Posts Tagged ‘shakespeare’

Let’s take a moment to remember what Stevenson has written up until this point: Treasure Island, Prince Otto, and Kidnapped. All three of these were adventure stories, written primarily for a younger, male audience. His style represents a transition from the loquaciousness of his Victorian contemporaries to the bare, “hard boiled” narration of twentieth-century genre fiction. But apparently that style hasn’t suited everyone, and before the story he references specifically “The Critic on the Hearth,” both a play on the Dickens title and an appropriate yet affectionate title for his wife. In The Black Arrow, he claims to be trying to merge his boy adventures with the type of story (and writing) that traditional novel readers enjoy – in other words, he says that he’s going to infuse some Dickens and Brontë into this one. I suppose it’s because he’s finally writing about a young man who is interested in a woman.

As the subtitle suggests, this story takes place during the Wars of the Roses, though Stevenson seems to avoid taking sides in the York/Lancaster debate. His message is at least partly that it doesn’t matter what side of a war you fight on, because in the end war is a way for the rich to get richer and the poor to die. The poor, realizing this, are hesitant to involve themselves. It doesn’t help that in a civil war of this type, the people they are fighting and killing are their friends and neighbors, all hyped up over one cause or the other. It’s not a happy world to drop your characters into. Displacing the characters in time gives Stevenson the chance to use some archaisms, but not enough to make it seem written back in the fifteenth century.

This is the story of Dick Shelton, told in five acts. In Act I, he’s a young teenager who’s more interested in fighting than in girls. In his guardian’s house he meets a young man on the opposite side, and incautiously promises to guide him to Holywood. So they run off on a secret adventure, and it’s all very homosocial and Kidnapped-esque. But this time, lest anyone think Dick is actually gay, Stevenson pulls a Shakespearean stunt and Jack Matcham is really Joan Sedley, so all those jokes that people were making about Jack being a girly boy were quite accurate. And remember, it’s okay to fall in love with someone of the same sex if they turn out to have been lying about their sex all along. They don’t quite make it to Holywood before Dick’s guardian Sir Daniel recaptures them

In Act II, Dick has to face some home truths about Sir Daniel – his guardian killed his father and persuaded him to believe it was someone else. His life and the love of his new father figure is all a lie, so he goes all rampage and joins The Black Arrow, a group of outlaw archers who live in the forest and are bent on killing Sir Daniel for having killed Dick’s father, among others. Sir Daniel has flipped sides in the war a few times, so The Black Arrow is not wedded to a white or a red rose either. They just care about avenging the wrongs of Sir Daniel and his cohorts. Dick decides that he wants to marry Joan, which is a bit of a challenge because Sir Daniel is keeping her captive so he can sell her in marriage to a rich noble. Doesn’t matter which one, so long as he’s rich and is willing to pay for a really young wife.

In Act III, Dick tries to rescue Joan the first time. He and his Arrows steal a ship and try to come around by the shore, the only ingress unguarded. A huge storm blows up and his men are too sick and scared to fight, and they come into conflict with Lord Foxham and his men. Foxham is Joan’s rightful guardian, and he’s also trying to get her back from Sir Daniel. After they end the first battle, Foxham and Dick team up. They try again, and are unsuccessful again. This time Foxham is seriously wounded and has to go recuperate for a long time. The message here? (1) You’re not going to get the girl and resolve the action in Act III of a five-act play, and (2) Stealing boats is not the right way to go about doing anything.

In Act IV, Dick teams up with the only guy who kept his head during the storm at sea. They disguise themselves as friars to sneak into Sir Daniel’s but they just end up captured and needing to break out again. Dick does meet up with Joan for a short time, but they are quickly separated. We also meet her friend Alicia, Lord Risingham’s niece. Both girls are kind of badass, but hindered by the gender roles of their time. It’s hard to run in a medieval princess dress. At least they didn’t have to wear those cone hats with the veils.

Act V. Dick ditches Lawless and becomes an officer under the Duke of Gloucester, he who will become King Richard III. Gloucester is presented as ruthless and efficient, but still young. Reading Shakespeare I always pictured Richard III as an older man, but when he died he was five years younger than I am now, so maybe young and stupid was always part of his problem. He never outgrew the adolescent need to see everything in terms of black and white. Dick does well with a barricade and is knighted, then drops from favor just as quickly when he pisses Richard off. He saves the girl, forgives the bad guy (but in forgiving holds him in one place long enough for the leader of The Black Arrow to shoot him), and they almost all live happily ever after. Well, until their natural deaths. There is no living ever after in a story set four hundred years before it’s written.

If there’s a big lesson here, it’s that Dick has to learn that his actions have consequences. He’s so focused on his goal of saving the girl that he bumbles around doing shitty things to other people and being surprised when they respond negatively, and when they turn back up in town and respond negatively again. The story takes place in and around one town; it’s kind of dumb to think that people are going to just go away. There is a war on, but you can’t expect the people you don’t like to die and the people you do like to live. Life isn’t that tidy.

