Posts Tagged ‘rape’

This was Kundera’s first novel, and in some ways, it explains his habitual themes more clearly. It’s like The Joke is a key to help understanding his entire oeuvre. While most of his other novels that I have read focus on the Prague Spring or other anti-Communist movements, this one predates all that. It starts with the generation that became Communist after World War II.

I have become such an inveterate skeptic that whenever someone starts listing his likes and dislikes I am unable to take it seriously, or to put it more precisely, I can accept it only as an indication of the person’s self-image. I didn’t for a moment believe that Helena breathed more easily in filthy, badly ventilated dives than in clean, well-ventilated restaurants or that she preferred raw alcohol and cheap, greasy food to haute cuisine. If her words had any value at all, it was because they revealed her predilection for a special pose, a pose long since outdated, out of style, a pose going back to the years of revolutionary enthusiasm, when anything “common,” “plebeian,” “plain,” or “coarse” was admired and anything “refined” or “elegant,” anything connected with good manners, was vilified.

I think that it must have been terribly thrilling to have been a Communist living during the revolution, seeing the old forms of civilization consciously destroyed and replaced by something rational, based on the ideology that you yourself are committed to. Ludvik Jahn is just such a young man, but he keeps a skeptical distance from the crowd. He has a friend, Marketa, who dives in head first, drinks the Kool-Aid, whatever other metaphor you might prefer for a complete commitment to a system of belief. So when she goes away to training camp, he writes her letters, just sort of messing with her because she’s gullible and naively enthusiastic. But. One postcard, intended as this sort of not-funny-to-everyone joke, gets picked up by the Party and his life gets ruined. Sarcasm always stings a little, but here that little sting turns around and eats his entire life. His best friend Zemanek votes him out of the Party, and therefore out of the university. He’s drafted by the military, but that little black mark on his record gets him sent to a prison squad, where he works in a mine with rioters, thieves, and political dissidents. They’re forced to work six days a week, but the only way to get leave passes or other privileges is to volunteer to work on Sunday too, so sometimes they’d go thirteen or twenty days without a break. It’s a lonely, miserable existence.

I know that my experience is not that bad – the universe is generally fairly gentle with me – but this does remind me of my expulsion from Texas, nearly a year ago. I work for a private language company that does intensive English programs, and they sent me to Texas to work at modifying our curriculum to expand the market to boarding schools with international students. Speaking strictly professionally, it was a resounding success. I kept careful records and had enough data to show that my students’ language skill had improved dramatically, but that wasn’t enough. Little did I know that the Christian school where I worked had been watching me like a hawk all year, and as soon as they figured out my Facebook identity they dug through everything I had ever posted, all four years of it, and used it as proof that I was anti-Christian and deserved to be fired. I’m not against Christians or their beliefs, as long as those beliefs aren’t being used to hurt anyone. They were aghast at all the pictures of men I’ve hit the Like button for, but they based their argument on a joke. It’s not a very funny joke, admittedly, but it was a joke nonetheless.

Back when I was religious, sometimes I’d joke with my friends on the day between Good Friday and Easter – Jesus is dead, we can do what we want while he isn’t looking. I even added a bit about him getting back from Hell, when I would go back to being good. Now, I agree that it’s not very funny, but it is completely orthodox. Many theologians have believed that Jesus spent his time between death and resurrection saving souls from their punishment – the Medievals called it The Harrowing of Hell. You can see it in the old Cycle plays (The York Cycle can be found in your local academic library). Before Jesus, everyone went to hell because of Original Sin, then Jesus went down there to personally bring to heaven all those who were actually good people. Now, because of Jesus, the decent people can skip hell and go to heaven. The Harrowing of Hell is a great cinematic moment in the history of the world as envisioned by the Christian Church, yet these people hadn’t heard of it. This is the problem with splinter groups (read: non-denominational independent Protestant Churches) – insufficient education. My supervisor called it a witch hunt because I’m gay, but because the company does want to keep this market open, they relocated me back to the Midwest. The little Christian school would have just fired me because in Texas it is perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay. My company was really great about the whole thing, appropriately appalled at the suggestion I be fired for my sexuality, so they sent me somewhere I would be surrounded by friends and unconditionally accepted. So, a good move.

What bothers me about all this is just how nice the Christians were, right up until they asked my boss to fire me. I should have figured something was wrong – my subconscious was sending all kinds of paranoia messages, like how I was avoiding open spaces because I kept seeing men aiming rifles at me. But I assumed it was a response to past situations and not the present one, and I knew they weren’t really there, so I figured I was just being crazy, like I was back when I was religious. But no, I was ignoring a present warning. I really ought to learn to trust myself. These people were not my friends, even though I thought they were and trusted them almost completely. A year later, I still have a serious aversion to churches. And strangers. And religions in general.

So, drifting back to changes in Czech society in the late 1940s. They absolutely rejected religion and capitalism, replacing them with a belief in progress, community, and communism. As such, familiar habits became crimes, such as sarcasm or a belief in God. The belief in God doesn’t fit with the officially atheistic stance of The Communist Party, but sarcasm is a subtler crime. It evinces a certain pessimism, an antagonistic way of seeing the world, and pessimism is a lack of faith in progress and hence anathema to the Communists. Sarcasm is not the product of happiness. It betokens disappointment and pride, a sense of intellectual superiority. When everyone in the community is holding hands and singing together, sarcasm is extremely anti-social. The Communists were trying to force an individualistic society into becoming collective, and some people resisted. Maintaining individual difference marked people as suspect because difference meant hierarchization. Part of this destruction of the individual is the erasure of the line between public and private spheres. Suddenly I understand why Kundera makes such a big deal out of this in later books – privacy was taken away by the Communist Revolution. It must have made it strange to arrive in the West and see exhibitionism, where people voluntarily arrange a private act for public viewing. So this explains his fascination with writing about public sex, and how weirdly scatological his middle-aged characters can get.

Ludvik’s sarcasm landed him in prison mines for several years. Finally he was allowed to finish his degree and become the academic he had always wanted to be. All this is mostly flashback – the present of the book is about revenge. He’s coming back to his hometown to avenge himself on the man who ruined his life. But he gets sidetracked when he sees Lucie.

Lucie is from a different city. As a teenager, she had a gang that she was friends with, and when they got to be around sixteen they noticed that she was the only girl and proceeded to gang rape the shit out of her, repeatedly. Eventually she got away, and by that I mean got run out of town because everyone said she was a slut, and started a new life in a new town. There, she met Ludvik during his time in the mines and they had a thing for a while, but he never understood why she wouldn’t have sex with him. She’d try to be willing, but in the end she just couldn’t. She coped with the rape by creating a division between her body and soul – the one became dirty and corrupted with the violence of men, but the other was free and pure. She loved Ludvik with her soul, but she needed such an abyss between the physical and the emotional that she couldn’t have sex with him. Eventually they broke up over not having sex, and she left town to start over again. This third town is Ludvik’s childhood home, but she has no way of knowing that. She meets Kostka, a Christian determined to save her. Kostka was a professor at the time of Ludvik’s expulsion, and he was expelled for his religion a short time afterward. He helped to heal her internal divisions, and when the time is right she expresses that personal union by having sex with him, which can sound a little sordid and self-serving on his part, but it’s actually a big step for her to be able to give her body to someone she loves and respects. The sex doesn’t seem to benefit him much; it’s more for her, celebrating her newfound love for her own body. It only happened the one time, like a baptism, and then she went on to lead a conventional life in a conventional marriage to a conventional guy who probably beats her in the conventional way.

