Posts Tagged ‘hardy’

This week I had a student preparing to enter a course of study that I felt was completely wrong for her, so we took the Myers-Briggs personality test, and that helped steer her in a better direction. It reminded me of a lot of truths about myself that I don’t often think about, or that I think of as pathological when they’re really not, like my aversion to conflict. It made explicit the fact that an aversion to conflict and a strong desire to help people can make me popular to others, but that it’s very hard for me to trust them. The doors of my heart are made of heavy steel, and once shut they do not open easily. It’s unfortunately sort of easy to shut them – don’t do something you say that you will, lie to me, don’t try hard at your job or schoolwork, don’t finish things that you start, treat my relationship with my children as if it were unimportant simply because I don’t see them very often, take delight in the conflicts of others, tell me not to trust someone close to me, use the phrase ‘the gay lifestyle,’ that sort of thing. The high standards I have for friendship sometimes makes it seem miraculous that I have any friends at all, and truthfully I don’t keep many people close to me. Those people I do don’t always realize how close they are to me, or how few people are as close to me as they are. I was interested at the way www.16personalities.com added a fifth element, so now I’m INFJ-T, the T meaning Turbulent. This refers to my habit of second-guessing all my decisions and actions, which has a strong effect on the way my Counselor/Advocate personality expresses itself.

Rereading this book, I was a little surprised to see how strongly my life and especially my bloglife are influenced by it. Unlike some of my colleagues, I see the value in people like this:

The common reader, as Dr Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

Notice the reflection of my reading habits here. Yes, I get into these high-culture moods sometimes, but I mix Thomas Hardy with Christopher Moore, and French Enlightenment thinkers with mid-twentieth century sociologists, and it’s all a big mishmash of words. I may impart some knowledge, but I’m more interested in receiving it; I have little interest in correcting the opinions of others if those opinions are thoughtfully considered. That both gives me some value as a teacher and keeps me from realizing my full potential in the field – I refuse to become an authority figure (an INFJ trait).

This book came about because Woolf was writing reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and other periodicals, which means that to some extent she and I are engaged in the same pursuit. However, she would probably not have approved of how very personal I get.

Once again we have an essayist capable of using the essayist’s most proper but most dangerous and delicate tool. He has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr Beerbohm the man. We only know that the spirit of personality permeates every word that he writes. The triumph is the triumph of style. For it is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of your self; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist. Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.

Woolf was still looking for essays that say something universal about the human condition. While there is some possibility of that in the way that I write, if people want universality from me they usually have to be able to extrapolate the message from my relation of my experience. I understand that my experience is unique to me, composed of the intersections of all my different identities, and while some experiences are common to certain groups of people, there’s no guarantee that I will have anything in common with another former academic/gay man/ex-Mormon/addictive personality/emotionally abused person.

Though Woolf keeps her experience away from her reviews, there are some qualities and preferences that become clear. A somewhat academic adherence to factual accuracy, as seen in her scathing review of a biography of Mary Russell Mitford, where she refers to the author as Mendacity (with a capital M). She also derides the author’s lack of passion for her subject:

What considerations, then, had weight with Miss Hill when she decided to write Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings? Three emerge from the rest, and may be held of paramount importance. In the first place, Miss Mitford was a lady; in the second, she was born in the year 1787; and in the third, the stock of female characters who lend themselves to biographic treatment by their own sex is, for one reason or another, running short. For instance, little is known of Sappho, and that little is not wholly to her credit. Lady Jane Grey has merit, but is undeniably obscure. Of George Sand, the more we know the less we approve. George Eliot was led into evil ways which not all her philosophy can excuse. The Brontës, however highly we rate their genius, lacked that indefinable something which marks the lady; Harriet Martineau was an atheist; Mrs Browning was a married woman; Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, and Maria Edgeworth have been done already; so that, what with one thing and another, Mary Russell Mitford is the only woman left.

I believe that the homophobia and slut-shaming and elitism in the above quotation are qualities that Woolf ascribes to Miss Hill, not attitudes that she herself embraced.

Woolf also had a good value for solitude, as when she describes Elizabethan drama:

But gradually it comes over us, what then are we being denied? What is it that we are coming to want so persistently, that unless we get it instantly we must seek elsewhere? It is solitude. There is no privacy here. Always the door opens and some one comes in. All is shared, made visible, audible, dramatic. Meanwhile, as if tired with company, the mind steals off to muse in solitude; to think, not to act; to comment, not to share; to explore its own darkness, not the bright-lit-up surfaces of others. It turns to Donne, to Montaigne, to Sir Thomas Browne, to the keepers of the keys of solitude.

Sir Thomas Browne, though unknown to me, is one of her heroes, like Max Beerbohm of the above quotation. This volume is arranged roughly chronologically, but there’s some fracturing and avoidance toward the end. We go from Chaucer to the Elizabethans and through the eighteenth century to Jane Austen, but then there’s an essay on modern fiction (compared unfavorably to the novels of the past) before she goes on to the Brontës, George Eliot, and the famous Russians (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, of course, but there are others), but then she jumps back to the Romantic-Era Miss Mitford and a few other earlier writers before she gets on to talking about writing itself for a bit, and only ends with an evaluation of the writing current at the time. Of her contemporaries, Beerbohm gets some special attention:

But if we ask for masterpieces, where are we to look? A little poetry, we may feel sure, will survive; a few poems by Mr Yeats, by Mr Davies, by Mr de la Mare. Mr Lawrence, of course, has moments of greatness, but hours of something very different. Mr Beerbohm, in his way, is perfect, but it is not a big way. Passages in Far Away and Long Ago will undoubtedly go to posterity entire. Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster. And so, picking and choosing, we select now this, now that, hold it up for display, hear it defended or derided, and finally have to meet the objection that even so we are only agreeing with the critics that it is an age incapable of sustained effort, littered with fragments, and not seriously to be compared with the age that went before.

When it comes to the past, scholars are seldom entitled to publish their own opinions. No one wants to be the Victorianist who says that Dickens was nothing special. The monoliths of the past are monolithic in that we can’t disagree with them. Shakespeare was the greatest dramatist in the English language, but that’s because people decided he was a couple of hundred years ago, and few playwrights have even tried to compete. We don’t have different opinions on that now. When it comes to the present, the experts in the past can disagree and be extreme in their devotion or antipathy and it’s all right. The thing is, though, that even scholarly fads change. Walter Scott was once considered one of the most important early nineteenth-century poets who wrote some very influential historical novels, but now he’s largely ignored. Or at least he was when I was getting my degrees ten or fifteen years ago. The trend for the last forty years or so is to look away from the white men and recover works by women and minorities; after all, Byron felt seriously threatened by Mrs Hemans’s popularity, and the first American bestseller was a classic fallen-woman narrative written by a woman. Conrad is held at a distance because of his subhuman portrayal of Africans and Asians, even though in Woolf’s time he was beloved both by the masses and by the critics. And those writers considered obscure or nonacademic in Woolf’s time (evidenced by the fact that they’re included in this book), many are now canonical, like Austen, Brontë, and Eliot. This book focuses on biographies and volumes of letters, so those who only published letters or journals are not as easily embraced by academia. We like poetry and fiction, so this passage about journal-writing is itself a little dated:

Should you wish to make sure that your birthday will be celebrated three hundred years hence, your best course is undoubtedly to keep a diary. Only first be certain that you have the courage to lock your genius in a private book and the humour to gloat over a fame that will be yours only in the grave. For the good diarist writes either for himself alone or for a posterity so distant that it can safely hear every secret and justly weigh every motive. For such an audience there is need neither of affectation nor of restraint. Sincerity is what they ask, detail, and volume; skill with the pen comes in conveniently, but brilliance is not necessary; genius is a hindrance even; and should you know your business and do it manfully, posterity will let you off mixing with great men, reporting famous affairs, or having lain with the first ladies in the land.

Woolf seems most interested in those who refrain from these last three. She assumes her readers to have read the canonical works, and she introduces us to the less frequently taught.

