Posts Tagged ‘sib3’

We had a snowstorm here, which seems to have begun early last Friday morning and continued until Saturday afternoon. Saturday I was awakened at 5:30 by the landlady next door, banging on my door and shouting that the power was out. My initial reaction was to wonder rather rudely what concern of mine that was, but I kept my mouth shut and eventually answered the door, simply saying “I don’t understand.” I figured that she might want to go somewhere to plug in her oxygen apparatus, but after I got nearly twelve inches of snow off her car, she didn’t want to go anywhere. After a while I figured out that she had dragged me out of bed simply because she didn’t want to be alone in the cold and the dark. The experience felt surreal, like we were acting in one of those shitty modern plays where everything is hyper-realistic and nothing seems to happen. I could see my own words written on a page in front of me as I was saying them. Once the sun came up she released me from conversation and I went back to bed to finish reading Northanger Abbey.

The last six years have been the bicentennial of Jane Austen’s publishing career, starting with Sense and Sensibility in 1811 and finishing with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published together as a four-volume set in December 1817. However, for the other bicentennials, I’ve had things going on – I spent 2011 preparing to come out of the closet and celebrating the birth of my third son, 2013 and 2014 (Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park) in Saudi Arabia working through my identity issues and suicidal tendencies, and 2016 (Emma) dealing with paranoia and post-traumatic stress. I suppose it’s not really paranoia if they really are out to get you, and the Christians really were plotting my downfall, I just didn’t understand the messages my subconscious was sending until it was too late to profit by them. So here I am, just now celebrating an Austen bicentennial at the appropriate time, the release of her posthumous books. NA and P were published in December, but Miss Jane had passed away the previous July.

NORTHANGER ABBEY

nabbey

In the 1790s, Austen wrote three novels: First Impressions, Elinor and Marianne, and Susan. After her father’s retirement the family moved to Bath, and she prepared Susan for publication. It was sold to a publisher in 1803, but he kept it without doing anything with it. Eventually she bought it back, revised it again (changing the protagonist’s name) and published it as Northanger Abbey. This is one of her most intertextual books, with several homages to the Gothic novels of the 1790s – so many, that in the advertisement for the book, she apologized for its being a little dated even before it was published. Since Frankenstein came out in 1818, and Melmoth the Wanderer in 1820, I think she needn’t have worried, but the Gothic craze was dying down a bit. The most important source is Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, which I read thirteen years ago and haven’t felt the need to go back to. It’s a huge book, and Radcliffe holds the audience in suspense a little too long for me. By the time the mystery is solved, three pages before the end of the book, I don’t care any more. I just wanted it to end. I do appreciate Mrs Radcliffe’s rich descriptions of the natural scenery, and I do recommend her other novels to the attention of people who are fond of two-hundred-year-old suspenseful romances (The Italian, The Romance of the Forest), but Udolpho requires a dedication that I’m not ready to give just now. I have the same hesitation for reading other long books as well – I want to be sure that the exchange of time for pleasure will pay off.

Catherine Morland is the protagonist, but hardly a Gothic heroine. Happy home life with three older brothers and six younger siblings, with two living parents who seem intelligent and interested in promoting their children’s welfare. She’s not especially bright, or talented, or beautiful, but she loves reading scary stories, so Gothic novels fill her thoughts. She goes off to Bath with friends of her parents, and she meets a man that she really likes.

She was assured of his affection; and that heart in return was solicited, which, perhaps, they pretty equally knew was already entirely his own; for, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, – though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character, and truly loved her society, – I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude; or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of a heroine’s dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.

For a clergyman, Henry Tilney is kind of a sarcastic bitch, and it seems that Catherine loves him because he’s the first guy to give her any attention at all. He’s smart enough to see the advantages of loving a seventeen-year-old girl who’s a little more innocent than we expect girls to be in the twenty-first century – Catherine is sweet and kind, always attributing the best possible motives to other people and blaming herself for misunderstanding when they prove to be less perfect than she imagines. Unless the person in question reminds her of the villains in Gothic romances, in which case she assigns the worst possible motives instead.

After meeting Henry, she meets the Thorpes, a brother and sister destined to grieve and perturb.

Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love.