Ludvik really has one purpose in coming here: to sleep with Zemanek’s wife Helena. He thinks that cuckolding the guy who derailed his life will make up for all the suffering he’s gone through. But again, this relies on a sense of privacy that the mainstream has abandoned. Ludvik’s seduction succeeds, but his revenge fails because Zemanek doesn’t care. He’s fucking this girl who’s young enough to be his daughter and rubbing it in Helena’s face. Helena thinks she has found someone she can leave her husband for, but Ludvik isn’t looking for a commitment. She might be in love, but to him she’s just a revenge fuck. She has an assistant who’s in love with her and even younger than Zemanek’s girl, but she’s not into him, at least not yet.

Our other essential character is Jaroslav, Ludvik’s childhood friend. While Ludvik and Zemanek embrace the Party in their youth, Jaroslav doesn’t. He’s not in the center of the revolution. But, when the Party announces that it intends to foster art with Communist ideals that still retains a national character, he finds his way in. Jaroslav loves Moravian traditions, especially folk music. He organizes the traditional dances, he writes songs in the folk tradition with Communist-approved themes, he finds ways to keep doing what he loves doing even under a repressive regime. Ludvik may criticize, but Jaroslav did what we all do – he selected and expanded the canon. On a small scale, each of us who reads and writes does this; on a larger scale, academia has trends in what gets taught and what gets avoided. For example, in the 1960s Sir Walter Scott was considered one of the most important Romantic writers, equally with Byron, Keats, and Wordsworth. Now, his poetry is considered too long and tedious to teach, so we mention Ivanhoe in a survey class and move on. Other works get dropped for political reasons, like Heart of Darkness or The Education of Little Tree. Then we choose other things to add, like Felicia Hemans or Oroonoko. There are a lot of subtle currents that add up to big changes.

Youth is a terrible thing: it is a stage trod by children in buskins and fancy costumes mouthing speeches they’ve memorized and fanatically believe but only half understand. History too is a terrible thing: it so often ends up a playground for youth – the young Nero, the young Napoleon, fanaticized mobs of children whose simulated passions and primitive poses suddenly metamorphose into a catastrophically real reality.

When I think of all this, my whole set of values goes awry and I feel a deep hatred towards youth, coupled with a certain paradoxical indulgence towards the criminals of history, whose crimes I suddenly see as no more than the terrible restlessness of waiting to grow up.

While our situations are drastically different, to some extent Ludvik et al are going through the same thing that Generation X is doing today. In our late teens and early twenties, we felt like we were reshaping our world to be kinder, more welcoming. Now that we’re in our thirties or forties, it seems like we’re supposed to have made it, but at thirty-seven I don’t feel like I have anything more together than I did ten years ago. The universe has not acceded to my demand for a better world, and now people are fighting against the movement that I feel really made things better – the Obama presidency. The young people growing up don’t have the same values that people only fifteen years older than they are did. Jaroslav’s son hates folk music; he and his friends are all excited about modernity, so they’re wearing leather jackets and listening to rock music, and in a few years they will propel the Prague Spring to try to take their country back from their Communist parents. Youthful idealism can make a lot of good things happen, but as we age we develop compassion: we learn to see people as individuals instead of masses, ideas as shades of grey instead of the black-and-white ideologies of adolescence. Ludvik’s response, hating youth, is a result of his personal experience of betrayal.

But while it may seem that he is one of those criminals restless to grow up, I don’t feel like he has. This whole revenge thing smacks of immaturity. He sees Helena’s body as belonging to her husband, and his sex act as thieving something to balance the years of freedom stolen from him. Zemanek doesn’t see his wife’s body as his; the Communist idea seems closer to Brave New World, where everybody belongs to everybody else. A woman’s body is never her own. That’s why I think Lucie and Kostka’s experience is so important and good – Kostka teaches Lucie that her body belongs to her, and when they have sex it is her decision about what to do with her body. I don’t make any great claims to maturity myself; I’m preparing to see my family this summer, and as I look ahead, I’m not picturing spending time with the people I love, I’m imagining confrontations with the brothers I feel betrayed by. Without using this vocabulary for it, I’ve been visualizing revenge on them, not by sleeping with their wives but through cutting comments and burning indifference. But that doesn’t make me any better than Ludvik, and it’s not a path that will lead to a good time. I’m not the same person I was when bad things went down, and neither are they. As Kundera points out, revenge is either immediate or worthless. There are no other options.

As long as people can escape to the realm of fairy tales, they are full of nobility, compassion, and poetry. In the realm of everyday existence they are, alas, more likely to be full of caution, mistrust, and suspicion.

The fate of this book is like the fate of its protagonist. Kundera wrote it as a novel, not a political satire. The problem with realism is that if you show real problems realistically, people think you’re exaggerating or being satirical. So, the Communists saw his book the same way his fictional Communists saw Ludvik’s joke, as a serious attack on the establishment. Westerners heard of it and started translating, but they translated poorly and only the bits that served their agendas. Eventually the author left Czechoslovakia and moved to Paris, and he set about having his novels retranslated, so while my copy is an approved translation, it’s not the final definitive one that Kundera supervised in the 1990s. Everyone took it so seriously, even when the title warns us not to.

The promotional material (quotes, blurbs,) markets this as the book of Forster’s gay stories. That’s not always accurate, but it’s pretty close. Chronologically, these stories fall into a few different groups.

PRE-WORLD WAR I

Almost all the writing for which Forster is famous happened between 1900 and 1914. He wrote two collections of short stories during this time, though one was not published until the 1920s. Collected here are five previously uncollected stories, most of them unpublished, and probably with good reason. “Albergo Empedocle” is the one that made it, and it’s probably the best. It’s about an English guy who goes to the Mediterranean with his fiancée’s family, and he realizes that he lived in a Greek colony on Sicily in a previous life (Empedocles having favored the idea of reincarnation). However, the previous life takes over his current life, and he ends up in a mental institution speaking a forgotten dialect of Greek. Despite Forster’s comparative youth, there is some wisdom here:

Had she only realized that it is only hypocrites who cannot forgive hypocrisy, whereas those who search for truth are too conscious of the maze to be hard on others – then the bitter flow of her thoughts might have been stopped and the catastrophe averted. But it was not conceivable to her that he should forgive – or that she should accept forgiveness, for to her forgiveness meant triumph of one person over another.

I like the ability here to understand things from multiple perspectives, as well as the understanding that people who are really in the struggle to understand the world are gentle to those who misunderstand it, and that defining forgiveness as triumph instead of reconciliation leads to bad outcomes.

