Posts Tagged ‘ksa life’

This entry is tremendously long. Please, sit somewhere comfortably and refill your cup before you proceed.

This book was difficult to read. Not the vocabulary or sentence structure, it’s the outdated ideas. Some of them, anyway. It’s twenty years old; society has moved on.

Badinter is a French feminist theorist, writing about men. I should have known to be more careful. Do you remember what Virginia Woolf said about Charlotte Brontë? I’m sorry I don’t have the quotation from the letters to hand, but she basically said that Brontë had a way of putting herself between her material and her readers, which prevents her from reaching the objectivity of Jane Austen. I don’t think any of us complain about finding Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre, but the novel isn’t a work of scholarly nonfiction. Badinter’s book is, and finding the author putting her offensive opinion between me and the facts upsets me. For example,

The medicalization of homosexuality should have protected it from moral judgments. Nothing of the sort happened. The problematical question of “perversions” allows for all kinds of ambiguities. No distinction is made between disease and vice, between psychic illness and moral illness. By consensus people stigmatize these effeminate men who are incapable of reproducing!

Or in other words, she attacks homophobia not by saying that fearing and hating other people based on a difference in sexual orientation is dumb because that type of fear and hate is irrational and leads to violence; she says homophobia is dumb because girly men are inherently unthreatening. Which fills me with shock and rage, but it isn’t nearly as intolerant as her comments on transgender individuals. She denies the validity of the very idea that some people’s gender identity does not match their biological sex. Maybe you could have this idea and still be a successful academician in the 1990s, but I don’t think the attitude would get published now.

All of that being said, most of her comments are absolutely spot on. When she puts herself aside and delivers the theory, it’s accurate and well done.

In traditional societies, becoming a woman is a fairly straightforward process. A girl separates from her mother in infancy, then sometime later begins to menstruate. While it’s not a smooth ride, it is not as complicated as becoming a man. Woman is at least defined positively, she is; man exists by not being something, which is much harder to prove. Badinter describes three stages, or gates, that a person must pass through in order to become a man. First, I am not my mother. Second, I am not a girl. Third, I am not gay. These are typically accompanied by rituals that mark the person’s developing masculinity. In industrial Euro-America, we’ve lost the rituals and the traditional definition of being a man, and while some of that isn’t terrible, it leaves a void.

The difficulties of masculinity are obvious, especially nowadays, in our countries, where the power that served as man’s armor is crumbling on all sides. Without his age-old defenses, man’s wounds are exposed, and they are often raw. One has only to read the literature of European and American men of the last fifteen years to grasp the entire range of feelings by which they are assaulted: rage, anxiety, fear of women, impotence, loss of reference points, self-hatred and hatred of others, and so on. One element that is found in all these texts is a man crying.

She frequently refers to novels as evidence of men’s thought processes; some that she finds significant are Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides and everything by Philip Roth. I’ve never read the Conroy book (or seen the movie – in my childhood, watching it was proof of effeminacy, sort of like Beaches), and I hated that one Roth novel I experienced, so I’m not sure if she and I have similar ideas about masculinity. But then, I feel like there’s someone inside me who’s crying all the time and never stops, so maybe we’re not so different after all.

I AM NOT MY MOTHER

And thank God for that. I was the fifth child; my brother’s fifteen-month birthday was the day after I was born. Our proximity in time meant that our mother’s body hadn’t recovered sufficiently for me to be a completely successful pregnancy. Since there were three more before him, she was sort of worn out with the childbearing. Fortunately, I was the youngest for two and a half years, so my little sister developed in a more nurturing womb than I did. I was a sick baby – now I know that I was allergic to breast milk, but back then there wasn’t a reason; there was only the fact that I did better with soy formula. My mother didn’t like nursing anyway. She likes babies because they love you without your having to work for it, but that’s hardly enough reason to have seven. I suppose the point is that for me, the mother-child dyad was never as pleasant or healthy as other people seem to think it should be.

On the other hand, if this total love has not been reciprocal, the child will spend the rest of his life painfully seeking it.

And that explains a lot.

Of course there exist here and there admirable mothers who give their child what he needs to be happy without holding him prisoner, who spare him excesses of frustration and guilt, hindrances to his development. But these “gifted” women, like great artists, are miraculous exceptions that confirm the rule that the reality is difficult, unclear, and most often unsatisfying.

Indeed, yes. As an adult, I find that my relationship with my mother is still difficult, unclear, and unsatisfying. I talk with her once or twice a year of my own volition, and from time to time I text her because she doesn’t know how to text back. She likes to feel that she’s involved in my life, and I like to feel that she’s not. My mother is not great with the idea that we’re different people; she is the most adamant about projecting an identity onto me that doesn’t fit with reality. She’s been doing this as long as I can remember, at least as far back as my parents’ divorce. I was eight, so I retreated from my feelings, and thus the entire outside world. It was easier for my mom to fill in the blanks with her own rage than to get to know me. Remember the six siblings, most of whom directed their energy outward and so got the attention they needed. I found greater acceptance from my remaining parent by not needing attention. It was easier for me not to challenge her assumptions, to let her act as if she knew what was going on inside me until I could figure it out. I didn’t really figure it out until I was an adult, so that became how I interact with the world. It’s unpleasant for me to assert myself if I’m not being confronted directly; it’s still easier to let other people assume I’m the same as they are. Which I seldom am. This is how I have so many people who think of themselves as my friend whom I don’t. And this is also why I feel alone most of the time, because I need to feel known in order to feel accepted, or like I belong. I keep searching for this mythical feeling of home/family/security without finding it.