At first, Isabella seemed the perfect friend, especially when she gets interested in Catherine’s brother James. John Thorpe then pays his addresses to Catherine, but she finds him very uncongenial from the start. He’s not interested in talking about books, only about carriages and hunting, rather a lot like the straight men I grew up with. The vehicles are a little more modern, and the hunting involves dogs and horses less often, but the dullness of the conversation is unchanged. The panic she feels in a car being driven way too fast and the umbrage she takes at being lied to are also familiar experiences.

Catherine spends Volume II on a visit to the Tilneys’ home, Northanger Abbey.

Her passion for ancient edifices was next in degree to her passion for Henry Tilney, – and castles and abbeys made usually the charm of those reveries which his image did not fill.

Catherine tries to write herself into a Gothic novel, but real life is set at a lower pitch than a Radcliffe novel, so self-centered men might be a pain to live with, but they don’t lock their wives in towers and starve them to death. A comparison could be drawn to another Austen protagonist, Emma Woodhouse, in the way that they both create stories for their lives and the lives of their friends that have no bearing on the real world, being based on the author’s character and not the character of those friends. Besides, there are always secrets that the protagonist is not privy to, which leads to the surprises in their narratives.

When I first read Austen’s novels, my sister-in-law was reading them too, and I suggested them to the brother who connects us, but he declined, stating that Austen’s characters cared more about the lace on their dresses than the realities of their personalities (or something like that, I’m trying to remember a conversation from fifteen years ago) – which I thought an odd comment for someone who had only ever seen the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice, until I was speaking with my mother and she made the same comment in almost exactly the same words. Having attended high school in the 1960s, my mom had had to read many of the books that I read at university, so I knew that she might have some actual Austen experience.

It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biassed by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull or the jackonet. Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it. Neatness and fashion are enough for the former, and a something of shabbiness or impropriety will be most endearing to the latter.

But the excessive attention to lace is a sign of an unsympathetic character, and Austen has quite the same opinion of such people as my mother and brother do. Which I was able to convince my mother of in the following years, as I kept sending her books like Mansfield Park and Persuasion. When I started sending Victorian novels, though, she stopped reading them, and sometimes I have half a mind to take back Villette because people who don’t love that book shouldn’t have access to it.

PERSUASION

persuasion

Persuasion was Austen’s last completed novel, and its protagonist is dramatically older than the others – Anne Elliott is a full ten years older than Catherine Morland.

Surely, if there be constant attachment on each side, our hearts must understand each other ere long. We are not boy and girl, to be captiously irritable, misled by every moment’s inadvertence, and wantonly playing with our own happiness.

So Anne thinks, but lovers at thirty are not so different from lovers at twenty as she might imagine. There are still all the same emotions, jealousies, and misunderstandings, but she is right that the two of them have much less tolerance for bullshit than they might have had when they were younger. Indeed, Austen herself seems ready to cut the shit and quit being routinely nice to everyone. This is the book where she lets herself get a little nasty.

The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son, and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before.

He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him “poor Richard,” been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done any thing to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.

And this is the author that once gave Mr Willoughby a reasonably happy ending.

As a skilled and practiced reader, I tend to identify with the protagonist in whatever book I’m reading, and Austen’s are no exception: I feel especially close to Fanny Price and Anne Elliott. It is often harder for me to identify with the men, though, particularly the ones like Colonel Brandon, who falls in love with a girl literally half his age. Thirty-five-year-old men have no business flirting with seventeen-year-olds, a fact that Marianne understands early on in Sense and Sensibility but allows herself to forget. I do feel close to Mr Darcy, with his shyness and overconfidence in his own understanding, and to Henry Crawford, with his short-sightedness and need to make everyone love him, but here in Persuasion there’s a man whose descriptions could more obviously apply to me. These phrases are other characters’ responses to him.

Give him a book, and he will read all day long.

He will sit poring over his book, and not know when a person speaks to him, or when one drops one’s scissors, or any thing that happens.

He is one of the dullest young men that ever lived. He has walked with me, sometimes, from one end of the sands to the other, without saying a word. He is not at all a well-bred young man.

He considered his disposition as of the sort which must suffer heavily, uniting very strong feelings with quiet, serious, and retiring manners, and a decided taste for reading, and sedentary pursuits.

He had a pleasing face and a melancholy air, just as he ought to have, and drew back from conversation.

