Posts Tagged ‘sex’

A few weeks ago, a very dear friend asked me my opinion of this book – apparently it’s the new big thing among certain gay communities. I must say, since it was copyrighted last year, this is one of the most recent books I’ve ever read in my life. I usually catch the cultural moment ten, fifteen, thirty, sometimes fifty or a hundred years late. Sometimes more.

My first impulse is to talk about the negatives, but that’s because he’s writing about things that are very similar to my experience, but expressed differently than I would, and not exactly my experience. It felt like he was trying to write my story but getting it wrong, as if he were making a collage of my life but mixing it in with stereotypes I don’t fit. I think this is what Rider Haggard must have felt when he read Treasure Island, only I’m not actually planning on writing a response.

I even felt something of that desire myself, though it was nothing like madness for me, in my life lived almost always beneath the pitch of poetry, a life of inhibition and missed chances, perhaps, but also a bearable life, a life that to some extent I had chosen and continued to choose.

This is one of the places where I diverge from him, because even though a good bit of my life has been dominated by inhibition and missed chances (as I think is inevitable when you wait until you’ve passed thirty to admit to yourself that you’re married to someone of the wrong gender), I have not lived my life beneath the pitch of poetry. I have always felt things deeply, and though my life has not always been what I want, my inner life has always been quite intense, and that is where poetry comes from. I don’t share the full force of my emotions with many people, and when I have done over an extended period of time, those people have asked me to please stop. I’m too much, which would make poetry the perfect outlet for me if I took the time for it more often.

Stylistically, all you really need to know is that Greenwell attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It wouldn’t be fair to say that they all speak with the same voice, but they definitely all have the same accent. It’s the type of writing that wins the National Book Award, the highly self-conscious writing of Americans who write Literature (capital L) after around the 1990s. His sentences just keep going on and on. I wanted to break some of them into smaller sentences (comma splices are okay in the UK, but not here), but others I just wanted to cut off the ends because they were unnecessary, the meanings of those last clauses already understood. As I was thinking about why he would keep these obvious redundancies, I thought about what they contribute, and I realized that they were pointing out things that Protagonist doesn’t know, often with the implication that he can’t know, or that he can’t be bothered to find out. Or, you know, since this is supposedly fiction, the author could just make something up. There’s an air of ignorance and apathy that I had a hard time with, considering that this is a love story.

Thematically, all you really need to know is that this is a gay love story, and in our current cultural climate, that means there are three options: pornography, unrealistic stereotypes played for overdone comedy, and Greenwell’s choice, utter tragedy involving isolation and alienation. Seriously, gay writers and filmmakers have got to be the most depressing people in the world. What we need is our own version of Their Eyes Were Watching God, a story of how great it is to be us that doesn’t hide from the times it’s not, where we see someone really learn to love himself and claim his identity as something positive and peaceful rather than defiant and in opposition. Protagonist is an English teacher from Kentucky living in Bulgaria, and I guess he likes it even though he says some unkind things about the cityscape. He doesn’t like the Soviet architecture, but he seems to get on okay with the native stuff that survived World War II and the Cold War. The fact that he’s an English teacher doesn’t impact the story much because we don’t see him in class, but his narration shows that he loves languages and words, and the phrases he says in Bulgarian sound similar enough to the Russian that I remember to pique my interest.

Okay, plot. Mitko is a hustler in Sofia, and First-Person Narrating Protagonist hooks up with him a few times. They start to feel something real for each other, but FPN sort of freaks out and breaks it off. Then, a couple of years later, Mitko shows back up to tell him that he may have given FPN syphilis, and yup, sure enough, he did. The American teacher has enough income to pay for treatment, but the Bulgarian street kid does not, so he ends up most probably dying from it. It’s as simple as La Traviata, but as in that quote up above, he overthinks everything as a way of keeping his emotions in check, so he doesn’t get operatic. He feels this overwhelming attraction for this guy that he doesn’t even seem to like much, but he doesn’t dig into that. He treats his own emotions as something alien to him, along with everything else because he’s living in a foreign country. To some degree, he’s hiding from his anger so that it doesn’t overwhelm him – he’s bought into the lie that he’s monstrous, only capable of hurting the people around him. We see this most strongly when he has syphilis; one of the common themes of the gay tragedy archetype is that our love is paired with disease, as if being gay is inherently unhealthy. Well, his anger isn’t a disease, it’s a response to being rejected by his parents because he’s gay, and to having a pretty shitty dad. In the course of this book, he doesn’t unpack the injustice of his life; he just pushes it down and tries not to deal with his family. Moving to eastern Europe is a convenient way of hiding from his feelings.

Some of the similarities to my life are obvious, as in the whole ESL teacher thing. I came out of the closet and moved to Saudi Arabia, which isn’t that far from Bulgaria. I didn’t go looking for hookups, though, because having gay sex is punishable by beheading there. I know most gay Saudis don’t get their heads chopped off, but we’re all products of our culture, and I didn’t want to get involved with someone who thought what we would be doing was evil or shameful. I cannot deal with that kind of secrecy. I’m just not discreet enough.

I did hook up with a guy I met in Europe, though, and there were some similarities to Mitko. He expected me to be rich, not understanding that I was blowing all my money on a week in Paris. We went to an expensive restaurant and I spent way too much on a lunch, but I also skipped eating a couple of days that week. People don’t often get the way I swing back and forth like that; I’m not sure I understand it myself, but I know that I do, and I love and accept that about myself. Like Mitko, the Algerian boy made sure I knew where I stood in his life – as in, not the center, not even for the three days we spent together. He was also into some BDSM stuff that I am definitely not into, but Mitko doesn’t seem to be into choking. As I’m thinking about it, the Algerian was actually pretty great when his clothes were on; he just went sort of bizarro once the trousers were off. Mitko is pretty consistent, whether his dick is out or not.