Gently, beautifully, like the clouds of a balmy evening, obscurity once more traverses the sky, an obscurity which is not empty but thick with the star dust of innumerable lives.

Circling back, it’s not just that she’s writing for a general audience, showing them less-known literature, she’s also writing about the general audience. The essays in this volume tend to champion the lives of the not-so-great, the ordinary people who get passed by and whom few consider great. [Perspective: I once read a book that conducted a detailed scientific analysis of nineteenth-century prose styles, counting the ratio of words of dialogue to words of narration, the number of words per sentence, average number of adjectives per noun, that sort of thing. The author, Karl Kroeber, actually felt like he had to apologize for using Austen, C Brontë, and Eliot, because they were clearly inferior to Dickens, Thackeray, and Hardy. The analysis was interesting, he found that Mansfield Park is empirically the most boring Austen novel because it uses dramatically less dialogue and more narration than the others, but the patronizing misogyny was upsetting.] The message seems to be, obscurity does not imply triviality. It’s hard to find anything about me through a Google search, but my friends and family love me, and there are many ways in which my life matters, and has mattered to many different people.

And of course, my favorite essay about writing is here, “The Patron and the Crocus,” with my favorite quotation about writing,

To know whom to write for is to know how to write.

Here on this blog I have several dozen followers, but I don’t deceive myself about their actually reading what I write. There’s a small group of four or five people who read and comment occasionally, and those are the people I write this blog for. If other people read and enjoy it, great. Little bit of trivia: most people who find my blog through an internet search are trying to find out whether Hesse’s Demian is about a gay relationship or not.

It seems a bit odd to acknowledge to myself that even though my favorite book is Ragnarok and I went through four-year obsessions with As I Lay Dying and Mansfield Park, that this is the book that seems to have shaped me the most, the book whose philosophy vibrates in tune with my own heart, one of the most important books to me, even though I haven’t read most of the material she’s reviewing. I love Woolf’s novels, but I love her nonfiction even more – the way that her voice reaches out to me and holds me gently, the way she affirms much that I had already believed, the polite manner in which she sometimes disagrees with me, the way that I feel her to be speaking in my own mind, across the abyss of years, gender, and mental illness. When I read Woolf’s novels, I love her writing and her characters; when I read Woolf’s nonfiction, I love her.

 

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Several years ago, I took Gallup’s Strengths Finder Quiz, and one of my strongest points is what they call Deliberative, which means that I take a long time to decide things. I spend a lot of time foreseeing problems, and while many people see it as a sign of morbid anxiety, it can actually be considered a strength. Bring me a decision, whether in personal or public life, and I can tell you all the ways it can go wrong so that you can prepare for every eventuality. More spontaneous people could get frustrated at my reluctance to commit to any course of action until I have all the information necessary to decide, and I need more information than most.

Paula Power, ingénue, is just such a person. Her father’s preacher gets angry because she won’t become a Baptist, but she needs something more than “It’s my dead daddy’s church” to make the commitment. Similarly, when she meets George Somerset, she likes him, but she won’t let him know how much. It’s kind of important at that time, because back then people got married within a few weeks of kissing someone. A girl meets a charming boy, and she may not know that he’s an alcoholic gambler until she’s made a lifetime commitment and given him all her assets. But throughout the book, people try to force Paula to do and be what they want, and she has to keep fighting for her right to make her own informed decisions.

A lot of this perspective comes from having finished the book – for most of it, she’s enigmatic because she won’t commit herself in words. Most of the book comes from the point of view of the men around her. The first is Somerset, a young architect who comes around to study her castle. Her father is a railroad millionaire who bought the castle shortly before he died. The hereditary family is still in the area, and Miss Charlotte De Stancy becomes Paula’s best friend. Her brother is the second suitor. Captain De Stancy finds his desires for women irresistible, so he generally shuns female company. Back when he was eighteen or twenty-one, he produced a bastard whose mother died, so he’s had the boy raised in secret. The kid is now eighteen or twenty-one himself, and determined to see his father married well. True to the tradition of literary bastards, William Dare uses all the dishonest means at his command to advance his plans, and his lack of ethics leads to his plans’ frustration. As the Captain tells him later, it would have been successful if he had just left things alone.

The heterosexual pairings in this book seem kind of odd, because at the beginning, Hardy seems to push for homosexual possibilities. Somerset sees Paula for the first time by peeking in a church window, which he only does because he’s distracted by the boys fetching water. And, when he first meets Captain De Stancy,

He was in truth somewhat inclined to like De Stancy; for though the captain had said nothing of any value either on war, commerce, science, or art, he had seemed attractive to the younger man. Beyond the natural interest a soldier has for imaginative minds in the civil walks of life, De Stancy’s occasional manifestations of taedium vitae were too poetically shaped to be repellent. Gallantry combined in him with a sort of ascetic self-repression in a way that was curious. He was a dozen years older than Somerset: his life had been passed in grooves remote from those of Somerset’s own life; and the latter decided that he would like to meet the artillery officer again.

And on the part of the ladies as well:

“You are her good friend, I am sure,” he remarked.

She looked into the distant air with tacit admission of the impeachment. “So would you be if you knew her,” she said; and a blush slowly rose to her cheek, as if the person spoken of had been a lover rather than a friend.

But these homoerotic possibilities are ignored as we get pressured into the heteronormative narrative. It feels like the story gets squeezed by Victorian narrative constraints. I may be thinking that because Hardy himself was constrained at the time; he was ill when he wrote this story, and believed himself to be dying. Most of the book was dictated rather than handwritten by the author. This leads to a certain clarity of style he doesn’t often adopt. Shorter, more intelligible sentences. But he didn’t die; he lived another forty or fifty years, so this is not even close to the end of his career. I’ve got five or six more novels to read, then a boatload of short stories and poems.

I know that I generally have a lot more to say about the books I read, but I’m nervous right now. I’m starting to apply for jobs, and it reminds me of being an adjunct professor who applied for full-time work and doctorate programs for four years without any success. One does what one must, but I make myself too vulnerable, and I take rejection hard.

I first read this book by listening to it; the library had an audio recording of Alan Rickman performing it. Listening to that much Alan Rickman is an experience in itself, and then to have his deep, carefully enunciated voice telling a story of such tragedy . . . it stirred some powerful emotions. My response to Clement Yeobright is one of the things that convinced me (1) that I’m gay, and (2) being gay is sufficiently important to me that I need to act on it.

While Hardy presents us with an entire community, there are six primary characters.

Diggory Venn is the local reddleman. He travels around, selling the red dye that farmers use to mark their sheep. We can brand cattle because we don’t care what their pelt looks like, but we have to be more careful with sheep because we sell the fleece. The dye is transported in large bags, so farmparents always tell their little farmboys and farmgirls that if they don’t behave, the reddleman will take them away, which means that Diggory Venn has become the local boogeyman. He used to be a respectable farmer, but a few years ago he wanted to start a relationship with Thomasin Yeobright and she turned him down, so he turned to a life of solitary wandering. The redding has dyed his clothes and skin a bright red.

Thomasin Yeobright, in my opinion, doesn’t have anything special about her to make men love her. No extraordinary beauty or accomplishments or virtue, just the average amount. I don’t say that to imply that I don’t like her, or that she’s not sympathetically drawn, I’m just saying that she’s a normal girl, pretty enough, good enough, sweet enough, etc. As the book opens, she’s being taken home from a failed marriage. She and Damon Wildeve had good intentions, but the license was made out for a different town than the one they were in, so they couldn’t get married that day. Thomasin (familiarly, Tamsin) suffers quite a bit, but Hardy doesn’t focus on her very much.

Damon Wildeve is the closest thing we have to a villain, and he’s actually not that bad a person. In terms of class and social position, he’s the best thing Egdon has to offer a young girl, so he has a hard time sticking to just one. Basically, he goes with whichever girl likes him the least at the time. He is in love with Eustacia Vye, but she’s too mercurial to woo straightforwardly, so during one of their breaks he courts Thomasin instead, but when their first marriage attempt doesn’t go through he goes back to Eustacia for a time, then he fights with her again so he goes and marries Thomasin. I think that in truth he only loves himself, but he comes closest to loving Eustacia. The whole Tamsin business is unfortunate. He only appears in the book when he’s causing trouble.

