Posts Tagged ‘insecurity’

As much as I do love me some du Maurier, I understand why this is one of the less frequently mentioned. It’s a multigenerational novel like The Loving Spirit, but it doesn’t have the clean-cut feel, where the person whose name and date range is the title of the section doesn’t always die at the end. There isn’t someone who lives through all the eras of the book, either, so it doesn’t feel as tightly focused as the earlier book. She’s also not setting most of the novel in Cornwall, and there’s something missing when someone isn’t writing about the thing she loves. England and Ireland have had a troubled history, and I honor the courage it takes to tackle that in a work of fiction, especially the courage to see things from the side of the colonizer rather than the more fashionable colonized.

COPPER JOHN, 1820-1828

John Brodrick owns a considerable property in Ireland. Now, remember your history before 1820. Vikings were taking Irish slaves back in the Middle Ages, and they took around half of England and mixed into the local populace. So, remember that the Irish are Celtic while the English are a weird mix of Celt with Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Romans, and whomever else came stomping onto the cliffs of Dover. In the seventeenth century, there was all that unpleasantness with King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, but there was also a great deal of unpleasantness between Cromwell and the Irish, which resulted in English nobles taking control over the Irish land, in a style that was already a throwback to feudalism. The Irish have been unhappy about this ever since it happened, and many of them are still unhappy about sharing their island with the United Kingdom.

Sometime in the eighteenth century, Brodrick’s grandfather bought their estate from the Donovans because they couldn’t afford to keep it. The Donovans have never lost their idea that the land is theirs, even though everything about the sale seems to have been legal and at least partially initiated by their side. They hated Brodrick for buying their land, I assume because he had the money for it and they didn’t. Later one of the Donovans shoots Grandfather Brodrick in the back. The sale and murder create a dynastic feud between the two families.

The current Brodrick has the idea to mine for copper on Hungry Hill, which is a symbol for Ireland itself. His older son Henry is on board, but the younger, John, is against it, in the manner of a younger son whose opinion is never consulted and whose pursuits are never respected. John loves Hungry Hill, and his mostly unvoiced opinions lean toward environmentalism and conservation of natural habitats, though those phrases are anachronistic for a Regency character. He’s a real businessman, this eldest John Brodrick, and he seems to care for little apart from his mines. He puts in a lot of work to make an agreement with the guy who owns the other side of the hill, but he is eventually successful. He hires a bunch of Cornish miners to emigrate and start the work, and also to train the Irish workforce who will eventually replace them. He has so much zeal for the mine and everything connected to it that he is called Copper John, a convenient nickname to differentiate him from his son.

Watch how the colonialism works. The copper comes up in Ireland, but they don’t have the technology to transform the raw materials into a usable resource, so the copper has to be taken across the water to be processed and sold. Copper John needs to keep an eye on both the mines and the factories, so when he can afford to, he buys an estate (or two) near the refineries and lives part of the time in Ireland and part in England. His daughters prefer living in England, so as a family the attention is directed away from Clonmere Castle toward the English estates, which means that they are using the money from their Irish mine to support the English economy instead of buying Irish goods and services. The Irish fight back by stealing the copper, breaking the machinery, and doing poor work, so Copper John has to take a closer hand in it. By which I mean explosives and murder.

Copper John has five children, and two of them die in connection with the mine. It’s like an exchange, John’s payment for all his wealth. It’s a shame, because these were the two children that everyone liked.

GREYHOUND JOHN, 1828-1837

John has a sense of perpetual insecurity. He knows that his father would have preferred Henry, but he often wonders whether his love Fanny-Rosa would also have preferred the older brother. He loves his dogs, and racing is the thing he really cares about. It would be easy to frame this as a discussion about gambling, but du Maurier doesn’t pursue that angle. It’s an expression of his love for nature and his ability to make a scant living by caring for a natural, renewable resource instead of making a fortune by destroying the natural beauty and going through nonrenewable resources as quickly as possible. John loves his dogs, and when they and he are too old and fat to keep racing, there’s a contented early retirement for them all.

That Fanny-Rosa is a real piece of work.

A louder splash than usual caught his ear – there must be some big trout in the lake, after all – and he climbed over a boulder to have a sight of the fish, and oh, God! it was no fish jumping at all, but Fanny-Rosa, naked, with her hair falling on her shoulders, wading out into the lake, throwing the water aside with her hands.

She turned and saw him, and instead of shrieking in distress and shame, as his sisters would have done, she looked up at him, and smiled, and said, “Why do you not come in too? It is cool and lovely.”

It takes a few years before John will be ready for that, but they do get married and have a baby seven months later (full term). Fanny-Rosa has an un-self-conscious joy of life that the Brodricks lack, they being weighed down by the responsibilities of money and respectability.

 

So. The generational pattern here is a pair of brothers named John and Henry. Henry is blond and popular, and John is dark and brooding and isolated. They both love the same girl, but Henry doesn’t figure it out because he’s kind of clueless and John is tortured and so, so dark, but not in a sexy way. Greyhound John has five kids, and Wild Johnnie is just that, until he drinks himself to death because he’ll never be with Henry’s wife, who is truly awesome. Of course, Henry’s son Hal combines both John and Henry traits, and he witnesses the collapses of the mines. There’s an epilogue from the 1920s, where we see the Donovans finally regaining power over the land while Clonmere Castle is a decrepit ruin.

This book is a representation of why colonialism is awful for the colonizers. You put all this effort in, but eventually it just drifts into a muddy jumble of disappointment and depression. Even Fanny-Rosa devolves into a gambling addict dying in a mental institution in the south of France. Everyone dies, everything ends, so it’s better to treat people with respect instead of the way the British have treated the Irish for nearly all of recorded history.

Hungry Hill is an important document for the history of colonialism, especially white-on-white, but despite du Maurier’s gifts with prose, it’s not delightful. The 1940s were a tough time, what with moving directly from the Great Depression to World War II and all, and it seems that she was having a hard time finding happy things to write about. There’s beauty, but even though I find joy in the midst of the depression and anxiety, there’s not much in du Maurier’s book. Which is probably why it’s taken me so long to write about it. I mean, I finished this book more than a month ago, I think.