When FPN was describing their early encounters, I contrasted them with my singular one-night stand. FPN can’t wait to get down to business, but Mitko puts him off, and actually borrows his computer to set up encounters with other clients. FPN just sort of lets him, staying off to the side, having someone within reach without reaching out to him. With Mr Labor Day, it was very different. I should say, I was very different. FPN is like me in being shy, but he’ll reach out to guys who set up dates in public toilets and I won’t. Then he keeps being shy all the way through. I believe that there is a time and a place for shyness and modesty, and that is in public when my trousers are still on. Once the clothes come off, the time for being shy is over. All I wanted to do with Mr Labor Day was touch him, so I did. There was Round One, then I rubbed his back and shoulders until he was ready for Round Two, and then after we were dressed I held him close and swayed and sang, “Do You Wanna Dance?” And I kept kissing him all the way out of his house and into the driveway. And on his side, he was so gentle. I remember how carefully he used his big rough hands to take my glasses off, fold them, and set them on his nightstand. Sometimes I remember the way that he touched me and my entire body responds, even if I’m driving down the freeway. FPN doesn’t get into the sexy details, at least not many of them, but when I was reading I had to assume that the sex was pretty phenomenal for FPN to put up with being treated with this lack of interest. But then again, maybe it was uninteresting, because he describes everything else in such detail. Or maybe his editors made him take it out. It’s like when people write gay romances but don’t have any experience with gay sex, so they describe in minute detail the furtive glances, the covert touching of hands, the stolen kisses, but when the lovers take it further the authors suddenly have all the prudery of the Hays Committee. Greenwell isn’t that extreme, but it’s clear that his story isn’t there. It’s not his goal to give us a blow-by-blow account of blowing Mitko, so we gloss over that. Oddly enough, we seem to get the most details when they’re in public restrooms, as if the level of privacy of the location is reflected in the way the story is told.

I’ve never been good at concealing anything, the whole bent of my nature is toward confession.

This is true of me as well (check the name of this blog again, if that’s a surprise to you), and I wonder if it’s the author rather than the narrator talking. After all, FPN has a name that’s hard for people who speak European languages to pronounce, as is Garth. What other languages use that dental fricative sound at the end? Arabic, and some Spanish accents. There are probably more; I’m just listing the ones I know from my own experience. He also only gives us the name of the guy who’s dead (probably) – everyone else is referred to by a common noun that indicates their relationship to FPN, or with a first initial. Maybe it’s a tactic to lend authenticity to a fictional narrative; maybe he just isn’t willing to assign fictional names to people who are real, alive, and possibly willing to sue him. In this blog I’ve been avoiding the use of names, but in the past I assigned fictional names to people, sometimes using their middle names, sometimes using names that would be easy for me to remember, like switching Jason and Justin, or renaming Peter Paul. But it seems like a cop-out. Once I was in a church pageant that was structured as a set of songs introduced by monologues, and all the monologues were given by characters named things like First Woman or Third Man. My friends kept saying, “George. Betty. How hard is that? Just give them names!” And really, if he were retelling his actual experience as if it were fictional, he’d be in good company (anything by Henry Miller or Jack Kerouac). I’d just prefer that it be made explicit. I’d like to know, am I identifying with someone who doesn’t exist, or am I making a real emotional connection with someone I have never met and will never meet through the medium of language?

One last complaint, I promise: the structure is weird. Yes, ABA form has been with music for centuries, and sometimes we do it in fiction too (think of Sense and Sensibility – Book 1 divided between two country homes, Book 2 in London, and Book 3 back in the country), but the B section doesn’t seem to fit. It feels like someone told him that he needed to add forty pages before they would publish his book, so he wrote a section on being a gay teenager in Kentucky (it’s only marginally about the present, when he gets news that his father is dying and takes forty pages to decide he’s not going back to the United States for the funeral). I suppose it gives us some motivation for him to have become an ESL teacher and left the country, but since he talks about word etymologies and English-Bulgarian cognates, he has enough of a linguistic interest to make it a reasonable career choice without hearing about how his father threw him out of the house. It would actually make more sense to talk about how he met the guy he actually calls his boyfriend, the Portuguese student named R (which makes me think of the Romeo in Warm Bodies). It might take some focus off of the Mitko stuff, but it’s sort of like in Merry Wives of Windsor, where I don’t care about the Fords’ marriage because I’ve never seen their happiness. I don’t know what his jealousy costs them both, except to recognize that Mrs Ford is completely awesome and his fears are unfounded.

Okay. I’ve talked and talked about the problems and the connections, but as I alluded to earlier, a good part of what I feel about this book is jealousy. Some people have the confidence and determination to make a career of writing, and I blog about them instead of doing it myself. Lately, all my attempts at fiction writing have veered into the pornographic, so I haven’t been sharing them. Much as I would like to write something that people would like to read, I would prefer it didn’t happen through Bad Penny Press. I often also have some envy for people who came out of the closet before marrying someone of the opposite gender, but as I think over my life, I’m actually fairly satisfied. For all that I hate The Ex sometimes, and I hate what I did to her, my life has been amazing, and she was a big part of that. And I would not trade witnessing the births of my children for all the disease-ridden gigolos behind the Iron Curtain. Yes, I spent the part of my life when most people are experimenting being too religious and pretending to be straight, and I’ve had to make up for that lost time in imagination and not in reality (like in Hesse’s Magic Theatre), but in every life there are tradeoffs. Most gay men will never know the feeling of biological fatherhood, of watching a part of you grow inside someone else, mixing with her and becoming an amalgam of you both, and then seeing this new person that is both you and not-you arrive into the world. And for most of the time we were together, The Ex supported and encouraged me to be my best self. If I had a dream, she set about finding a way to make it happen. I’ll probably never know what it’s like to be promiscuous, to know that I have a body that is young and strong and generally lusted after, to feel confident that I could have any person I wanted to be with. I may never know what it’s like to be in a relationship with someone who wants to have sex as much as I do. But FPN talks about having a life that’s bearable, and it makes me sad that his expectations are so low. Life isn’t just for enduring; it’s for enjoying. It seems that the gay community as a whole is interested in pleasure without happiness, and I think that tendency is already sufficiently well documented. Let’s start telling the story of our joy as well as the story of our pain. Let’s start believing that joy is possible for us and that it’s a worthwhile pursuit. And when new gays come out, let’s help them work through the rage instead of burying it under a mountain of booze, sex, and pills. What seeds are we planting?