So. Did Stevenson succeed? Well, he finally does have realistic female characters, and Dick realizes that he’s turned on by a girl who’s going to call him out on his shit, but this is still the same kind of adventure story he’s been writing before. The girls are awesome, but we don’t get to see them much. They’re damsels in distress, but that distress is mainly caused by the fact that they can’t wear trousers or take fencing lessons. Given the chance, I’m sure they could manage their own problems. There’s an independence of mind that Stevenson’s previous novels haven’t afforded women, so in that sense this book is a step forward. People who read novels for psychological studies and mature themes are still going to be disappointed; it’s still aimed at the younger male audience, full of unnecessary violence and idiotic attempts at heroism. I suppose that could be another message, don’t set people up as heroes because they’re as fallible as you and will inevitably let you down. But it’s an early Stevenson novel, fun in a late Victorian sort of a way.

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I know it’s been a couple of weeks that I haven’t written here, but it’s not for want of reading. I have four or five books that I need to write about; I’ve been reading rather a lot. The problem is with my computer – it’s five years old, and they’re not built to last that long any more. It’s reached a phase where it crashes every time it gets jostled or tipped, and that doesn’t fit well with my computing style – I take the term ‘laptop’ seriously. I’ve put it on a desk for the writing today, so perhaps we won’t have any unpleasant interruptions.

Start with Shakespeare. The Winter’s Tale is one of those plays that people don’t always like to call comedies because some terrible things happen. A truly nice guy has to exit, pursued by a bear. It’s not always clear who’s good and who’s bad, though I suppose that’s part of the point. It’s a story of dissolution, followed by gathering and forgiveness. King Leontes is convinced that the second child about to be born to him is not his, so he has one of those huge operatic scenes with his wife and friends after which the lady is unconscious and everyone assumes she’s dead. He sends the baby off to his best friend, whom he believes to be the true father, but the baby gets lost because the courier is eaten by a bear. She gets adopted by a poor shepherd and his idiot son, and sixteen years later she does meet Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, but it’s because her boyfriend Florizel is actually the king’s son. The truth about her starts to come out, but in a distorted form, so Florizel and Perdita run off to Sicilia to get the real story. Leontes, after suffering in isolation for so long, takes back his daughter and his best friend, and they go to see a statue of his dead wife, but the statue comes alive because she hasn’t really been dead all this time. In the end, Leontes’s pain seems to have redeemed him because everyone forgives him, which makes the ending seem unrealistic to me. It’s not enough to suffer – everyone does that. The suffering has to change you so you’re not a jealous homicidal nutbag, and I don’t see enough change in him to warrant bringing him back into Hermione’s life.

The Winterson novel is a retelling of the Shakespeare play, brought up to our time. There’s a good bit of the weirdness of Shakespeare in her story as well, because I find the story inherently strange. Leo is a successful businessman, married to a famous singer, MiMi. Their friend Xeno has been staying with them, and Leo suspects the two of them of cheating behind his back. Xeno and Leo are so close that they fooled around together in their bicurious stage. Leo has stuck with women ever since, but Xeno identifies himself as gay, though he also admits to being strongly attracted to MiMi. He kind of wishes they could have a three-way polyamorous relationship, but that’s not really an option for anyone else. Leo accuses her and gets to raping her, but her water breaks and they have to rush her to the hospital to give birth. Leo sends the child away to New Bohemia (which feels an awful lot like New Orleans), but his messenger gets killed and Shep and Clo pick up the child and raise her. Shep is an older guy, maybe a little too old to raise a baby, and Clo is his grown son, not bright. MiMi and Leo divorce and she moves to Paris, spending the next twenty-one years in near-total seclusion. As in Shakespeare, their first child, a son, gets killed for no apparent reason except to punish Leo, who loves the boy.

Time passes.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter that there was any time before this time. Sometimes it doesn’t matter that it’s night or day or now or then. Sometimes where you are is enough. It’s not that time stops or that it hasn’t started. This is time. You are here. This caught moment opening into a lifetime.

Winterson often speaks of time as if it were a character, and she titles the book after one of the last lines of Shakespeare’s story. Leontes, newly surrounded by his loved ones, says they’ll all go off and discuss what they’ve been doing in “the gap of time,” the sixteen years that they were all out of contact with each other. The thing that fascinates me about this phrase is that time has no gaps. It just keeps moving on, one second at a time, and there’s nothing we can do to speed it, slow it, or skip over it. The only gap is in our experience as an audience. We don’t see the sixteen years in the middle of the play, or the twenty-one years in the middle of the novel, so we perceive it as a gap, but the characters do not. If Leo had really skipped over all those years of isolated pain, he’d be the same asshole he was in the beginning, and isn’t the lesson here that pain makes people less assholish, more deserving of love? Neither writer shows me convincing evidence that Leontes has changed, and I think that pain in isolation isn’t the best way to teach someone how to love. You have to practice, and that means not being isolated.