The first story, “Ansell,” reminds me a bit of Maurice, in that it’s about abandoning society’s ideals and living happily and naturally with a lower-class friend of the same gender. In these early stories, if you’re looking for homosexuality, you can find it, but it’s not obvious. There’s a point here that really irritated me:

Dead silence ensued, which was well enough for Ansell, to whom it merely meant that neither of us had any more to say. But to educated people silence matters: it is a token of stupidity and lack of invention.

I’m quite sufficiently educated, but I don’t often feel silence to be awkward. I don’t see the purpose of education or intelligence to be the obliteration of quiet with idle chatter. I see it as the exact opposite – good friends and intelligent people know when to keep their mouths shut. I have a lot of thoughts that I don’t express (and don’t want to), and I like being able to pursue a train of thought even when there are other people around. Most of the people I love are those who know how to sit quietly with me.

BETWEEN THE WARS

So, Forster wrote Maurice and World War I happened, and there’s a bit of a gap. He wrote his last novel, some say his greatest, A Passage to India, in 1924, and there were a number of other stories, but at one point he decided that he was writing the stories “not to express myself, but to excite myself” and he burned them all. So, there are some racy Forster stories that the world will never see because he thought they were blocking his creativity – he couldn’t write anything publishable because every time he picked up a pen gay sex came out of it. But after the burning, he kept writing stories without publishing them. The three stories in the 1920s become gradually more graphic, but they all have a solemn air – “The Life to Come,” “Dr Woolacott,” and “Arthur Snatchfold.” Gay relationships are punished pretty severely, too – by death in the first two and imprisonment in the last.

“Dr Woolacott” is a ghost story – a young invalid meets the ghost of one of the soldiers his doctor treated during The War, and the ghost casts doubt on his treatment, and as they come together physically the boy dies. “The Life to Come” may be one of the best stories, but it’s also one of the saddest.

Love had been born somewhere in the forest, of what quality only the future could decide. Trivial or immortal, it had been born to two human bodies as a midnight cry. Impossible to tell whence the cry had come, so dark was the forest. Or into what worlds it would echo, so vast was the forest. Love had been born for good or evil, for a long life or a short.

A missionary to an unnamed indigenous group tries to convince them of the love of God, but is only successful after he sleeps with the young chief. The missionary convinces himself it was an evil act, but the chief remains unconvinced. However, he does turn his whole tribe to Christianity in the hopes that he can “come to Christ” with the white man again, but it doesn’t turn out. The missionary feels too guilty, so he marries a woman and has kids and rejects the chief once he’s done using him to advance his work. Several of the stories have an anti-Christianity flavor, but this is one of the strongest. For Forster, religion does terrible things to people by making them ashamed of their natural sexual desires. The repressions that religion exacts warps people and leads to a great deal of unhappiness, such as imprisonment or murder. Typically, when there are this many bad endings to stories of gay love, we critics would say that the author is against them. However, I think in Forster’s case the bad endings are not so much an indictment of gay sex as an indictment of a society that rejects homosexuality. If gay love is love, how can it be bad? If God is love, why can’t he support all kinds of love?

The 1930s have a markedly different feel. I don’t want to speculate too much, but I wonder if the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover had anything to do with it. These stories have an exuberance, a joy, that is missing from the others. “The Classical Annex” is about a museum where all the statues come alive at night and fuck each other. But the small-town museum can’t afford more than miniatures, except for the one full-sized classical subject who goes unfulfilled every night. The townspeople made him a metal fig leaf for decency’s sake, and during the day it seems way too big for what it has to cover, but at night it’s suddenly way too small. The curator blunders in one night and is thoroughly shocked and heads back home. His son, though, goes to the museum to find him, and finds a horny gay Greek made of marble instead.

And in after years a Hellenistic group called The Wrestling Lesson became quite a feature at Bigglesmouth, though it was not exhibited until the Curator and the circumstances of his retirement were forgotten. “Very nice piece, very decent” was Councillor Bodkin’s opinion. “Look ‘ow the elder brother’s got the little chappie down. Look ‘ow well the little chappie’s taking it.”

So the youth is part of the statue magic now, and so is technically no longer alive. But it seems that he’s enjoying spending eternity ‘wrestling’ with the Greek, and Forster makes it into a joke on the dignitaries’ ignorance.

“The Obelisk” pulls a similar stunt. A newly married (but not quite happy) couple on vacation meet a pair of sailors on shore leave. They all head toward the town’s one tourist spot, an obelisk facing the sea. On the way there, they separate and the wife has her own Lady Chatterley experience with the nicer of the two sailors.

Yes, he was wonderful. She would have this gallantry to look back upon, especially at night. She could think of Ernest quite kindly, she’d be able to put up with him when he made his little wrong remarks or did his other little wrong things. She’d her dream, and what people said was false and what the Pictures said was true: it was worth it, worth being clasped once in the right arms, though you never had them round you again. She had got what she longed for, and it was what she longed for, not a smack in the face, not a sell. . . . She had always yearned for a lover who would be nice afterwards – not turn away like a satisfied brute, as handsome men are supposed to do. Stanhope was – what do you call it . . . a gentleman, a knight in armour, a real sport. . . . O for words. Her eyes filled with happy tears of happiness.

But, while she never makes it to the obelisk, she realizes later that her husband never did either, and probably for the same reason she didn’t. But it doesn’t impair their relationship – she actually thinks he’s more handsome and pleasant after bottoming for the sailor.

Forster’s morality tale “What Does It Matter?” makes his philosophy clear – sex is no one’s business but the people who are doing it. The president of a fictional eastern European country has a minister of police who wants to make a scandal, so he engineers a situation where the president’s wife walks in on him and his mistress. But there’s no scandal because the wife keeps her calm. Then the minister gets one of his men to seduce the president and has the mistress walk in, and she goes a little crazy, but the president’s wife talks her down. They all agree to accept the situation, and they publish an edict to that effect, that all three have had sex with the president and intend to continue, and why does that matter? The people take to the idea that sex doesn’t imply possession and it becomes the most peaceful nation in the world. No one will attack them because their sexual ideology is so contagious that they will transform any nation that conquers them. This may have something to do with the fact that Forster spent many years in a loving relationship with a married man, but the idea strikes me as sound. If sex is consensual, and that implies that all parties involved are mature adults, then why is it anyone else’s business?

AFTER WORLD WAR II

By the end of WWII, Forster was in his mid-60s. He’d been busy doing other things, because even if you’re as fantastic as he was there’s more to life than publishing fiction. There are a couple of other gay stories from the late 1950s, and they return to that 1920s feeling of “great” literature. “The Torque” is about a Roman from a newly Christian family who gets raped by a Goth, but in reality the sex seems more unexpected than unwelcome. They don’t speak each other’s language, so the Goth can’t really ask, and afterward the Roman seems to have enjoyed himself. Then later he imagines the Goth asking to be raped in turn, so I really have to question Forster’s use of the word. Rape means that consent is withheld, but in this story it’s only withheld until the rapist’s intentions are clear. This is not what rape is really like. It’s a horrible experience that leaves permanent scars. If the receiver consents, and I mean from the heart and not necessarily in words, then it’s not rape. Some people are pressured into consenting in words when they do not really want to do it, and that is rape. People have started talking about ‘grey rape,’ where the two parties are so chemically elevated that neither is sure whether they had sex or whether consent was given, and I don’t know how to judge that situation, and I’m glad I don’t have to. I do think that it’s a bad idea to have sex if either person is too far gone to judge the situation, but as the name implies, this is a grey area. And, as should be obvious, no one asks to be raped. The request implies consent. In the story, the Roman gets happiness and possibly mystical powers from the experience, not permanent psychological wounds. But Forster is back to hating on Christianity and its demand for chastity.