So, yes, I think eight pages of advance praise is a little excessive. I think this book is sad in a way that is becoming trite. But I also think that Greenwell is a talented, thoughtful author, and I’d like to see what he does in the future. It’s a first novel that grew out of a prize-winning story; let’s wait for him to get some more material and show us something really new. Given the title, I suppose I should have written about possession and possessiveness and recognizing what is and isn’t a person’s responsibility, but that’s a strain I wasn’t much interested in. I suppose because I still need to do some work in this area myself. Now that the Midwestern guy and I have separated our daily lives, no longer eating and watching TV together, it’s becoming apparent that we don’t have much to talk about, and talking is sort of the essence of long-distance relationships. I’m not much of a talker (only this verbose when writing); I need someone I can do things with. Surely it can’t be impossible to find a gay man who loves books, music, movies, and the outdoors?

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This was originally published as Volume IV of Barker’s Books of Blood, but here in the U. S. it was given its own title as an independent story collection. Of the five stories here, four are about the same length as Gilgamesh, so I don’t know if I should call them short stories or novellas. This is why I generally borrow a term from music and call them ‘pieces.’

The Inhuman Condition

Karney finds a piece of string with three knots. As he unties them, monsters appear and do horrible things. The idea here is that we are an amalgam of the three: as humans, we are part reptile, part ape, and part child. It’s a karma story: bad things happen to bad people, while less-bad people are witnesses. The word condition echoes on in the other stories, which keeps pulling me back to this question, What is the human condition? What does it mean to be what we are? This story also introduces the idea of liberation; indeed, all these stories can be seen as breaking free.

The Body Politic

Hands revolt against the rest of the body. Protagonist glances down in an elevator to find himself holding hands with his boss. Eventually the hands start cutting themselves off to lead independent lives, leaving their humans to die of blood loss. The fear we’re playing on here is the idea that our bodies betray us, and don’t actually do what we want. It’s a rational fear; life is like when I (an unskilled player) try to play the guitar while drinking – I know where my hands go, but my fingers refuse to cooperate.

Dr Jeudwine came down the stairs of the George house wondering (just wondering) if maybe the grandpappy of his sacred profession, Freud, had been wrong. The paradoxical facts of human behavior didn’t seem to fit into those neat classical compartments he’d allotted them to. Perhaps attempting to be rational about the human mind was a contradiction in terms.

Freud claimed that there weren’t any accidents, that the subconscious mind always knows what it’s doing and acts on purpose, sometimes at cross purposes with the conscious part of our minds. Dr Jeudwine lives (briefly) in a world where the hands are no longer at the will of either conscious or subconscious; they have their own thoughts and their own wills. So I guess sometimes Freud was wrong. Now, that’s sort of a commonplace suggestion, and we talk more of his shortcomings than credit him for his good ideas.

Revelations

This story felt deeply meaningful to me, surprisingly powerful. It’s about the unhappy wife of a traveling evangelist, and the ghosts she encounters at a motel. Thinking back over it, I can’t put my finger on why this story felt so significant to me, but it really did. The ghosts are here on a quest for reconciliation: thirty years ago, she shot him in the chest at this motel and went to the electric chair for it. But the thing is, she’s still not sorry she shot him, and he’s still not sorry he cheated on her. People are themselves, and that doesn’t really change. Sometimes breaking up is the right thing to do. It’s unfortunate when murder is the only way to do say good-bye.

Everybody leaves something behind, you know.

I thought that I’d brought everything with me when I came back to North Carolina, but apparently I left most of my summer wardrobe in the Midwest, along with my winter coat and winter hats. It’s got me a little upset, not having the hat my best friend got me for Christmas eight months ago, or my favorite camouflage Superman T-shirt, but I think he’s going to bring them down, or possibly mail them. My car’s been acting up, so I only get out to see my friends on the three days that I work, which means that I’m quite sufficiently lonely to miss him and hope to see him again. The longer we’re apart the more those feelings will fade. I can recognize the fact that he isn’t good for me and still care about him; I guess that makes me strange in some ways. Then again, I’m on High Alert for other possibilities, so maybe it’s not him specifically that I miss.

Down, Satan!

This is the short one, only a sixth the length of the others. The title makes me think of some of the research I did into pre-Adamite religious groups in the Middle Ages, which sort of led into my briefly researching Medieval pornography (I was still a good Mormon back then, so I swear it was an accident, Mr Freud). But that’s not actually connected with the story. A man wants to have some sign from God, some personal communication, but feels ignored. He’s rich, so he donates a lot of money to charity, thinking that the visible signs of piety will attract God’s notice. It doesn’t work, so, after glancing back at his Old Testament, he decides to induce a divine intervention by flirting with the devil. Not just flirting, I suppose. He tries to build a replica of hell, and traps people there to torture them. Moral of the story: supernatural stuff is imagination, and nothing is more frightening than real people.