Anne points out that while Captain Benwick’s manners aren’t ideal for his society, he has a good mind and is someone whose acquaintance is worth cultivating. I like to think that’s true of me as well; not that I’m ill-mannered, but I have the same habit of silence, particularly with people I don’t know well. I was driving a teenager to school once – when the conversation lapsed, she said, “Awkward silence,” and I replied, “I don’t find silence to be awkward.” I think it’s nice, and often restful. I do not aspire to Benwick’s fate, though, of meeting a girl with an empty head and filling it with my own books and opinions. I’d like to love someone who has his own mind.

Another pleasant singularity is in the way that Austen takes some time to show us a relationship that works, a rarity in her novels. Admiral Croft married a younger woman, to be sure, but she is by far the steadier head of the two, and Austen seems to represent them as a model for connubial bliss:

But by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself, they happily passed the danger; and by once afterwards judiciously putting out her hand, they neither fell into a rut, nor ran foul of a dung-cart; and Anne, with some amusement at their style of driving, which she imagined no bad representation of the general guidance of their affairs, found herself safely deposited by them at the cottage.

Knowing their feelings as she did, it was a most attractive picture of happiness to her. She always watched them as long as she could; delighted to fancy she understood what they might be talking of, as they walked along in happy independence, or equally delighted to see the Admiral’s hearty shake of the hand when he encountered an old friend, and observe their eagerness of conversation when occasionally forming into a little know of the navy, Mrs Croft looking as intelligent and keen as any of the officers around her.

While this is definitely complimentary to the pair, I think it’s also a big compliment to Mrs Croft. She lets her husband drive, but also makes sure he does it properly. Instead of getting all put out when they meet her husband’s friends, she participates actively in the conversation, which requires a knowledge of subject and audience that many people do not cultivate. Sometimes I think about the importance of boundaries, and she may cross those at times, but she crosses the stupid boundaries around what their society tells her a woman should know and be interested in. A person of her mental and physical strength would languish in the traditional wifely role, staying in England while her husband goes sailing for a year or more, in what Austen describes as the “the sameness and the elegance, the prosperity and the nothingness” of empty-headed society like Sir Walter and Elizabeth. It seems a real challenge to meet quality people – I don’t mean titled, I mean people of intellectual and moral substance – in any station of life, whether among the Regency gentry or twenty-first century America. In this case, I feel myself to be more blessed than most as regards my friends, and less blessed than most as regards lovers.

My cousin, Anne, shakes her head. She is not satisfied. She is fastidious. My dear cousin, (sitting down by her) you have a better right to be fastidious than almost any other woman I know; but will it answer? Will it make you happy? Will it not be wiser to accept the society of these good ladies in Laura-place, and enjoy all the advantages of the connexion as far as possible?

There are influences in my life encouraging me to get out there and find someone to date, and there are a couple of guys that I’ve sort of thought about, but I’m not really that attracted to them (I don’t mean primarily physically). I am questioning the worth of this fastidiousness, this disinclination to kiss frogs in the hope that one might turn into a prince, but still. I don’t want to force myself into a situation that I don’t actually want. I’ve been in a few awkward situations, and right now I seem to be choosing the discomfort of loneliness over the discomfort of a bad relationship. And I know, not every encounter has to turn into a relationship, but there are so few prospects out here that I’m worried that I would force the relationship just to stave off the loneliness.

She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older – the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning.

I haven’t cast off the habit of prudence, but I want romance too – to feel loved, not just to get fucked. I want someone who will put his arm around me during a movie, who will sing with me in the car or in bed, who will hold me when I cry, who will take my hand and lead me through a crowd, who will love to touch me as much as I love to touch him. I want someone who will make me a priority in his life. When I buy flowers, I want them to be really for him and not actually for myself.

She watched – observed – reflected – and finally determined that this was not a case of fortitude or of resignation only. – A submissive spirit might be patient, a strong understanding would supply resolution, but here was something more; here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven; and Anne viewed her friend as one of those instances in which, by a merciful appointment, it seems designed to counterbalance almost every other want.

Fortitude, resignation, resolution, patience – these are qualities I can actually do pretty well with, despite my complaining here on the blog. But Persuasion reminds me that these aren’t the way to happiness. Being truly happy comes from within, not from external circumstances. Even if I did have a job that allowed me to pay my bills and a man who loved me, these things would not guarantee my happiness. That can only come from me, from making peace with myself and from loving being who I am.