Eustacia Vye is a beautiful girl with aspirations beyond her expectations. She wants to get into the beau monde, but she’s stuck living on the heath surrounded by furze-cutters. She toys with Wildeve, even though he’s her best shot at the type of life she wants. But when Clement Yeobright comes back from Paris, she throws all her energy into catching the dream of him that she’s created, no matter what his reality may be. She reminds me a lot of Gwendolen Harleth from Daniel Deronda, which was only published a couple of years before this one. The neighbours think she’s a witch.

Clement Yeobright, generally known as Clym, is a handsome, intelligent man who is sick of selling jewelry in Paris, so he comes home to rural Wessex to do something else. Anything else. His plan is to teach, but in all the reading he has to do to prepare he overstrains his eyes and he ends up cutting sticks for firewood just like everyone else. There was a time that his mother wanted him to marry his cousin Thomasin, but neither of them has ever been really interested in the other. His attachment to Eustacia is unfortunate; she’s not necessarily a bad girl, but she’s bad for him. When they get together she thinks that she can change his mind and get him back to Paris, even though he thinks the diamond industry and the “high” culture it represents are for effete losers.

Mrs Yeobright has always had high hopes for her son Clym, who is more intelligent and more beautiful than anyone else around. She was content to miss him when he was away being so successful, but she gets angry at the way he “throws his life away.” She also raised Thomasin, but always with the sense that Tamsin was not hers. Mrs Yeobright has very strong emotions but seldom talks about them, a novelist’s dream come true (cf the Brontës).

These are your main players, but there’s a whole community here; Hardy does really well with minor characters (cf Mr Dickens, who wrote those complicated novels with dozens of characters). Timothy Fairway is the natural leader of the working class; tall, strong, authoritative, but without being removed from the people themselves. He’s a department supervisor, not a store manager. Grandfer Cantle once trained to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, and has seen himself as a hero ever since. People always remind him to behave like the venerable sage he ought to be, but in his heart he’s still twenty-one years old. His son Christian is afraid of literally everything. Susan Nunsuch is convinced that Eustacia is doing black magic to make everyone miserable, a prime example of a person fancying herself significant in the life of someone who never thinks of her. Her son Johnny runs errands for the comparatively wealthy sometimes; he’s a good kid. Olly Dowden, Humphrey, and others are on hand when we need an extra body to fill in a scene.

It is important to remark upon Egdon Heath. This is unenclosed public land where everyone lives and gets their living. Some readers have said that the heath is a character itself – Hardy remarks on its changing face and its voice, and characters are always represented in terms of their relationship to it. Loving and knowing the heath makes someone good; disliking it means that someone is likely to dislike himself. Dissatisfaction can make for a good story, but it doesn’t make people good or happy.

I imagine that there are a lot of people who identify with the troubled feelings of Eustacia and Wildeve, but their type of relationship is not for me. I don’t see love as something that changes constantly; I don’t see the value of the irresolution that characterizes their romance. We make choices, and then we abide by them. Wildeve chooses Thomasin (because Eustacia won’t choose him), but then he keeps going back to Eustacia. It’s awful; it’s rubbish; it’s no way to treat people. And this is what I’ve explained to my new beau’s daughter. She’s worried because he tends to pick guys who will cheat on him, so she and I had a private talk about constancy. I’ve chosen him, and he’s chosen me. So this is what we’re doing, for now. We’re not committed for life, but as long as we keep choosing each other there’s no reason to look for anything different.

When Hardy writes a hero, he covers him with nature, sometimes quite literally. This is sort of a long passage, but just in case you wanted to see the kind of guy who draws me powerfully:

The face was well shaped, even excellently. But the mind within was beginning to use it as a mere waste tablet whereon to trace its idiosyncrasies as they developed themselves. The beauty here visible would in no long time be ruthlessly overrun by its parasite, thought, which might just as well have fed upon a plainer exterior where there was nothing it could harm. Had Heaven preserved Yeobright from a wearing habit of meditation, people would have said, ‘A handsome man.’ Had his brain unfolded under sharper contours they would have said, ‘A thoughtful man.’ But an inner strenuousness was preying upon an outer symmetry, and they rated his look as singular.

Hence people who began by beholding him ended by perusing him. His countenance was overlaid with legible meanings. Without being thought-worn he yet had certain marks derived from a perception of his surroundings, such as are not unfrequently found on men at the end of the four or five years of endeavour which follow the close of placid pupilage. He already showed that thought is a disease of the flesh, and indirectly bore evidence that ideal physical beauty is incompatible with emotional development and a full recognition of the coil of things. Mental luminousness must be fed with the oil of life, even though there is already a physical need for it; and the pitiful sight of two demands on one supply was just showing itself here.

When standing before certain men the philosopher regrets that thinkers are but perishable tissue, the artist that perishable tissue has to think. Thus to deplore, each from his point of view, the mutually destructive interdependence of spirit and flesh would have been instinctive with these in critically observing Yeobright.

As for his look, it was a natural cheerfulness striving against depression from without, and not quite succeeding. The look suggested isolation, but it revealed something more. As is usual with bright natures, the deity that lies ignominiously chained within an ephemeral human carcase shone out of him like a ray.

I don’t agree with the idea that thinking and personal beauty are incompatible. I’ve met intelligent, thoughtful people who are simply beautiful. I think that beauty, especially as we age, comes from an internal peace and happiness. If you want to continue turning heads as you get older, you have to learn to be content with yourself. If it’s true that we all get the face we deserve by the time we’re forty (and I’m not saying it is), then it’s because our true selves push their way into our features. It becomes more difficult to hide who we are. And for most of us, less desirable.

Vague misgivings about her future as a deserted wife were at an end. The worst had once been a matter of trembling conjecture; it was now matter of reason only, a limited badness. Her chief interest, the little Eustacia, still remained. There was humility in her grief, no defiance in her attitude; and when this is the case a shaken spirit is apt to be stilled.

People sometimes talk to me of the delights of anticipation, but I seldom feel it. I’m more on Tamsin’s side; once the worst has happened, it stops being scary. I’ve had several things that I thought were the worst happen, and once it’s over, that’s it. Life simply becomes a matter of finding the next thing to do. And disasters often make it very clear what we must do next. Some people are alluding to another workplace catastrophe that might be coming soon, but it doesn’t frighten me. I’m certainly not frightened enough to take a job teaching elementary school in China. I love my own children, but other people’s make me uncomfortable. They’re like half-tamed animals; they don’t know how to live in society yet, but we get them to talk, walk upright, and use the toilet, and then send them to school. Some days it’s like working at a no-kill dog shelter. Frankly, if this job ends, I’m sort of excited about seeing what I’ll do next. I want to see what I can offer that isn’t teaching.

Hardy is good. His characters still feel real and relevant, even after 130 years. I may not say that this is my favorite Hardy novel, but it’s the one that got me into him, and Clym is my favorite Hardy hero. None of that puppy-doggish feel of Giles Winterbourne. So, strongly recommended, especially if you have a strong value for country living and rural communities.

I must confess, this is the first time I’ve read this book. I’m always a little behind the times. Some of my students are reading this with their regular English teacher, though, so I read it in case I need to field any additional questions. It’s very well written; I’m not really clear on how creative nonfiction developed as a genre, but this seems like it should be one of the monoliths of twentieth-century American nonfiction. (You know the monoliths; monoliths of British literature before 1750 are Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, for example).

This is the story of how two paroled criminals broke into the Clutter family home and killed them all, followed by the longer story of how they were caught and eventually executed. Sorry to give away the ending, but these are historical events. It’s all on public record.