The Age of Desire

Scientists finally create an aphrodisiac that works, but it’s too strong. Their test subject was only interested in sex a couple of times a month, but after the injection it’s the only thing that exists for him. He attacks everyone he meets at first, even a cop who’s trying to arrest him. The cop enjoys it more than he’ll admit out loud, but the women end up dead. It’s sad. When he’s not having sex, he does enjoy the beauty of the world more than he ever had before, as if sexual desire amplifies aesthetic appreciation. But you can’t just rape women to death, so he eventually gets tracked down. During the chase, one of the law enforcement goes by a cinema, with the posters for a horror film in the windows:

What trivial images the populists conjured to stir some fear in their audiences. The walking dead; nature grown vast and rampant in a miniature world; blood drinkers, omens, fire walkers, thunderstorms and all the other foolishness the public cowered before. It was all so laughably trite. Among that catalogue of penny dreadfuls there wasn’t one that equaled the banality of human appetite, which horror (or the consequences of same) he saw every week of his working life. Thinking of it, his mind thumbed through a dozen snapshots: the dead by torchlight, face down and thrashed to oblivion; and the living too, meeting his mind’s eye with hunger in theirs – for sex, for narcotics, for others’ pain. Why didn’t they put that on the posters?

While it is true that I’m a good reader, so I react the way I should, and there were parts of the book that were really creepy, none of this made me as uncomfortable and disturbed as an utterly realistic film I watched the other night. One of my friends whom I met in Saudi Arabia told me that I couldn’t really be a Licensed Homosexual Male until I’d seen What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I reacted the way I always do when someone else tells me I must do something – I agreed outwardly, but it’s taken me four years to getting around to watching the film. It bothered me much more than any of Barker’s fantasies. I guess it speaks to things that actually worry me: being dependent on my family, which is also a web of unwilling obligations, and being destroyed by them. I was too uncomfortable to go to sleep afterward, so I stayed up watching Community, but I started to hear this heavy breathing, as if some large animal were in the room where I thought I was alone, and I got myself good and scared until I realized that I had dozed off and it was my own breathing that was scaring me.

If you like horror, this is a good little collection. It’s got blood and guts, supernatural weirdness, and monsters, and what else do you need? There are also places where you stop and think, about what is really frightening and what isn’t. If you know these stories were written by a man who wasn’t yet public about being gay, then you see the evidence: emphasis on liberation, the reversals of what is monstrous and what is safe, the interest in male bodies, the unwelcome pleasure of touching and being touched. But you can ignore all that and just see it as mainstream horror, and that’s fine too. It was a good way to pass a Sunday afternoon, waiting for the laundry machines to do their work.

I’m always a bit curious as to why Penguin feels the need to demand sixty-page introductions of the editors in its Classics series. Generally I skip over them, and I think this is a good practice if you haven’t read the book before. In this case, though, the introduction is longer than the text itself, so I gave it a go. While not as interesting as the Ding an sich, it serves its purpose, explaining where the text comes from and some of the larger decisions the editor made.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is really really old, so it exists in a very fragmented state, and there are several retellings, so the work of the editor is rather significant, as it is in Hamlet or the Dead Sea scrolls. She has chosen a prose translation, or rather compilation, as she admits that the source material is in a few different ancient languages that had already been lost by the time Homer was singing of Odysseus. There are a few different meticulous translations already published that give all possible variants of meaning for each word, but they are prohibitively dense for the casual reader, and this is her intended audience: those of us with enough education to understand references to the Odyssey and the Aeneid, but who are not interested in getting a doctorate in ancient Middle Eastern dialects. There is a little repetition where the stories don’t align exactly, but I think Sandars has done a great job of giving us an approachable text that will satisfy the merely curious and serve as a gateway to the truly passionate.

As with Fenimore Cooper, Gilgamesh’s story is of two journeys: one to the Country of the Living, and one to the Garden of the Gods.

Journey number one. Once upon a time there was a king, two-thirds god and only one part man, and he was wise and beautiful. This part of the book tends to go on about how perfect his body is, which makes me curious about the Sumerian idea of the perfect body. I have to question his wisdom here, though, because as king, the gods gave him the right to have sex with any woman he wants, virgin whore other man’s wife whatever, so of course he exercises that right. The people get sick of him fucking every woman in town – and not just the husbands and fathers, the women themselves are sick of not having the right to refuse – so they pray to the gods to fix this problem. The gods decide to send him an equal, someone whose love will give him focus. He has a few dreams about this man whom he will love as a woman, and that phrase is repeated several times, so I’m guessing there was something sexual here.

Enkidu is a wild man living in the forest, messing up all the traps and setting the prey animals free. The trapper asks Gilgamesh for advice, and he sends a prostitute out to seduce Enkidu. It works, and she spends a week fucking him into civilization. Here we see the Middle Eastern prudery about sex – after ‘polluting’ himself with a woman, Enkidu can’t return to the forest because the animals no longer recognize him as one of them. He’s lost his innocence, and with it the wisdom of the wilderness. Now he has to go live among people. He hears the stories of Gilgamesh and decides to go stop him from having all this indiscriminate casual sex:

In Uruk the bridal bed was made, fit for the goddess of love. The bride waited for the bridegroom, but in the night Gilgamesh got up and came to the house. Then Enkidu stepped out, he stood in the street and blocked the way. Mighty Gilgamesh came on and Enkidu met him at the gate. He put out his foot and prevented Gilgamesh from entering the house, so they grappled, holding each other like bulls. They broke the doorposts and the walls shook, they snorted like bulls locked together. They shattered the doorposts and the walls shook. Gilgamesh bent his knee with his foot planted on the ground and with a turn Enkidu was thrown. Then immediately his fury died. When Enkidu was thrown he said to Gilgamesh, ‘There is not another like you in the world. Ninsun, who is as strong as a wild ox in the byre, she was the mother who bore you, and now you are raised above all men, and Enlil has given you the kingship, for your strength surpasses the strength of men.’ So Enkidu and Gilgamesh embraced and their friendship was sealed.