It’s always a little sad to me that Jane Austen died without having experienced the sort of marital felicity she imagines for her characters, but really, I get sad when I remember that she died at all. And at the end of Persuasion there were some tears, whether for the conversation comparing the strength of men’s and women’s love or for the end of the book or for the end of the career I’ll leave you to decide for yourself. I imagine the world two hundred years from now and wonder whether anyone will remember my name then, or if my memory will last even twenty years after I go. But while some look at Austen’s novels as proof of the oppressive restrictions placed on women in Regency society, her name endures. People are still reading and writing and thinking about her, much more so than any of her brothers, despite their active careers and large families. She may have focused on “a little bit of ivory, two inches wide,” but she created something beautiful, which I truly believe will last as long as civilization endures.

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lighthouse

This weekend I went Down East to see my family, and on Friday afternoon it struck me that it was precisely the sort of experience that Virginia Woolf would write about.

In spring the garden urns, casually filled with wind-blown plants, were gay as ever. Violets came and daffodils. But the stillness and the brightness of the day were as strange as the chaos and tumult of night, with the trees standing there, and the flowers standing there, looking before them, looking up, yet beholding nothing, eyeless, and so terrible.

After having spent so much time away, I was a little apprehensive about seeing them all again: my oldest brother, who is getting ready to go back to school for a degree in divinity; the older brother I was very close to fifteen or twenty years ago, but whom I now seldom think about from one year to the next; the younger sister who has been reaching out to me more in the last year or so; and my mother, whose affection is linked to how much we fit her ideals for us. I got a flat tire Friday morning, so the public interactions of going to three different tire places (one closed for renovation, one made me wait an hour before discovering they didn’t carry the right size of tire, the third was great) and delaying my trip for a few hours would be a better fit for Mrs Dalloway than To the Lighthouse, but put me in the proper Woolf frame of mind nonetheless. The way I get self-conscious about how others perceive me, whether strangers or family members, and analyze past interactions to prepare me for the evening, is all very similar to one of her characters. To the Lighthouse is about a gathering of academics and artists, staying with the Ramsays in Scotland for the summer. I forget which island group, Orkneys, Shetlands, Hebrides, one of those.

At last they had shoved her off, they had launched the lifeboat, and they had got her out past the point – Macalister told the story; and though they only caught a word here and there, they were conscious all the time of their father – how he leant forward, how he brought his voice into tune with Macalister’s voice; how, puffing at his pipe, and looking there and there where Macalister pointed, he relished the thought of the storm and the dark night and the fishermen striving there. He liked that men should labour and sweat on the windy beach at night; pitting muscle and brain against the waves and the wind; he liked men to work like that, and women to keep house, and sit beside sleeping children indoors, while men were drowned, out there in a storm. So James could tell, so Cam could tell (they looked at him, they looked at each other), from his toss and his vigilance and the ring in his voice, and the little tinge of Scottish accent which came into his voice, making him seem like a peasant himself, as he questioned Macalister about the eleven ships that had been driven into the bay in a storm. Three had sunk.

I do get irritated with the archetype of the Angry Academic. Mr Ramsay is insecure about his professional success, so he’s overly critical of his children. Byatt picks up this archetype as well, which got me thinking that there must be something wrong with British academics, but then I remembered Albee as well, and then I thought that since his play is called Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? he’s probably influenced by her, as I’m sure Byatt is as well. The thing that bothers me about it is that I have spent most of my life around academics without finding these Angry White Men. In thinking about this anger, it seems like these men question their masculinity because they work with the mind instead of the hand. The men I’ve met feel no such contradiction. They don’t seem bothered with the question of whether teaching is a gendered activity or whether reading in a library is less inherently masculine than shooting rabbits or repairing cars. I’m not saying we don’t have sexism in academia, but the friends I’ve made are comfortable being who they are and not haunted by their perceived inadequacies. Which frees them up to be genuinely kind to their partners and children, unlike Mr Ramsay.