The first part, telling about the day before the killings, has a similar feel to it as Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain.” It’s almost like fate impelled these two groups of people to interact in predetermined ways. I say almost, because things could easily have happened differently. When I was teaching composition at a community college, I’d ask the students to write a short autobiography. They came from all over the country, and several from other countries, to end up in our rural Southern town, studying various things for various reasons, but the cumulative effect of reading all those stories was that I started thinking of the town as a black hole that sucked people in from all over the place and refused to let them leave. It’s not true, of that or any other town, but when we know the end of the story, all the steps before it seem preordained instead of governed by human choices. Capote focuses on the seemingly fatalistic nature of the story, perhaps as a way to exculpate the murderers:

But the confessions, though they answered questions of how and why, failed to satisfy his sense of meaningful design. The crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightning. Except for one thing: they had experienced prolonged terror, they had suffered. And Dewey could not forget their sufferings. Nonetheless, he found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger – with, rather, a measure of sympathy – for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage and then another. Dewey’s sympathy, however, was not deep enough to accommodate either forgiveness or mercy. He hoped to see Perry and his partner hanged – hanged back to back.

And Perry in particular, as in this comment on his family:

Strong character, high courage, hard work – it seemed that none of these were determining factors in the fates of Tex John’s children. They shared a doom against which virtue was no defense.

If this book has a protagonist, it is Perry Smith. Capote lends him the most sympathy, perhaps because he needs it the most, being the man who pulled the trigger. Or maybe he just liked him the most; it could be a gay thing.

Homosexuality is, in my opinion, one of the most significant issues in the book. What can you say about it in print in 1965? How did people live that in 1959? Growing up in the rural South, I was taught to see the 1950s as an unspoiled Eden, where people were safe, prosperous, and happy. This apparent paradise came at a cost, though, and I only learned the price of conformity later. It seems to me that if he were alive today, Perry would be gay. Think of the evidence in the book: he claims that the queens just won’t leave him alone, yet the homosexuals I know would only continue bothering him if he liked it, or were really good at it. He was a sailor and a soldier, two male-only environments at the time, and later he got sent to prison, another opportunity to be with only men. He looks down on men whom he perceives as unable to control their sexual desires, which usually seems to mean they are up front about their interest in women. One of Perry’s most prized possessions is a scrapbook filled with pictures of bodybuilders that he’s taken from magazines. He and his former cellmate call each other romantic endearments, and while I’m not entirely up on the Bro Code of the 1950s, I know that straight men today don’t call each other those names. Perry’s most intense friendship is with someone he says is queer, and the idea of seeing him again makes Perry break his parole and return to Kansas.

And what is the life of a gay man in the 1950s? One of constant evasion. He hides in periodic, short-lived relationships with women, but he hates himself for what he sees as an insuperable character flaw, an evil that cannot be eradicated. In liberal areas, large cities and artist colonies, for example, he might find some support and friends he can be out with, and some gay men even found necessarily secret communities and lifelong lovers. But for someone who’s poor and rural, like Perry, these comforts are permanently out of reach. As my friends like to say, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

Why is it that when I really like or identify with someone in fiction, that person always turns out to be either evil or crazy? Like in the new Point Break, which is full of bearded ecowarriors with foreign accents (aka, sexy as all get-out), but it makes them the bad guys, and they all die. Perry is diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic at the end of the book, which makes me have to remind myself that I’m a mental illness hypochondriac and not actually a paranoid schizophrenic. I spent most of the book thinking he was the good one, and even after I know he was the murderer I still have the most sympathy for him. Perry feels like the world is out to get him, which makes perfect sense when you consider his experience with the world, but I think his most important problem is that he doesn’t have an emotional response to the suffering of others. I don’t remember if this makes him a psychopath or a sociopath, but certainly it’s something pathological. And it’s something I clearly don’t have; I feel other people’s pain rather more than other people admit to.

Perry’s partner, Dick, is not much like him. He’s much more integrated into his family and has fewer homosexual tendencies. Capote implies that he’s using sex to manipulate Perry, and whether he’s using sex or not, Dick does see Perry as a tool instead of a person. After Perry is released on parole, Dick’s new cellmate tells him about the Clutter family. Dick hatches the plot of robbing and murdering the whole family, but he needs Perry to put it into action because he thinks Perry will be able to kill them if Dick can’t. Dick is a pedophile, so his real goal is to rape the sixteen-year-old daughter, but Perry stops him (another reason I like him – I am also opposed to raping teenage girls, or anyone else. Rape is bad). There are two versions of the story, so we don’t really know whether Perry killed all four Clutters or only the two male family members, so it is possible that Dick didn’t have what it takes to kill after all. I suppose an inability to kill is not really a negative trait, but if you’re going to make this type of plan, you should be willing to do it. Don’t ask someone else to do something that you’re not ready to do yourself.

I suppose the victims are sort of important too, but the book isn’t really about them (once they’re in the ground, they’re out of the story). The Clutters exemplify the Edenic sort of life I was brought up to assume was characteristic of the time. Hardworking, intelligent, and ambitious, they are also kind and helpful. Nancy Clutter is precisely the type of girl the culture tells us everyone should want to be, be with, or both. Her little brother is always building or inventing something, and her mentally ill mother keeps out of the way of the successes of the rest of the family. One of the things that Dick doesn’t understand about families like the Clutters is that not all of their prosperity is proven by actual cash on hand. On a farm, success is shown by the system’s ability to perpetuate itself, so wealth is recognized as goods that the farm can use, such as grain for the animals or preserved food for the humans. To make matters worse, Herb Clutter is famous for never using cash; he writes checks for everything. Yes, Dick is an expert at writing bad checks, but he doesn’t think through all of this. He doesn’t have enough information to get what he wants: to rape the girl, and then to commit the murders and robbery without getting caught.

I’m actually more interested in their community. People are more forgiving than I imagine people today to be, or maybe people are more forgiving individually than in a group. For example, Nancy’s best friend:

Anyway, I don’t much care who did it. Somehow it seems beside the point. My friend is gone. Knowing who killed her isn’t going to bring her back. What else matters?

A local pastor:

I have even heard on more than one occasion that the man, when found, should be hanged from the nearest tree. Let us not feel this way. The deed is done and taking another life cannot change it. Instead, let us forgive as God would have us do. It is not right that we should hold a grudge in our hearts. The doer of this act is going to find it difficult indeed to live with himself. His only peace of mind will be when he goes to God for forgiveness. Let us not stand in the way but instead give prayers that he may find his peace.

Their peer group:

The aristocracy of Finney County had snubbed the trial. “It doesn’t do,” announced the wife of one rich rancher, to seem curious about that sort of thing.”

And their governor:

The late George Docking, Governor of Kansas from 1957 through 1960, was responsible for this hiatus [in carrying out executions], for he was unreservedly opposed to the death penalty (“I just don’t like killing people”).

And yet, when confronted with the jury, Perry thinks

Those prairiebillys, they’ll vote to hang fast as pigs eat slop. Look at their eyes. I’ll be damned if I’m the only killer in the courtroom.

Why? It could be the paranoia, I suppose. But I think that it’s because people are there for the show. The trial is entertainment, as the justice system has always been. Think of the broadsheet heroes that Foucault talks about in Discipline and Punish; they boast and swagger all the way to the gallows, with the crowd laughing, cheering, jeering, and hissing. Maybe they only care insofar as it affects them, and they’d feel personally betrayed if the murderers went free. If you start a mystery story, you want to know the end; you want closure – you want to feel that the world works in clearly understandable ways, and that every problem has a solution. But (circling back), in some ways, now that The People have replaced the monarch, that feeling of betrayal is justified. But I think this bit about the post office might be an accurate representation of their attitude in general:

The people of Holcomb speak of their post office as “the Federal Building,” which seems rather too substantial a title to confer on a drafty and dusty shed. The ceiling leaks, the floor boards wobble, the mailboxes won’t shut, the light bulbs are broken, the clock has stopped. “Yes, it’s a disgrace,” agrees the caustic, somewhat original, and entirely imposing lady who presides over this litter. “But the stamps work, don’t they? Anyhow, what do I care? Back here in my part is real cozy. I’ve got my rocker, and a nice wood stove, and a coffee pot, and plenty to read.”