Yes, you are sensing the flavor of ancient homoeroticism. Some stories play up the master-servant relationship between them, but Sandars tells the story as if they were equals, brothers or lovers. So Gilgamesh is settling down sexually, but he still needs some kind of conquest or adventure. They set out to destroy a great evil in the Country of the Living, apparently so called because it is directly over where the Anunnaki judge the souls of the dead. It’s a place of abundant forests, compatible with the biblical description of Lebanon (cedars). It’s not clear of what the evil consists, but the forest guardian’s name is semantically linked with the word for Evil, so he must be killed. After some psychological struggles upon entering the forest, Gilgamesh cuts down the sacred trees that give Humbaba/Huwawa his power, and the evil giant begs for mercy. Gilgamesh and Enkidu have none, and behead him for the good of the world. How this is good for the world is again unclear, except maybe he wasn’t letting people cut down the trees to build houses with. They had been doing just fine with bricks, so again, I don’t get the reasoning, but it’s not my culture.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu return victorious with the rare commodity wood, and people are really happy, except for the god of the wind and earth Enlil, who was on the giant’s side. Then Ishtar, the goddess of love and war, tries to marry Gilgamesh, but he points out her commitment issues and tendency to transform her lovers into animals and refuses her. She takes her rage to the gods, and it is decreed that Enkidu must die. There’s a lot of suffering in this part, especially for Gilgamesh, who has to watch his friend/brother/lover die slowly from an illness with poorly described symptoms. Gilgamesh is compared more directly to a woman here, in his weeping. Like Macduff, he has to express his man-sized grief before doing something about it.

Journey number two. Gilgamesh is now deathly afraid of dying. In our culture, people see death as a reunion with the beloved departed, but not in Sumerian. Gilgamesh doesn’t have any hope of seeing Enkidu again. But there are stories of a man who lives forever, the one who survived the Great Flood – Utnapishtim, not Noah. Gilgamesh defeats a bunch of lions and tunnels under a mountain for twelve days to reach the Garden of the Gods, where he sweet-talks the goddess of wine and wisdom into telling him how to reach Utnapishtim. She directs him to the ferryman Urshanabi, who becomes his new sidekick (definitely not an equal like Enkidu was, but it’s nice to have a companion anyway). Urshanabi takes him to Utnapishtim, and they learn the story of the flood. It’s pretty standard flood-narrative stuff, people were too evil so the gods decided to destroy them all, but Ea liked Utnapishtim and told him to build a boat big enough to hold the seeds of all life. Utnapishtim and his family and friends ride out the storm and rebuild the world after the water recedes. Enlil is pissed off about this, but the other gods actually like people and won’t let him kill the survivors. Instead, Enlil ‘blesses’ Utnapishtim with eternal life and makes him live way out at the edge of the world, where the Ocean drops into nothing. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh to stop hunting for immortality, because it’s both impossible and unpleasant. Instead, he directs Gilgamesh to an undersea flower that restores youth, but on the way home a snake eats the flower and that’s why snakes shed their skins. And why people don’t have a magic flower to make them young again.

After the second journey, there’s nothing left to tell. Gilgamesh rules wisely for the rest of his days, and he dies surrounded by his wife, son, and concubine, to the great lamenting of all. They do the sacrifices to the gods and everything else people did for dead kings back then.

In terms of theme, I’m always alert to gender roles and sexual fluidity, so that relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu is really interesting to me. They have romantic feelings for each other, and they seem inseparable even in private time, but it doesn’t diminish the virility of either. I’ve had people tell me that in homosexual relationships, ‘They can always tell which one is the man and which one is the woman,’ which I find terribly offensive, but I don’t think that’s always the case. I’ve seen gay couples where one is obviously more effeminate, but frankly, that’s sort of rare for me. We become like the people we spend time with, so when I meet gay couples who have been together for a long time, they seem equally masculine or equally feminine, and frankly it is none of my business which one is the top and which one is the bottom, or whether they like to trade off, so I don’t ask. I think the need to assign homosexuals to heterosexual roles indicates a deeper discomfort with homosexuality; it’s like these people’s brains are somehow completely different from mine, as if for them gender binaries are more important than love or compatibility of spirit.

The theme of divine retribution is important, as well as divine favor. Shamash the sun-god helps Gilgamesh all the time, but the hero is always getting Enlil upset with him. Gilgamesh’s problem is that he doesn’t have all the facts about who or what is important to Enlil, so he frequently blunders into offending the god. That may not say much for his supposed wisdom, but he’s only (one-third) human. This seems to be the Sumerian idea of life on earth: we blunder around accidentally offending gods who take their revenge on us. It’s not a simple case of karma because we can’t know what will offend the gods and what won’t. There’s a fatalistic sense that the gods are to be placated (with or without hope) rather than loved. This idea makes sense to me, because I agree that the universe is a chaotic place where good and bad things happen to everyone regardless of whether I think their actions are good or bad.

This is a good little edition, as I said, great for intelligent people who aren’t scholars in ancient Middle Eastern studies. There are others with the more advanced scholarship, but if you don’t need all that, stick with this one. And it’s a good story, but sad. Fortunately, it’s also too short for me to be so involved with the characters that I get upset – it’s not like The Last Chronicle of Barset, which left me weeping as if I had just seen someone in my own family die. Epic heroes die, it’s what they do, like Beowulf, so it wasn’t traumatic. It’s how this sort of story works. You could see the tragedy as excessive, but these people lived five or six thousand years ago. The story has to end.

I’ve been in the mood for this book for a while, and I think it’s because my subconscious has been trying to remind me of this:

I never think those men wise who for any worldly interest forego the greatest happiness of their lives.