A few weeks ago, I was complaining about an author who wrote a period novel, but didn’t do it well. Byatt does it well. She knows the Victorian Era, so her books are similar to the classics, but she discusses things that were unmentionable back then. These stories contain things that people really did and thought about, but only hinted at in literature.

When students discuss the Nineteenth Century, they often treat it as a period of great certainty; they trust the surface of religious conservatism, or the now-well-publicized hypocrisy: a church on each corner, with a bar and two whorehouses between each pair. But they don’t question the moral certainty of the time. Well maybe it’s not exactly hypocrisy. That conservative certainty was all surface. The Nineteenth Century was a time of great insecurity – people started questioning their religion in a way they never had before, so they had to reassure each other constantly that “God is in His Heaven, and all is right with the world.” As Hamlet’s mother would say, “Methinks they do protest too much.” Darwin is an easy scapegoat, but the Industrial Revolution changed the world so much that the old belief system wore thin in several places. Nothing convinces people that God is limited like poverty. Byatt really captures the uncertainty of the time.

The two stories here are linked by this theme of uncertainty, but also by a minor character. Captain Papagay appears at the end of each to signal the fulfillment of other characters’ goals, though it’s only the middle of their journeys. For a story to end in hope, there has to be some sense that the characters live beyond the end.

MORPHO EUGENIA

In some ways, this is a protracted analogy between ant colonies and Victorian country houses. The communities are remarkably similar.

Nevertheless, in the hot days just after Midsummer, when they increased their vigilance in order to observe, if possible, the nuptial flight of the Queens and their suitors, he was hard put to it not to see his own life in terms of a diminishing analogy with the tiny creatures. He had worked so hard, watching, counting, dissecting, tracking, that his dreams were prickling with twitching antennae, advancing armies, gnashing mandibles and dark, inscrutable complex eyes. His vision of his own biological processes – his frenzied, delicious mating, so abruptly terminated, his consumption of the regular meals prepared by the darkly quiet forces behind the baize doors, the very regularity of his watching, dictated by the regularity of the rhythms of the nest, brought him insensibly to see himself as a kind of complex sum of his nerve-cells and instinctive desires, his automatic social responses of deference or required kindness or paternal affection. One ant in an anthill was neither here nor there, was dispensable, was nothing. This was intensified, despite his recognition of the grimly comic aspect of his reaction, by the recording of the fate of the male ants.

This story was difficult for me to read because it reminded me of my own marriage. It failed for a different reason than William’s, but a lot of the emotions were the same. The ex became interested in me primarily as a provider of children and for her children – like William, I was defined primarily by my reproductive function, which inspires about as much respect as prostitutes generally receive. I felt worthless, like a drone in an anthill. I need to be with someone who wants me for more than sex. Sex yes, and frequently, but not just when partner is at peak fertility and wanting another pregnancy.

There are a few long passages speculating on intelligent design, trying to reconcile God and Darwin, but the arguments tend to go in big circles without reaching any conclusions. It seems that the only conclusion available to logic is that God is an evolutionarily advantageous fantasy adopted by the masses for the preservation of the social order.

One of the things that I appreciate about Byatt is that she considers the “surplus women,” the worker ants who support the queen. Miss Crompton lives in the house in a marginal position between the family and the servants, quietly watching both, with her beautifully bony wrists. A woman of sense and education, she constantly surprises William, though me not at all. I’ve come to expect rebellion, poetry, talent, intelligence, and an appreciation for natural beauty from Victorian governesses. Here she is, upon seeing her first monarch butterfly, on a ship a hundred miles from shore.

‘It fills me with emotion,’ she says. ‘I do not know whether it is more fear, or more hope. It is so fragile, and so easily crushed, and nowhere in reach of where it was going. And yet it is still alive, and bright, and so surprising, rightly seen.’ ‘That is the main thing,’ says Captain Papagay. ‘To be alive. As long as you are alive, everything is surprising, rightly seen.’

A friend complimented my nature photographs, which I routinely post to facebook. He said something about my skill, but I don’t think I really have any. Like all art, my pictures are a method of self-expression. I see the world as completely, breathtakingly, gobsmackingly beautiful. My natural state in the forest or mountains is one of wonder and awe. And excitement – I jump and skip like a small child. If my pictures are at all lovely, it’s because I see the world as so beautiful that I can’t show it to you any other way.

THE CONJUGIAL ANGEL

This not-quite-half of the book is less about science than faith. Instead of faith in God, though, it’s about faith in the occult: mediums, séances, the dead. And also unlike the first story, it deals with a fictional version of people who really lived.

The Victorian Era’s favorite bromance is the one commemorated in In Memoriam A. H. H. Alfred Tennyson and Arthur Hallam were best friends, so close that Hallam’s father and twenty-first century literary critics assume they were a gay couple. Byatt presents them as men who love each other, but who don’t have sex. Instead, they use their sisters as proxies. Arthur was set to marry Alfred’s sister Emily, but then he died. Alfred spent seventeen years writing a poem about his grief in which he calls himself Arthur’s widow, and then he married Arthur’s sister Emily. Personally, I find the collective grief for Arthur Hallam to be excessive. As he’s described, I can’t see anything unusual about him, but everyone treats it like a huge betrayal that Emily falls in love with someone else eight years later. Eight years is plenty of time to give to someone who was always more in love with your brother than with you.

It is hard to love the dead. It is hard to love the dead enough.

Despite the more-than-appropriate mourning period, Emily still feels guilty for finding another lover.

And with them in the dreams stood also a separate creature, the girl in black with a white rose in her hair, as he liked to see it. You are accompanied through life, Emily Jesse occasionally understood, not only by the beloved and accusing departed, but by your own ghost too, also accusing, also unappeased.