And, there’s this bit from Perry’s friend Willie-Jay:

What could be more conventional than a housewife with three children, who is “dedicated” to her family???? What could be more natural than that she would resent an unconventional person.

In some ways, it feels like Capote is the unconventional person resented by the conventional masses; Perry has that in common with him, and I feel something similar about the ex, who defines herself as a stay-at-home mom who is not only dedicated but devoted to her children. She wasn’t that interested in being a housewife; before the kids were born, we were content to ignore conventional gender roles, but afterward, it was all skirts and submission and OccMan has to go get three jobs because manliness means voluntary misery.

One of Perry’s dreams, toward the end, seems just like an episode of The Twilight Zone; I’d love to see it onscreen.

His favorite old theatrical fantasy, the one in which he thought of himself as “Perry O’Parsons, The One-Man Symphony,” returned in the guise of a recurrent dream. The dream’s geographical center was a Las Vegas night club where, wearing a white top hat and a white tuxedo, he strutted about a spotlighted stage playing in turn a harmonica, a guitar, a banjo, drums, sang “You Are My Sunshine,” and tap-danced up a short flight of gold-painted prop steps; at the top, standing on a platform, he took a bow. There was no applause, none, and yet thousands of patrons packed the vast and gaudy room – a strange audience, mostly men and mostly Negroes. Staring at them, the perspiring entertainer at last understood their silence, for suddenly he knew that these were phantoms, the ghosts of the legally annihilated, the hanged, the gassed, the electrocuted – and in the same instant he realized that he was there to join them, that the gold-painted steps had led to a scaffold, that the platform on which he stood was opening beneath him. His top hat tumbled; urinating and defecating, Perry O’Parsons entered eternity.

It’s not a bad way to go. Singing, dancing, playing music . . . I’m still drawn to an audience, even after all these years away from a stage. I hope that in his last moments Perry found some peace, recovered some self-regard. I think that Capote’s nonfiction novel, though it came after his death, gives Perry the acclaim that he always wanted.

CAPOTE

I just rewatched the film about the writing of In Cold Blood, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote. I must say, the view we get from the film is completely different than the one in the book. [Apparently there was another Capote film called Infamous, with more star power but less adherence to historical fact.] First, Perry looks as white as they come instead of having the coloring of his full-blooded Native American mother. Then, there’s the way Capote is a self-promoting manipulator who will do anything to get his next novel written, even getting someone killed. In the book, he’s so self-effacing that you don’t notice the author/narrator’s personality at all. But there again, I may be projecting myself onto him. I took one of those facebook quizzes a month or two ago, How Evil Are You?, and I discovered that in most ways, I’m not very evil at all. However. Apparently I have a manipulative/Machiavellian side, and it’s not so much a side as it is two-thirds of my character. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t befriend and possibly encourage some amorous contact with someone just so that I could write a book about the worst thing he’s ever done, and then try to conceal the fact from him until he’s been executed for it. I’d also like to think that Truman Capote didn’t, but I can’t say for sure. I have no idea how much truth is in the film, though for that matter I don’t know how much truth is in Capote’s book. All I can say is, these two texts present the same period of time very differently. And it’s likely that something terrible happened either to or within Truman Capote, because he lived for another twenty years and didn’t finish another book. Yes, think of DeLillo’s Mao II, but also think of watching Perry get executed, knowing that it’s the perfect ending to your book and also knowing that you really care for this person and want him to live. A breakdown makes sense.

According to Hardy’s own preface, this was meant to be a bit of a joke, a funny story between the more dramatic Far From the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native. Don’t let that make you think it’s any shorter than the others; it’s quite as long as any late Victorian novel can expect to be. And personally, I didn’t think the joke was very funny. I’ve spent too much time on the edges of society to be amused by the struggles inherent in the position.

In some ways, this book feels a little like a sequel; the exposition is pretty serious, as in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Four years ago, Christopher Julian was in love with Ethelberta Chickerel. He was rich and she was a butler’s daughter, so nothing came of it. Instead, she married even further above herself; her husband died a few weeks later, still a minor, so she was sort of adopted into the in-laws’ family. Now he’s fallen in the world; she’s the young, wealthy, beautiful widow Mrs Petherwin, and he’s just Kit Julian, the local music teacher and church organist. It seems like they’d be a good fit for each other, but one of Hardy’s jokes is the way that things build up and then come to nothing.

‘I thought at one time that our futures might have been different from what they are apparently becoming,’ he said then, regarding her as a stall-reader regards the brilliant book he cannot afford to buy. ‘But one gets weary of repining about that.

In the end, he gets a happy finish, a happier one than Ethelberta gets, I believe.

Ethelberta is not a woman to be envied.

A talent for demureness under difficulties without the cold-bloodedness which renders such a bearing natural and easy, a face and hand reigning unmoved outside a heart by nature turbulent as a wave, is a constitutional arrangement much to be desired by people in general; yet, had Ethelberta been framed with less of that gift in her, her life might have been more comfortable as an experience, and brighter as an example, though perhaps duller as a story.

She’s precisely the type that people enjoy reading about, but very few would actually want to be. She was always intelligent and sensitive, so her family gave her a better education than her brothers and sisters received. She became a teacher, then a governess, then married the boss’s son and became a lady. She’s acutely aware of how precarious her social position is and is determined to keep that position no matter the cost. During the first third of the story, she lives with her mother-in-law with a cover story to explain where she came from, so she’s fairly secure and has time to say things like:

Well, no; for what between continually wanting to love, to escape the blank lives of those who do not, and wanting not to love, to keep out of the miseries of those who do, I get foolishly warm and foolishly cold by turns.

But when the mother-in-law dies, she has to shift for herself. How does a single woman work without losing her social position? This is the 1870s, not the 2010s, so this is a serious question for her. The dilemma is easier to understand if we see the social position not only as a circle of friends, but as an identity. Ethelberta is struggling to maintain the vision she has of herself, to continue being the person she truly believes herself to be. It’s more serious than most modern readers would consider.

Persons waging a harassing social fight are apt in the interest of the combat to forget the smallness of the end in view; and the hints that perishing historical remnants afforded her of the attenuating effects of time even upon great struggles corrected the apparent scale of her own. She was reminded that in a strife for such a ludicrously small object as the entry of drawing-rooms, winning, equally with losing, is below the zero of the true philosopher’s concern.

She’s apparently not a true philosopher, because this is only a brief flash on her consciousness. She sets herself up running a rooming house for wealthy, respectable foreigners; since she can’t advertise too extensively (she can’t seem to need money), it never pays well. She supplements her income by becoming a public storyteller, one step removed from an actress. That one step preserves her respectability and position. Unfortunately, she doesn’t go about it sensibly; one show a week, or a fortnight, would keep her audience coming back and preserve the novelty of the entertainment. Going out every night, people get used to it. She loses her popularity and her position declines.

She stood there, as all women stand who have made themselves remarkable by their originality, or devotion to any singular cause, as a person freed of her hampering and inconvenient sex, and, by virtue of her popularity, unfettered from the conventionalities of manner prescribed by custom for household womankind. The charter to move abroad unchaperoned, which society for good reasons grants only to women of three sorts – the famous, the ministering, and the improper – Ethelberta was in a fair way to make splendid use of: instead of walking in protected lanes she experienced that luxury of isolation which normally is enjoyed by men alone, in conjunction with the attention naturally bestowed on a woman young and fair.

And thank God for the improper. They introduce the world to new possibilities. They may be shunned for their audacity, but they are eventually copied and end up setting the ton of the next age. There is no question for Hardy that the fact of her being a woman is the defining feature of her life. As a man, Ethelberta would have been able to fight up the social ladder through education and success in some public enterprise; as a woman, the education is indispensable, but success in public enterprise would prevent her attaining the position she’s after. For a woman to be a public personality is too vulgar. Her only avenue to success is marriage.