Xeno and MiMi talk a lot about Nerval’s dream – a French poet dreamt that an angel fell to earth, in one of those crowded back alleys of Paris. If he opened his wings, he’d destroy everything around him; if he didn’t open his wings and fly away, he’d be trapped and die. Xeno uses it as the basis of a video game he designs, The Gap of Time. It’s all about feathers falling and becoming angels, and deciding whether the angels are good or evil, whose side you want to be on. Of course he and Leo take opposite sides, though they both haunt MiMi’s virtual apartment, where he’s programmed her as a statue. Xeno’s portrayal troubles me because he seems like Winterson’s primary antagonist, but I don’t read him as one in Shakespeare. Polixenes seems a bit clueless, careless and thoughtless but not really bad. Xeno seems bent on making the people he loves unhappy. He’s the dark side of the moon, and Leo is the bright sun that burns. Leontes talks about adultery as the spider in the cup – if you don’t see it, your drink tastes normal; once you do see it, the drink tastes poisonous. But to me, the important part here is that there is no spider in Leontes’s cup – he’s seeing spiders that don’t exist, imagining his wine is contaminated when there’s nothing wrong with it. But Winterson keeps bringing it back, Xeno’s seemingly inherent arachnous nature. For her, Leo does have a spider in his life, even if it isn’t fucking his wife.

I’m troubled by Hermione. She seems like one of those Gothic heroines I enjoy so much, a beauty who falls in love with a beast. She’s an innocent, forced to suffer through the insanity of the men around her. As with Hero from Much Ado About Nothing, the most effective way for her to prove her innocence is by dying when she’s accused. Also like Hero, she doesn’t actually die because life doesn’t work like that, but she pretends to be dead so that the accuser she still loves will suffer. When he’s sufficiently proven his penitence, she takes him back as if that had been her plan all along. If a man is so irrational that he will only believe a woman is telling the truth if she’s dead, he’s not a person that woman should be with. Maybe he’s a murderer. Maybe he’s a rapist. Maybe he sticks with subtler forms of abuse, but that’s no reason for her to share her life with him. In both stories, she’s one of the least realized characters; more of an ideal than a human being. I’d like to read a story where someone really breathes life into her, but neither of these is it.

Winterson seems to connect most with Perdita, the adopted girl who finds out her birth parents are rich and famous. She also discovers that her boyfriend isn’t just a mechanic at the local used-car dealership; his parents are rich too. She’s literally the girl who grows up poor and turns out to be a princess. Polixenes and Leontes are both taken by her beauty, but there’s not really enough time in the story for them to build a relationship with her. Winterson’s Perdita makes the connection clear, but she’s a bit like Miranda from The Tempest. She grows up with a single father in relative isolation, and then she discovers that the world is larger and more beautiful than she had imagined.

Perdita heard his car. Perdita saw him across the fence.

She moved back. Her heart was overbeating. Why do I feel this way? And what is this way that I am feeling? How can something so personal and so private, like a secret between myself and my soul, be the same personal, private secret of the soul for everyone?

There’s nothing new or strange or wonderful about how I feel.

I feel new and strange and wonderful.

Perdita is a girl who loves. Her name points to her as lost, but that only describes her from her parents’ point of view. In herself, she seems to know who she is and what she wants in life, that identity not being solely based on her genetic background. She meets Leo, but still insists that Shep is her father, in all the important ways. And she loves Zel, even if his parentage is different from what she had assumed. Zel grows up knowing who his father is, and hating him. Polixenes spends a year on a visit of state to his best friend, but it’s assumed that he spends the sixteen-year gap with his wife and son. Xeno keeps wandering around the world with very little contact with his son, so Zel has reason not to value someone who shows so little value for him. When Xeno makes an effort, Zel resists, so there’s not a lot of hope for them. I grew up similarly, but when my father reaches out I try to reach back. I don’t think there’s anything productive to be had from being unkind to him. You could read this as contradicting what I said up there about Leontes and abusive relationships, but fathers are different from husbands. I don’t live with my father, and I make sure I filter and evaluate everything he says. I know he’s doing his best, even if I find that best to be wanting at times. The effort would be too much to keep up with a man I lived with. The marriage relationship makes the partners vulnerable to each other in a way that I’m not with my dad. The constant presence of the abusive man would erode his partner’s sense of individuality and freedom. As with MiMi’s interest in the Nerval story, the only way out is to destroy everything. That’s not the case with me, a man who lives independently of his father and only speaks with him occasionally.

Free will depends on being stronger than the moment that traps you.

Time seems to take on the role of Fate – it’s like people are stuck in a story that they’d rather not be living. I don’t believe it works that way. Leontes’s actions have disastrous consequences for the people around him, but none of that is inevitable. It’s not clear how much choice Shakespeare’s queen has, but in the twenty-first century we expect women to be able to choose their own husbands. MiMi didn’t have to marry him. It’s all a matter of accepting responsibility for choices. I think that twenty-one years of misery is a heavy penalty to pay, but that’s the story as Winterson gets it from Shakespeare. Leo has to accept consequences of his own behavior, but most of those consequences he’s forced onto other people as well. MiMi didn’t destroy her world by divorcing her husband – he did that by falsely accusing her and losing her children. Perdita and Florizel didn’t choose their circumstances, but they make choices, hopefully better ones than their parents made. If Winterson is correct, then I believe we are all stronger than time, we all have free will and are only trapped by other people, not by fate or moments or time.