This is an issue I feel from time to time. My younger selves are all still here in my head, and some of them don’t approve of my life as it is now. Of course, they’re also jealous, so I try not to take their disapproval too seriously, but it contributes to my tendency to depression. I feel guilty for not being able to feel guilty. I end up in church feeling empty and disconnected, looking for a community but feeling alien. As my community is forming up here in the new town, I don’t feel that I have much in common with anyone. I try to connect through the job, or through talking about my family, but it just doesn’t seem to work. I feel too different. It doesn’t help that over Labor Day I drove back home and hooked up with someone I felt a close connection to but whom I will never see again. I find myself hoping that he was lying about moving away soon because I’d like to run into him again someday, and that won’t happen if he really does go to California. I’m lonely, and my twenty-year-old self tells me it’s my own damn fault. I was so judgmental and intolerant – if that part of me had its way, I’d still be married, making justifications like Byatt’s aged Tennyson:

He thought he had acquitted himself well enough, he thought he had. He had felt a suffusion of affection and companionable calm, which he suspected was less than what others felt, somehow, but not unpleasant, not inadequate. To Emily’s taste, he was sure. If he was truthful, there was more excitement in the space between his finger and Arthur’s, with all that implied of the flashing-out of one soul to another, of the symmetry and sympathy of minds, of the recognition they had both felt, that they had in some sense always known each other, they did not have to learn each other, as strangers did. But this did not make them men like Milnes. They were like David and Jonathan, whose love to each other was wonderful, passing the love of women. And yet David was the greatest lover of women in the Bible, David had despatched Uriah to his death to possess Bathsheba, David was manly beyond all heroes.

It always bothers me when people assume that being a homosexual means that a man is effeminate. Since coming out of the closet, I’ve become more confident and assertive, more stereotypically masculine, not less. Even after I’ve taken it like a good bottom, I don’t feel or act womanish. I love masculinity as a concept and some men specifically – for me, there’s nothing feminine about being a gay man. And if I find someone who loves me as Lieutenant Jesse loves Emily, I won’t turn him down either.

You don’t seem to understand. I didn’t mean to speak so much so soon, but there I go, rushing on, like the North Wind, can’t stop – have you ever felt that someone was to do with you, when you saw them, quite simply, just that, that there are people all over the place with noses like dough-buttons and eyes like currants and other people like Roman busts, you know, and then suddenly you see a face that’s alive – for you – and you know it’s to do with you, that that person is a part of your life, have you ever felt that?

Sometimes people are just perfectly matched, and the externals of their lives don’t make them an obvious fit but their real selves align perfectly. One of the ancient Greeks – I think Plato – once theorized that people were originally conjoined beings, split in half for this mortal life. Some of the pairs were androgynous, some were doubly feminine, some doubly masculine. We spend our lives looking for our other half, our soulmate. This has given rise to the (in my opinion) dangerous idea that there’s only one person in the entire world that a person can be truly happy with. In Byatt’s story, this gets merged with the Christian understanding of angels (hence the title), and eventually Arthur Hallam appears as half an angel, haunting the girl who moved on, never realizing that Alfred is his other half, not Emily. She has her Captain (promotion since their marriage), and she loves him, not the boy who died forty years earlier.

Taken together, these two stories show the limitations of mid-Victorian Christianity, its inability to accommodate evolution and spiritualism, two contrasting forces that probably shouldn’t work together to destroy the mechanism of social order, but that’s how the process happens. And of course, they’re also stories about finding love, written with the skill of someone who loves the Victorian Era and the English language. Since I love these things too, I’m going to keep reading Byatt’s stories. They leave me satisfied, full, if not exactly happy. The realism of her stories doesn’t lend itself to simple emotions, even when it’s magical realism.

I first knew the name Stefan Zweig when I saw his bust in a park in Paris. It was raining that day, so the statue looked like it was crying, and the idea of a face cast in bronze, weeping and ignored, moved me profoundly. The name seemed familiar, so I started looking for it. When Joan Fontaine died, I watched several of her films and saw Zweig’s name on Letter from an Unknown Woman. I don’t think it’s Ms Fontaine’s best work, but it’s a good role for the star of Rebecca and Suspicion. Then I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Zweig is listed as the screenwriter’s inspiration. So I’ve been meaning to read some Zweig, and one afternoon I was rebelling against the unrelenting sameness of Midwestern life so I was looking for new books to download and saw this one. The subtitle is what really did it for me, being full of longing and looking for liberation.

IMG_0103

“Letter from an Unknown Woman” is in this collection, and if you’ve seen the picture, it’s a much better representation of what Zweig’s stories are like than The Grand Budapest Hotel. The more recent film is all about daring and bravery in the face of adverse circumstances, but the black-and-white is about desire that is unrequited and unfulfilled, suffering that is only resolved through death. The Grand Budapest does prepare you for Zweig’s style – never use one word when you can use twenty, never use twenty when you can use two thousand, be as romantic and Goethe-esque as possible – but the themes are off. For example, “Fantastic Night” gives one of the most beautiful and realistic descriptions of clinical depression I’ve ever seen:

At that moment I was fully aware for the first time how far advanced the process of paralysis already was in me – it was as if I were moving through flowing, bright water without being halted or taking root anywhere, and I knew very well that this chill was something dead and corpse-like, not yet surrounded by the foul breath of decomposition but already numbed beyond recovery, a grimly cold lack of emotion. It was the moment that precedes real, physical death and outwardly visible decay.

After that episode I began carefully observing myself and this curious paralysis of my feelings, as a sick man observes his sickness. When, shortly afterwards, a friend of mine died and I followed his coffin to the grave, I listened to myself to see if I did not feel grief, if some emotion did not move in me at the knowledge that this man, who had been close to me since our childhood, was now lost to me for ever. But nothing stirred, I felt as if I were made of glass, with the world outside shining straight through me and never lingering within, and hard as I attempted on this and many similar occasions to feel something, however much I tried, through reasonable argument, to make myself feel emotion, no response came from my rigid state of mind. People parted from me, women came and went, and I felt much like a man sitting in a room with rain beating on the window panes; there was a kind of sheet of glass between me and my immediate surroundings, and my will was not strong enough to break it.

Although I felt this clearly, the realisation caused me no real uneasiness, for as I have said, I took even what affected myself with indifference. I no longer had feeling enough to suffer. It was enough for me that this internal flaw was hardly perceptible from the outside, in the same way as a man’s physical impotence becomes obvious only at the moment of intimacy, and in company I often put on a certain elaborate show, employing artificially passionate admiration and spontaneous exaggeration to hide the extent to which I knew I was dead and unfeeling inside. Outwardly I continued my old comfortable, unconstrained way of life without any change of direction; weeks, months passed easily by and slowly, gathering darkly into years. One morning when I looked in the glass I saw a streak of grey at my temple, and felt that my youth was slowly departing. But what others call youth had long ago ended in me, so taking leave of it did not hurt very much, since I did not love even my own youth enough for that. My refractory emotions preserved their silence even to me.