I AM NOT A GIRL

I have three older brothers. My mother and my older sister really wanted a girl. I was a bit of a disappointment, from birth. And now I find myself in the midst of a community of men who sometimes use female pronouns and references, which is very odd. Just last week a friend of mine called me princess – I have rarely been so offended. I had to think through the fact that he enjoys being offensive and pushing limits; he’s cultivated this persona of the lovable idiot so that he can say whatever he feels like, and if it’s bothersome, he can fall back on the “I’m too stupid to know better” routine. It’s designed to turn other people’s anger into pity, and is actually a fairly common tactic among men of our socioeconomic group.

A girl is just one of those things that I am not, and other people seem to want me to be. No matter how many times I erase it, they keep writing it on my blank slate.

I AM NOT GAY

Okay, so in my case we all know this one isn’t true. But people have long expected this as part of being an adult man.

Masculine identity is associated with the fact of possessing, taking, penetrating, dominating, and asserting oneself, if necessary, by force. Feminine identity is associated with the fact of being possessed, docile, passive, submissive. Sexual “normality” and identity are inscribed within the context of the domination of a woman by a man. According to this point of view, homosexuality, which involves the domination of a man by another man, is considered, if not a mental illness, at least a gender identity disorder.

We all know that a long time ago some homosexuality was considered a normal part of a boy’s education. Some groups believed that a boy had to drink the “man’s milk” from a penis in order to become a man; others that the close relationship with an older man was necessary to learn how to be a man. The part that was always missing, though, is just how much older this older man should be. We imagine guys in their fifties sleeping with ten-year-olds, but that’s not how it was done. Older man really means only slightly older; it’s much more likely that a fourteen-year-old was hooking up with an eighteen-year-old. People expected a man to put away his homosexuality when he became an adult ready to marry. Under this model, men who are honestly gay are seen as either arrested in development or regressive. And, men who are “normal” and straight these days deny themselves the expression of a natural desire. Gay is a socially constructed identity; before a hundred and fifty years ago (estimating), gay was an action, not a person. The heteros have lost a lot by this polarization we have; if they get interested in another guy once, they feel like it ruins everything they are, it makes them not-man. Teenagers may look around the locker room, but they’re often too afraid to reach out and touch. Even with adults, it’s natural for usually straight guys to form an attachment with another man, but now it’s overladen with the “No homo” recitative. It’s a special friend who will let you sit in the seat next to him in an uncrowded movie theatre.

But, some facts:

Thus, the sociologist Frederick Whitam, after having worked for many years in homosexual communities in countries as different as the United States, Guatemala, Brazil, and the Philippines, suggests six conclusions: (1) homosexual persons appear in all societies, (2) the percentage of homosexuals seems the same in all societies and remains stable over time, (3) social norms neither prevent nor facilitate the emergence of a homosexual orientation, (4) homosexual subcultures appear in all societies that have a sufficient number of persons, (5) homosexuals of different societies tend to resemble one another as to their behavior and their interests, and (6) all societies produce a similar continuum between very masculine and very feminine homosexuals.

PROBLEM MAN 1: THE TOUGH GUY

The tough guy is the natural response to this sort of society. He denies any sort of femininity in himself. If he feels compassion or emotion, he hides it. From himself, if possible. Acknowledging any internal womanishness is failure. The problem with this is that society has arbitrarily divided basic human qualities into masculine and feminine categories, so the tough guy is really only half a person.

Jourard postulates that men have fundamentally the same psychological needs as women (to love and be loved, to communicate emotions and feelings, to be active and passive). However, the ideal of masculinity forbids men to satisfy these “human” needs. Others have insisted on the physical dangers that lie in wait for the tough guy: boys are forced to take risks that end in accidents (e.g., various sports); they smoke, drink, and use motorcycles and cars as symbols of virility. Some of them find confirmation of their virility only in violence, either personal or collective. In addition, the competition and stress that follow in their professional life, and their obsession with performance, only add to men’s fragility. The efforts demanded of men to conform to the masculine ideal cause anguish, emotional difficulties, fear of failure, and potentially dangerous and destructive compensatory behaviors. When one sizes up the psychosomatic uniqueness of the human being, the influence of psychic distress on physical illness, and when one realizes that men find it harder to consult medical doctors and psychologists and do so less often than women, then the shorter life expectancy of men is easier to understand. If one adds that in our society the life of a man is worth less than that of a woman (women and children first!), that he serves as cannon fodder in time of war, and that the depiction of his death (in the movies and on television) has become mere routine, a cliché of virility, one has good reason to regard traditional masculinity as life-threatening.

The violence is really a problem, especially in the United States. We have more people in jail than any other country in the world, and that doesn’t cover the crimes that aren’t reported.

Rape is the crime that is increasing the most in the United States. The FBI estimates that if this tendency continues, one woman out of four will be raped once in her life. If one adds that the number of women beaten by their husbands every year is estimated at 1.8 million, one will have some idea of the violence that surrounds them and the fear of men they legitimately feel. The threat of rape – which has nothing to do with the fantasies of the hysteric – has caused one woman to say: “It alters the meaning and feel of the night . . . and it is night half the time.” More generally, the fear of being raped looms over the daily life of all women.