And this is precisely what I’ve been doing, accepting the fragments of love from someone who has been financially useful to me, finding jobs far away from my children, seeing my dearest friends on Facebook instead of in real life. Now, my life in the last five years has been amazing – reading Gone with the Wind in a New York subway station at two in the morning, kissing the man I’ve loved since I was nineteen (and watching him run away), flying over the Mediterranean and the Sahara, seeing the Moulin Rouge and the Eiffel Tower with a handsome North African, watching an enormous religious pageant in Nauvoo with a group of gay Mormons, attending The Big Gay Church in Dallas with more than a thousand strangers, playing house with a Midwestern man who is determined to be as conventional as possible – but my happiest times have all been right here in North Carolina. I don’t know if this is the residence I’ll settle down in, but this is clearly the best place for me. As I was looking back through the summer’s entries last week, it struck me that my search for happiness has been a dominant theme these past months, and I hope that I’ve found it. I’m underemployed, and threatened with eviction if I don’t find more work, but I don’t feel nearly as frantic as I should. There is a feeling of deep contentment here, which I have missed. This move may have been foolish from a financial standpoint, but there are other considerations which I hope will prove this to have been a wise decision.

There is nothing more difficult than to lay down any fixed and certain rules for happiness; or indeed to judge with any precision of the happiness of others, from the knowledge of external circumstances. There is sometimes a little speck of black in the brightest and gayest colours of fortune, which contaminates and deadens the whole. On the contrary, when all without looks dark and dismal, there is often a secret ray of light within the mind, which turns every thing to real joy and gladness.

Perhaps some day I will meet a man who will give me such a secret ray of light, but I can assure you he is as yet hypothetical.

Fielding is writing in 1751, which means that while his earlier novels were delightfully bawdy with a few too many lurid details, he is more reserved now. This is after the Fanny Hill trial, which proved that writers can be fined and imprisoned for obscenity. In many ways this story is much more serious than Tom Jones or Joseph Andrews, with more sharply pointed satire. Think of it as a predecessor of Bleak House. Our protagonist, William Booth, is always falling into some legal scrape or another – I think he ends up in jail three times – and his devoted wife Amelia is always (indirectly) rescuing him. Booth’s problems generally come about because he trusts people and institutions, and only in the end do others figure out how to make the system work for him.

Fielding has dropped much of the mock epic from his style, but there are several allusions and quotations to the ancient Latin and Greek authors, and our story is divided into twelve books like the Homeric epics. We also begin in medias res, with Booth being brought before the justice, and we get the backstory later, Books 2, 3, and 7 being taken up with flashbacks. The editor claims to have corrected Fielding’s spelling, or at least modernized, but he changes the spelling of ‘gaol’ to ‘goal,’ which is a very different word and even an indifferent Enlightenment scholar like myself recognizes the mistake. He does, however, preserve the variations on Amelia’s name, which are more due to sound than spelling – she can become Emily at a moment’s notice.

This is a book about sex and money, the different ways that one can be exchanged for the other. As I said, the racy bits are all glossed over in such a way that even the most prim reader would be hard pressed to find something to complain about, though I imagine that if the most prim reader were reading eighteenth-century novels, she actually wouldn’t mind a little hard pressing.

Booth gets locked up in Book 1 because he’s poor. The justice examining his case knows and cares little about the law and always sides with whoever looks richest. There, he runs into an old flame, Miss Matthews. He tells her about his happy marriage with Amelia, despite their difficulties, and Miss decides to sleep with him. Because this preliminary type of jail is co-ed, he spends the better part of a week fucking her while she pays for the room and food. He feels terribly guilty about it, but not guilty enough to stop, and not guilty enough to confess when Amelia finds him and brings him home.

Booth’s major problem is that he’s poor. He was an officer in the army, but a couple of injuries sent him back to London on a fraction of his former salary. He spends this latter two-thirds of the book trying to find favor with powerful friends who can effect a return to gainful employment by using their influence to get him a new commission. While Fielding’s satire is mainly directed against his own profession, the law, this system of patronage comes under close scrutiny as well. Booth doesn’t know how to do anything except be a soldier, but in order to get that sort of job again, he has to bribe the right guy, whether a higher ranking officer like Colonel James or a peer like the unnamed lord, and then hope that his patron’s word is good enough to get him into a good position, or any position at all. As a result, Booth spends most of the book in debt, too afraid of the law to leave the house. He does get arrested for debt twice, but Amelia is keeping a closer eye on him this time, so he doesn’t get to spend his jail time in another woman’s bed.

Booth’s major obstacle to advancement is, unfortunately, his wife’s chastity. These guys keep promising to help Booth get ahead, but once they meet his wife they decide not to move on his case until they can move on her. She’s innocent, but her friend Mrs Bennet gives her a timely warning. Book 7, her backstory, is a rather sad story which feels a little too modern for comfort. The unnamed lord promises to help her poor husband advance, all out of deference to her, then engineers a situation where the husband is out of town and the wife is invited to a masquerade. At the masquerade he slips an Enlightenment Rohypnol into her drink and rapes her while she’s too impaired to resist. Apparently this has been the price of preferment all along. When the husband finds out, the stress kills him and she’s left with nothing. Using this story to demonstrate the evils of patronage seems timely to us, but Fielding does stick with some conventional misogyny, using her learning of the Latin classics in the original language to lampoon the idea of women getting a decent education. This is an eighteenth-century novel, after all, so the castoff mistress gets married to a sidekick, eventually deciding that it is better to have a husband who loves her and has common sense than one who can keep up with her in a literary discussion. Indeed, the men who can match her in learning have so entrenched an idea of women’s inferiority that they spend their time insulting her instead of respecting her.

Well, when Amelia finally figures out what’s been going on, why the peer has been making gifts to her children and promises to her husband, she gets out of that trap right quick. And then the colonel tries the exact same trick, with the exact same success. The last few books involve men tricking Booth into debt so that they can imprison him and try to date-rape his wife. Fortunately for Booth, his wife’s fidelity is stronger than any man who tries to tempt her, even after she knows about the affair with Miss Matthews. As a reader, I feel a little cheated that we don’t get to see her reaction to this, but when Booth finally confesses she tells him that she’s known about it for a while now, and already forgiven him. This seems to be the crux, the issue that proves she’s a perfect wife: quick to forgive her husband for straying, but absolutely determined never to stray herself. The double standard feels outdated to me, but in the twenty-first century we have different expectations for women and chastity.

