us to judge others; in dwelling on another’s guilt, we deflect our attention from our complicity in his crime, our jealousy that he did it and not I. At the same time, we also measure ourselves against other people’s successes, but without recognizing that we ourselves are capable of the same degree of success. There is value in every person, in every kind of life. For my entire adult life, I’ve been living the adventure of traveling around and meeting new people in new places. I’d like to try the adventure of living in a town for years, growing into a house that becomes the shell of my life, seeing a single group of people grow and change, feeling how I change in response to them. There are all sorts of adventures, if you choose to see them as such.

Haller reflects on his life at the end of the book:

My life had become weariness. It had wandered in a maze of unhappiness that led to renunciation and nothingness; it was bitter with the salt of all human things; yet it had laid up riches, riches to be proud of. It had been for all its wretchedness a princely life. Let the little way to death be as it might, the kernel of this life of mine was noble. It had purpose and character and turned not on trifles, but on the stars.

As does mine. As does yours.

 

A few years ago, I had a lot of things going on inside me that no one else knew about. I needed to talk it out, but I didn’t have anyone I saw frequently that I felt comfortable talking with, so I started a blog instead. It was exactly what I needed. Writing for my own benefit helped me to realize what changes were happening in me, and where I was going with them. A few people read it, and we became friends. This past spring I realized that I wasn’t that person any more, and I didn’t want to hang onto a persona that I had outgrown, so I pulled that site down and started writing here instead.

Our protagonist Anton Mallick writes for a similar purpose. He’s writing a journal addressed to his multi-great grandfather, who left Hungary in 1830 and moved to Spain. Vidor Mallick has turned into a family legend, so he seems like a good confidential friend to talk to. Unlike me, though, Anton is not really that open. I’ll talk about anything. I’m trying not to keep a lot of secrets, but even without an intended readership Anton keeps his cards close to his vest. There are hints dropped from time to time, but there are some pretty important life events that he doesn’t mention explicitly until the book is nearly over, like the death of his little brother back when they were toddlers. Sometimes he even laughs at us, telling us that we’ll never know whether he went out to sleep with the blonde dog walker or not.

Our story begins in the middle of a panic attack.

Not for the first time, something happened to me today, something horrible and absurd, something that brought on another of my overwhelming anguish attacks. To begin with I was me but, suddenly, I wasn’t, I was someone else, and ended up in the strangest state of not-being-me and yet still being inside my body – all in the middle of a bookshop jampacked with people. Then, terrified, rooted to the spot, as the cashier stared at me uncomprehendingly, unsure whether she should scream or call security, the thought popped into my head that my Hungarian ancestor’s name meant “happy,” and, on top of that, that he swore he was indeed happy, and then I came back to myself, I was me again, Antón, and it was in that moment that I decided to overturn my woeful destiny.

Enough is enough. I don’t want to be a pessimist, or a victim, any more.

And from there we move forward and backward, as he tells us about the situation that led to the attack and his journey toward happiness, or optimism. I think these are separable states of being, but he spends most of the book treating them as a single goal. Why is he having a panic attack? Well, talking about that would give away a few too many of the secrets that generate the suspense that makes the plot interesting. A small part of it, though, is that he meets a woman he slept with once when he was too drunk and high to remember whom he was with, and there in the line at the bookseller’s she tells him that she’s pregnant with his child. That might seem pretty huge, but the situation is a lot more complex than that.

In order to become an optimist, he sets out reading books. He writes a little about the things that he reads, and after he’s read a book he uses quotations from it as chapter epigraphs. Or at least, he does this with the books he likes. At first he goes to his older brother Zoltan, a psychologist who’s hooked on his patients’ medications. Zoltan tends to lord it over his younger siblings because he was raised in the United States while Bela and Anton spent their childhood in Spain with Uncle Juan, and just because he’s the oldest. He gives Anton a number of insufferable self-help books. Anton reads them all, but hates them.