I question the word all. It’s a big world, and I don’t believe that 51% of it is living in fear. But more of them are than I might realize. Strange women seem to find me threatening; being alone and silent and male is enough to be considered dangerous. Though I suppose the silence and the solitude aren’t as important as the maleness. Giving women I don’t know a wide berth seems to be a good solution, and living in the Middle East was good training. Now I don’t even look at women.

PROBLEM MAN 2: THE SOFT MAN

For a long time I dealt with the problem of being a man as many others do: we reject the aggressive, violent qualities of the tough guy and end up a softie.

The couple that consists of a feminist and a soft man share all household tasks and organize “a scrupulously exacting democracy, to such a degree must the division of tasks be fair.” Merete Gerlach-Nielsen points out that adaptation to the role of the soft man is not easy: it is often the feminist spouse who imposes this new behavior on her partner, though it may be profoundly alien to him. The man feels his masculinity is being attacked, his identity becomes uncertain, and most often the couple separate.

The ex and I were like this at first. I spent my undergraduate career reading feminist theory, and shortly before graduation I married someone who seemed to share these ideals. But after a year or two she didn’t want a soft man anymore. She wanted a tough guy, but I wasn’t him. So she lived with a man she didn’t respect, and I was plagued with my own inadequacy. Then, when the kids were born, she thought I was too violent to be left with them. I kept being pushed this way and that without being respected, without someone who claimed to love me taking the time to find out who I am.

The absence of attention (love?) on the part of a father prevents a son from identifying with him and establishing his own masculine identity. As a consequence, this son, lacking a father’s love, remains in the orbit of his mother, attracted by feminine values alone. He regards his father and his virility with the eyes of the mother. If the mother sees the father as “maybe brutal . . . unfeeling, obsessed . . . and the son often grows up with a wounded image of his father” and refuses to be like him.

Or, in my case, the son reproduces his parents’ relationship in his own marriage, with a similar situation of depression, dissatisfaction, suicidal ideation, and separation. I can only hope that my sons are going to make better choices.

To judge from Ernest Hemingway’s biography or those of other famous American men, an all-powerful mother who ceaselessly castrates those around her and a father obsessed by a feeling of incapacity produce boys who are very badly off.

I feel less incapable now than when I was still with the ex. Getting divorced was a terrible experience, but I’ve gained so much in self-respect that I’m glad I did it.

THE WAY FORWARD

Badinter points out that fathers are separated from their children in almost all these situations, and writes that bringing fathers back into their children’s lives is the best way to create a masculinity that doesn’t destroy traditionally feminine virtues.

All the studies show that paternal involvement also depends on the willingness of the mother. Yet many women do not want to see their companion become more occupied with the children. In the 1980s two studies showed that fathers who wanted to involve themselves a little more were not encouraged to do so: 60 percent to 80 percent of their spouses were not in favor.

To explain their rejecting attitude, many women mention their husband’s incompetence, which makes more work for them than it saves. But on a deeper level, they experience their maternal preeminence as a form of power that they do not want to share, even at the price of physical and mental exhaustion.

As with FGM, male personality mutilation is often performed by women. The ex hasn’t wanted me to be involved with her children for a long time. She used to say that she did, but she wanted me to interact with them in ways that she had scripted without giving me my lines. Naturally, I didn’t perform according to expectations. Even today, her children are her source of power and identity. I’m not sure if she exists without them. She thinks I don’t love them, perhaps because I understand myself as a separate human being.

Single mothers who work full time know that children are a heavy responsibility. For some, the emotional compensations are well worth the price. But for others, the reasons for the choice have more to do with guilt and a sense of duty – pressures that as yet do not weigh very heavily on fathers!

Badinter doesn’t have much use for fathers either, apparently. Guilt and a sense of duty weigh so heavily on me that they’ve often pointed me toward self-harm.

The thing that Badinter couldn’t predict, that I believe no one could have predicted, is what has actually happened. There was this show called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The title serves as an abbreviation for this complex cultural phenomenon where heterosexual men have appropriated traits seen as characteristic of homosexuals while retaining their heterosexual “real man” identity. For a while there was the metrosexual, who seemed totally gay while still being totally hetero; now straight guys put some work into their hair and clothes, and even get a little flamboyant in their style. Badinter wanted a mixture of tough guy and soft man attitudes, and it’s sort of happened by absorbing the gays instead of by reforming parenting styles.

One would have to be ignorant of identity problems to believe that one and the same generation of men, brought up with the old model, could succeed all at once in performing the dangerous triple somersault: first, questioning an ancestral virility, then accepting a feared femininity, and last, inventing a different masculinity compatible with that femininity.

I’m not sure where in this triple somersault we are now. I’d like to think that we’re on that last stage of things, but there’s no real way of knowing. The thing is that it’s like an idea I used to think about a lot: that every person goes through the ages of history in his own life. In childhood we’re interested in physical pleasures and making everything into a god, like the classical empires; later childhood is sort of Medieval, with the superstition and the ignorance; the Renaissance is an early adolescence, followed by an Age of Reason in young adulthood, a bit of Romance/Romanticism, and a Victorian middle age. Then it’s all (Post-) Modern and fragmented as we drift into senility. We each have to question the old virility, accept the feminine side of ourselves, and then figure out what that means. Every man has to relearn how to be a man; we recreate masculinity in ourselves all the time. That’s the inevitable result of an identity that is always provisional and based on negation. The important question is, is it the same old masculinity or something new? Does our gender performance lead to violence against women or not? Is it based in fear or respect? Are we more concerned about being a man or being a human?