I didn’t quite see the full extent of Forster’s hatred of Christianity until I got to “The Other Boat.” Here, he not only blames Christianity for homophobia, but also for racism:

He spoke of the origins of Christianity in a way that made her look down her nose, saying that the Canal was one long genuine Bible picture gallery, that donkeys could still be seen going down into Egypt carrying Holy Families, and naked Arabs wading into the water to fish; “Peter and Andrew by Galilee’s shore, why, it hits the truth plumb.” A clergyman’s daughter and a soldier’s wife, she could not admit that Christianity had ever been oriental. What good thing can come out of the Levant, and is it likely that the apostles ever had a touch of the tar-brush?

In terms of Western Civilization, Christianity has been the winning team for about two thousand years. However, it’s not a European religion. It’s not an American religion. It’s from the Middle East. If most American Christians saw Jesus Christ today, they would think he looked like a terrorist. It’s interesting to me that she points out the racial Otherness of the Arabs, but here in the United States we define peoples of the Middle East as white, no doubt so that we can admit that Jews are white. Jewish people have played a large role in positions of power in American history, so of course they can be legally considered white. After all, we can’t go around Othering Jesus. But if we welcome Jesus as part of our group, we also have to admit Syrian refugees as white people, and Iraqis and Saudis and all the other people from the heart of Islam. Which creates a racial conundrum for some people, if they put any thought into it.

Forster juxtaposes racism with homophobia – the white Englishman is okay having a relationship with the ethnically vague foreigner as long as no one knows about it, and he enjoys it as long as he doesn’t think about it. But at the end he realizes the foreigner’s bribes are tipping people off, and he does spend some time thinking about it, and he kills the man he doesn’t love. Then he runs up on deck and jumps in the ocean, killing the other man he doesn’t love, himself.

Taken all together, this is kind of a weird collection because the stories are written at such different times in the author’s life. They can hardly be expected to present a unified viewpoint; we are all such different people at different stages of our development. Forster in his 20s and Forster in his 70s write in very different ways, and “Ansell” and “The Other Boat” don’t seem all that unified. But in some ways they do. Maybe people don’t change as much as I think (hope) they do. “Ansell” ends with the boys happy together because the rich, educated boy isn’t yet thinking of his future, but “The Other Boat” shows what happens when he does. There is an important distinction, though – Edward in “Ansell” loses all the books he needs to write his dissertation, so his love with Ansell grows up because he’s already lost the future he had planned. In “The Other Boat,” Lionel still has a lot to lose when he hooks up with Cocoanut, and he can’t face that expected loss when he realizes that their relationship isn’t the secret he thinks it is.

THREE COURSES AND A DESSERT

Speaking of weirdness. This four-part story was designed for four different authors, each taking a section. You’ll recognize the format from Naked Came the Stranger, as well as its for-charity descendants Naked Came the Manatee and Naked Came the Phoenix. The first author, Christopher Dilke, does a good job of setting up an interesting story, and Forster manages to match his tone and characters pretty well. But the third author, A. E. Coppard, is not their equal. Characters change drastically and become caricatures of themselves, and while James Laver does his best to mop up the damage in the epilogue, the first two parts cohere and the rest do not. I do appreciate Laver’s final twist – Forster ended his part with a murder, and Laver broke the fourth wall by placing Forster in the crowd and saying that the author did it. It’s a bit of a joke, but I think it was the only reasonable way to end it. It’s an unfortunate addition to a short story collection that, at 210 pages, was already long enough to publish. I’ve seen novels shorter than that published without any trouble.

This collection was a real delight. It satisfies the itch for a book like Maurice without being it – early twentieth century, well-written, normative gay romance with a little Lady Chatterley thrown in. No wonder I couldn’t put it down.

 

Sometimes there are books we meet unexpectedly, which we read though we never planned to or even wanted to. This week I’ve been substituting in a class reading this book, and I’d never even opened it. I’ve heard of it for years, of course, but somehow I never felt any internal motivation to go read it. Even at the height of my interest in Toni Morrison, I didn’t read Cisneros. And Morrison is a good comparison.

Cisneros’s book is a little circular, with short little chapters, many of four paragraphs or less. The first chapter is strongly echoed in the last, too. Characters keep coming back and back. She presents us with a community, and it can be easy to lose the threads since people can disappear for fifty pages in a book that’s only about 110 pages long. Angel Vargas is only briefly mentioned twice, poor boy, with no other connection between those two sections of the book. I read the whole thing in a couple of hours, and I dozed for twenty or thirty minutes in the middle.

Several of the reviewers remarked on the humor of the book, but I must confess I missed that part. There are jokes that bite, and I feel the teeth but miss the laugh. Having grown up poor, I don’t find jokes about poverty funny. Having a conscience, I don’t find jokes about the trials of women in a patriarchal society funny. I found the book to be absolutely fucking depressing. Women are raped, imprisoned, and married as children. The only protection is to hide in childhood for as long as possible, though that’s no guarantee. Rafaela may be compared to Rapunzel, locked in a tower, but no prince is going to rescue her.

The narrator is a girl named Esperanza, which usually translates to Hope, but also contains the ideas of expectation, waiting, and longing. It’s not a happy name, and she thinks it’s too long and full of consonants. She’s trying to navigate the odd world of preteen girls, where she’s perceived as a child right up until the time she puts on high heels, when she is suddenly treated to the lust-filled stares and catcalls that adult women have to put up with all the time. She and her friends “are tired of being beautiful” and get rid of the shoes. The cultural idea is that if a girl is old enough to be interested in men, she’s old enough to be married to one. So Esperanza hangs onto her girlishness so that she can be single long enough to finish junior high. People tell her to get an education, to get out of their insular community, and she is determined to hold onto her power.

Women do not have power in this book. They are controlled by their fathers until they get married, when they’re controlled by their husbands. Too afraid to leave the apartment, or just locked in. There’s a brief interval when they’re brave enough to defy their fathers’ rule before they marry, and that is the only time that a woman is free to do what she likes.

She sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission. She looks at all the things they own: the towels and the toaster, the alarm clock and the drapes. She likes looking at the walls, at how neatly their corners meet, the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling smooth as wedding cake.