Fortunately, he mentions the quest for optimism to his sister Bela, and she sends him some much better books. Under Bela’s guidance, Anton makes a survey of Western philosophy on the subject of happiness, starting with the ancient Greeks and Boethius and running through Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Those last two are memorable because he likes them – he tends to hate most books about being happy. As he rightly points out, most philosophers are trapped in binary thinking, so instead of pursuing happiness they’re just trying to avoid sadness. Not-sad and happy aren’t the same thing. There are all sorts of gradations between those two extremes. As it is, most of the philosophy and self-help books promote this vapid sort of quietism, where the person doesn’t really feel much of anything, saving himself from sadness by forfeiting the chance for joy. That’s not happiness, it’s clinical depression.

Strangely, if I go back over what I’ve read up until now, from the pre-Socratics to Russell, the whole idea of happiness or optimism is a way out, a fleeing from reality, a juggling game – interesting or depressing, depending on the person putting it forward. My Annus Horribilis is about to come to an end, and I refuse to hide: I still want TO LIVE.

The Buddhists recommend beginning here, finding the things that make you suffer and eliminating them, but they also go on to recommend that you find the things that make you happy and do them.

What things make me happy, what do I enjoy a lot? Drinking half a liter of orange juice every morning. Putting things in order and throwing them away. Running. Going for a stroll. Cooking. I’ve found that I ought to rediscover my hands again, action, doing things, not just thinking of them. It doesn’t overly matter how well you do them, or if they seem ridiculous when you tell others about them, or they aren’t going to get me anywhere in the long term. It’s about enjoying the immediate experience. Maybe, that way, I’ll find a way (nothing of course definitive, but liberating, refreshing).

Orange juice doesn’t make me that happy. If it’s the cheap stuff, even one small glass can be acidic enough to give me stomach cramps for a few hours. And I hate the kind of running that he does – sprinting is fun, but the distance stuff not so much. I do enjoy putting things in order, which makes me feel effective and in control, and throwing things out, which gives me a clean, renovated feeling.

Nothing in the world makes me feel a charge of optimism like getting rid of a book I can’t bear, and feeling not a jot of guilt, only pleasure. Who ever said we shouldn’t throw books in the trash? Who ever said there’s anything that isn’t better off in the trash?

I like strolls and doing things with my hands. I haven’t ever trashed a dishonest private investigator’s apartment on Christmas Eve, but I can see how I might enjoy it as much as Anton does. Cooking is only enjoyable for me if I’m doing it for someone else. That’s something I run into a lot: I love doing things for people, but people rarely want anything from me. I end up giving lots of unwanted advice because my need to help is unsatisfied.

Along with all the turmoil in his personal life, Anton writes insurance policies, and he spends the duration of the book working on this policy for a satellite. I didn’t know that all the world’s Sputniks were insured, but it makes sense that they would be. This job requires him to travel from his home in Madrid to Paris, London, and New York – I really liked Paris and New York when I was in them. I felt an immediate comfort, a sense of belonging that comes more slowly in small towns. Anton also likes New York, but he gets into a little more detail about why he likes it so much.

To start with, if you’ve been there a few times, you come to believe that you own it. It reveals itself to you immediately, it guides you along her streets, her avenues, her symbols; it makes you believe it’s easy to read. It’s been called the lighthouse of the West. Rather, I think of it as the West’s best work of fiction, the most elaborately wrought. Like a good book, first of all it grabs you and then it deceives you, for your own good, leading you to a place where your horizons will widen and grow. It transmits life, and life just is, it can’t be questioned, much as we try to explain it. It can be read in infinitely different ways, and though it never ceases to transmute, in essence, it’s always the same, there’s no alteration to the text. Hers is the sweetest trap, because she doesn’t claim to provide answers, rather to make you ask yourself better questions. And that’s why, like good books, it can also destroy you if you aren’t ready to be alone, which is the one irrefutable truth. No book will ever make your dreams come true. No city will give you something for free. Not even New York, that work of fiction.

