Posts Tagged ‘imagination’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the spring of 2003, I decided that it was ridiculous that I had never read anything by Jane Austen, and that it was about time I did. I read all six novels in about six months. Mansfield Park seemed to be the long, boring one (Emma is actually longer). A year later, though, I was a newlywed and had just moved across the country to start our new life together in Seattle, and I started to miss Mansfield Park. I realized that, while the book itself may not be the most attractive, it captivates me in a way that Pride and Prejudice just can’t. I spent most of the two years of my graduate study reading and writing about Mansfield Park – when I didn’t include it in a project, that project ended up a failure. I bowed to necessity and started nearly every academic thought with Mansfield Park. I’ve not subjected any of my students to it, but it is still frequently close to the surface of thought. With the possible exception of As I Lay Dying, it’s the book that I’ve read the greatest number of times.

My major professor once said that she had a hard time being friends with people who didn’t love Mansfield Park like she did; that may sound a little excessive, but I completely understand. Partway through the grad program, the ex declared that she hated the book (always had) and was tired of me going on about it. She resisted all of my attempts to inject a little Mansfield Park into her life. When you identify as strongly with a book as I did with Mansfield Park, hating the book feels like hating me. It certainly implies that she hates the parts of me that I see reflected there. As I read it this week, I realized that the parts of me that are reflected most clearly in the book are parts of me that I’m less fond of, so maybe I’m putting some distance between myself and it. I am fully cognizant of the irony that the longer we’re divorced, the more I become the kind of person she claimed to want me to be.

In many ways, Mansfield Park is Pride and Prejudice’s evil twin. That immortal opening line,

A single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife.

is matched with a line from MP’s opening paragraph,

But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them.

I read an article once that said that after Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, the next Austen novel should have been Delicacy and Decorum, and while those are important concepts, I think a more apt alliterative title would have been Diffidence and Disappointment. I also read once that P&P is concerned primarily with happiness; I think that MP is more interested in disappointment. In most of Austen’s novels, two people fall in love with each other over the course of the book, and it ends with their marriage. In MP, we see our couples form, but the novel works at splitting them up instead of getting them together. The supposed hero doesn’t fall for the heroine until three pages from the end – he spends the entire book in love with the wrong girl, though frankly, I think she would have been good for him in a way that the supposed heroine will not be. There’s no balance of equals, as in the relationship between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet; Edmund has been a male authority figure for Fanny since they were kids, and now he will continue to be so for the rest of their lives. It’s like seeing a love affair between Mr Collins and Mary Bennet. In fact, most of the characters in P&P have clear parallels in MP. There’s a bit about Austen’s character patterns in Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic.

The protagonist here is Fanny Price, one of the more suggestive of Austen’s names. Fanny was already used colloquially to refer to female genitals (I suppress a giggle at every mention of ‘your own dear Fanny’ or ‘My very dear Fanny’), and surnaming her Price suggests that she exacts a heavy toll before that part of her body can be enjoyed. Which is true. Fanny is the youngest of Austen’s protagonists, and being as serious as she is when a person is as young as she is means that she’s generally harsh and judgmental. However, she’s been trained to have extremely low self-esteem, so she usually keeps her thoughts to herself. That might make the book unreadable, if we heard her thoughts more often. In Austen’s other novels, we spend almost all of our time looking at the narrative from one perspective (Elinor, Elizabeth, Emma, Anne, Catherine), but MP balances perspectives and judgment.

For a long time I’ve identified strongly with Fanny Price. Partially because of the childhood stuff, large family, oversensitive child,

Her feelings were very acute, and too little understood to be properly attended to. Nobody meant to be unkind, but nobody put themselves out of their way to secure her comfort.

That’s my family experience exactly, but it takes a lot of mature, rational thought to arrive at this explanation of it. When you’re the kid in the middle of it, you just feel alone and unloved, no matter how many people are around or how little privacy you have. Fanny’s also very imaginative, as in this scene where she’s watching Edmund give Mary a riding lesson, but from a great distance:

After a few minutes, they stopt entirely. Edmund was close to her, he was speaking to her, he was evidently directing her management of the bridle, he had hold of her hand; she saw it, or the imagination supplied what the eye could not reach.

Fanny’s imagining this as more intimate than it may have been. I don’t think her imagination gets as much exercise as it needs, since she doesn’t read fiction, just nonfiction and poetry. This is one of those indicators of character – at the time of writing, fiction was still thought to be a little naughty, which is why the writers of it tried to make it so . . . safe. Though Austen’s most religious protagonist is in the book with the worst behavior, so maybe they weren’t trying that hard.

Fanny is not the paragon of virtue some people read her as. This passage sounds a little like the demonic puppetmaster bit in Villette:

Fanny looked on and listened, not unamused to observe the selfishness which, more or less disguised, seemed to govern them all, and wondering how it would end. For her own gratification she could have wished that something might be acted, for she had never seen even half a play, but every thing of higher consequence was against it.