The book did show me how great life is outside of Christian education. We came to a section where Esperanza goes to visit an oddly normal fortune-teller, and I pulled my tarot cards out of my bag (like the poor, they’re with me always), and since the students were interested, we had tarot readings all round. I expected the quiet Afghan boy to refuse, but he went along with it. He seemed a little uncomfortable with how accurate the reading was, and he’s not the first person to feel that my reading was closer to the truth than is strictly necessary. As I tell people, there’s no magic in it, the querent provides the interpretation, but still. Take a concept like Temperance or Balance and tell people it’s important to them, and of course you’ll be right because those concepts are important in every life. Anyway, the students were cool with it, I told the story to the supervisor and she thought it was great – secular academics make me feel good about myself because they don’t criticize me for being gay or interested in alternative spiritualities.

Women are not safe. In one section, Cisneros doesn’t come right out and say it, but I’m pretty sure Esperanza gets raped at a carnival. She goes with a friend, and the friend ditches her, and there’s a white man who starts talking about how pretty she is, and suddenly she’s talking about how people have lied to her about how great The Unnamed It is. In that context, she’s right. Sex can be beautiful and special and fun and wonderful, but it can also be terrifying and invasive and traumatizing. It can be the best or the worst thing that ever happened to someone. Or neither, it’s possible to have completely mediocre sexual experiences. But either way, why would someone teach a book with such an upsetting section to children? The first time I read the Red Clowns part I got so agitated that I felt physically ill. And then I had to teach it; I didn’t realize how emotional I get on the topic of rape. But I made it through, and the students were respectful, so our experience could have been much worse. I don’t know how Esperanza’s could have been. Some women have said that they’d rather have been killed, and some kill themselves to get away from the memory. Rape is an awful, evil thing. No one chooses it, and no one should have to experience it.

I suppose I should say something about the fact that this is a Latina community. But honestly, gender seems significantly more important than ethnicity in determining the lives of the characters. And poverty is poverty, no matter what your skin color is. I don’t belong to a recently immigrated community, but I know that my first name refers to a geographical term, a narrow strip of land between two bodies of water. I’ve even seen some on maps. Names having meaning is not specific to Spanish speakers. Religion as a tool of social control is not specific to Catholicism. Their community is insular, but she doesn’t present the uniquenesses of being Latina. Being a woman who’s poor is description enough, I guess.

As mentioned, I didn’t go looking for this book. I read it as a duty, so that I could do my job to the best of my ability. I found it horridly depressing, but I think it’s going to stay with me. The starkness of the writing lends a magical realism effect when she uses metaphors, but . . .

No wonder everybody gave up. Just stopped looking out when little Efren chipped his buck tooth on a parking meter and didn’t even stop Refugia from getting her head stuck between two slats in the back gate and nobody even looked up not once the day Angel Vargas learned to fly and dropped from the sky like a sugar donut, just like a falling star, and exploded down to earth without even an “Oh.”

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.

This book is sort of like an Alfred Hitchcock mashup, so of course I loved it. It’s a mystery that has echoes of Vertigo, Psycho, and North by Northwest. The author worked in cinema in the 1960s, so the influence can’t be an accident. You may not see his pen name on the screen, though; some of his work was done under his real name, Jean-Baptiste Rossi. I’m impressed with the fact that he gave himself a sobriquet that is an anagram of his real name.

It’s easy to kill, it’s easy to die. Everything is easy. Except, maybe, to console for a minute the child who is still trapped inside of us, who has not grown up, who never will grow up, and who never stops calling for help.

Dany Longo is a nice girl, pretty, shy, like a Joan Fontaine character. She borrows her employer’s Thunderbird while he’s on vacation and goes on a trip of her own, but as she gets away from Paris, people keep claiming to have seen her the day before. Shopkeepers, garage mechanics, hotel concierges, everyone saw her passing along yesterday, even though she knows that she’s never been down here before. It’s all very Gothic and unsettling, but she’s not so weak as people think she is. At one point a guy steals the car after seducing her, so she tracks him down and within two hours she’s in a different city taking the car back. There is a (very) handsome truck driver who helps her with some of this, but like a good Gothic book/film, most of the suspense comes from the protagonist’s response to circumstances that are revealed through ordinary people/minor characters.

She was living, fully awake, in a dream. Neither a good dream nor a bad dream; an ordinary dream, the kind she sometimes had and forgot afterwards. But this time she was not going to wake up in her room. She was already awake. She was living in someone else’s dream.

Do such things exist? To take a step indistinguishable from all the other steps you have taken in your life and, without realizing it, cross a frontier of reality; to remain yourself, alive and wide awake, but in the nocturnal dream of, let’s say, the girl next to you in the dormitory? And to keep on going in the certainty that you’ll never leave it again, that you are the prisoner of a world modeled on the real one but totally absurd, a world which is monstrous because it may vanish at any moment into your friend’s brain, and you along with it?

As in dreams, in which motives change as you go along, she no longer knew why she was on a road driving through the night. You walk into a room where – click – a little picture shows a fishing port, but Mama Supe is there, you came to confess to her that you have betrayed Anita and you can’t find the words to explain it to her because it is obscene, and you hit Mama Supe again and again, but she has already turned into another old woman whom you came to see about your white coat, and so forth. What was clearest was that she was supposed to get to a hotel she had already been to, before they could tell a policeman that she had never been there. Or the other way around. They say that when you’re crazy it is other people who seem to be crazy. Well, that must be it. She was crazy.

And of course, it’s hard to see who is significant and who isn’t, who is the murderer and who is mad. Maybe the Mama Supe (Mother Superior to strangers) who raised Dany and now lives as the voice in her head is really malevolent and not the part of her subconscious that protects her from the suicidal urges she feels sometimes. It’s hard to tell, until you get to the end and Dany figures it all out.

Of course, there are also moments of humor. It’s a delightful book.

The people of Marseille are very nice. First of all, they don’t insult you any more than most people do if you try to run over them, but they also take the trouble to look at your license plate. When they see that you come from Paris they tell themselves that obviously they must not expect too much of you, they tap their foreheads with their index finger, but without ill will, simply because it’s the thing to do. If at that moment you announce, “I’m lost, I don’t understand anything about your rotten city, the stoplights are out to get me, I’m looking for the freight yard in Saint-Lazare, does it even exist?” they take pity, they blame the good Mother for your misfortune, and a dozen of them crowd around to give you information. Turn right, then left, and when you get to the square with the Arc de Triomphe, watch out for the streetcars, they’ll run you down, my cousin’s wife’s sister stopped one of them and now it is she who has stopped in the family plot, and since she’s at the Canet cemetery it’s too far to bring flowers.

I guess people are pretty much the same everywhere. Even I once caught myself giving directions that included as a landmark that house on the corner that used to be painted chartreuse with yellow trim. Oh you know which one I mean, the guy only painted his house like that because his friend bet him fifty bucks he wouldn’t do it and leave it that color for a year. The joke was on the friend, because he lived happily in the chartreuse house for years. I think it’s white with dark trim now, but it may still have one green side. Then you turn again at the house that always has the dogs lying in the sun on the porch roof. You know the one.