More generally, those in favor of the tough guy or the soft man are making the mistake of thinking that there exist certain qualities exclusively characteristic of one sex and alien to the other, such as aggressivity, supposed to be specifically masculine, and compassion, essentially feminine. In fact, whether one considers aggressivity as an innate virtue or an acquired disease, one would have to be blind to say that women are not aggressive. Even if the patriarchal education and culture have taught them – more than men – to turn it against themselves, women are thoroughly familiar with this human impulse. They are, like men, influenced by the degree of violence in the social environment. Aggressivity is characteristic of both sexes, even if it is expressed differently. What is more, it should not be identified merely with a destructive, gratuitous violence. It is not only that, as Freud saw. It can also be equivalent to survival, action, and creation. Its absolute contrary is passivity and death, and its absence can mean loss of freedom and human dignity.

This entry has gone on for rather a long time, rather longer than necessary for a book this short. It provoked a strong response, and I have even more quotations that point out that my experience of my sexuality (convinced I was straight, marrying and having kids, then coming out) is far from idiosyncratic, as well as my experience of the homosexual community (not so polarized into female or male gender stereotypes as people think), and I was going to talk about a return to nearly traditional heroes after September 11, but it’s really quite long enough. Just one last thing:

Today, in our societies in which rituals have lost their meaning, the transition is more problematic, for it is not sanctioned by glaring proofs.

Fight Club showed us that rituals have not lost their meaning. Meaningful rituals are perhaps rare, but humans will never completely lose their taste for them. And while becoming a man is indeed problematic, we affirm each other; we negotiate manhood in communities rather than on the lone prairie. Every day we remind each other that being a man does not mean cleaving one’s heart in twain and throwing away the worser part of it; it means accepting all of ourselves, kindness and strength and compassion and anger and fortitude and adventure. All things human belong to all beings human. It takes a real man to love himself and others.

Had I picked up this novel when it was first published, I doubt I would know what to think. Woolf’s first two novels, The Voyage Out and Night and Day, are fairly straightforward, the narrative voice simple and clear, the books move as we expect books to. Then along comes Jacob’s Room, and it’s none of those things. Now, we know Woolf as experimenting with the techniques of painting in her novels, some blending of Cubism, Impressionism, and Expressionism, but in Jacob’s Room she’s still working on her technique. It’s kind of like what Mrs Dalloway would be, if it were written by David Lynch – disjointed, pregnant with the unsaid, flirting with obscenity, not making much sense the first time through but not establishing sufficient exigency to experience it again right away.

In short, the observer is choked with observations. Only to prevent us from being submerged by chaos, nature and society between them have arranged a system of classification which is simplicity itself; stalls, boxes, amphitheatre, gallery. The moulds are filled nightly. There is no need to distinguish details. But the difficulty remains – one has to choose. For though I have no wish to be Queen of England or only for a moment – I would willingly sit beside her; I would hear the Prime Minister’s gossip; the countess whisper, and share her memories of halls and gardens; the massive fronts of the respectable conceal after all their secret code; or why so impermeable? And then, doffing one’s own headpiece, how strange to assume for a moment some one’s – any one’s – to be a man of valour who has ruled the Empire; to refer while Brangaena sings to the fragments of Sophocles, or see in a flash, as the shepherd pipes his tune, bridges and aqueducts. But no – we must choose. Never was there a harsher necessity! or one which entails greater pain, more certain disaster; for wherever I seat myself, I die in exile: Whittaker in his lodging-house; Lady Charles at the Manor.

After reading the book, I think about how we react to people after they’ve died. We look at every moment of their lives at once, as if the person never aged but lived all his life in one Eternal Now. Fiction and biography give us the idea that lives have trajectory, as if death is a destination that we are all traveling toward, but our lived experience of death is different. Our daily lives seem static, and one day passes like the next, and then suddenly someone isn’t here any more and we forget the bad things and tell the funny stories and good impressions, the loves and endearing habits without the hatred and mistakes. We can forgive the dead nearly anything, because it’s often only after someone is dead that we realize that love is more durable than anger, and therefore more significant.

In subject matter, this book comes nearer D. H. Lawrence than anything else I’ve read by Woolf. She’s much franker about sex than she is customarily, especially the idea that some men prefer each other’s company to that of women. Young men strip their clothes off but don’t go swimming immediately, and some men reach middle age without marrying but forming possessive attachments with their peers. But the details are reserved for loose women.

The letter lay upon the hall table; Florinda coming in that night took it up with her, put it on the table as she kissed Jacob, and Jacob seeing the hand, left it there under the lamp, between the biscuit-tin and the tobacco-box. They shut the bedroom door behind them.