Maybe that line about aloneness can explain the strange contradictions in the New Yorkers’ sense of community. They seem to remain locked within themselves, oblivious of what’s going on around them, unless there’s something important going on. In times of tragedy, there’s no better place to be – all New York will hold you as you all suffer together. That shared identity pulls them through the really bad stuff, but during normal business hours it’s all group isolation, like a hermits’ convention. People just sit quietly, trying not to make eye contact. People talk about the dangers, but I once wandered home on an unfamiliar subway route at two am, drunk off my ass and clutching a paperback copy of Gone with the Wind, and no one messed with me. They actually kept their distance, though I am far from imposing and that high level of drunkenness makes me even less likely to initiate contact with strangers. That experience is probably one of the reasons I disagree with statements like

The world we live in pretends to be better than it really is. Countries, governments, businesses, products, people, everyone and everything only put their best foot forward (and all the same it’s appalling, outrageous, sick). Here on planet earth our prime concern is to sweep the shit under the carpet and carry on regardless. If we explained to future generations what life’s really like and then asked them if they still felt like joining us, none of them would choose to be born, or only the worst kind, the masochists, the dimwits, the scatterbrains, or the saints, who definitely come within this sorry confederation. And? Well might you ask, Vidor. Where’s this little speech of mine headed? I, a twenty-first century individual who’s already here, who was never consulted about wanting to be born, am making an effort to be an optimist, and the point I’m coming to is that maybe that isn’t so strange. It’s the appropriate, the elegant thing to do.

If we all put our best foot forward, isn’t that proof that we want the world to be a good place? And isn’t that enough to make it a good place? Yes, sometimes there are school shootings and suicide bombings, but I think those are aberrations, not the rule. And in all of these tragedies, there is one sick person surrounded by dozens of people who try to minimize the damage and heal the wounded. Even the bad things strengthen my belief that the world is a good place full of good people.

One of the things that I appreciate about Anton Mallick is his attitude toward homosexuals. He learns that someone he’s getting to know is a lesbian, so Bela offers to introduce him to her hot lesbian friend and her partner so that he can get some insight into the concept. He refuses, though. I think he’s right; Bela’s friends are fifteen years older than the girl he’s meeting, and even without the age gap, there’s no guarantee that any two people are going to have similar experiences of homosexuality. Sure, there are probably a few things that all lesbians have in common, but other than a taste for women, I’m not sure what they are. I’m friends with five or six, more if you count the bisexuals, and they’re all individuals who break stereotypes in one or more directions. Asking one about her life will not really give me useful information about another’s. Or, as Anton puts it,

“I find lesbians, as lesbians, neither interesting nor uninteresting,” I said. “I have the same thing with them as with heterosexuals, or with hermaphrodite insects, if you see what I mean. Individuals are what interest me. When it comes to Leia, I’m interested to know what she’s like, to see if we can get on. Full stop. Shall we go and catch a film?”

When I listen to the LGBT community, this seems to be what most of us really want: not to be seen as a label, but as a complete human being. Being gay is only part of that. It’s an important part, but still only a part.

One of the parts of myself that’s claiming more attention lately is the depression. I think that I’ve been thinking about it wrong. I think of myself as a hopeful, optimistic sort of person, just two red pigtails shy of being totally Pollyanna, but then there’s this weird thing with my body chemistry that makes me depressed. The depression feels alien to me, like there’s some large, dark mammal breathing heavily on my thought processes, so they sound like this:

I can’t and don’t want to think. I can’t sleep and I want to. I can take a pill and I don’t want to. I can drink a couple of whiskys and I want to and do. I can leave the house and go to a bar and look at the people and I don’t want to. I can’t run into the plump blonde dog walker and fuck her in the middle of the street and I want to. I can and I don’t want to, I want to and I can’t.

I’ve been thinking of the depression as an animal because I can see it fighting for its right to live. I think that exercise will help me feel better, so the depression keeps me from having that kind of energy for a few months. I think that getting enough sleep will help, so I spend all night dreaming of plane crashes. I try to eat right, but then I seem to be gaining weight, but only on the left side, so I’m all lopsided and weird, so it’s probably better not to eat and see if that evens me out. I try to play the guitar a bit, and I get frustrated with my still-low level of skill. I try to apply for a new job, and the internet crashes for an entire week (I can’t blame that on my depression, but sometimes the universe seems a bit spiteful). Think that getting on some meds might help you? Ha! Now you’re terrified of any (legal) drugs that affect the brain, and a little afraid of all the others for good measure. The more I fight against this mental beast, the stronger it gets.