If you’re looking for a great little mystery from the pre-cell phone age, this is it. Of course, there are some triggers: date rape seems to have been very common in France in the 1960s, and once Dany escaped only to leave her friend Anita in her apartment with two horny guys. She feels guilty about it, but she’s also dealing with post-abortion guilt. An important thread to the narrative is Dany’s journey toward valuing herself. At the beginning she’s so weighted by guilt that she’s murmuring “Kill me” in her sleep, and by the end she’s winning the fight to save her life and her sanity from the people who threaten her. She doesn’t have a Jimmy Stewart or a Cary Grant to save her (sexy truck driver isn’t around all the time), so she learns to do it herself. Not just how to save herself, but that her life is worth saving.

Life is full of pressures from within and without, and we have to learn to choose ourselves. For some of us, that’s a hard lesson. And we keep having to repeat it. But our happiness won’t come on its own; we have to learn to value it, to work for it, and to enjoy it when it comes.

One of the delights of reading du Maurier novels is that she knows her tradition. Rebecca, her most famous novel, is rather similar to Jane Eyre. My Cousin Rachel is close to Wilkie Collins’s Basil. Her earliest novel, The Loving Spirit, uses some ideas from Wuthering Heights. She doesn’t copy directly from the writers of the past; she uses enough material to remind us of our Gothic past, then transforms it for the twentieth century. The Flight of the Falcon is a great example of this. She pulls from the Ann Radcliffe novels of the 1790s, but changes the theme and mood at the end.

Following Mrs Radcliffe, we open in a benign situation: Armino Fabbio is a tour guide, hauling a bunch of American and British tourists around Rome (notice that we are distanced from our readers in either place or time; the time is contemporary, but our story is safely tucked away in central Italy), fielding questions, keeping the guests happy, dodging passes made by lonely men willing to pay for his time. Then he starts experiencing some cognitive dissonance, hearing a homeless woman on the street wailing his childhood nickname, wondering what connection is being formed between the present and the distant past.

Also following Mrs Radcliffe, Fabbio picks up a false sense of guilt. That guy who dropped a ten thousand lire tip trying to get him in bed? Fabbio gives the fortune to that homeless woman, and she’s killed that night. Some of his guests want to go to the police, but he doesn’t tell them about the money. When they show up later, asking for him, he assumes that he’s being accused and runs. He hasn’t done anything wrong, but he doesn’t trust the law enforcement, so he panics anyway.

An essential early step, of course, is to trap the heroine in an ancient castle or otherwise big scary house. [Sorry, Radcliffe always went with heroines – Fabbio is in a traditionally feminine role.] To get there, Fabbio leaves Rome and works his way back home, to the little village in the north where he grew up. His father had been in charge of the former duke’s estate, giving tours and maintaining the property and household goods. The father and older brother had died in World War II, and he and his mother left town. The castle is still there waiting for him, complete with a legend or ghost story about the evil man who used to live there.

The Falcon was duke five hundred years ago. He was a terrible leader; his courtiers and he grew ever more decadent, ever more violent, dismaying and upsetting the villagers who supported them. The legend is that one day the Falcon got so crazy that he climbed up to the highest tower and jumped off, something similar to the temptation of Christ only he actually did jump, proving that angels don’t protect people from stubbing their toes. The historical records are a little different: the way they tell the story of the flight, he hitched up eighteen horses and galloped through the town square on a busy market day, killing several supposedly worthless peasants. The people rioted, pulling him from his chariot, and killing him en masse. It’s not du Maurier’s style to scare us with ghosts, though; we need a real villain.

Armino’s brother didn’t actually die in the war. When his plane was shot down, he started working for the resistance. Unlike his living family, he came home after the war. While Armino was getting a degree in European languages and becoming a tour guide, Aldo Donati was also getting a couple of degrees and taking over his father’s former position. The estate is now owned by the university, so Donati has a sort of professorship. Things seem less rigidly codified in the 1960s. Every year he puts on a bit of a pageant with the university students, and the whole town gets a big kick out of it. This year he’s recreating the flight of the Falcon. He takes advantage of the existing rivalry between the modern economics majors and the more traditional arts students. He whips up the emotions with a series of pranks against leading faculty members; one of them even involves rumours of rape. I was shocked by just how casually everyone takes the supposed rape of the leading matron of the women’s dormitory. Even an educated woman, a university professor, thinks it’s funny and exactly what she deserves for being so strict. She isn’t actually raped, but she is tied up and passes out, and the boys let her think she was violated.

Aldo makes some good speeches, though:

It is essential that every volunteer should believe in the part he plays, should think himself into his creation. This year you will be the courtiers at the Falcon’s palace. You will be that small body of dedicated men. You, the Arts students of the university, will, by your very nature, become the élite. You are so already. For this you are here in Ruffano, for this you have your reason for living. Yet you are a minority in the university, your ranks are small, the immense numbers swamping the other Faculties are barbarians and goths and vandals who, like the merchants of five hundred years ago, understand nothing of art, nothing of beauty. They would, if they had the power, destroy all the treasures we possess in the apartments here, perhaps even pull down the palace itself, and put in its stead . . . what? Factories, offices, banks, commercial houses, not to give employment and an easier life to the peasant who lives no better now than he did five centuries ago, but to enrich themselves, to better themselves, to own more cars, more television sets, more biscuit-box villas on the Adriatic, thus breeding ever greater discontent, poverty and misery.

And, to the other group of students:

If they could get rid of me they would. Just as they would get rid of you, the whole fifteen hundred of you, if that’s what you muster – I haven’t the figures before me, but it’s near enough. Why do they want to get rid of you? Because they’re frightened. The old are always frightened of the young, but you represent a threat to their whole way of life. Any one of you who passes out of this university with a degree in Commerce and Economics is a potential millionaire, and, more than that, he will have a chance of helping to run the economy not only of this country but of Europe, possibly the world. You are the masters, my young friends, and everyone knows it. That’s why you’re hated. Hatred is bred of fear, and your contemporaries who haven’t your brains and your technical knowledge and your enthusiasm for life as it will and must be lived tomorrow are frightened of you. Frightened blue! No schoolteacher, no grubby lawyer, no chicken-livered so-called poet or painter – and that’s what the students of the other faculties are trying to become – will stand a chance beside you. The future’s yours, and don’t let any half-baked set of decaying professors and their pathetic dwindling band of followers stand in your way. Ruffano is for the living. Not the dead.

He’s playing both sides, working the crowds into a frenzy, with things getting complicated by the little family drama of his baby brother, supposed dead, appearing in town just before his moment of triumph. Family is very important to Aldo; du Maurier extends this to all Italians. I’m not saying it is or it isn’t, but it seems like a stereotype. The emotionally violent Italian is also a stereotype that du Maurier perpetuates, much as she defies their supposed tendency to physical violence. This book starts as a murder mystery, but all the stuff between Armino and Aldo distracts from the murder for a while. The book is short enough, though, that she keeps things moving along fairly quickly. It starts a little slow, but it doesn’t stay at that pace.