Which is why poor Kit doesn’t stand a chance. It doesn’t matter how she feels about him – he’s not moving in the right circles any more. There are several other suitors to her hand, but she doesn’t love any of them and she’s afraid that they wouldn’t love her if they knew about her family. The poor old woman who ‘owns’ the rooming house where she lives is really her mother; the cook and the housemaid are her older sisters; the footman is her fourteen-year-old brother. And her father, of course, is still butler to one of the gentry’s best families.

I could really feel where Ethelberta is coming from, for most of the book. My parents were not well suited to one another – my father started working on a farm when he was fourteen, and the highest he ever rose was to an HVAC technician, the kind of maintenance worker who fixes your heating and air conditioning. My mother studied French and Latin at school and became a teacher, one of the most respectable positions for middle-class American women in the late 1960s. But pregnant women couldn’t teach in elementary schools in the early 1970s, so she had to leave work before my oldest brother was born. Then followed more than a decade of poor financial decisions, six more children, and a divorce. I grew up with a sense of decayed grandeur, surrounded by the feeling that we’re somehow better than the other people in our economic position and the only way to get what I truly deserve is to get a scholarship to a good university, work hard, get a good job, and never come back to rural North Carolina again. I wanted my mother to be proud of me, so I did get the scholarship and work hard, though the rest of that hasn’t quite played out. Some of my siblings got out like I did, but others accepted the reduced circumstances and found work as electricians and auto mechanics. Ethelberta’s family accepts her snobbery and the inequality of their positions, but my family hasn’t been quite as successful. We’re all pretty sensitive, so the fact that our ambitions have led in different directions has created some possibly irreparable conflicts. I try to keep peaceful relations with everyone. It’s not always easy to mix with the more country siblings because I still talk like I’m from Massachusetts, but I find that the rewards are worth the effort. My oldest brother’s wife has invited me to stay with them when I come Down East for Christmas, and this weekend my youngest brother drove twelve hours in one day so that he could see me for about ninety minutes. He’s been listening to the news, so he’s been worried about IS detaining or killing me. He held me so tight – I have a hard time believing in my ability to produce such intensity of feeling, but I can’t doubt that it’s there. The friends I’m staying with were impressed with our similarities: they knew one of my more ambitious brothers ten years ago, and apparently #3 and I have enough resemblance that you can see it, but #7 and I look like we’ve spent years studying each other to get our mannerisms exactly identical. Yet he loves big trucks, Mustangs, and wearing baseball caps, and I read Thomas Hardy novels when I’m vacationing in Paris or São Paulo. Cultural differences that arise from economic disparity may determine whom we feel comfortable living with, but with a little forbearance and good manners, those differences don’t have to limit whom we love.

Hardy’s characters don’t necessarily practice the forbearance unless it’s within their own family circle. Ethelberta’s brother and future brother-in-law end up traveling together one night, and the carpenter and the peer don’t really see eye to eye.

If every man of title was as useful as you are to-night, sir, I’d never call them lumber again as long as I live.’

‘How singular!’

‘There’s never a bit of rubbish that won’t come in use if you keep it seven years.’

In the final third of the novel, Ethelberta’s secret is in danger of getting out, so she determines that a hasty marriage is the only solution.

Life is a battle, they say; but it is only so in the sense that a game of chess is a battle – there is no seriousness in it; it may be put an end to at any inconvenient moment by owning yourself beaten, with a careless “Ha-ha!” and sweeping your pieces into the box.

Hardy says this, but Ethelberta can’t own herself beaten. She can’t see her quest for social position as unimportant or a game. She’s serious; she plays for keeps. She angles for the guy with the highest title, even though he’s older than her dad and has a very low character. Toward the end the novel gets a little Radcliffean, with the vicious viscount in the castle with the beautiful young heroine married in ignorance and partially against her will, but it turns out all right. This book is supposed to be funny, after all.

There are some jokes I appreciated, but they’re generally one-liners.

Ethelberta breathed a sort of exclamation, not right out, but stealthily, like a parson’s damn.

Or

‘O Joey, you wicked boy! If mother only knew that you smoked!’

‘I don’t mind the wickedness so much as the smell.

Or

Like the British Constitution, she owes her success in practice to her inconsistencies in principle.

There’s one little piece that I enjoyed because it seems so realistic, and I think must have happened rather frequently, despite its absence from most novels. Two maids and a footman have just prepared the upper dining room for the dinner in the middle of a ball, and while the quality are dancing on the lower floor,

Away then ran the housemaid and Menlove, and the young footman started at their heels. Round the room, over the furniture, under the furniture, out of one window, along the balcony, in at another window, again round the room – so they glided with the swiftness of swallows and the noiselessness of ghosts. Then the housemaid drew a jew’s harp from her pocket, and struck up a lively waltz sotto voce. The footman seized Menlove, who appeared nothing loth, and began spinning gently round the room with her, to the time of the fascinating measure

‘Which fashion hails, from countesses to queens,
And maids and valets dance behind the scenes.’

One of the most important messages of the novel is the reminder that servants are real people too. They may be treated like furniture, but the only difference between them and their supposed masters is the accident of birth. Their emotional lives are as rich, their pleasures both as simple and as complex. A good servant can still be a man of feeling who takes a bit of fun when no one’s looking.

Hardy introduces some new vocabulary that I like, such as ‘man-famine.’ In the 1870s, young men were being sent out to the colonies to build the empire, so there weren’t many at home. Another example of the hidden effect of imperialism that Said talks about. He also gives us the word ‘indifferentist,’ which I rather like. It seems to imply not only that someone doesn’t care about a given situation, but that he’s studied his indifference and employs it as a tool.

There are also some passages that strike me as beautiful, even in a book that treats serious questions of gender and class as jokes. When Christopher Julian meets Mr Chickerel for the first time, he responds to the family resemblance without knowing that this is Ethelberta’s father.

Ethelberta’s face was there, as the landscape is in the map, the romance in the history, the aim in the deed: denuded, rayless, and sorry, but discernible.

I’m kind of surprised that this novel isn’t more popular with the critics. Hardy is more explicit in his criticism of social structures and gender strictures than in his other books, so it would seem that the Marxists and feminists would have been all over it. But I guess not; some people can’t understand the concept of serious comedy.

It always irritates me when I read reviews online for new products. How can you tell how durable something is if you’ve only had it for a week? [I also don’t like it when people review books they haven’t read. “I can’t wait to read this book! I love everything Jasper Fforde writes, so this will be amazing!” and amazon has five stars for it. As if professional fiction writers never have off days.] So, I’ve owned my Kobo Mini for over a year, and I finally feel somewhat qualified to write a review.

I really like it. I wanted an e-reader that wouldn’t strain my eyes; I’ve read a few books on Kindle for PC and Project Gutenberg, and they make my face hurt. So, all the colored readers were out because they use the same LCD screen as my computer. I also wanted something that is as close to reading a book as possible, so I skipped any of those that light up or have any other extras. The Kobo Mini is not the only one to use e-ink and not have any frills, but my local shop was having a sale, so of course I got it. Forty bucks? Awesome.

Here’s how it works. There’s the reader itself, which is small enough to fit in a standard men’s dress shirt pocket. If I’m wearing a shirt without pockets, it also fits in the back pocket of my jeans. When I bought it, I plugged it into my computer and downloaded the accompanying software, so when I plug it in to charge, I can use my computer to manage the books on the device. I can also read books on the computer with this program, but as I mentioned, I’m not into that. I can go to the Kobo site, or my local bookseller’s, and buy whatever books I like, and then upload them to the device. I can also buy books on the reader directly, so long as I have a wifi connection. Every time I buy a book, the local shop gets a cut, so no matter where I am in the world, I can support the local economy of the place I love.