Another significant character is Doctor Harrison, Amelia’s priest. He’s always hovering around, disapproving of Booth, Mrs Bennet, and nearly everyone except Amelia. He represents the voice of Christian morality and all its weird biases. Booth and Amelia spend a lot of the earlier part of the book laughing at other people, but the longer Doctor Harrison is around the more inclined they are to be serious. Booth spends most of the book as a sort of closet atheist, saying things like,

Compassion, if thoroughly examined, will, I believe, appear to be the fellow-feeling only of men of the same rank and degree of life for one another, on account of the evils to which they themselves are liable. Our sensations are, I am afraid, very cold towards those who are at a great distance from us, and whose calamities can consequently never reach us.

Which Doctor Harrison would be quick to contradict with his words and confirm with his behavior. Personally, I think Booth is right. In my life, I have found that living is more bearable if I limit my awareness of the world’s ills. There is so much wrong with the world and so little I can do about it that I used to get depressed over this all the time. I had to learn to stop caring so much about people I will never meet and can do nothing to assist. I need to focus my emotional life on what’s immediately around me or I will drown in the sea of suffering that is 2017. This may sound cold and selfish, but it’s how I attend to my own survival. Compassion has to have its limits, or the one who lives it will destroy herself.

The ending feels a little tacked-on, as if Fielding knew he had passed five hundred pages and needed to end the book quickly. Booth gets reconverted to Christianity in jail, a minor character from Book 1 reappears with the key to Amelia’s fortune, Doctor Harrison pushes his testimony through the court system and they all end up rich. Except for the bad people, who end up unhappy, dead, or both.

This book is great for people who are into dramatic serials, but aren’t intimidated by eighteenth-century language or excessively frustrated by eighteenth-century gender roles and morality. Betrayals, shifting alliances, and sex, it sounds like an HBO show. There was a BBC serial in the 1960s, but it’s been lost. Maybe now that viewers are demonstrating more interest in this type of story, it’s time for a new film. I know I’d watch it.

This is the first time I’ve ever read anything by Calvino, and I was not disappointed. These two novellas are a bit allegorical, and as you can see from the titles, they’re set in the distant past. Calvino’s style is translated in a way that is really accessible, and his cultural tradition is similar enough to mine that the stories, though new, felt familiar.

THE NONEXISTENT KNIGHT

In the days of Charlemagne’s campaigns, when his greatness is a little past but he hasn’t quite retired yet, there exists in his army a knight who doesn’t exist. Agilulf is literally an empty suit of armor, endued with the strictest sense of duty according to the chivalric code. He is everyone’s conscience, which makes him unpopular when the soldiers are relaxing after a large battle. He speaks, but he has no heart to feel with other men. He sees his lack, but like most of us, he doesn’t know how to change.

Raimbaut is a young kid set on avenging his father on the field of battle. Battlefields are notoriously smoky, and wearing the armor of the time limits one’s field of vision, so he doesn’t succeed. But he insists on learning from Agilulf, whether the nonexistent knight likes it or not. There’s another young guy named Torrismund who is a bit more cynical about everything.

But these guys don’t make an interesting story by themselves: they need a girl.

We country girls, however noble, have always led retired lives in remote castles and convents. Apart from religious ceremonies, triduums, novenas, gardening, harvesting, vintaging, whippings, slavery, incest, fires, hangings, invasion, sacking, rape and pestilence, we have had no experience. What can a poor nun know of the world?

Bradamante is fantastic. She fights alongside the men in full armor and saves Raimbaut in a battle. He falls desperately in love, but she doesn’t. She admires men who know what they’re doing, who have the skill and discipline to succeed in the violent world they live in – the type that get called ‘a real man.’ The problem is, when she gets a real man into bed, he’s always disappointing. All that work ethic and self-restraint disappear with the trousers, as the men she’s been with just want to ride her hard and get off as soon as possible. I can see her point, that one wants a partner who will concern himself with the satisfaction of both parties and not just his own, but I can also see things from the men’s perspective – all the discipline and hard work need a counterbalance, and sex can provide the opportunity to be completely unrestrained. But she’s turned on by restraint, so it always leaves her feeling a little flat. Her observations of Agilulf give her hope that he will finally be the man who will fuck the way he fights, by the book and with great success.

Tragedy strikes when we start to examine origins. When did Agilulf become a knight? He saved a woman from being raped by highwaymen, but Torrismund claims that Agilulf didn’t earn his knighthood because the woman wasn’t a virgin. This part of the story doesn’t take long to relate, though it took a long time to perform: a journey all over Europe to find this woman and get proof that she was a virgin fifteen years ago. Because the feudal code of men that we call chivalry is based on women’s chastity. I suppose a woman’s safety was only significant if she was unfucked, as if along with the hierarchy of men based on the accomplishment of brave deeds, there was also a hierarchy of women based on their not having accomplished anything. It’s a bit surprising to someone from the twenty-first century, with all our talk about the importance of every human life, to see social structures that are based on slut-shaming and double standards so widely accepted even while so nakedly exposed. The story is narrated by a woman in a convent, so she always points out such things. She’s like Bradamante, taking the pen/sword out of a man’s hand and using it prove women’s power in a world that considered them powerless. And when her worth is proved, Bradamante is considered more of a curiosity than as a proof that women have an equal claim to the active professions. A man waves a sword about, and he shows that all men are powerful; a woman waves a sword about, and she shows that she’s weird, unfeminine, and probably willing to have sex with anyone who looks at her.