I think a better solution will be to stop thinking of depression as a foreign element. Okay, so yes I am naturally disposed to optimism and happiness, but if depression is caused by body chemistry, then that’s natural too. Anton eventually finds peace in accepting and integrating the different parts of himself, letting himself grieve for those who are dead, accepting relationships as they present themselves, accepting his own desires instead of feeling guilty for them. He even accepts the fact that he’s a pessimist, and after he finally stops trying to force himself to be optimistic he’s a happy pessimist. I don’t think that we can be happy by partitioning and rejecting various parts of the psyche. I can’t hate the part of me that is depressed and still love myself. I need to accept that my depression is mine, and maybe if I stop attacking it, it won’t fight back so much.

As the title might imply, this is a slow book. Sometimes very slow indeed.

The days go by.

and

But again the days went by and nothing bad happened because the days went by.

and even

But the hours went by now as well, afternoon came and was followed by evening.

The book is heavily imbued with the landscape of northern Norway, above the Arctic Circle, where the author grew up. What plot there is moves with the same glacial stillness. A man walks into the wilderness and cuts out a spot for himself.

Fall is coming, it is quiet in the woods round about, the mountains are there, the sun is there, and tonight the moon and the stars will come out; it is all unchanging, full of kindness, an embrace. Here folks have time to rest in the heather, with an arm for a pillow.

He tends to his farm. People walk by every now and again, and he asks them about getting a woman to help him. He’s alone for a year or two, and then she comes seemingly out of nowhere and they settle into their work. She was born with a harelip, so she never could find someone to take her on elsewhere. She comes to Isak as a way of hiding from the world, in the one place she will feel valued. And he does set a great deal of value on her. Their lives have the flavor of a fairy tale, or a myth of origin. It’s just so . . . Edenic.

In the wilds every season has its wonders, but there is always something unchanging: the immense, heavy sound of heaven and earth, the sense of being surrounded on every side, the darkness of the forest, the friendliness of the trees. Everything is heavy and soft, no thought is impossible there. North of Sellanra there was a tiny little tarn, a puddle, no bigger than an aquarium. Swimming around in it were little baby fish which never grew bigger; they lived and died there and were no use at all – goodness, no, not in the least. One evening when Inger stood there listening for the cowbells, she heard nothing else, because all was dead round about; but she did hear a song from the aquarium. It was so small, next to nothing, dying away. It was the little fishes’ song.

But paradise never lasts. Reality comes in, demanding to know what right Isak has to his land, expecting payment for it. He doesn’t let that bother him, though, and he pays it off. This is a great deal of the first half of the novel: Isak works, things grow, he builds new buildings, and life on the farm continues. The potatoes grow better during a drought than anything else, the animals reproduce, and Inger has children. Eventually more people carve out their places in the landscape and Isak and Inger get neighbors, and their lives dominate the second half of the book. But pretty much the same things happen again. Some people are successful, some are not.

The mining operation upsets the balance of things – there’s copper up in the mountain, and some Swedes buy it to mine. They bring their own workers instead of relying on local labor (a smart move – most people wouldn’t even agree to monitoring the telegraph wire because it would take them away from their farmwork), but the workers turn some people’s heads. The problem with harvesting nonrenewable resources is that eventually the copper runs out. Mining towns collapse. Aaronsen sets up a store to trade with the miners, but when they go, his business goes too. The store never really works out until Andresen works the farm behind the store and only sells what people need, when they need it, but by then Aaronsen is long gone. Self-sufficiency is very strongly valued in the book, and those who let the outside world affect them are generally seen as weak. Those silent farmers carry the day.

The settlers in the wild didn’t lose their heads. They didn’t find the air to be unhealthy for them, had a large enough public for their new clothes and didn’t miss diamonds. Wine they knew from the wedding in Cana. The settlers didn’t make themselves suffer on account of goodies they hadn’t got: art, newspapers, luxuries, politics were worth exactly as much as people were willing to pay for them, no more; the growth of the soil, on the other hand, had to be procured at any cost. It was the origin of all things, the only source. The settlers’ lives sad and empty? Ho, that least of all! They had their higher powers, their dreams, their loves, their wealth of superstition.

The whole farming vs mining thing gives Hamsun a great opportunity to explore the nature of money and commerce. Money isn’t that important; food is. Animals and people are. You have to make things; people’s worth comes from the produce of their hands and land. Money’s a worthless sort of thing that lies around, easily lost, easily stolen, easily traded for other worthless things.