The Kobo people send me emails every few days, letting me know about upcoming sales, offering me coupons, and recommending books to me based on my shopping patterns. Sometimes their recommendations make sense, sometimes not. They keep trying to sell me magazines. I don’t read magazines. The sales items seem to mirror those of physical bookstores, which doesn’t make any sense to me. Stores have sales because they need to move a specific product; online, I don’t see the same need. Does it matter to Kobo which books I buy, so long as I’m spending money with them? It’s not like they have three thousand copies of the latest Grisham staring at them from the display shelf. I’m pretty sure that when I buy an e-book, they just copy the file to my device, so they only have one copy of each book sitting on a hard drive somewhere. Nevertheless, they have sales on former bestsellers that aren’t selling well any more, and other novels that aren’t quite as popular as they’d like to be. When I get a coupon, it can only be used on a specific list of books, which means that even when they send me the “You haven’t bought anything in a couple of months, so take 30% off your next order” coupon, I can only use it on books that I don’t really want anyway. Also, when a coupon says “unlimited,” this only means that you can buy as many books off the approved list as you want, not that you can use it on any book you like. Some sales are only available in certain countries. I’ve kept my credit card billing address in the United States, so I can buy books that aren’t typically available in this happy-to-censor country, but sometimes I can’t access the sales because Big Brother not only watches, but blocks. [That billing address trick also works for amazon.com, which also has region-specific items.]

The reading experience is mostly good. I tap the screen on the right side and it flips forward, I tap it on the left and it flips back. In the middle takes me to the menu. If an insect lands on your screen, it can turn the pages whether you’re ready for them to or not. I once had a fly flip me back five pages very quickly. I tend to hold the device in my left hand so I can turn pages with the fingers that curl around on the right side. I guess I’m too lazy to read a book with two hands if I can do it with one. However, if you always hold the book in the same position and always tap in exactly the same spot, after a year and a half that spot will lose its sensitivity, just like the mouse touchpad on a laptop, so it’s a good idea to tap in different places on the right side of the screen. When I read a book, I seldom begin at the beginning and read straight through. I often flip around, like when Anton Mallick told me about one of the tragic events of his life, I had been reading several months of his life and I wanted to check how close the event was to the beginning of his journal, so I went to the Table of Contents in the menu screen, and jumped straight back to the first page. To get back to the page I was reading was a little more cumbersome. I went to the appropriate chapter, but some books are only split into two or three really long chapters instead of following the author’s divisions, so there’s a slider at the bottom that allows you to move to specific pages. If there are over seven hundred screens in a chapter, and you have fat fingers, it can be hard to locate the exact page you want. This became a big issue when I was reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, because only about 40% of the book is regular text and the rest is notes and references. He didn’t footnote the notes so as not to clutter the text – in some e-books (Foucault’s Care of the Self) you can touch a footnote number and the note will appear in a pop-up. With Solomon’s book, I found the notes after I had read the text, but if I had had the physical book I would have read it flipping back and forth the whole time, and enjoyed it more. But most of what I read is fiction without footnotes, so it’s not a common problem for me.

Because I’m using a black-and-white reader, the pictures are not always what I’d like. Again, not a common problem, but the art is an important part of reading Christopher Moore’s Sacré Bleu, and I also have the digital gallery of Fuseli paintings (only three bucks, and it updates continuously). The good news for pictures is that you can zoom in pretty far without getting a pixellated mass of weird – the image files are more detailed than you might think at a first glance. If I read the magazines the Kobo people keep trying to convince me to subscribe to, this would be a bigger deal.

I find that my reading habits on the Kobo are drastically different than my reading habits in the real world. I’m not a member of any libraries at the moment (you have to renew your card from time to time, and you have to live in the place to check books out of a public library), so I usually read books that I buy. I go to used classics mostly – I got a couple of degrees in literature because I like the old stuff – but occasionally I’ll look at a more recent writer, if I have an emotional response to the book. I really love that moment of discovery, when I pick a book from the shelf and read the back, and an energy communicates itself from my hand to my heart, and I know that this book is mine. I miss that when I shop online; there’s no serendipity in it. However, reading on the Kobo, my reading tends to fall into three categories:

Books that are too big. With physical books, it’s a bit of a production, when you get in line at the grocery store, to pull out your one-volume edition of The Complete Novels of Thomas Hardy. With the e-reader, it’s a cinch. Enormous anthologies like this are supercheap, and would be far too cumbersome in the real world. Besides, there’s something very satisfying about the word Complete. The only drawback is that, when dealing with a book this big, the electronic table of contents becomes increasingly unreliable as you progress. It really is better to begin at the beginning and read straight through.

Books that I don’t want on my shelf in the living room. When I get lonely, erotic stories can be comforting. I don’t mean the specific lack-of-romantic-partner lonely, but any sort of lonely. I know that they’re all fantasies, seldom realistic, but it does tell me that there are people out there who want what I want, even if they’re as clueless as I am about how to get it. The less realistic the situation, the more like me I feel the author is. The e-reader has really contributed to this type of reading for me, because I don’t want guests in my home staring at them. I’m not ashamed of my attraction to other men or my interest in this kind of book, but I get a little shy about the details. However, the stories are sometimes as poorly edited as the ones you see online, and nothing kills an English teacher’s erection like bad spelling and grammar in a published text. One book I had to erase because the author had no idea that discreet and discrete have different meanings.

Books that have been written less than forty years ago. One of the reasons I seldom read what people are writing now is that I don’t take the time to sift through what’s good and what’s bad. The Kobo doesn’t do this for me, but by sticking contemporary stuff in my face all the time, they wear down my defenses. They are a bookseller, after all, which means they rely on people buying books frequently, and the best way to accomplish that is to foster a taste in new books. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, but there have been some really fine books that I would not have attempted otherwise, like Antón Mallick Wants to be Happy (Nicolás Casariego), When God was a Rabbit (Sarah Winman), The Book Thief (Markus Zusak), and Lexicon (Max Barry).

I had an experience this week that really solidified the bond between me and my Kobo. After more than a year of smooth operation, it crashed. The entire screen was completely nonresponsive, and the power switch also failed to yield results. I tried plugging it into my computer, to see if the attempt at communication would jog it into proper function, but no such luck. It doesn’t take power to maintain an image on the screen, so I knew that leaving it on until it ran out of battery would be useless, so I did some surgery. I popped the back off – the grey backing snaps off if you run a fingernail around the edge, and there are six tiny screws underneath, of the size that you only see on computer equipment or eyeglasses. There’s a reset button too, and I tried pushing that with no result. So I pulled out the screws and looked at the motherboard. I saw the memory card, the same kind of micro SD that I use in my phone. I pulled it out and put it back in, but with no effect. The battery is the big silver thing close to the top – it’s wrapped in plastic and soldered in place. You can’t pull it off. So I found the place where the wire from the battery hooks into the board, and very gently separated the connection. Nothing happened. When I reconnected the battery, also very gently, the device rebooted. It was great. I’m not sure if that invalidates my warranty, but I’m also not sure how they go about replacing a dead battery. It’s stuck on there pretty good. When I think of my experience with other electronics, one crash in a year is actually not bad at all. And now that I’ve dug into the inner workings, the intimacy between me and the reader feels more complete.

I’ve tried to give an even-handed description of the Kobo Mini, with both strengths and limitations. In case it hasn’t been clear, the limitations are such as can be ignored or overcome, and the strengths are precisely what I want in an e-reader. If anything bad ever happens to it, I’ll buy another one just like it.

Ignorance is a novel about immigration. It changes our reaction to the people involved, though, by referring to them as émigrés instead of immigrants. Immigrants are itinerant laborers from Latin America, southern Asia, or some other slightly disreputable country. Émigrés are refugees fleeing unsatisfactory political or economic situations. Émigrés are more educated in general and are more aware of and invested in current events. They bathe more regularly, have lighter skin, and make more of an effort to learn the language of their new country. They have children instead of anchor babies. The power of French terminology. We do this in English too – what’s the difference between an expatriate and an immigrant? We all have our reasons for leaving.

Ignorance is not just about immigration; it’s about returning after having been gone for a while. I don’t mean the two-year stints that I do in other places – Kundera means spending twenty years in a foreign country, then going back to where you were born. At this point, you can no longer call it home. Home is where you either rent or own a living space where you keep your stuff. That no longer applies to the birth country. I’ve never stayed gone the length of time that he says is necessary for The Great Return, but I feel the same things on a smaller scale, as I travel about and occasionally head back to what should be home.