The sitting-room neither knew nor cared. The door was shut; and to suppose that wood, when it creaks, transmits anything save that rats are busy and wood dry is childish. These old houses are only brick and wood, soaked in human sweat, grained with human dirt. But if the pale blue envelope lying by the biscuit-box had the feelings of a mother, the heart was torn by the little creak, the sudden stir. Behind the door was the obscene thing, the alarming presence, and terror would come over her as at death, or the birth of a child. Better, perhaps, burst in and face it than sit in the antechamber listening to the little creak, the sudden stir, for her heart was swollen, and pain threaded it. My son, my son – such would be her cry, uttered to hide her vision of him stretched with Florinda, inexcusable, irrational, in a woman with three children living at Scarborough. And the fault lay with Florinda. Indeed, when the door opened and the couple came out, Mrs Flanders would have flounced upon her – only it was Jacob who came first, in his dressing-gown, amiable, authoritative, beautifully healthy, like a baby after an airing, with an eye clear as running water. Florinda followed, lazily stretching; yawning a little; arranging her hair at the looking-glass – while Jacob read his mother’s letter.

The concerns that Woolf will become more well-known for do assert themselves from time to time, as in this passage that seems to belong to A Room of One’s Own or Three Guineas:

But coming along Gerrard Street was a tall man in a shabby coat. A shadow fell across Evelina’s window – Jacob’s shadow, though it was not Jacob. And Fanny turned and walked along Gerrard Street and wished that she had read books. Nick never read books, never talked of Ireland, or the House of Lords; and as for his finger-nails! She would learn Latin and read Virgil. She had been a great reader. She had read Scott; she had read Dumas. At the Slade no one read. But no one knew Fanny at the Slade, or guessed how empty it seemed to her; the passion for ear-rings, for dances, for Tonks and Steer – when it was only the French who could paint, Jacob said. For the moderns were futile; painting the least respectable of the arts; and why read anything but Marlowe and Shakespeare, Jacob said, and Fielding if you must read novels?

“Fielding,” said Fanny, when the man in Charing Cross Road asked her what book she wanted.

She bought Tom Jones.

At ten o’clock in the morning, in a room which she shared with a school teacher, Fanny Elmer read Tom Jones – that mystic book. For this dull stuff (Fanny thought) about people with odd names is what Jacob likes. Good people like it. Dowdy women who don’t mind how they cross their legs read Tom Jones – a mystic book; for there is something, Fanny thought, about books which if I had been educated I could have liked – much better than ear-rings and flowers, she sighed, thinking of the corridors at the Slade and the fancy-dress dance next week. She had nothing to wear.

They are real, thought Fanny Elmer, setting her feet on the mantelpiece. Some people are. Nick perhaps, only he was so stupid. And women never – except Miss Sargent, but she went off at lunch-time and gave herself airs. There they sat quietly of a night reading, she thought. Not going to music-halls; not looking in at shop windows; not wearing each other’s clothes, like Robertson who had worn her shawl, and she had worn his waistcoat, which Jacob could only do very awkwardly; for he liked Tom Jones.

There it lay on her lap, in double columns, price three and sixpence; the mystic book in which Henry Fielding ever so many years ago rebuked Fanny Elmer for feasting on scarlet, in perfect prose, Jacob said. For he never read modern novels. He liked Tom Jones.

“I do like Tom Jones,” said Fanny, at five-thirty that same day early in April when Jacob took out his pipe in the arm-chair opposite.

Many people seem to think that the significant thing about someone is whether she reads, and everyone who loves books will naturally have a great deal in common about which they can talk. Fanny Elmer has realized the lie in that thought. It’s not enough just to read; you have to read the same things, though frankly even with people who like the same books as I do, I don’t have much to say. I feel a great surge of affection for someone who shares my taste in books, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into conversation. Our books shape our pattern of thinking, and it’s the recognition of the similarity in mindsets that draws readers together, but generally in a companionable silence.

It is curious, lying in a boat, to watch the waves. Here are three coming regularly one after another, all much of a size. Then, hurrying after them comes a fourth, very large and menacing; it lifts the boat; on it goes; somehow merges without accomplishing anything; flattens itself out with the rest.

What can be more violent than the fling of boughs in a gale, the tree yielding itself all up the trunk, to the very tip of the branch, streaming and shuddering the way the wind blows, yet never flying in dishevelment away? The corn squirms and abases itself as if preparing to tug itself free from the roots, and yet is tied down.

Why, from the very windows, even in the dusk, you see a swelling run through the street, an aspiration, as with arms outstretched, eyes desiring, mouths agape. And then we peaceably subside. For if the exaltation lasted we should be blown like foam into the air. The stars would shine through us. We should go down the gale in salt drops – as sometimes happens. For the impetuous spirits will have none of this cradling. Never any swaying or aimlessly lolling for them. Never any making believe, or lying cosily, or genially supposing that one is much like another, fire warm, wine pleasant, extravagance a sin.

When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I felt confined by government policies and social norms. The impetuous spirit in me is still raging against confinement, but now it’s an inconvenient economic situation penning me in. I just want the freedom to go out and find someone to love; it doesn’t seem like much to ask for, but apparently it’s entirely too much. I’m going to have to work my ass off at two jobs just for the privilege of driving an hour to the nearest establishment for men of my type, buying a drink or two, and meeting someone. I keep thinking that life shouldn’t be this hard, but it continues as ever, heedless of my railing.