This inner rigidity made my days more and more similar, despite all the varied occupations and events that filled them, they ranged themselves side by side without emphasis, they grew and faded like the leaves of a tree. And the single day I am about to describe for my own benefit began in a perfectly ordinary way too, without anything odd to mark it, without any internal premonition.

 

So, protagonist learns how to feel alive again by giving money to the poor, but this newfound life is cut short because his drive to charity leads him to enlist during World War I. Most of these stories take place in Vienna, and they were written at several different stages of Zweig’s career, but most of them do seem to group themselves around WWI. Zweig hates war, by the way. “Compulsion” is about a draft-dodger who gets away. The author paints this as a victory, but I felt like instead of being pacifist, he was just passive. He had to choose whom to obey, the government or his wife, and he eventually chooses to submit to her instead of the state.

Zweig spends a lot of time describing things, and he does it very well:

The villa lay close to the sea.

The quiet avenues, lined with pine trees, breathed out the rich strength of salty sea air, and a slight breeze constantly played around the orange trees, now and then removing a colourful bloom from flowering shrubs as if with careful fingers. The sunlit distance, where attractive houses built on hillsides gleamed like white pearls, a lighthouse miles away rose steeply and straight as a candle – the whole scene shone, its contours sharp and clearly outlined, and was set in the deep azure of the sky like a bright mosaic. The waves of the sea, marked by only the few white specks that were the distant sails of isolated ships, lapped against the tiered terrace on which the villa stood; the ground then rose on and on to the green of a broad, shady garden and merged with the rest of the park, a scene drowsy and still, as if under some fairy-tale enchantment.

Outside the sleeping house on which the morning heat lay heavily, a narrow gravel path ran like a white line to the cool viewing point. The waves tossed wildly beneath it, and here and there shimmering spray rose, sparkling in rainbow colours as brightly as diamonds in the strong sunlight. There the shining rays of the sun broke on the small groups of Vistulian pines standing close together, as if in intimate conversation, they also fell on a Japanese parasol with amusing pictures on it in bright, glaring colours, now open wide.

A woman was leaning back in a soft basket chair in the shade of this parasol, her beautiful form comfortably lounging in the yielding weave of the wicker. One slender hand, wearing no rings, dangled down as if forgotten, petting the gleaming, silky coat of a dog with gentle, pleasing movements, while the other hand held a book on which her dark eyes, with their black lashes and the suggestion of a smile in them, were concentrating. They were large and restless eyes, their beauty enhanced by a dark, veiled glow. Altogether the strong, attractive effect of the oval, sharply outlined face did not give the natural impression of simple beauty, but expressed the refinement of certain details tended with careful, delicate coquetry. The apparently unruly confusion of her fragrant, shining curls was the careful construction of an artist, and in the same way the slight smile that hovered around her lips as she read, revealing her white teeth, was the result of many years of practice in front of the mirror, but had already become a firmly established part of the whole design and could not be laid aside now.

 

And so you think know everything that is necessary to know about this woman, but of course you don’t. Like most good characters, she’s an iceberg, or an onion. There are layers and layers. People don’t become famous fiction writers without knowing something of layered characters.

I had an experience over the last few weeks that reminds me of a Zweig story, so I’ll share it, minus the detailed descriptions of scenery. A couple of months ago I started working in the evening on the freight crew at a big-box retailer. The crew was bigger than I expected, and they interact more aggressively than I do, which turned me off of them. They spend a lot of time ridiculing the gay guy, even when he’s not around to hear it. Because this is the freight crew, and our job involves a lot of heavy lifting, some of them are rather attractive physically. The combination of all this generally led me to work as independently as I could. One guy, Trent, started blaming me for things that went wrong, but in a joking fashion, so I always just agreed. “Sure, it’s my fault. Yeah, I should have done that differently. No, I don’t seem to care much. I know, I’m a heartless bitch.” Agreeing with these people is the best strategy for me, because they’re looking for something that bothers me, so I don’t give them anything. Once they find a button that gets a response, they keep pushing it until they go too far.

Well, one night a woman came in and asked me for some house wash, so I started walking her over to Paint and we ran into Trent. He greeted her with, “Hey, Nana,” and told me, “OccMan, I got this. No, I got this.” Meaning, get the hell away from my grandmother. Apparently the product she uses is in Garden (I don’t understand why some house and deck wash is in Paint and some in Garden. It doesn’t make sense), not far from where I had been unloading freight, so our way lay together for a short time. Not knowing what else to say, I congratulated her on having a fine grandson and went off on my way. After she had made her purchase, Trent came and found me and thanked me for saying that about him. It seems that he’s known as the family fuck-up, and having someone from outside the family remind them of his intrinsic worth was welcome, needed, and unexpected. Of course, if I had said anything different, we would have had to meet by appointment, “so thanks for not making me kick your ass.” I’m no expert in heterosexual male interactions, but I do know enough of The Bro Code to know that there is only one way to interact with the aged relatives of your colleagues: extremely polite with a side helping of slightly hyperbolical compliment. There is no way I could say what I really thought of him: Ma’am, your grandson has a lovely body and a pretty face, but the person inside them is such an asshole that he puts people off. I mean, he can’t even say thanks without implying a threat.

So I watched him over the next few weeks, and I realized that this deal with being treated like the family fuck-up explained pretty much all his behavior. He puts up a big show of braggadocio, but he’s using that to overcompensate for his low self-esteem. He doesn’t always work hard, because (like all the rest of us) his brain will keep him repeating the behaviors that match his self-image. Other members of the crew were annoyed by the braggadocio and either tried to knock him down a bit, thus making the problem worse, or grumbling about him when he wasn’t around. [Just as a sidenote, I don’t know who came up with this idea that gossiping is a female activity. When placed in a single-sex environment, men are just as bad, possibly worse.] But after the grandmother incident, he was a little nicer to me. You can tell when aggressive men are teasing you as they would a friend (instead of as they would a target) because they smile when they do it and they keep their voices light.