There’s so much of Fanny Price in Lucy Snowe that it’s hard to believe that Brontë never read Mansfield Park, but there’s no definite proof that she did or did not, so we can speculate all we like. Fanny looks on while her cousins and their friends behave like idiots, pretending to be putting on a play while really working out their own desires and relationships. Fanny herself will pretend to be disgusted by what’s going on, higher consequence and all that, but she loves it. She does half the backstage work, hardly the behavior of someone who doesn’t approve of the theatre in general.

I like the theatre part because I used to do a bit of that myself, in high school and college. I get minor roles, usually as someone’s dad. I miss it sometimes. I don’t think I’m that good, but at the same time I don’t want to put the time into a production if I’m going to be an extra. I prefer musicals, but the local ones they do over the summers are directed by someone I worked with in undergrad, and time with him is something else I don’t want in my life. I just don’t hate myself that much.

Fanny also loses her halo because she gets fucking pissed. When Edmund spends months trying to decide how much he cares for Mary and how much she cares for him, Fanny loses her temper (when she’s alone):

“There is no good in this delay,” said she. “Why is not it settled? – He is blinded, and nothing will open his eyes, nothing can, after having had truths before him so long in vain. – He will marry her, and be poor and miserable. God grant that her influence do not make him cease to be respectable!” – She looked over the letter again. “ ‘So very fond of me!’ ‘tis nonsense all. She loves nobody but herself and her brother. Her friends leading her astray for years! She is quite as likely to have led them astray. They have all, perhaps, been corrupting one another; but if they are so much fonder of her than she is of them, she is the less likely to have been hurt, except by their flattery. ‘The only woman in the world, whom he could ever think of as a wife.’ I firmly believe it. It is an attachment to govern his whole life. Accepted or refused, his heart is wedded to her for ever. ‘The loss of Mary, I must consider as comprehending the loss of Crawford and Fanny.’ Edmund, you do not know me. The families would never be connected, if you did not connect them! Oh! write, write. Finish it at once. Let there be an end of this suspense. Fix, commit, condemn yourself.”

Hell hath no fury like that of a quiet woman ignored. Her despair is so unchristian that she judges everyone around her harshly; Mary is not so bad as Fanny imagines her to be, nor is Henry Crawford. Fanny just hates Mary because Edmund is in love with her. Of the people at Mansfield, Mary Crawford is actually the person most careful of Fanny’s feelings, the one who takes her for granted the least. Some people do a queer reading of this friendship, and there’s some evidence for that. People in Austen novels are frequently interchangeable, but usually there’s a slot for a woman and a slot for a man. Fanny and Edmund tend to slip in and out of the same slot in Mary’s life, possibly her heart. When Fanny’s listening to the harp, she tries to leave, but Mary calls her back to hear Edmund’s favorite piece, thus demanding a repetition of a romantic experience with Fanny in Edmund’s place. In some ways, Fanny and Mary have much more of a relationship than Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith, though some critics try to make a big deal out of Emma’s need to elevate Harriet to an equal status and then control her behavior (that doesn’t sound like a relationship to me).

But Fanny doesn’t see it, because she’s not very self-aware. She starts falling for Henry Crawford while still assuming that she hates him. Here, when she’s denying his marriage proposal:

Fanny knew her own meaning, but was no judge of her own manner. Her manner was incurably gentle, and she was not aware how much it concealed the sternness of her purpose. Her diffidence, gratitude, and softness, made every expression of indifference seem almost an effort of self-denial; seem at least, to be giving nearly as much pain to herself as to him.

And I think she might be. She knows all the reasons for and against him, and the narrator frequently reminds us that if it weren’t for her obsession with Edmund, she could have been happy with Henry. And even with that obsession, his visit to her in Portsmouth reveals how much she wants him to think well of her. But she doesn’t realize how high her opinion of him is; she never thinks through her changing feelings for him. She gets a bad first impression of him and then consciously fights against changing it.

Mrs Norris sums her up in a moment of anger, and I think this is a more accurate description of Fanny than most people give:

If she would but have let us know she was going out – but there is a something about Fanny, I have often observed it before, – she likes to go her own way to work; she does not like to be dictated to; she takes her own independent walk whenever she can; she certainly has a little spirit of secrecy, and independence, and nonsense, about her, which I would advise her to get the better of.

Sir Thomas thinks this is unjust, but the narrator refrains from comment, because Mrs Norris is right. Fanny makes her own opinions and sticks with them. She may be outwardly submissive, but internally she’s a raging ball of hormones and teenage lovesickness, and she doesn’t tell anyone about it. The matter of Henry makes it pretty clear; she refuses to tell anyone why she won’t marry him. Edmund guesses, but he’s lost a lot of his influence with her by falling in love with Mary, so she won’t talk it over with him. Fanny is so used to being discounted that she won’t stick up for herself, with the result that she seems mysterious to strangers, and is rather secretive even with people she knows well.