Have you noticed how ninety per cent of games feature tattooed white men with buzzcuts beating the shit out of the world in stolen cars? It’s like living in a hardcore gay nightclub on a military base.

I love Winterson’s sense of humor.

The endings interest me, primarily because of the difference between them. Shakespeare doesn’t show us the reunion of Leontes with Perdita and Polixenes; that’s narrated by an eyewitness to someone else. Shakespeare’s attention is on Leontes and Hermione, so restoring the marriage is the important thing for him. The other relationships seem harder for him to imagine, which is the explanation I can find for the indirectness of that scene. In Winterson’s story, the important reunion for Leo is with finding Perdita and Xeno. It’s the meeting of father and daughter and the repairing of the gay relationship that matters to her. She closes the scene with Leo and Xeno standing in the aisle of the concert venue, watching MiMi onstage, before they approach and talk with her. For a singer, MiMi has astonishingly little voice in the book, and here when she has an opportunity to talk to the man who hurt her and may or may not be forgiven, she is silent because she’s putting on a show for the larger crowd. Maybe it ends here because Winterson had a hard time facing the next scene, where she is supposed to forgive him and reunite. I’d have a hard time writing that scene, because in my imagination Hermione would not make that choice. I would have written her a community and a job and a life; I would have her prove to Leontes that she doesn’t need him. By ending the book where she does, Winterson doesn’t have to write MiMi’s decision to take him back or not, and we can choose to believe what we like.

I love reading Jeanette Winterson novels. I’ll admit to having found this one weird and a little hard, but I think the same thing about her source text, which means this is a good adaptation. This is dramatically more recent than anything else of hers I’ve read, so it’s good to see that I can enjoy books from different periods of her career. Her writing is beautiful and I get engaged quickly with her characters, even if they’re people I might not like in real life. And I still don’t know what to make of Autolycus, in either version of this story. But it’s a good book, and begins with a summary of Shakespeare for those who are unfamiliar with his telling.

Many of you will recall Hoffmann’s name from the Offenbach opera, or from the opera that he himself wrote. Others may recall comments about German ghost stories of the Romantic Era, and you’ll want to connect those with Hoffmann’s name. It seems strange to think that these stories were published at the same time as Jane Austen’s, though a trifle less strange to think of them as contemporaneous with Frankenstein, Wordsworth’s Prelude, and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

Another thing to think of as strange is the fact that the editor chose this group to package together. He wasn’t looking for a broad sampling of Hoffmann’s work; he put together the stories that were the most similar, that all have pretty much the same central idea. These are allegories of thought, intuition, and inspiration, and therefore of identity and art.

If there is a dark power which malevolently and treacherously places a thread within us, with which to hold us and draw us down a perilous and pernicious path that we would never otherwise have set foot on – if there is such a power, then it must take the same form as we do, it must become our very self; for only in this way can we believe in it and give it the scope it requires to accomplish its secret task. If our minds, strengthened by a cheerful life, are resolute enough to recognize alien and malevolent influences for what they are and to proceed tranquilly along the path to which our inclinations and our vocation have directed us, the uncanny power must surely perish in a vain struggle to assume the form which is our own reflection. Lothar also says there is no doubt that once we have surrendered ourselves to the dark psychic power, it draws alien figures, encountered by chance in the outside world, into our inner selves, so that we ourselves give life to the spirit which our strange delusion persuades us is speaking from such figures. It is the phantom of our own self which, thanks to its intimate relationship with us and its deep influence on our minds, casts us down to hell or transports us to heaven. (The Sandman)

So, unlike a lot of supernatural stories, these are deeply humanistic – it’s always ourselves, our divided selves, that control our lives and destinies. We make choices, so responsibility is never assigned to external forces like God or Fate. We each make our own world.

Nor do I quite see what you mean by wonders, my excellent Mr Peregrinus, or how you contrive to divide phenomena into the wondrous and the non-wondrous, since the reality they manifest is the same as ourselves, and we and they determine each other reciprocally. If you wonder at something because it has not yet happened to you, or because you think you cannot perceive the connection of cause and effect, that simply shows that your powers of perception are limited by the deficiencies of your vision. Whether your vision is naturally deficient, or sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, I cannot say. But, with respect, Mr Tyss, the most comical aspect of the matter is that you are trying to divide yourself into two parts, one of which perceives what you call wonders and readily believes in them, while the other wonders at this perception and this belief. (Master Flea)

As in this quotation, all this is often tied into vision and perception. Characters look through magnifying glasses or spyglasses or into mirrors, and their value is often determined by what they are able to see, which could also be named how they see, which is informed by their beliefs. Worth is conferred upon those who see wonders in the midst of everyday life, who know that the world is a miracle and more fantastic than we can imagine. Those with this gift are often found to belong to the world of fairy more than the world of work – these are stories like those of Diana Wynne Jones, where characters have more than one identity, so a bratty little brother can become a legendary hero, or an unemployed Welsh uncle can really be a powerful magician.