Home has always been a difficult concept for me. It seems to denote a place where people feel safe, and I didn’t grow up feeling safe. Children in abusive homes seldom do, I believe. My father refused to self-medicate his undiagnosed bipolar disorder with drugs or alcohol; he beat his kids instead. I dodged that by being tiny and young; four older siblings can be useful. My mother wasn’t good at dealing with emotions, so I never felt that anything I did was good enough for her. I did notice, though, that she seemed grateful if I could handle something by myself, so I did. I rarely took my problems to anyone, and besides, I was afraid that if I did a social worker was going to come split our family apart. Somehow most of my siblings have forgotten what it was like to grow up with that, because they want to have a close relationship with her, and they argue about where she should spend her retirement. I don’t want her following me; I can only tolerate her for about three days. Visiting my mother always shows me how far I am removed from ‘home,’ culturally speaking; she tried to convince me to buy a George Strait CD this summer.

I tend to think of the area where I studied at university as home. As soon as I graduated from high school, I rocketed away from that place and moved a solid 350 miles down the road. At Thanksgiving, I went back to my mom’s house with a big bag of laundry. I set it next to the washer and said, “Look what I brought you!” She replied, “You mean look what you brought yourself. I have to wash your brother’s work clothes.” [All weekend? Really?] I had been joking; she was serious. That was the moment that I first realized that this was not home. I was happier at school anyway, so it was easy to start calling it home. My ex’s family was from that area, so after we graduated we kept calling it home and coming back to it, and now that my kids live there it’s the place with the greatest draw for me. The place I came from is Down East; the Appalachians of North Carolina and Georgia are home.

Kundera’s characters experience this in a much more extreme fashion. They left Prague when Russia stamped out Czech-ness in 1968, and now that the Communists are gone, many of the Czechs are returning (published in 2000, but probably set early-90s). After twenty years abroad, what does it mean to come home? The opening page of the novel:

“What are you still doing here?” Her tone wasn’t harsh, but it wasn’t kindly, either; Sylvie was indignant.

“Where should I be?” Irena asked.

“Home!”

“You mean this isn’t my home anymore?”

Of course she wasn’t trying to drive Irena out of France or implying that she was an undesirable alien: “You know what I mean!”

“Yes, I do know, but aren’t you forgetting that I’ve got my work here? My apartment? My children?”

“Look, I know Gustaf. He’ll do anything to help you get back to your country. And your daughters, let’s not kid ourselves! They’ve already got their own lives. Good Lord, Irena, it’s so fascinating, what’s going on in your country! In a situation like that, things always work out.”

“But Sylvie! It’s not just a matter of practical things, the job, the apartment. I’ve been living here for twenty years now. My life is here!”

My life is here. This is the struggle that long-term immigrants have to deal with; where is your life? What is temporary, what is permanent? I’m renting a storage unit where I keep the detritus of nearly thirty-five years of living, and there’s an ocean and a couple of continents between my apartment and it. Which place is home? This is where I work and sleep, there is where I’ve stashed my life. How can this be home if most of my books are there?

“Tell me,” he said. “Is this still our country?”

He expected to hear a sarcastic response about worldwide capitalism homogenizing the planet, but N. was silent. Josef went on: “The Soviet empire collapsed because it could no longer hold down the nations that wanted their independence. But those nations – they’re less independent than ever now. They can’t choose their own economy or their own foreign policy or even their own advertising slogans.”

“National independence has been an illusion for a long time now,” said N.

“But if a country is not independent and doesn’t even want to be, will anyone still be willing to die for it?”

“Being willing to die isn’t what I want for my children.”

“I’ll put it another way: does anyone still love this country?”

N. slowed his steps: “Josef,” he said, touched. “How could you ever have emigrated? You’re a patriot!” Then, very seriously: “Dying for your country – that’s all finished. Maybe for you time stopped during your emigration. But they – they don’t think like you anymore.”

“Who?”

N. tipped his head toward the upper floors of the house, as if to indicate his brood. “They’re somewhere else.”

This passage shows some of my foreignness. The Americans of the South, including all of North Carolina and several other states, tend to think like Josef, patriotism being important and meaning a willingness to die for a certain plot of land and the people who live on it. I tend to be more like N – I don’t want my children to want to die. I’m ready for the American Empire to retract its claws, to loosen its grip on world affairs. Some people are criticizing Obama for not playing a larger part in international affairs (Syria), but I think the United States needs to start asking the question, is this situation any of our business? Less dominance, more cooperation, more letting other peoples handle their own problems. I’m somewhere else.

But I also fill Josef’s role whenever I go back. In my memory, towns stay fixed; in reality, they are always changing. The city I grew up close to built a new shopping center out toward the airport (Target! Best Buy! Starbucks! Welcome to twenty-first century America!); it’s become one of the biggest shopping areas in town and it killed the mall, so the residents see the city as shaped differently than when I lived there. The university I attended has changed the center of campus, ripping out streets and putting in walking areas and a huge fountain; my heart doesn’t recognize it as home any more, even though that is the place I’ve lived longest as an adult. The town close by has changed less, but time still marches on. Zoo Video disappeared more than ten years ago, KFC closed and became Dunkin Donuts, there’s a new Dairy Queen, and last week there was a fire in one of the buildings downtown. Its future is still uncertain, but I think they’ve decided that they don’t have to tear it down. There are some changes I’m comfortable with, like the restaurant that changes hands every couple of years because the parking lot is too small and too much of a pain to get in and out of so nothing lasts, but the downtown area has too distinct a character to lose a building easily.

Kundera spends some time with our relationship to time. We don’t possess the past because our memories are so faulty. We forget things, we reconstruct alternate versions to make sense of the disconnected scenes we can remember clearly, and sometimes we fabricate memories without quite meaning to. In the early years of our marriage the ex had a favorite story to tell about our married life, and once I told her that it hadn’t happened the way she was telling it, and she responded that it made a better story the way she told it. She was right, but she was also purposely obscuring the truth and making me seem different than I am. But it makes a better story, so that’s how it gets remembered. This is the difference between history and the past. According to Kundera, we don’t possess the future either; we can’t predict it or adequately prepare for it, so it’s out of our reach. Because of our inability to grasp either past or future, we can’t really say that we have the present either. The present is indissolubly linked to two unknowable moments, so it becomes covered by the same fog, the same ignorance.

Kundera’s Irena and Josef come back to Prague to think about the possibility of moving back permanently, but they have grown too foreign, their lives are somewhere else, they don’t fit any more. They belong in their new countries, France and Denmark. Their old friends have moved on, and there is no vacant place in anyone’s life for them to step into. Nothing they left behind belongs to them. Thomas Wolfe titled one of his novels You Can’t Go Home Again, and while I haven’t read it to see what he intends with that phrase, as an expat I’ve felt it to be true. You can’t go home again because home is never where you left it. It’s changed, moved along, and so have you. I don’t have a single home right now; ‘home’ is an area that covers three counties and several cities that are all on the opposite side of the world from where I live.

Kundera’s novels seem to be getting shorter, tighter. This would have been only one part of Immortality or The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, but it stands on its own quite well. Ignorance and Identity are much more strongly unified, which I imagine makes them more approachable. Kundera is publishing nonfiction these days too, so it makes sense that the philosophical musings are taking up less space in his fiction. He’s becoming less post-modern. Maybe the rest of us are too. Story is becoming the center of literary fiction again; I wonder what we’ll call this period, thirty years from now?

I envy people with simpler lives, shorter stories. Characters in Hardy novels seem to grow straight out of the ground – their families have lived in the same place for generations, they know everyone they see and everyone they see knows them. I’ve spent my life looking for roots, but I don’t really have them. I’d like to belong to a place instead of wandering about the world, building a life out of blocks that don’t fit together. I’ve got Lincoln Logs, Legos, Duplo blocks, K’Nex pieces, and a bit of an old erector set, and I’m trying to make a coherent whole out of these chunks of different things. Sometimes I can keep things balanced, but other days I just slide apart.