My grandfather died last week. The funeral is a week from tomorrow, and already I can feel his life being flattened under a slide for the microscope. My mother will remember that he was a churchgoer who served in World War II, worked for the government, and raised a large family. Other family members will remember his support for liberal politics, and the fact that he loved his children more than religious dogma. I’ll think of how he always played with us when they came to visit. I’ll miss buying a bag of pecans at Christmas (and a bag of Dove chocolates for my grandmother, who died a few years ago), and playing Scrabble with one of the world’s sorest losers. He didn’t lose often, probably because he kept the score. He always said, “A scorekeeper who doesn’t win isn’t a very good scorekeeper.” I’m very proud of the fact that he spent his time in the war saving lives without taking any. He worked closely with General Eisenhower, and he used his radio to deceive the Germans into thinking Allied troops were where they weren’t, often by being himself one of only two American soldiers in an area. He was kind, and patriotic, and loving, and popular in a way that I don’t think I shall ever be. When I think that I will never see him again, that word never seems to make my life stretch out like a desert highway with no relief or shelter in sight. Death always makes me feel so alone.

After reading a book about him, I still don’t feel as if I knew Jacob Flanders well at all. I don’t think anyone else does either. I worry that when I die I’ll leave a similar impression on the world. I’ve been called mysterious and secretive, but I really just want to love and be loved. And in order for me to trust that I am loved, I need to feel known. I don’t want to end up like him, a bunch of letters and receipts scattered around a room, with a pair of old shoes.

Last weekend I found myself at one of the local bookstores, where I had a gift certificate from buying electronics a year ago. Their English-language selection is rather small, and last year was dominated by the works of Paulo Coelho. This year, Coelho is out and the battle for supremacy is being decided between Nora Roberts and Jude Devereaux. Neither of them writes books I care much for, so it’s a good thing I’m moving in a few weeks. I ended up with the only copy of the only book in the store I wanted to read, a recent Stephen King novel. When I was about two-thirds in, I was moving the book from the couch to the nightstand and took a good look at the cover. It’s not of a girl in a modest green-and-black dress; it’s of a girl in a low-cut short green dress after the censors saw it. It feels strange to own a book that has been thus altered.

Stephen King is famous for writing horror, which is a bit of a shame because I believe he is one of the best writers of our time, full stop. And, he doesn’t write just horror. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” for instance, the one about the banker (Tim Robbins) and the Irishman (Morgan Freeman) breaking out of prison, is one of the most moving stories I’ve ever read. As his career progresses, King seems to write more and more about the fact that the world doesn’t need imaginary monsters like It or The Tommyknockers; real people are monstrous enough.

Joyland is a coming-of-age murder mystery. Yeah, there are a couple of ghosts and a couple of psychics, but that doesn’t make it horror. Our first-person narrator, Devin Jones, is spending the summer he’s twenty-one working at an amusement park on the coast of North Carolina. There is no mention of the fact that we were called The Graveyard of the Atlantic (the shore was a bit too tricky for early sixteenth-century mariners). He makes new friends, gets over getting dumped by his first love, saves a few lives, and finds a real sense of identity wearing a big furry dog suit in the unreasonable heat. He stays on after summer’s end, makes friends with a terminally ill ten-year-old, and loses his virginity to an older woman. The murder mystery works its way in and out; people keep seeing the ghost of a girl who was killed in the haunted house four years previously, so Devin sets out to solve the murder as part of his growing-up process.

One of the things that sets this novel apart from the typical story of its type is that Devin is narrating from 2013 the events of 1973. This gives him the chance to drop wise commentary into the novel in a realistic fashion; it also means that he keeps interpolating epilogues. No sooner do we see Tom and Erin move closer together than Devin tells us about how long and happy their marriage was, how it lasted until death parted them more than twenty years after the story. It’s sweet, and pulls the emphasis off of the suspenseful murder-ghost part of things. I know that these people are going to survive, and even though he makes comments like

When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.

Devin Jones is a fairly reliable narrator. As you would expect from someone telling a forty-year-old story, he’s also a little nostalgic.

We could see other fires – great leaping bonfires as well as cooking fires – all the way down the beach to the twinkling metropolis of Joyland. They made a lovely chain of burning jewelry. Such fires are probably illegal in the twenty-first century; the powers that be have a way of outlawing many beautiful things made by ordinary people. I don’t know why that should be, I only know it is.

I’m not 61 yet, but I watch enough old movies and read enough old books to believe that this is true. I think it’s part of the paradoxical nature of the internet – everyone has a chance to make some art and get it out into the public, but so many people are doing it that no one becomes famous. Besides, most people use the internet to make the world uglier, by leaving unkind comments or spreading bad news. Some days, the time I spend on facebook is even more depressing than staring at the four blank walls of the studio apartment.

The day that Mike spends in Joyland is a really emotional section of the book for me. How can it not be? The kid is dying of multiple sclerosis, will be cremated in a few months, so Devin gets his friends to reopen Joyland for an afternoon. Mike rides all the rides (that his mother will let him) and wins all the prizes. I was also a rather unhappy child, growing up with a single mother, and while I’m still alive at very nearly thirty-five, I can understand what it’s like for someone who never gets to do anything to finally have the same kind of fun that everyone else takes for granted.

All I can say is what you already know: some days are treasure. Not many, but I think in almost every life there are a few. That was one of mine, and when I’m blue – when life comes down on me and everything looks tawdry and cheap, the way Joyland Avenue did on a rainy day – I go back to it, if only to remind myself that life isn’t always a butcher’s game. Sometimes the prizes are real. Sometimes they’re precious.