You are now, kind reader, in the fairy realm of glorious wonders, whose mighty strokes summon up both supreme bliss and extreme horror, and where the grave goddess raises her veil so that we may fancy we see her face – but her grave expression often breaks into a smile, and that is the impish humour that teases us with the bewilderment of magic, as a mother often teases her dearest children. In this realm, which our spirit often reveals to us, at least in our dreams, try, kind reader, to recognize the well-known shapes that, as the saying goes, cross your path every day. You will then believe that this magnificent realm is much nearer at hand than you had previously thought; and that is what I heartily wish you to believe, and what the strange story of Anselmus is supposed to convey. (The Golden Pot)

I do love narratives that teach this concept, that this is a world of endless wonder, that the bird that flew against my window this morning was a miracle of life trying to get into my apartment, and that by keeping it shut out I lost something more than the opportunity to clean bird shit off all my stuff.

At this point, my kind reader, you must be prepared to hear a story which seems quite unconnected with the events that I have undertaken to recount and is thus open to criticism as a mere episode. Sometimes, however, it happens that if you resolutely follow the path that seemed to be leading you astray, you suddenly find yourself at your journey’s end. And thus it may also be that this episode only appears to be a false trail but in fact leads straight to the heart of my main story. (Princess Brambilla)

These are also stories about storytelling, because the mythical aspects of the stories are told explicitly as stories, which then bleed into the supposedly realistic portions of the narrative until actual reality is compounded of both.

There are other ways that these stories speak to me, as in pieces of advice like this:

I tell you again, give up your solitary life. You’ll feel much better if you do. If you knew any other girls, you’d hardly think Dörtje the most beautiful of all; and if you had made advances to any other woman, you wouldn’t think that Dörtje was the only one who could love you. Come, come, Peregrinus, a bit more experience will teach you better. You’re a good-looking man, and I wouldn’t have to be as intelligent and perceptive as Master Flea is, to foresee that you’ll enjoy happiness through love in a quite different way than you now imagine. (Master Flea)

Which is advice that I’ve needed at some points in my life. As things are now, I’ve been pulling toward hermit-ness more than is needful. It made a little sense in the Midwest because I didn’t feel a connection with either the people or the place, but now that I’m back home in the midst of people who love me, I would be happier if I made more of an effort to spend time with those people. Then there’s the him from the Midwest, the memory of whom is keeping me from actively looking for the romance my heart cries out for. He was going to come down for a visit this weekend, but ran into some administrative difficulties – an ex had rented a car under his name a few years ago and not returned it on time, so there was an unpaid charge for a few hundred dollars attached to his credit card number, which they didn’t bother telling him until he showed up to pick up the rental he had ordered for Friday morning. He paid it off and is postponing the trip for a few weeks, which is frustrating for the both of us, but what lends poignancy to the situation is that I’m planning to tell him that long-distance is not working for me, and he needs to either commit to leaving his family for me or let me go. I think that if I phrase it that way he’ll pick the option I think would be best for us both, which is breaking it off. I don’t think he’ll be happy far away from his family, and if it takes this long and this much trouble to schedule a visit to see me, it’s going to take just as much time and effort to go back to see them, and before I left he had been talking about moving down here and getting up there twice a month. I think his expectations (for the world, not necessarily for me) are unrealistic. I also think that he loves me because I try to make people feel safe and comfortable (in real life, not necessarily on the blog), not because of who I am. He likes the feeling of security, and frankly, any gay man who thinks monogamy is important could fill that role, and most of them would fit his lifestyle and tastes more easily than I would. As for my own happiness, I haven’t felt fulfilled in the relationship for a long time; as The Ex did, he made me feel loved in spite of my weirdness and not because of it, as if I needed an interpreter to interact with real, normal human beings. I’d rather not be with someone who encourages my sense of isolation or alienation. It’s strong enough without the help. Which is sort of why I want him to come down here for the conversation instead of trying it over the phone – I don’t think he’s ever really seen me happy, and seeing who and what does this for me could be a good education for him. If you’ll excuse the cliché, an eye-opener.