I have a similar tendency – I get a feel for who people want me to be in a given situation, and I try to be that person. I do this so unconsciously that I don’t notice it, and I value my time alone because only then do I stop performing. I keep my thoughts and opinions to myself, unless I’m with someone I’m really comfortable with. [This is in real life; online, I’ll write about anything and be super opinionated. I’ll only talk out loud like this when I’m drunk or with close friends.]

I don’t like Edmund Bertram enough to identify with him; I can barely even call him the hero of the piece. I think Henry Crawford deserves that title. Compare him to Mr Darcy: their social habits are the opposite of the female protagonists’, so there’s some initial friction. Over the course of the novel, the man falls in love and tries to attract the woman with his old habits and proposes marriage, which she refuses. But he persists, and eventually wins her heart. Outwardly, I’m more like Mr Darcy, shy and withdrawn. But inwardly, I’m a bit more like Henry Crawford. I have that same unsettled, indolently restless nature. He’s interested in everything; sometimes he wishes he had been an actor, sometimes he wishes he had been a sailor, and sometimes he wishes he had been a preacher. He eventually decides that being rich and lazy is enough. I became a literature major because it really does give you the space to study everything, history, psychology, science, philosophy, education – whatever is part of human experience is in literature somewhere. Henry also needs everyone to love him, and that’s one of the qualities I’m trying to let go of (along with some Fanny Price-ish masochism and low self-esteem).

Austen almost never gives details of people’s physical appearance, allowing us to settle for ourselves how tall is tall and what a ‘fine figure’ involves, but then there’s this bit about Henry:

“I do not say he is not gentleman-like, considering; but you should tell your father he is not above five feet eight, or he will be expecting a well-looking man.”

I’m only three-quarters of an inch above five feet eight myself, which puts me at average height. In Brazil and the American South, I’m actually considered a little tall, certainly not too short to be handsome. [Unless it was the ex, and she was mad at me. She knew she was angry when she started thinking about how short I am.] However, in the Midwest I’m so small that someone tripped over me. They grow ‘em big in Iowa. Henry and I are also alike in the more substantial question of steadiness of character. He knows what’s right, but doesn’t have the consistency necessary to do it all the time. This is another of those traits that I don’t approve of when I see it in myself, but I do see it whenever I have something unpleasant to accomplish, or a large change to make. I keep putting things off until it’s too late. You can see the precise moment when Henry loses power over Fanny:

I have a great mind to go back into Norfolk directly, and put every thing at once on such a footing as cannot be afterwards swerved from. – Maddison is a clever fellow; I do not wish to displace him – provided he does not try to displace me; – but it would be simple to be duped by a man who has no right of creditor to dupe me – and worse than simple to let him give me a hard-hearted, griping fellow for a tenant, instead of an honest man, to whom I have given half a promise already. – Would not it be worse than simple? Shall I go? – Do you advise it?

He’s started to make good choices, using his responsibility wisely, but then he stops and asks for her approval. This kind of wavering is what she can’t tolerate in him. He’s figured out the right course, but he just can’t stick with it without her cheering him on. Which, of course, leads to the novel’s final disaster and Fanny’s marriage to Edmund.

A quick word on style: Mansfield Park tends to have long complex sentences, which is partially why people have a harder time loving it than some of Austen’s other novels, but it makes the short sentences more effective. I mean, this one practically pops out at us:

William and Fanny were horror-struck at the idea.

And, of course, I’ve seldom seen an author who cares about her characters so much as Jane Austen. Which is why MP is so odd; people keep getting banished from the narrative, and ultimately some are utterly excluded from the community. This never happens – people like John Thorpe have a place in Austen’s communities, but here someone finally commits an unforgiveable sin. Not that the author goes on about it.

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.

Which is one of my favorite passages in all of Austen’s work. It speaks of the playful optimism that you find in all of the other novels. It’s in Mary Crawford, our antagonist, instead of Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse. The character most similar to Austen’s other heroines loses the man she wants and ends up spending most of her time with people she calls friends but doesn’t actually care for much. And I think this is why the ex hates it so much. She likes being irreverent and saucy; she’s rather similar to Elizabeth Bennet or Marianne Dashwood, so of course she dislikes a book where she’s the villain. Well, not quite the villain, but certainly less sympathetic. Because we tend to read the book through Fanny’s eyes, it’s easy to think poorly of Mary, but I don’t think Austen does. As mentioned above, Austen’s narrator has a different opinion of her than Fanny does. The conflict between narrator and protagonist can make this frustrating for an uncareful reader, but fruitful and exciting for the literary academic.

I’d like to think that I’m outgrowing my resemblance to Fanny Price and Henry Crawford. I saw them more objectively this read than I have before, though, like them, I probably need someone else to help me gauge that. All this time alone in the desert has helped me work out who I want to be, and who I don’t want to be any more. It’s time to get back to life, to be around people again and see if I can keep being myself when I’m with others, particularly others I wish to think well of me.