Then, a week or two ago, he asked me if I was single. For a very brief instant I wondered if he had realized that I’m gay and was finally ready to see if the grass really is greener on my side of the fence, but then he explained that he knows this girl. Apparently her and my personalities are very similar, she’s a very pretty girl, and he knows that she’s a good person. As he was trying to convince me to go out with her, it became clear that he himself really loves her, but she knocked him back. I just kept thinking of Mr Jason’s conversation with Quentin in Absalom! Absalom! – the one about how the real incest is a man’s attempt to control his sister’s choice of a suitor, so that he can use the future brother-in-law as a substitute for himself, fucking the sister by proxy. But I think it can also work the other way, controlling the sister’s choice of a suitor so that he can use the sister as a surrogate for himself, forming a successful sexual relationship with the other guy where social pressures prevent him from acting for himself, fucking the boyfriend by proxy. I took it as such a strong sign of fellowship and homosocial affection that I didn’t have the heart to share with him my three very good reasons not to go out with her: (1) She wants to be a stay-at-home mom. I’m already supporting three other people (my children); the next person I date had damn well better have a job. (2) When Trent suggested he be the one to provide for her, she told him that she didn’t want him to feel like he owned her. So she wants to have another person meet her financial needs while still remaining independent of him? It sounds like someone who hasn’t thought through what she wants, and I don’t need that kind of drama in my life. (3) I’m gay. I’m gay. I’m gay. I don’t date women. Fortunately, I was able to give him a fourth unanswerable reason: I’m moving out of the state in three days.

If this was really a Stefan Zweig story, there’d be some sort of closure, months or years after this last incident. Trent would have resolved his situation in some way that is realistic, dramatically appropriate without being too happy or too sad. When people write about depression the way that Zweig does, I believe they’re describing themselves. If you’re familiar with The Grand Budapest, Jude Law’s writer character and Ralph Fiennes’s protagonist are modelled not on Zweig’s characters, but on Zweig himself. A bit extreme in action, a bit understated in emotional response, valuing people above ideas or behaviors. A man I’d like to know and be loved by, but whom I would not like to be.

Anais Nin is not best known for her male readership, but I try to read at least something by well-known authors, so I tried it out. Her writing is beautiful, though it’s not in a style or about a subject that will immediately appeal to most men these days.

Jay could not retain any sequence of the people she had loved, hated, escaped from, anymore than he could keep track of her very personal appearance as she herself would say: “At that time I was a blond, and I wore my hair very short,” or, “this was before I was married when I was only nineteen” (and once she had told him she had been married at the age of eighteen). Impossible to know who she had betrayed, forgotten, married, deserted, or clung to. It was like her profession. The first time he had questioned her she had answered immediately: “I am an actress.” But when he pressed her he could not find in what play she had acted, whether she had been a success or a failure, whether, perhaps, (as he decided later) she had merely wished to be an actress but had never worked persistently enough, seriously enough except in the way she was working now, changing personalities with such rapidity that Jay was reminded of a kaleidoscope.

He sought to capture the recurrence of certain words in her talk, thinking they might be used as keys, but if the word “actress”, “miraculous”, “travel”, “wandering”, “relationship” did occur frequently, it remained impossible whether or not she used them in their literal sense or symbolically, for they were the same to her. He had heard her say once: “When you are hurt you travel as far as you can from the place of the hurt,” and when he examined her meaning found she was referring to a change of quarters within fifty blocks in the city of New York.

She was compelled by a confessional fever which forced her into lifting the veil slightly, only a corner of it, and then frightened when anyone listened too attentively, especially Jay whom she did not trust, whom she knew found the truth only in the sense of exposure of the flaws, the weaknesses, the foibles.

As soon as Jay listened too attentively, she took a giant sponge and erased all she had said by an absolute denial as if this confusion were in itself a mantle of protection.

Sabina manages a number of love affairs, some of them very well-described for the 1950s. Her husband is the most important and yet the one who appears the least. Her relationship with him reminds me of many people’s relationships with God: he is the foundation of her life, the one thing that she can’t survive without, the one person whose opinion she values the most, and yet she doesn’t let his opinion of her behavior influence that behavior. She does what she likes and hides it from him. The lies she tells heap up around her and twist over each other in uncomfortable ways, and Jay’s experience in listening to her talk is a mirror for the reader’s experience with the novel. It’s not clear when things happen, so maybe all the affairs in the short little book are happening concurrently, or maybe she only does one at a time. This tangle of detail is where the title comes from.

It was when she saw the lives of spies that she realized fully the tension with which she lived every moment, equal to theirs. The fear of committing themselves, of sleeping too soundly of talking in their sleep, of carelessness of accent or behaviour, the need for continuous pretending, quick improvisations of motivations, quick justifications of their presence here or there.

It seemed to Sabina that she could have offered her services or been of great value in that profession.

I am an international spy in the house of love.

I’ve sometimes thought I could be a spy, but I don’t have Sabina’s talent for deceit. But this tension she experiences seems similar to what I went through when I was married. I reached a point where I could no longer hide from myself that I was gay, but I wasn’t ready to tell my wife yet. So I avoided her when I could and avoided talking to her when I couldn’t, and got into the habit of clearing my web browser history all the time. I knew that if we had any sort of serious discussion, I was going to tell her and she was going to leave me, and I didn’t want that, so we didn’t discuss anything. She accused me of being distant, and I was, but I wasn’t about to explain why. I didn’t feel at home in the places we lived, like I was always a foreigner, an intruder, a spy.

The core, where she felt a constant unsureness, this structure always near collapse which could so easily be shattered by a harsh word, a slight, a criticism, which floundered  before obstacles, was haunted by the image of catastrophe, by the same obsessional forebodings which she heard in Ravel’s Waltz.

The waltz leading to catastrophe: swirling in spangled airy skirts, on polished floors, into an abyss, the minor notes simulating lightness, a mock dance, the minor notes always recalling that man’s destiny was ruled by ultimate darkness.

This core of Sabina’s was temporarily supported by an artificial beam, the support of vanity’s satisfaction when this man so obviously handsome walked by her side, and everyone who saw him envied the woman who had charmed him.