I’ve been running into my own problems with past and present. Five years ago, I lived in a little place with the ex-wife and kids, and we stored stuff with her parents and my parents and friends and left little pieces of ourselves scattered about the South. Then we split up and I left the country for a while. I got a storage unit and gathered stuff from my parents’ places – after coming out of the closet, the less I rely on them the better – so everything was either in the shed or with me. Now I’ve cleared out the storage shed and everything I own is finally in one place. I’m surrounded by things I hadn’t thought of in so long I had forgotten I owned them, as well as recent acquisitions. It’s like all the pieces of my life are jumbled up together, a temporal pastiche, gifts from Saudi students and the brother who disowned me, postcards from the Mapplethorpe exhibit in Paris last spring and letters from when I was a missionary in Brazil when I was nineteen, and then there’s the painting of a teddy bear that my mom did the night before I was born, the blanket I slept on as a baby, the blanket I carried around for far too long as a child, the dragon blanket I got as a teenager, and the afghan I made last week. Possessions used to belong to times and places, and now they’re all here and now. It’s even more disorienting than facebook. Despite some internal confusion, it’s good for me. It’s a way of demonstrating that I’m finding peace with all the different people I have been. I am still all the people I have been, and I don’t hate any of them. I’m learning to be healthy.

The Flight of the Falcon starts a bit like a regular murder mystery, but du Maurier follows an older model. It may not be what you expect, du Maurier shows more faith in humanity than most mystery writers, but it’s still satisfying. She writes beautifully as ever, though this novel is more plot-driven and less nature-loving than some of her other novels, significantly less nature-obsessed than Radcliffe herself. It’s good, fairly typical of this stage of her career. Read it, it’s nice.

I tend to forget how much I enjoy some artists. I pick up a book, and set it on my shelf for a while, and the urgency and attraction fade. Then, one day, I open the book I’ve been neglecting, and it opens like this:

It was a cold gray day in late November. The weather had changed overnight, when a backing wind brought a granite sky and a mizzling rain with it, and although it was now only a little after two o’clock in the afternoon the pallor of a winter evening seemed to have closed upon the hills, cloaking them in mist. It would be dark by four. The air was clammy cold, and for all the tightly closed windows it penetrated the interior of the coach. The leather seats felt damp to the hands, and there must have been a small crack in the roof, because now and again little drips of rain fell softly through, smudging the leather and leaving a dark-blue stain like a splodge of ink. The wind came in gusts, at times shaking the coach as it traveled round the bend of the road, and in the exposed places on the high ground it blew with such force that the whole body of the coach trembled and swayed, rocking between the high wheels like a drunken man.

and I remember how much I love Daphne du Maurier. One of the things I love about her is her complete lack of the anxiety of influence. Her most famous novel, Rebecca, draws heavily from Jane Eyre; there are also accusations of plagiarism from other sources. Jamaica Inn is remarkably similar to the Gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe, particularly The Mysteries of Udolpho. [Radcliffe’s first novel, A Sicilian Romance, is remarkably similar to Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.] Nice girl grows up in the countryside, then has to move to a new, isolated home when her parents die. Her aunt has married a real bastard who thrusts nice girl into a living hell for a few months, while she infiltrates his ring of criminals. She tries to escape a few times, but only succeeds when she brings down the entire organized crime syndicate. Writing in the 1930s instead of the 1790s, du Maurier has a little more freedom to imply homosexual attraction, but she refrains in this one. She does, however, make much of gender differences.

 Were she a man, now, she would receive rough treatment, or indifference at the best, and be requested to ride at once perhaps to Bodmin or to Launceston to bear witness, with an understanding that she should find her own lodging and betake herself to the world’s end if she wished when all questions had been asked. And she would depart, when they had finished with her, and go on a ship somewhere, working her passage before the mast; or tramp the road with one silver penny in her pocket and her heart and soul at liberty. Here she was, with tears ready to the surface and an aching head, being hurried from the scene of action with smooth words and gestures, a nuisance and a factor of delay, like every woman and every child after a tragedy.

Our protagonist Mary Yellan objects to the social roles allotted to women. Her father died when she was six years old, so her mother spent seventeen years working a farm as effectively as a man before dying herself right before the novel begins. Though she’s written in the 1930s, Mary lives in the 1810s; she has a firmly essentialist view of gender. She often struggles against what she perceives as her femininity, by which she means an ability to become stressed to the point of breaking, and a tendency to cry to vent emotional stress. If these things are essentially feminine, then I must have a feminine nature after all. I can’t cry on my own, though; I need a movie like The Majestic to get me going. Other characters don’t help matters, by also insisting on the restrictions placed on her by her gender.

You’re a woman, and your home is your kingdom, and all the little familiar things of day to day. I’ve never lived like that, and never shall. I’ll sleep on the hills one night, and in a city the next. I like to seek my fortune here and there and everywhere, with strangers for company and passers-by for friends. Today I meet a man upon the road, and journey with him for an hour or for a year; and tomorrow he is gone again. We speak a different language, you and I.

And yet, despite all the seeming indications to the contrary, once Mary’s free at the end of the book she lives this sort of life. She’s not alone, but she is free to experience adventure the way a man does. After all, she may seem limited:

Here she was on her bed, a girl of three-and-twenty, in a petticoat and a shawl, with no weapons but her own brain to oppose a fellow twice her age and eight times her strength, who, if he realized she had watched the scene tonight from her window, would encircle her neck with his hand, and, pressing lightly with finger and thumb, put an end to her questioning.

but she wins in the end.

There may not be any gay characters in Jamaica Inn, but du Maurier is frank on the subject of sexual attraction, much more than her eighteenth- and nineteenth-century influences.

 And there, in spite of herself, came Jem’s face again, with the growth of beard like a tramp, and his dirty shirt, and his bold offensive stare. He lacked tenderness; he was rude; and he had more than a streak of cruelty in him; he was a thief and a liar. He stood for everything she feared and hated and despised; but she knew she could love him. Nature cared nothing for prejudice. Men and women were like the animals on the farm at Helford, she supposed; there was a common law of attraction for all living things, some similarity of skin or touch, and they would go to one another. This was no choice made with the mind. Animals did not reason, neither did the birds in the air. Mary was no hypocrite; she was bred to the soil, and she had lived too long with birds and beasts, had watched them mate, and bear their young, and die. There was precious little romance in nature, and she would not look for it in her own life.

I mean, realistically, there’s no reason for a farmgirl to be naïve about sex. Animals don’t care who’s watching. I should mention that Mary manages to protect herself from sexual attacks, but she’s frequently threatened with rape, and there’s at least one attempt. If this is a trigger, please be careful – but remember that she wins the fight for the right to choose what happens to her body.

The soil here is Cornwall, du Maurier’s home for nearly her entire life and certainly her favorite setting for her fiction. One of the things that always amazes me about the British is the way that they seem to think of the island that contains England, Scotland, and Wales as being at least the size of South America. Mary is constantly thinking how different people are in the North and the South, but she never leaves the county. She’s talking about North Cornwall and South Cornwall. She grows up in Helston, down at the end of the peninsula, and Jamaica Inn is located on the high road between Bodmin and Launceston, what is now the A30, not quite at the opposite end of the county, at a distance that we can drive in a little more than an hour (All the locations in the book are real). I admire the patriotism that can find such variety in so small a space, but I can’t quite comprehend it.