All this stuff about identity doubling is not where I needed to be this week, which is why I was reading so slowly. About ten days ago, my car had serious trouble on the way to work, so it’s been parked at the college ever since. A week ago, my good friend (who comments here as Scribble Feather) took me to a car dealership to look into buying a new vehicle, but I was denied financing because of my income and credit score. Granted, I know my income is low, but my credit isn’t bad, so I checked the credit report. Apparently someone stole my identity and ran up three credit cards in my name – they applied for a fourth, unsuccessfully. I’ve been calling around to these different financial companies and declaring fraud, but it’s going to take some time before it’s all cleared up. Just thinking about finances is enough to give me the shakes, so it’s been an unnerving experience, the type where I have to shove all my emotions into a back room so that I can take care of what needs my immediate attention. I stayed with the good SF for a few days, and now I’m borrowing a vehicle from another friend, so we see how important communities are, and how grateful I am to be in the middle of one. And now that I’m done with a lot of that, the depression I’ve been delaying is starting to seep in. It’ll get better, though. The day the car gave up on life was the day of a job interview, which was successful, so tomorrow (Monday) I’m starting a new position, Library Clerk. This is in addition to my position as a part-time English instructor, and in the new year I’ll shift the schedule around so that the library job will be my main focus and I’ll only have one class. The new schedule will also make it easier to find a third part-time job, which I think will be necessary.

Oh, it might be helpful if I were to list the stories in the volume:

  • The Golden Pot, in which Anselmus writes his way into the heart of a snake
  • The Sandman, which has very little to do with sand and is part of Offenbach’s opera
  • Princess Brambilla, where Carnival goes on for far too long thanks to the commedia dell’arte
  • Master Flea, where a man learns confidence when he’s given the power to read others’ thoughts
  • My Cousin’s Corner Window, which is much shorter than the other stories and which fits almost nothing I said here

As is implied, this is a collection of stories that would be better read one at a time instead of all at once, and in truth, it was never the original author’s intent that they should be combined like this. Despite my disagreement with that editorial choice, I will say that Ritchie Robertson’s 1992 translation is a good one and feels very contemporary, even though the stories were written two hundred years ago.

As I’ve mentioned, I am a very trusting person. I will believe everything a person says to me, especially if I’ve had a glass or two of wine, and then only later do I start thinking critically to see if what was said is realistic or true. But, when you’ve been breaking promises to me for the last year, I start to distrust more quickly, so when we have the sort of phone conversation we had this week, I pick up on things that I wouldn’t have a year ago. As anyone skilled in the art of detecting deception can tell you, there are certain ‘tells,’ or signs whereby I can tell, that you’re lying, and I thought it might be instructive to point out what those are.

  1. Fast exculpation. I explain that I’m feeling sick because I’ve been walking outside in the cold rain without my customary protection – we both know that I left my coat and hats at your house in the Midwest, and that you promised to mail them to me. In the past, you’ve always encouraged me to consult with a medical doctor, because even though I don’t trust Western medicine and the American habit of prescribing antibiotics for everything, you do. But instead of making sure I’m being taken care of properly, you immediately start talking about how none of this is your fault because you’ve already mailed my warm clothes to me.
  2. Unrealistic details. I’ve lived in several parts of the United States while my family has remained more or less stationary, which means that I’m pretty familiar with the U. S. Postal Service and how long it takes mail to be delivered. So when you say that the package is supposed to be delivered in the middle of next week, and you mailed it last week, I know that it is unrealistic to say that it takes two weeks for a package to travel from the Midwest to the South. It buys you time, since now I can’t ask you about it for another week, but it doesn’t help me trust you.
  3. Lack of follow-through. I asked you to text me the address I gave you so that I could make sure it is correct, and you didn’t. If you had sent the package, you would have been more anxious to make sure it went to the right place.
  4. You hadn’t called me for a few days before, and this could mean that you’re just getting used to your life without me and that you’re moving on, but when coupled with the other tells, it looks suspicious. You also made up an excuse to get off the phone and said that we’d talk again later that evening, and I stayed up late waiting for your call, but you didn’t call back. Now, you did try to cover it by introducing another topic before running away, but even hurrying to tell me about your dog’s incontinence and new grain-free diet looks like you’re avoiding talking about what is going on with me.
  5. We went through all these same things face-to-face when you told me you had deposited money to my bank account but it never actually appeared. Another thing to keep in mind here is that while I may have let the matter drop, relinquishing the subject does not mean that I believe you or that I have forgotten it. It simply means that I don’t want to talk about it any more, and that often means that the fact that I think you’re lying to me makes me sad, and I don’t want to keep reinforcing the sense of sadness. Sometimes the only way I can make you stop lying to me is by ending the conversation. That sadness may not be in the forefront of my feelings, but it doesn’t go away; it just sits in the back of my mind, waiting for you to feed it some more. Every time I think you’re lying the sadness gets stronger, until eventually I realize that the fact that I care about you doesn’t make me happy, and when thinking about you makes me sad, it’s time for things to change.

As you can see, the summary of all these points is that when you’re being honest, you act like you care about me, and when you’re lying to me, you act like you don’t.

As I was preparing to leave, you thought it strange that I donated some books to the library, knowing as you do how much I care about my books, and I didn’t think of this analogy then, but I thought of it later and it really makes sense to me. Do you marry every man you sleep with? Buying a book is like meeting a guy at a bar. He only has to look good enough to take home for a night, but that’s not a lifetime commitment. Most of the books I buy are cheaper than a cocktail and last longer than a one-night stand, but the same principle holds true.