Isak understood work, to carry on his trade. He was now a wealthy man with a large farm, but he made a poor use of the many cash payments chance had brought his way: he put them away. The backland saved him. If Isak had lived in the village, the world at large might have influenced even him a little; there were so many fine things, such genteel surroundings, that he would have bought unnecessary things and gone around in a red Sunday shirt every day. Here in the backland he was protected against all excesses, living in clear air; he washed Sunday morning and bathed when he was up by the mountain lake. Those thousand dollars – well, a gift from heaven, every penny to be put away. What else? Isak could manage his ordinary expenses, and more, simply by selling the yield of his animals and the soil.

It makes me dissatisfied with my life as it is now. I live in a place where there are only two things, money and God, and anyone looking for other things (music, art, pork, alcohol, nutrient-rich soil, greenery, fiction) is going to be disappointed. I’m not interested in the god they have here, so that leaves me with money. If I think about it too much, I really start to hate myself. Who lives in a place they don’t like among people they don’t much care for just to get money? I do, apparently. I comfort myself with the thought that I’m doing this as a sacrifice for my children, giving up my happiness to meet their needs, but I wonder if they’ll thank me for it when they’re old enough to understand.

You should’ve seen the engineer: here he has worked hard and kept it going, with men and horses and money and machines and lots of trouble; he thought he was doing the right thing, didn’t know any better. The more stone he can turn into money, the better; he thinks he’s doing something meritorious that way, providing money for the community and the country. Meanwhile he hurtles more and more rapidly toward disaster, and he doesn’t understand the situation.

I had an opportunity to teach some extra night classes a year ago, but I refused. Everyone kept telling me that it would be worth the amount of money I’d make, but after a few weeks the people who did it told me that I was right not to take it. It ended up being a miserable experience, despite the money they made. I felt rich and principled because I could refuse the money, and they called themselves whores because they thought they couldn’t.

If I were to live in this type of barter economy, what would I contribute? What can I actually make? I like putting together IKEA furniture, so maybe I could make a go at carpentry sometime. I am pretty good at some of the fiber arts, knitting and crocheting, but I tend to place a low value on my own work. I can bake well, but the less scientific types of cooking are beyond me. I’d need a lot of help with farming; I’ve never succeeded in keeping a plant alive. The ex once had a dream of a self-sufficient family compound away from civilization, and she envisioned me as primarily teaching the kids. Lessons for food isn’t a bad deal, but one that’s hard to come by these days.

Another major issue in the book is infanticide. Inger has two boys, then kills her first daughter because she is born with a harelip. Knowing what that life is like, she doesn’t want her daughter to go through it, like Sethe in Beloved. Oline, the resident troublemaker, figures it out and gets Inger arrested for it. Inger gets sentenced to eight years in prison; she only serves five, but that time changes her significantly. I don’t say that she’s been rehabilitated – spoiled, more like. Living in a large community has made her unfit for life on a secluded farm with only her husband and children to talk to. Oline, of course, gets Isak to hire her to do Inger’s work while she’s gone, raising the children and tending to the house and livestock.

But to fight with Oline, wrangle with Oline? Impossible. She never gave in. And nobody could match her in mixing heaven and earth into a big muddle of kindness and malice, nonsense and poison.

Another description:

She had not been pampered. Practiced in evil, oh yes, used to fighting her way with tricks and petty deceits from day to day, strong only thanks to scandal-mongering, making her tongue feared, oh yes. But nothing could now have made her worse, a legacy least of all. She had worked all her life, had borne children and taught them her own few tricks, begged for them, maybe also stolen for them, but had kept them alive – a mother in straitened circumstances. Her ability was no poorer than that of other politicians; she worked for herself and her family, suited her speech to the moment and came through, gaining a cheese to bring home by one tack, a handful of wool by another; she too could live and die in reliance on insincere quick-wittedness.