Du Maurier seems to have the Modernist cynicism on the subject of organized religion, particularly the established church. The turning point of the novel is on Christmas Eve, and it’s hardly a time of birth or renewal.

 Last year she had knelt beside her mother in church, and prayed that health and strength and courage should be given them both. She had prayed for peace of mind, and security; she had asked that her mother might be spared to her long, and that the farm should prosper. For answer came sickness, and poverty, and death. She was alone now, caught in a mesh of brutality and crime, living beneath a roof she loathed, among people she despised; and she was walking out across a barren, friendless moor to meet a horse-thief and a murderer of men. She would offer no prayers to God this Christmas.

Mary is a moral person, just not a religious one. I don’t see any direct correlation between the two qualities as I look around the world, and indeed, the difference between them is sometimes rather wide.

I was rather surprised by du Maurier’s representation of alcohol. She seems to come out in favor of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the portrayal of Joss Merlyn. When he tells Mary about what it feels like to get drunk, he says:

 It’s power, and glory, and women, and the Kingdom of God, all rolled into one. I feel a king then, Mary. I feel I’ve got the strings of the world between my two fingers. It’s heaven and hell.

but drinking only makes him hallucinate about the people he’s killed, and it knocks him into bed for almost a week. After watching the process, Mary decides:

 She had lost her fear of him. There was only loathing left in her heart, loathing and disgust. He had lost all hold on humanity. He was a beast that walked by night. Now that she had seen him drunk, and she knew him for what he was, he could not frighten her.

Of course her fear of him comes back, but not as long as he’s drunk.

Jamaica Inn comes fairly early in du Maurier’s career, but she’s already mastered the most important and most difficult part of writing Gothic: atmosphere.

 Strange winds blew from nowhere; they crept along the surface of the grass, and the grass shivered; they breathed upon the little pools of rain in the hollowed stones, and the pools rippled. Sometimes the wind shouted and cried, and the cry echoed in the crevices, and moaned, and was lost again. There was a silence on the tors that belonged to another age; an age that is past and vanished as though it had never been, an age when man did not exist, but pagan footsteps trod upon the hills. And there was a stillness in the air, and a stranger, older peace, that was not the peace of God.

I was rather shocked at the lack of sympathy du Maurier has for Mary’s Aunt Patience. She fits right into our modern understanding of the psychology of battered women, but that doesn’t mean that the author has much mercy on her.

 In her own way Aunt Patience was a murderer too. She had killed them by her silence. Her guilt was as great as Joss Merlyn’s himself, for she was a woman and he was a monster. He was bound to her flesh and she let him remain.

I feel for Aunt Patience, because while Mary’s loyalty to her is more important than her actual appearances in the novel, she’s the character I identify the most strongly with.

Think of Paris in the early spring. The trees and shrubs are beginning to regreen themselves, and the air is always vaguely undecided as to whether it’s raining or not. I was on a break from teaching school, taking my first-ever vacation that wasn’t visiting relatives. I wandered around the city looking at things for a few days, and then one night I went to a café for a drink or two. There was a cute guy a few tables over, and when he caught my eye, I waved him over. He was Algerian and hated the French, so he was quite glad to find an American, particularly one who looks as Dutch/Swiss as I do. We were rather pleased with each other, so I brought him back to my place. Things went very well; no one has ever complimented me like he did. It was like being in a romance novel. Well, until I got his trousers off. He held me down and slapped me across the face – once was kind of a turn-on, but after several times in quick succession it was clear that he was just getting off on causing me pain. I remember thinking clearly, I’m turning into a battered wife. This is a class of people I’ve never understood very well, so I decided to let things play out a little longer. Things got worse when he started choking me. But he wasn’t pressing hard enough to hurt me, just enough to scare me. Later, he looked so sweet when he was asleep that I didn’t want to wake him up and throw him out, and in the morning he wasn’t violent at all.

We spent the next day together; he took me up to Montmartre to see the Moulin Rouge and the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. During the day he was back to being perfect: attentive, kind, thoughtful, complimentary. So his behavior during the day outweighed what happened the night before, I made up excuses for him in my head, and I brought him back to bed again. The second night was worse. Along with all the slapping and choking, he spat in my face and bit me hard enough that I had a bruise for a week. He also talked about his fantasy of giving me a dog collar and keeping me in a cage. He kept hitting me until I’d join in the fantasy with him; it made me feel complicit in what was happening, but it gave him the thrill he was after without giving me physical pain. This second night I decided that no daytime behavior was worth all this, but that since I only had one more night before I left France, there wasn’t much point in making a scene. And I was a little afraid that if he was this violent when he claimed to love me, I could get really hurt if I tried to get rid of him.

The third night we stayed out late and we drank a lot. And I mean, a lot. For most people, that helps them sleep; for me, I can’t fall asleep until I’ve gotten rid of the alcohol in my system. Getting rip-roaring drunk is a certain way to keep me up all night. Luckily, he’s like most people and passed out within five minutes of walking in the door. I stayed up reading and watching him sleep. In the morning he was his sweet self, so it was easy to be sentimental about saying good-bye. Especially since I knew I was never going to run into him again. I had had the experience of being in an abusive relationship, and now I was more than ready for it to be over.

I know that my experience was very brief when compared with most wives with husbands who beat them, but in those two and a half days I saw, in miniature, the changes that happen to a person. He’s not always violent; most of the time he’s really very sweet. So long as he’s dressed. And it’s easy to forgive an action that only hurts me and gives pleasure to someone I care about. Maybe overlook is a better word than forgive. And what we do in the bedroom is no one else’s business. I keep reminding myself of all the good things and try to forget the bad, until he’s hitting me again and I get angry. My whole life people have minimized my feelings, so I feel a little silly and ashamed whenever I get mad. Like other things I get angry about, I need to deal with it on my own. I’m responsible for my own feelings; it’s not fair of me to take them out on the people around me. The mind becomes a strange mixture of a little good sense and a lot of lame excuses, all in a murky haze of affection for this guy who, sadly, can only get off by denying pleasure to others. He’s a sad case, really, not someone who’s incredibly bad for me. The compliments are nice to hear, but the compliments are so scarce in my life that I only half-believe them, and I’ve probably done something to attract bad karma, so I deserve a little suffering. You can’t smell the bullshit when you’re standing knee-deep in it. That requires some distance from him and the situation he keeps you in.

Politically speaking, it’s been important to the LGBT community to keep quiet about stories like this. People are pushing for marriage equality, so we only present to people the best possible impression of our relationships. The media is all Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris, and any problems get swept under the rug. The Trans community is becoming more vocal about the way LGBT groups keep them on the margins, but the internal violence is still something we don’t talk about. It’s real; it happens. Lesbians are better at getting help in exiting abusive situations than men. Men, including gay men, have a hard time admitting that someone is victimizing them. I don’t like remembering it clearly enough to tell the story. A friend of mine was raped once, and when a government official told him it was his own fault, he decided it wasn’t worth telling anyone about it. He spent years taking antidepressants and getting counseling for depression because he couldn’t talk about what had happened. We’ve got our problems too, and maybe when we finish getting the right to marry in all fifty states we’ll start addressing them.