Yes, it was like dancing toward a bottomless pit, but only I could see it. When she was young, her parents took her to the Grand Canyon. Their first afternoon it was too foggy to see anything, so she and her brother ran along the trails just as they did here in Pisgah National Forest. Their parents kept telling them to be more careful, but they couldn’t see the danger. The next day it was clear, and her heart caught in her throat when she saw how close they had been to plunging to a certain death. The last couple of years of our marriage were like that.

I could see how much she relied on me, and it was very flattering to have a woman so beautiful so dependent. When we walked through a parking lot into a store, I’d see other guys nudge and point as we walked by, sharing the joy that the sight of her figure brought. After she had our first son she dropped a few dress sizes, and it’s pretty close to ideal in our society for a woman to be a 34C up top and still a size 4. When she put in her contacts, our friends often compared her to Anne Hathaway (Now that I think on it, this is sort of ironic, considering the role she played in Brokeback Mountain). I used to say that if she wasn’t the perfect woman for me, there was none. And, well, I was right.

Sabina doesn’t just show how easily men are cuckolded; she reduces her lovers to a feeling that she gets from them or a few key traits, just as men have been doing to women for centuries. She chooses them as one does items on a menu: pick what you’re in the mood for tonight, and tomorrow night pick something else.

The music stopped, he came to her table, sat down and gave her a smile mixed with a contraction of pain.

“I know,” he said. “I know . . .”

“You know?”

“I know, but it cannot be,” he said very gently. And then suddenly the anger overflowed: “For me, it’s everything or nothing. I’ve known this before . . . a woman like you. Desire. It’s desire, but not for me. You don’t know me. It’s for my race, it’s for a sensual power we have.”

He reached for her wrists and spoke close to her face: “It destroys me. Everywhere desire, and in the ultimate giving, withdrawal. Because I am African. What do you know of me? I sing and drum and you desire me. But I’m not an entertainer. I’m a mathematician, a composer, a writer.” He looked at her severely, the fullness of his mouth difficult to compress in anger but his eyes lashing: “You wouldn’t come to Ile Joyeuse and be my wife and bear me black children and wait patiently upon my negro grandmother!”

Sabina answered him with equal vehemence, throwing her hair away from her face, and lowering the pitch of her voice until it sounded like an insult: “I’ll tell you one thing: if it were only what you say, I’ve had that, and it didn’t hold me, it was not enough, it was magnificent, but it didn’t hold me. You’re destroying everything, with your bitterness, you’re angry, you’ve been hurt . . .”

“Yes, it’s true, I’ve been hurt, and by a woman who resembled you. When you first came in, I thought it was she . . .”

“My name is Sabina.”

“I don’t trust you. I don’t trust you at all.”

But when she rose to dance with him, he opened his arms and as she rested her head on his shoulder he looked down at her face drained of all anger and bitterness.

Paradoxically, there’s something freeing in this sort of commitment-phobic attitude toward love. No one man has to be everything to her. The English fighter pilot just has to be the complete PTSD-ridden ex-soldier (who is really hot), and she’s satisfied. The drummer can be as serious as he likes; she’ll accept him as he is, and get what he can’t supply with someone else. Bacon and eggs are truly wonderful, but no one wants to eat them three times a day every day for the rest of her life.

They also elicit different things in her. She feels like she has this multiplicity of selves, and she has to be a different one for each man she’s with. Donald wants a maternal figure, so she cooks for him and babies him and feels like her mother. Other men want someone to listen, or to watch spy movies with, or to fuck in all the positions their wives don’t like. She remakes herself every time, becoming the woman that every man wants her to be. None of them really know her, not even Alan, and she doesn’t really know herself either. At the end of the book she realizes that she wants to know herself and be whole, a unified personality, but she doesn’t seem to know how to become this, and I don’t think she succeeds. Nin collected this with four other interconnected novels, so maybe Sabina reaches wholeness later; this book is about realizing that her promiscuity is a quest for unity of personality. In this sense, it has some similarities to the final portion of Hesse’s Steppenwolf.

In this discussion, it’s probably seemed that I value promiscuity over fidelity, but my feelings on the subject are a little complex just now. The ex and I were very possessive of each other, which belied a great insecurity in the relationship. I’d like to be confident in the love of my partner. I don’t see the value of celibacy, so I’m going to continue to try people out until I find someone who wants to hang onto me, but serial monogamy fits my personality better than random promiscuous activity. I don’t understand the impulse that Sabina follows, stacking up guilt upon guilt until she telephones a lie detector who may or may not exist. If you’re with someone who expects faithfulness, give him that. If you’re going to keep a string of lovers on the side, be honest with him and them. Secrets are a poison that diseases the consciousness. As for me, it’s been almost six months since the last time a man told me that he loves me, then stripped me down and beat me without actually fucking me, so I’m ready to try dating again. After one of those experiences, it takes a while for the loneliness to outweigh the risk. I’m really hoping I find someone genuinely nice this time, or at least more upfront about what he wants to do to me.

Nin mentions misogyny once or twice, but generally she ignores the systemic difficulties that women faced sixty years ago and focuses on the specific experience of one woman.

Above all he possessed a most elaborate encyclopedia of women’s flaws. In this gallery he had most carefully avoided Joan of Arc and other women heroines, Madame Curie and other women of science, the Florence Nightingales, the Amelia Earharts, the women surgeons, the therapists, the artists, the collaborative wives. His wax figures of women were an endless concentrate of puerilities and treacheries.

“Where did you find all these repulsive women?” she asked one day, and then suddenly she could no longer laugh: caricature was a form of hatred.

I can’t tell you how much I hate the sentence, “You have to admit, that’s funny,” nor how many times I have heard it. No, I do not have to laugh at a comment that dehumanizes me or any group of people, whether I belong to that group or not. As Nin points out, such comments ignore the best (and even the typical) aspects of human experience, highlighting the worst in all of us and blaming huge groups of people for the faults of a few. Telling jokes that rely on the gender of the people involved is sexist. Differentiating between gay men and real men is homophobic. Joking about your ignorance about Islam is offensive. We don’t have to laugh when you are actively involved in hating us or the people we love.