Oline seems willing to do anything she can to get by, so long as it involves feeding off of others. Settling down on a place of her own is out of the question. She finds her happiness in stealing that of others. She engineers Inger’s removal from Isak’s farm, and then when Inger comes back, having learned to spin and weave, and having had an operation to fix her face, Oline then takes credit for all of Inger’s improvement, as if getting her sent to jail was a special favor. Isak turns a blind eye to her thievery while he thinks he can’t get any better help, but once Inger comes back, Oline is out again. Years later, when there’s another case of infanticide, Oline sticks her nose in again. Barbro isn’t married to Aksel, she’s just his housekeeper, and she doesn’t want the child, so she drowns it. Oline makes sure the police know about it, and there’s another trial. Barbro gets off, though, and she works for the sheriff’s wife for two years to recover her respectability. Then she marries Aksel anyway. Oline, of course, fills Barbro’s place at Aksel’s while Barbro is away, but she’s too old to do the work well, and Aksel kind of hates her. When Barbro returns, they try to get rid of Oline, but don’t seem to quite manage until she dies suddenly one night.

Inger’s trial passes with little authorial comment, but Barbro’s is no small matter. That sheriff’s wife, Mrs Heyerdahl, testifies on Barbro’s behalf, a long argument in favor of a woman’s right to kill her baby. Personally, I recognize the difference between infanticide and abortion, but I know people who don’t, and most of Mrs Heyerdahl’s argument could be used to support abortion. A hundred years has passed since Hamsun wrote this novel, but it’s still relevant. The ex was attracted to Catholicism at least partially due to its stance on abortion; she felt so strongly about it that we ended up not using any birth control (hence the three children, now aged 7, 5, and 3). I had some students back in the United States who chose to terminate pregnancies, and I really felt sorry for them because I love (love, love, love) babies. But I recognized that their life choices were none of my business, and for them, in their situations with work, family, and relationships, and with their personalities, it was the right choice. Reproduction is a huge decision, which impacts every part of a person’s life for the rest of his life. It is not to be entered lightly. I know that there are other options: I’ve seen a small part of the world of private adoption, and it’s not right for everyone. I also have over thirty years of experience as an unexpected, unwanted child in a large family saddled with poverty. I don’t wish I had been killed or aborted, but I wouldn’t wish my life on anyone else. This is one of those decisions that has to be considered on an individual basis, but civil and religious authorities make sweeping laws that paint every case with the same brush. It’s never black and white.

Despite his apparent forward-thinking on a woman’s right to choose, Hamsun was a terrible racist. Even though he won the Nobel Prize in 1920, his works lost their popularity when he sympathized with the Nazis.

The Lapps keep to the fringes, lurking in the dark; expose them to light and air and they don’t thrive, like vermin and maggots.

Really? The Sami (Lapp is an offensive term – sorry, Cole Porter) occasionally travel down from the extremely distant North to trade with the town, and they stop off and see Isak on the way, but only at first. Inger blames them for her daughter’s harelip, because one of them shows her a hare when she is pregnant. Oline hangs out with them, but after Isak and Inger push Oline out of their house, they disappear from the narrative. Hamsun says they’re only interested in people they can manipulate and steal from. They remind me of the Native Americans, but they have the same color skin as the settlers, so they’re less easily categorized. And the settlers don’t want the land they live on, so that’s a different issue, too. But people discriminate against them and demonize them all the same.

In the end, I suppose this is a book about happiness.

The mining had come to an end, but so much the better for the farmers; it wasn’t true that the land was dead, quite the contrary. It was beginning to teem with life – two new men, four more hands, fields and meadows and homes. Oh, those green wide-open spaces in the forest, a hut and a spring, children and animals! Grain swaying on the moors where horsetail grew before, bluebells nodding on the hills, babies’ slippers blazing with golden sunlight near the houses. And people are going about their lives, talking and thinking, at one with heaven and earth.

There’s so much beauty in the natural world. People find joy and identity by working with the earth. It’s a different type of pleasure than people are used to in the cities, and it’s one that has become less common. I think in some communities people are recovering it; Seattle and Portland, for example, or the area between Asheville and Knoxville. Collectively, we’re changing our definition of progress and modernity – skyscrapers belong to the past, and we’re returning value to our connection with the land. Hamsun’s characters are mostly against the supposed progress of telegraph wires, newspapers, and other marks of urbanization; they’re busy with the land. And that’s what makes this book a hard sell today – the life portrayed isn’t fun or exciting; it’s as slow as a man hitching himself to a harvester to make sure it works properly. But as other people have pointed out, ‘The happiest nations have no history.’ Books about other people’s happiness are sort of dull.

No one can live deep in the wilds and keep on playing around. Happiness is not the same as having fun.