All of which brings me around to this book of sixteenth-century poetry. I remember Marvell primarily for “To His Coy Mistress,” a delightful pastoral love poem about taking advantage of youth, along the lines of this:

Grass withers; and the flowers too fade.
Seize the short joys then, ere they vade,

But most of Marvell’s poetry is not at all similar. As I was reading, there seemed to be three main phases in his career, and they overlapped a bit. The first is the one that I was most interested in, when he was young and writing pastoral love poems. I’m not opposed to the dialogue, and Daphnis and Clorinda are the appropriately Arcadian stock characters used in such poems. But Marvell only wrote about pastoral love and the advantages of youth when he himself was young; when he’s old, he skips over all that. This first stage of his writing is also the time when he talks about abstract emotion – he gets grouped with the Metaphysical Poets, and it’s only in his twenties that this makes sense.

Yet happy they whom grief doth bless,
That weep the morshae, and see the less:
And, to preserve their sight more true,
Bathe still their eyes in their own dew.

Around the time he was thirty years old, Marvell was hired as a teacher for the daughter of General Fairfax, the recently retired general of the Parliamentary Army. If you’ll remember your seventeenth-century British history with me, Charles I was an awful king who mismanaged resources and demanded too much from the people, so he spent a good part of his reign opposed to the Parliament, which was influenced by a strict religious sect known as the Puritans. They weren’t very popular in a lot of circles; in Twelfth Night, Malvolio is accused of being one, and Sir Andrew immediately threatens to beat him within an inch of his life. As you know, many of the Puritans left England for Amsterdam, a place of religious tolerance, but Amsterdam was too tolerant for them, so they traveled on to Massachusetts Bay, where they built a colony where their virtues could shine brightly, unmixed with the baser matter of anyone who disagreed with them. At the same time, the Puritans who stayed in England grew strong, especially in the military, so they had a big voice in the Parliamentary Army. In this second phase of his career, Marvell drops the pastoral love and the risqué allusions in favor of virtue and Puritan justice and conservative values. It’s like he suddenly remembered he was a clergyman’s son, ten years after his father died.

When the sword glitters o’er the judge’s head,
And fear has coward churchmen silenced,
Then is the poet’s time, ‘tis then he draws,
And single fights forsaken virtue’s cause.

In time, Marvell worked more directly with Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of the Puritan government after King Charles was beheaded. Throughout the Interregnum, Marvell’s poems are in praise of military leaders (like Fairfax and Cromwell) and he really says some nasty things about their opponents, the Dutch. I’ll admit that this bothered me because of my Dutch ancestry, even though by the time of the Protectorate, we had already crossed the ocean to New Amsterdam. I know that when we read poetry of the past, we tend to value those poets who share our values, so modern readers have a hard time with Milton’s anti-Irish comments in the same way that I balked at Marvell’s anti-Dutch comments, because racism is bad. But these men are products of their time (the same time), and in service to an intolerant government, so some people say that Marvell didn’t really hate the Dutch, he was just an opportunist with a talent for self-preservation, and he was just giving his patrons what they wanted. Apparently what they wanted was to hear how great they were, how successful in battle, and how terrible their opponents were. They wanted to hear about the glories of battle without hearing about the horrors of war. This passage is atypical in its acknowledgment that war can be a terrible thing:

Thousands of ways thousands of men there die,
Some ships are sunk, some blown up in the sky.
Nature ne’er made cedars so high aspire,
As oaks did then, urged by the active fire,
Which by quick powder’s force, so high was sent,
That it returned to its own element.
Torn limbs some leagues into the island fly,
Whilst others lower in the sea do lie.
Scarce souls from bodies severed are so far
By death, as bodies there were by the war.
The all-seeing sun, ne’er gazed on such a sight,
Two dreadful navies there at anchor fight.
And neither have or power or will to fly,
There one must conquer, or there both must die.
Far different motives yet engaged them thus,
Necessity did them, but Choice did us.

But in general, the poems of the middle period are very much Marvell acting as Cromwell’s cheerleader.

Things end. Cromwell died and the monarchy was restored. Charles II’s government wanted to execute John Milton for being all up in the Puritans, but Marvell dissuaded them. He himself was elected to the House of Commons, at around the age of forty or so, so in the third phase of his career he’s done with being a secretary or an assistant and has now become a politician in his own right. Unfortunately for the apologists of his middle period, Marvell’s poetry doesn’t suddenly become a celebration of liberal values; when that conservatism is opposed, Marvell digs his heels in and refuses to change with the times. This is what makes me think he was a true convert to the conservatives rather than an opportunist: when the government changes and fashion goes to the other side, he doesn’t go with it. In fact, he writes a very long poem with some very harsh satire against specific members of society and Parliament. Most of it is against the Restoration government and its mismanagement of the military, but he also throws some disparagement at Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, whom you will remember from Woolf’s Common Reader as being an important example of women’s power and liberation, and one of the first people to write speculative fiction in English. In this time, Marvell was usually much busier being an MP than being a Major Poet, so his work is a little thin here at the end. In fact, after his death his constituency put up a huge monument with a lengthy inscription, which describes his political career and ignores the poetry. It seems sad to me that someone who loved youth and nature should end up a bitter old man, but that’s the story the poetry tells.