If you think times have changed, rephrase ‘waves a sword about’ to ‘looks in a microscope’ or ‘starts her own company’ or ‘goes to sniper school’ or ‘builds a robot’ or ‘plays Dungeons & Dragons online.’ My sister majored in a STEM field at the university, and she had to carry a dart gun to class to convince the male students to speak of and to her with respect. I guess it’s hard to look virile when a girl half your size lands a plastic dart in the middle of your forehead from across a lecture hall. [Actually, I don’t know if the US army will let a woman go to sniper school. Yes, let the institutionalized misogyny rise from that last sentence like a foul odor.]

THE CLOVEN VISCOUNT

The young viscount was off fighting a war when he jumped in front of a cannon and got blown to bits. Not the hundreds or thousands of bits you’d expect, just two. He’s cleft in twain, and this goes for his personality too. It’s another representation of the Jekyll and Hyde idea, separating the good from the bad in a human, only this guy is visibly separated in two. One side goes about wreaking evil throughout the domain (what is a viscount’s domain called? A viscountry?), while the other side goes about doing good. The evil is absurdly, cartoonishly evil, and the good is inhumanly, implacably good. They meet a girl and each tries to force her to marry the other. The evil tries to force her to marry the good by threatening her and her family; the good tries to manipulate her into marrying the evil by appealing to her parents and her supposedly good nature, as if she wants to save the evil half or something. She moved to a cave in the woods to get away from him, so of course she really wants to marry and reform him. [Sarcasm. Angry-at-misogyny-in-the-supposedly-good-man sarcasm.] As with other stories of separation, the only good result is healing, not dividing. They get stitched back together in the end, creating one person with good and bad qualities, like all of us.

I’ve dealt with quite a bit of my own internal separations, and healing and hugging seems to be the only way to help. For example. I meet a Jesus Freak who acts a little dominant toward me, and my subconscious starts fantasizing about fucking him into submission. It’s not rape because in the fantasy he participates and enjoys it, and rape is a horrible thing that damages everyone involved. I don’t try to run out and seduce a straight Christian, obviously, but I don’t stop at rejecting the fantasy and condemning the behavior. I ask, Why does my subconscious want to do that? It’s because I feel like his religion threatens me, and indeed this is a religion some of whose followers want to deny me basic civil rights, and some of whose branches literally teach that my only hope for salvation is to live a lonely life and to die as quickly as possible. I get so upset by this religion because for most of my life I did let it take my power away from me, my power to choose what life I was to lead and how to live it. In short, it really has little to do with the JF himself, who actually did his best to be kind and understanding and helpful, and if he judges me for being gay, he keeps that information to himself. It’s hard for me to trust Christians since the ones in Texas tried to get me fired – again, nothing to do with this specific JF. Now, why did my subconscious show this specific behavior? Why not another form of power? Because my sex life is leaving me dissatisfied, so I want more control over this area of my life too. The fantasy combines two areas of my life that have been at odds with each other, and combines them in a way that leaves me on top, in a position of power, in control of the situation. Now that I understand what’s wrong with me, I accept the parts of me that feel powerless and love myself even though I don’t have all the control I want. Then I look for ways to feel more powerful that don’t involve hurting other people.

But this is drifting away from Calvino. His book exposes misogyny and injustice, but its aim is reconciliation, combining duty and passion, cruelty and kindness, accepting both ends of the dichotomies as human traits that only exist in community, never in isolation. It’s a symbol of loving all that we find in ourselves, the good and the evil, because it takes both to make a complete human.

The plan?

Simple.

Murder multiple motherfuckers, save one asshole.

McCrary has a few lines that are absolute gems, like this one. Most of the book, though, was not very satisfying. It’s a tawdry action flick written down. The titular Remo is a New York defense attorney, severely alcoholic and addicted to Ritalin (keeps him focused because he comes to work drunk), who is on the run because of the singular good deed he’s done in his life. He threw a robbery case, found and dug up the money, and donated it to a charity that supports the families of the people who were killed in the robbery. He’s sort of worthless as an action hero, but that can lead to funny situations sometimes. However, McCrary’s is a grim sort of humor, at its best.

Leslie likes to fuck men. Sometimes she ends up fucking some dudes that she doesn’t really like. It happens.

So what?

When you’re a thirty-three-year-old woman living in New York and you like to fuck men, you may find yourself bedding a few pricks. Yes, the literal nature of that statement is understood, but you get it. An attractive woman in a demanding job, working ridiculous hours, surrounded by men of loose moral fiber may have to drop her standards in order to get some.

Sex or the high road. The low road has an impressive win/loss record. Again, it happens. All of this swirls around Leslie’s pretty little head as she nudges back and forth on her back. On a desk. In the dark. Having sex with one of those previously-mentioned pricks.

Reading this book and wondering why anyone would either write or enjoy it, it seems like pure wish fulfillment. Remo is rich as anything (and we poor people would love to be rich like that), but he’s also miserably depressed (and we poor people want to believe that rich people are deeply unhappy and morally bankrupt). Yet, he is also approachable, because most of us can identify with being bored with our jobs and yearning for a life with more meaning and focus. I know, since I’m a teacher it’s practically blasphemy to admit that my professional life is not a constant blend of Mr Holland’s Opus, Freedom Writers, and To Sir, With Love, but there you have it. It’s a job, not a divine calling. My life feels focused and meaningful not when I’m teaching writing, but when I’m actually writing – using words instead of explaining their use.

And, in the end, justice is done. The bad guys get killed, Remo connects with the son his ex-wife keeps away from him, and the get-away driver who converted to Jesus takes it as his life mission to keep saving Remo. The Acknowledgements section implies that he was killed in an early draft, but that a test reader encouraged McCrary to keep Lester alive. Saving Lester does make for a better book, and since this one spawned a whole series, I’d predict that he becomes a sort of sidekick. I find the idea of my continuing the series to be rather unlikely. There’s so much unhappiness, and not much humor to lighten it up. If you like tight, action-packed thrill rides, go for it. It reads quickly and easily. But I’ll go back to my Victorians.

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.