Anais Nin writes beautifully, and this book is rather sexy. I should have liked it more than I did. Throughout, there was some ineffable barrier between me and the writer. I don’t know if it was cultural (I’m American, she’s Cuban-French) or just that being a man makes it hard for me to connect with the material. But it’s not even 120 pages; I should have had no trouble knocking it out in an afternoon, but it took me almost a week. Maybe it was Sabina’s unhappiness, her lost-ness, her inability to resolve her conflicts. Maybe it was something else. I’ll need to read another of her books to see if this was an exception or the rule.

Last week I had a conversation with an old coworker about being rehired at a former place of employment (different position, different supervisors, so it feels like a step forward, not back). She told me that the person I had been before would not do well in this position, and I told her that I’m not who I was four years ago. Apparently, I impressed her with that fact enough that she commented on it with a few other people. In thinking about it, the difference is in the way I understand who I am. Four years ago I had several props that I substituted for my own identity – my marriage, my faith community, my career – I don’t think I’m unique in having relied on those things to tell me who I am. But I could see how precarious it all was, and as my awareness of my homosexuality became more pressing, I could foresee the imminent collapse of my life and self. I lived in perpetual fear of ceasing to exist. I thought that without those things I would no longer be. Not death so much as disappearance, like in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ when Prince Prospero unmasks the death figure and finds only an empty robe that falls to the ground. I would lose all my social masks and be revealed as nothing at all. And that was how this potential employer knew me before, as the consciousness on the verge of extinction, the damaged and endangered psyche. And then everything did collapse. I lost all of those crutches that my injured identity was leaning on. But I didn’t die (getting rid of the sleeping pills helped with that one), and I didn’t disappear. I came through it all just fine. It took a few years, but I’m better now than I have ever been in my entire life. I have fewer labels, but I don’t need them. I can’t describe myself as easily, but I know more accurately who I am. And if the paradigm shift called coming out didn’t destroy me, I know that nothing else can.

Milan Kundera’s Identity is about a similar issue: how we derive our identity from the people who love us. Chantal and Jean-Marc don’t split up as the ex and I did, but there are many elements of their relationship that remind me of ours. The relationship is marked by insecurity: they’re excessively afraid of losing each other, possibly through death, possibly through indifference, possibly through forgetting.

I see their two heads, in profile, lit by the light of a little bedside lamp: Jean-Marc’s head, its nape on a pillow; Chantal’s head leaning close above him.

She said: “I’ll never let you out of my sight again. I’m going to keep on looking at you and never stop.”

And after a pause: “I get scared when my eye blinks. Scared that during that second when my gaze is switched off, a snake or a rat or another man could slip into your place.”

He tried to raise himself a little to touch her with his lips.

She shook her head: “No, I just want to look at you.”

And then: “I’m going to leave the lamp on all night. Every night.”

This is what we had, and it’s what I don’t want to have again. I don’t want to be an enthralled captive; I want to be in love with someone who makes me feel free. I want to be with someone who wants me because he likes me, not because he needs me. Love shouldn’t make me feel trapped or afraid.

Part of the insecurity comes from inequality.

All at once he knows that the assertion he often made to Chantal is finally about to be confirmed: that his deepest vocation is to be a marginal person, a marginal person who has lived comfortably, true, but only under completely uncertain and temporary circumstances. Now suddenly here is his true self, thrown back among those he belongs with: among the poor who have no roof to shelter their destitution.

Chantal makes four or five times as much money as Jean-Marc, so he is maintaining a standard of living that he feels he doesn’t have a right to. She’s also a few years older than he is, and with an ex-husband and a dead child, she seems to have a world of experience beyond him. He seems to need her much more than she needs him. In the early days of my marriage, we relied pretty heavily on the ex’s parents for things like rent. We had known that neither of us would ever have money, majoring in literature and music as we did, but the reality of that didn’t hit until we were on the wrong side of the country in jobs that would never pay our bills. Then I went to graduate school and she got a good job, but she didn’t see my studying as work, so she had very little respect for what I was doing. When I finished school, though, I went to work and she stayed home. I’m not sure how much of this was conscious, but she felt all the insecurity of being dependent on another human being for the necessities of life. When she worked, she felt independent enough that she looked into divorcing me, and she was afraid I’d do the same. So she bound me to her with insults, reminding me how lucky I was to be with her, making me feel like no one else could ever want me. I worked at The Home Depot for a year and a half, and I was physically stronger than I had ever been, and I was the happiest with my body I’d ever been, but my muscles get flat instead of rounded, so I was also thinner than I had been in ages, and she’d tell me I looked like a Holocaust survivor and threaten to buy my clothes in the kids’ section. After our third child was born I wanted to go back for a doctorate so I could get a better-paying job, and she told me repeatedly that I was too old, too poor, and had too many children to chase after dreams. What I needed to do was get a shit government job for the next thirty years, give up ever being happy with my life, and content myself with what satisfaction there is in knowing that my abject misery provided the basic needs of my family. That’s what real men did. This is the kind of poison that comes from an insecure person in an unequal relationship. She tended to get between me and family or friends, interpreting and packaging me for them so that I felt like I couldn’t interact socially without her. I felt like Jean-Marc, even after I was the one bringing home the organic preservative-free bacon. And at first I did feel homeless and marginal; Kundera’s novel doesn’t show how it gets better. As I reflect on it now, I don’t wonder that I survived the divorce; I wonder that I survived eight years with her.

Y’know, my parents thought that it was important never to fight in front of us, so when they divorced it sort of came out of nowhere. At the time, I didn’t see it as a conflict between them so much as the natural state of things. People ran away from time to time; my brother did it, every teenager in a 1980s sitcom did it, it’s just what people do. The ex also thought it was important not to fight in front of other people, so we didn’t. Or at least, I didn’t. When she started yelling at me in front of the kids, I knew things were bad. But even when she only yelled at me in private, I felt like everything was ending because I had never seen people who love each other fighting. Right now I’m staying with some friends who have been together for more than thirty years, and they have their disagreements as people do, not in front of me though I can hear when they raise their voices, but I’m finally learning that not every fight ends in divorce, not every disagreement is final, not every frustration is the end of the world two people have built together.