I also identify with Devin, in the big breakup with Wendy. Well, it was big to him, even though she dumped him by letter and just stopped taking his calls. I was married for eight years; it was the first time I really loved someone, and we were fairly determined to make it last forever. There were problems and we started pulling apart, but when I told her I could no longer pretend to be straight she was done. Like Devin Jones, I was depressed with suicidal ideation, and the only thing I had going on in my life was my job. He falls in love with his job and stays in North Carolina; I felt that my job was futile and moved to Saudi Arabia. Someone who had lived through a similar situation once called me brave for leaving; I think I was too cowardly to stay. I can’t imagine his bravery in staying in the same place to date guys where he had lived with his wife. Devin deals with the breakup in a few months; it took me about a year and a half.

I knew it was true, and part of me was sorry. It’s hard to let go. Even when what you’re holding onto is full of thorns, it’s hard to let go. Maybe especially then.

At twenty-one, I wanted someone who was beautiful, virtuous, and talented. I found her, we got married. I held on too long, long after my hand was clutching thorns and bleeding constantly. After the divorce, though my list of qualifications is still short, it has become rather different. I want a man who is kind, willing to forget offenses, and able to set boundaries.

This summer, I had an experience like this:

Ten years after the events I’m telling you about, I was (for my sins, maybe) a staff writer on Cleveland magazine. I used to do most of my first-draft writing on yellow legal pads in a coffee shop on West Third Street, near Lakefront Stadium, which was the Indians’ stomping grounds back then. Every day at ten, this young woman would come in and get four or five coffees, then take them back to the real estate office next door. I couldn’t tell you the first time I saw her, either. All I know is that one day I saw her, and realized that she sometimes glanced at me as she went out. The day came when I returned that glance, and when she smiled, I did, too. Eight months later we were married.

Something about this passage feels absolutely perfect. But the guy I saw – he’s in a town I’ve been moving in and out of for sixteen years; I’m sure I’d seen him before. But in July I saw him, for the first time with all the force of Devin Jones’s italics. There wasn’t time to do much before heading back into the desert, but I’m hoping to rectify that situation in the next few weeks.

In relation to sex, most horror films are as prudish as Chick tracts. If anyone has sex, he or she must die. Jason Voorhees once impaled two people right in the middle of it; in The Cabin in the Woods, the girl who has sex has to die first. The same thing happens in LGBT films before around 2010; the sex scenes are designed to make the audience uncomfortable, as if they’re horrific (pay attention to the music, lighting, and situation – you’ll see it).  Joyland’s attitude is different.

 “You better go now, Dev. And thank you. It was lovely. We saved the best ride for last, didn’t we?”

That was true. Not a dark ride but a bright one.

Sex can be horrific, no doubt. Chokers, rapists, and such. But it can also be bright, beautiful, joyful. Lovely. And even in a Stephen King novel, it’s not a one-way ticket to the death-house.

Usually in a murder mystery I can sit back and go along for the ride. This is the first time in a long time that I’ve given any thought to who the killer might be. I was right, but I figured it out by looking at the constraints of the narrative instead of the clues presented. The killer has to be a character in the story, not some random person off the street who hasn’t been involved in the action, and it has to be someone the audience cares about, preferably because of a charming personality trait or habitual gesture. For me, it’s usually the character I feel most strongly attracted to; I don’t actually think murder is sexy, but maybe my subconscious does.

So, it’s a cheap mystery paperback. Checking with the exchange rate, I got mine new for about $8.50. But it’s a very good mystery novel, one worth reading a second time. It’s a brilliant study in effective foreshadowing, for those of you writing your NaNoWriMo novels who want to get that technique down. I do hope that fifty years from now, when we’re studying the novels of the late twentieth/early twenty-first century, Stephen King gets a good representation in the academy. He richly deserves it, more than many an author with an NBA or Pulitzer.

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

The days go by.

and

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

and even

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another description:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, something happens, and

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

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

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

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

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

I was reading this on an airplane, and an older gentleman from Boston leaned over and said, “Camus? Wow. He’s really good.” Unfortunately, he killed any credibility he may have had when he pronounced Camus as if it rhymed with Seamus.

When discussing the style of a translated work, things are a little tricky. How much of the sentence structure is the original author, and how much is the translator making sure the sentences end up grammatically correct in English? In some Romance languages, they write these incredibly long run-on sentences with no subjects, just a list of verb-plus-object-phrase madness; as student translators, we make these into series of simple sentences, and it doesn’t have the same kind of impact. Camus’s narrator, Meursault, says that he is a young man little given to self-reflection (though now that I think of it, I may have projected the youth onto him since I first read the novel when I was 22). In the translation I read, his sentences were short and clipped, like Hemingway. There’s not much in the way of figurative language, so on the rare occasions it comes, it’s very striking. Like,

Then I fired four more times at the motionless body where the bullets lodged without leaving a trace. And it was like knocking four quick times on the door of unhappiness.

Books that end up as trial narratives always seem to begin with the most inconsequential things. This is no exception. The novel begins with the death of Meursault’s mother, and it seems to progress with his refusing to grieve. An unclear number of years ago, he gave up studying to take care of his aging mother, and then when she needed full-time care and he couldn’t afford to hire a nurse, he put her in a home. He never admits to depression, but it seems pretty clear that he lives with it. He’s convinced himself that nothing matters much; he’s detached from the people and events around him; he’s detached from his own emotions; he only ever feels a kinship with the earth when he thinks of it as indifferent to all human matters. I can accept the idea that he doesn’t want to share his grieving process with the reader, but his actions make it clear that he is definitely not dealing with losing his mother, or the guilt of putting her in a home, or the anger at giving up his life for her.