Nation is all but name – a shibboleth –
Where a mistaken accent causes death.

Dear Friends, I advise you, if you like “To His Coy Mistress,” don’t read Marvell’s complete poems. After he gets political, it’s sort of a downward slope. I wonder, if his life had run differently, if he hadn’t worked so closely with government and military officials, whether his writing would have gotten so frustrating. I suppose someone who writes a lot of verse in Greek and Latin is not necessarily headed to twenty-first century popularity, but no matter whether his politics were merely expedient or truly embraced, they stink.

I haven’t read Marvell’s prose, but apparently it’s even more extreme in its conservatism, attacking Catholics, Dutch, and anyone different to himself. I don’t remember now how Marvell was presented to me at school; it’s possible that we ignored the heavy later poems, but it’s also possible that I forgot about them. I’m good at self-deception; I like to see the best in people, including long-dead poets, but it’s not always accurate. Hopefully I’m learning to be wiser about whom I trust, but I think it’s a slow process.

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?

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.

This book glories in the use of pronouns. So much so, that at the beginning of a chapter it can be difficult to know whose perspective we are reading from. So much so, that the main character in the book is never named, but we have enough clues to deduce that he is Sherlock Holmes, nearly ninety, living in the country during World War II, keeping bees.

Holmes enters our story as a crazy old man yelling at children. More specifically, at a young German Jew who’s been evacuated to the English countryside to avoid the concentration camps. The boy is about to piss on the third rail that carries electricity to the train cars and the aged detective is trying to save his life, but since the boy rarely speaks and rarely understands English, all he sees is the crazy old man. The boy is always accompanied by a parrot who repeats strings of numbers. British spies keep trying to figure out the secret of these numbers, believing them to be a kind of code. This book even becomes a murder mystery because of the bird and his numbers. But Holmes is more interested in finding the kidnapped bird than the killer. I suppose retirement gives people a different perspective.

Throughout the story, people react to Holmes in different ways, but they seem to regard him as a relic of the past, a Victorian curiosity to have survived almost into the Postmodern Era. Yet, at the end, he comes to a very Modern, very un-Victorian conclusion:

The application of creative intelligence to a problem, the finding of a solution at once dogged, elegant, and wild, this had always seemed to him to be the essential business of human beings – the discovery of sense and causality amid the false leads, the noise, the trackless brambles of life. And yet he had always been haunted – had he not? – by the knowledge that there were men, lunatic cryptographers, mad detectives, who squandered their brilliance and sanity in decoding and interpreting the messages in cloud formations, in the letters of the Bible recombined, in the spots on butterflies’ wings. One might, perhaps, conclude from the existence of such men that meaning dwelled solely in the mind of the analyst. That it was the insoluble problems – the false leads and the cold cases – that reflected the true nature of things. That all the apparent significance and pattern had no more intrinsic sense than the chatter of an African gray parrot. One might so conclude, really, he thought, one might.

There were a few Victorian writers and thinkers who saw the lack of meaning in the world around them, who understood that human meaning is a human construction, but they were largely disreputable (which is not to say that their books didn’t sell). Dickens was so successful because you could read his books aloud to your children without the fear of any unchristian ideas entering their heads. He was a social reformer, it’s true, but he always approached his unpalatable subject matter with circumspection. He wouldn’t have made his doubts so explicit.

Much as I find the Victorian novels’ certainty about the world so comforting, in my own mind I side with Chabon’s Holmes. We have the inborn need to bring order to chaos – part of my discomfort with children is their apparent comfort with chaos – but the order is essentially manmade, not intrinsic to the things we arrange. Why do I fold towels the way that I do, or keep them in the places where I do? It doesn’t matter to the towels. Left to themselves, they’d end up on the floor in a heap. They want to become an undifferentiated mass of terrycloth, and I’m standing very firmly in the way. One of the things that I find difficult about living with a family is that my ordering hand is not master here.

For all that this book is a mystery, and the subtitle links it to detection, it is not so much a story about finding as it is a story about losing. The boy loses his parrot. The minister loses his faith, and his son. Holmes walks into a clearing and for a few seconds cannot bring meaning to the shapes he sees – he loses his ability to interpret optical data. I suppose this could be my own sense to the book, since some of the lost things are found, but most of them are not. The numbers are a secret between the boy and the parrot, and not even Holmes discovers their sense. Life seems to be unravelling, which is not a sensation I particularly enjoy. And indeed, there’s some of that in my life – sleep is not knitting up the ravelled sleeve of care – I’d like to be able to bring the issues to a swift decisive conclusion, but that is not really realistic. By summer’s end, things will be done.