One of the things that frustrates Chantal (and my ex) is what has become of the men in their lives.

Chantal thinks: men have daddified themselves. They aren’t fathers, they’re just daddies, which means: fathers without a father’s authority. She imagines trying to flirt with a daddy pushing a stroller with one baby inside it and carrying another two babies on his back and belly. Taking advantage of a moment when the wife stopped at a shop window, she would whisper an invitation to the husband. What would he do? Could the man transformed into a baby-tree still turn to look at a strange woman? Wouldn’t the babies hanging off his back and his belly start howling about their carrier’s disturbing movement? The idea strikes Chantal funny and puts her in a good mood. She thinks to herself: I live in a world where men will never turn to look at me again.

Then, along with a few morning strollers, she found herself on the seawall: the tide was out; before her the sandy plain stretched away over a kilometer. It was a long time since she had come to the Normandy coast, and she was unfamiliar with the activities in fashion there now: kites and sail-cars. The kite: a colored fabric stretched over a formidably tough frame, let loose into the wind; with the help of two lines, one in each hand, a person forces different directions on it, so that it climbs and drops, twists, emits a dreadful noise like a gigantic horsefly and, from time to time, nose first, falls into the sand like an airplane crashing. She was surprised to see that the owners were neither children nor adolescents but always men. In fact, they were the daddies! The daddies without their children, the daddies who had managed to escape their wives! They didn’t run off to mistresses, they ran off to the beach, to play!

Again the notion of a treacherous seduction struck her: she would come up behind the man holding the two lines and watching the noisy flight of his toy with his head thrown back; into his ear she would whisper an erotic invitation in the lewdest words. His reaction? She hadn’t a doubt: without glancing at her, he would hiss: “Leave me alone, I’m busy!”

Ah, no, men will never turn to look at her again.

Chantal seems to value the old days when Sean Connery was James Bond, when men would drop whatever was happening for a quick lay with whichever objectified female happened to be closest. There’s this weird equation of promiscuity with adult masculinity and paternal authority which seems to run counter to today’s accepted model of male behavior. As if authority can only be exercised at a distance, or as if he’s only a man if his cock is actually inside a woman at the moment. Well, there’s a price to be paid for gender equality – I know we haven’t succeeded in that goal yet, but it’s a useful touchstone just now – we all like to feel physically attractive (regardless of gender), but men have been taught that James Bond is just a fantasy, that real life is not a nonstop sexual buffet, so we don’t act like it is. In general, we’re more guarded in expressing the pleasure we take in the sight of people we find attractive, so attractive people get less external validation. Most guys don’t like to be thought of as rape-y, so we go in the other direction. [I wonder how sexual orientation affects self-esteem in this area. I can look at myself in the mirror and think, yeah, I’d fuck me, without feeling like there’s anything weird about that. Can straight people do the same?] When the ex and I got together, we were both really into changing traditional gender roles, but over time she became more religious, and she felt more strongly that she needed to submit to me (at least superficially), but I never wanted a fuckable child-care worker who has to resort to manipulation to get what she wants. I’ve always wanted to be with someone I felt was my equal, and I’m still not sure how the powerful feminist I loved became a resentful housewife, or why she chose that.

But I can say that the kids strapped to their daddies won’t care if they turn to look at a strange woman. I could use a urinal without waking the baby strapped to my chest; they can handle a slight turn of the torso. Yeah, I was a baby-tree for a while at first, but as I started working full-time, the ex trusted me less and less with the boys. I don’t have any strong memories of carrying my youngest through shops or down the street, though I’m sure I must have done it.

I spent eight years expecting my life to end at any second. Every day I’d wake up and wonder, is it today? Whenever the phone rang unexpectedly, I’d think, is this the call? For a while I thought she was going to kill herself before I got home from work. Then I thought she was going to die in a car crash or some other accident. Then I was afraid she was going to leave me because I was a worthless shit, and then I was afraid she was going to leave me because I was a gay worthless shit. Then she did. It wasn’t quite as I had imagined it; in many ways it was worse. I really want to be in love again, but I don’t want to go back to that constant fear of loss.

He was thinking not of her death but of something subtler, something elusive that has been haunting him lately: that one day he wouldn’t recognize her; that one day he would notice that Chantal was not the Chantal he lived with but that woman on the beach he mistook for her; that the certainty Chantal represented for him would turn out to be illusory, and that she would come to mean as little to him as everybody else.

Certainty is illusory, full stop. The only thing I’m really certain of now is that no matter what, I’m going to be okay. Even when I die, that’ll be okay too. But relationships end. Sometimes not until death, but death parts us all. When Chantal’s lamp goes out one night, what will become of Jean-Marc? He’ll rediscover himself, as I did. All the things that he didn’t do because she hated them will come back. He’ll seek out all the friends she didn’t like. He’ll watch the movies and listen to the music she hated. He’ll read the books she didn’t approve of and eat at the restaurants where she felt snubbed. But being fictional, he will never face that. There’s a losing that he won’t have to live with.

In the last three years, I’ve realized that the ex didn’t know herself very well when we got together. I was pretty unaware of myself too, so I’m not judging her for that. But when you don’t know yourself, you can’t present yourself to another person accurately. The person I fell in love with never really existed. Part of her was there, of course, but part of her was the person the ex thought she ought to have been and not who she was, and part was who I wanted to believe her to be. Part reality, part fantasy. It was hard when she left me and I lost her physical presence, but it was also hard when I realized just how much I had blinded myself to. She’s still beautiful and the type of person I can respect, but I cannot imagine being in love with her, let alone making her the mainstay of my own identity. If I passed her on the street as a stranger, I wouldn’t look at her twice. I’d forget her almost immediately. She’s an important part of my past, but as we are in the present, I don’t find anything special about her. Jean-Marc is afraid of this state of things, but I welcome it. Yes, it represents a loss, but it’s healthy to let go of the things that hurt you.

Kundera’s work often resonates with me on some deep levels, and this short novel clearly brings up a lot of things for me. It’s a little love story, and I suppose it could be read allegorically, but I hope not all love is like this. I want to be complemented, not possessed. I want a love that feels secure, without fear. And I have faith that there are other men who want the same thing. I just have to find them.