It seems to me that he spends the first half of the book trying to insist on life and control death. He gets a new lover and tightens a couple of friendships. The girl seems good for him, but he’s not good for her. He’s willing to give a commitment, but as long as she understands that the relationship lacks an emotional connection. He’ll get married, but he won’t love her, or pretend to. One of the friends loses his dog, and Meursault finally seems on the cusp of making some kind of connection with another person as they bond over the loss of loved ones, but he stops short of actually bridging that gap between himself and the rest of humanity.

The other friend presents some trouble. Raymond is with this Arab girl he thinks is cheating on him, so he gets Meursault to write her a really scathing breakup letter. Then she shows up and they have a pretty major row; the police get involved and everything. Her brother and his friends start stalking Raymond, even following him out to the beach on a weekend getaway. There’s a one-knife fight and Raymond gets cut up a bit because Meursault asked to hold the gun during the fight (thus giving him the deadliest weapon, the most control over life and death). Later, Meursault is walking alone on the beach and finds the nameless Arab, also alone. The Arab brandishes his knife a little, and Meursault knocks on the door of unhappiness.

Don DeLillo’s White Noise is a novel about the fear of death, and there’s an idea in the book that there are only two types of people, those who kill and those who die, with the implication that you can stave off death by becoming a murderer. I think this is the real reason that Meursault kills the Arab. He’s trying to avoid death by taking that power into his own hands. If he has the power of death, proven by killing someone, then he can prevent that power being used against him. The idea is patently absurd, but Meursault is not really given to self-reflection.

I identified most strongly with Meursault when he’s in prison. He stays in his cell all the time, losing track of what day it is, and whether it’s day or night. Time seems to stop. Some change is marked by the times he talks to lawyers or goes to the trial, but he exists in a vague fog without any motivation to do anything. A few years ago, I made a huge change in my social identity, going from an apparently content husband and father of three to an obviously lonely gay bachelor. I needed some time to deal with this, so I took a job in a foreign country where I lived on an isolated compound. Unlike Meursault, I am very prone to self-reflection, sometimes obsessively so; therefore I dealt with my issues, but a lot of it was the same as he describes. I lost track of day and night, and somehow only got hungry when all the stores were closed. I couldn’t settle into a recognizable sleep pattern, though I never reached Meursault’s feat of sleeping for sixteen hours. But I did pass most of my days in the near-catatonic stupor he describes. The main difference is that I had a television to stare at. There were other people on the compound, and I didn’t have to spend so much time alone, but depression and anxiety can be as effective jailers as the Algerian prison system.

Meursault’s trial focuses on the issue of his soul, which probably made more sense in the 1940s than it does to me now. What is a soul? In the sense that the lawyers use it, the word soul seems to refer to a person’s relationship with his own past. When the prosecutor says he has no soul, he’s referring to Meursault’s lack of emotional connection with his own past experiences. He moves through life living in exclusively in the moment. He enjoys what this moment has to offer, but he doesn’t connect it with past or future. In The Mill on the Floss, Maggie Tulliver asks Stephen Guest, “If the past is not to bind us, where does duty lie?” Meursault answers the question: nowhere. He doesn’t feel any obligation to do other than what he wants. The people around him see causes and effects everywhere, they realize the implications of actions, but he just floats along refusing to see it. He doesn’t feel connected with the world, or with other people, or even with his own past and future selves. In this sense, narrating this book is the most uncharacteristic thing he does.

I really don’t like the translation of the title of this book. L’Étranger could mean The Stranger, but it has other meanings too. Meursault isn’t really a stranger; he has a loose community of friends and acquaintances. I think it would be better translated as The Foreigner, or The Alien. What is at issue is not familiarity, but difference. Meursault’s inability to connect makes him unavoidably foreign even in his hometown; he’s alien, in some sense to the entire human race.

I don’t remember clearly everything that Said said about this book in Culture and Imperialism, but I agree with him that Meursault’s national identity is very important. So the book takes place in Algeria, a French colony in the Muslim world. He’s quick to label people as Arabs, and seems to look down on them for being Arab, but he also points out Raymond’s white skin and looks down on him for it. He’s really happy with his own skin color, which he describes as brown, but where does he fit in this society? Maybe his inability to connect with people comes from not having a place where he belongs.

Coming out devastated my social circle, which mostly consisted of conservative Christian couples with children. My ex didn’t get on well with my family or with the friends I had before we got married, so after having been with her for eight years I felt disconnected from everyone. Finding a place in the gay community was hard because unlike Christians, they don’t all get together a few times a week to talk about how happy they are to be gay. Leaving the country seemed a better option than sticking around. But this summer I’ve been traveling around to see my friends and family – people I knew before, during, and after my marriage – and I’ve been amazed at the response I’ve gotten. Maybe we all just needed some time to process things, or maybe I was so depressed back then that I couldn’t see that people really did care about me, or maybe I was so fragile people were afraid of me. Whatever the cause for the break in the past, this summer I feel like I’ve been given my life back. All of my past has returned to me, as a source of strength instead of guilt or loss. That period of Meursault-esque isolation from people and from my past is over. No longer a stranger, I am happy to close this book.