The first part of this book focuses a lot on the relationship between the Ramsays, and what they mean when they think that they love each other. It makes me think about that idea of chivalry that so many people claim to feel the lack of in our modern society, and the way that chivalry is a two-way street. These days people discuss it as a condescending attitude that men used to have for women, but this separateness goes both ways. Chivalry demands that each person have an ideal for the opposite sex, and that when persons of opposite sexes interact they each treat the other as if they see the ideal inside of them. It was a matter of kindness and respecting femininity and masculinity as concepts, doing honour to the Goddess in every woman and the God in every man. Of course there were abuses, on both sides, and even in Woolf’s novel we can see that traditional pattern of etiquette breaking down. Seven-year-old Cam dashes about and never sits still in a “properly feminine” way; Lily Briscoe doesn’t marry and feels no shame or lack in this; Charles Tansley openly expresses his belief in women’s inferiority because as a poor man he needs to put down someone to make himself seem higher and there is no racial diversity to give the opportunity for racism. Chivalry breaks down because people don’t live up to each other’s ideals, and we lose the sense that other people’s ideals matter. In the twentieth century we learned to embrace our own ideals – I live according to my own sense of what it means to be a man, not my mother’s or my ex-wife’s or my sisters’ or any of my female friends’. Chivalry seems to have been about this shared construction of gender identity, and it passed away because we stopped sharing in identity construction. After all, this is in many ways a book about the inability to communicate.

But nevertheless, the fact remained, it was almost impossible to dislike any one if one looked at them.

My two oldest brothers have never much liked each other, so it was genuinely odd to see them talking and laughing apart from everyone else. I joined them (all the men in one group together, women in the other room), and they were bonding over videos of standup comedians they both enjoy. I did my best to participate, but not enjoying videos of standup comedians, I didn’t have much to say. It was strange to see how little my brother and I have in common now, when we once shared so much that we even took the same classes at uni. He studied English alongside me, but now he speaks disparagingly of working in a library, as if what I find exciting would bore him to death. I was always the most serious of us, but in isolation I have become more so, and he (who was once enraptured with reading Thucydides and Beowulf) has joined the mass culture in devaluing academic pursuits. There was some overlap in his behavior throughout the weekend – a discomfort with silence, a compulsion to keep everyone laughing and happy, as if he were carefully avoiding talking about something and equally carefully avoiding letting anyone know there was a topic to be avoided. While he was there in front of me, I was glad to see him, but on reflection I’m concerned. He and I have never even mentioned the fact of my being gay, so I wonder if that’s what he can’t talk about, but it could also be something in his home life that isn’t what it could be. Both of my brothers were performing The Hen-Pecked Husband, which is a posture that always makes me uneasy but enabled them to bond with each other (while excluding me, the no-longer-hen-pecked). I didn’t get to talk with the oldest, but the other one and I got to spend some time watching The Crimson Pirate and laughing at the poor costume choices and other ludicrosities. I sent him home with a flash drive of older movies that he and his wife could enjoy, because at least we have that one interest still in common.

Somewhere in the annals of my family history, I have an Uncle Wirt. This is about a hundred years ago, the time that Woolf set the earlier part of the novel. Wirt took himself very seriously, while all his brothers were fond of joking and playing and taking life easily. As a result, Wirt was the butt of all the jokes, and he never really got on with his brothers. When it came to courting, Wirt found it easier to make love in writing than in speaking, so he corresponded with an English girl and eventually invited her out to the Finger Lakes to marry him. When he introduced her to his brothers, they could not stop laughing they thought she was so ugly. He quietly and seriously cut them out of his life. In this iteration of those genetics, I’m Uncle Wirt, but I don’t get picked on like I used to. When our parents split up, my older siblings lost interest in casual cruelty, and as adults most of us try to be kind to each other.

Always, Mrs Ramsay felt, one helped oneself out of solitude reluctantly by laying hold of some little odd or end, some sound, some sight. She listened, but it was all very still; cricket was over; the children were in their baths; there was only the sound of the sea. She stopped knitting; she held the long reddish-brown stocking dangling in her hands a moment. She saw the light again. With some irony in her interrogation, for when one woke at all, one’s relations changed, she looked at the steady light, the pitiless, the remorseless, which was so much to her, yet so little her, which had her at its beck and call (she woke in the night and saw it bent across their bed, stroking the floor), but for all that she thought, watching it with fascination, hypnotised, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough!

Sunday morning I woke up early and came downstairs, and read my book until I was sleepy again. I nodded off for half an hour or so, and in that time I saw/felt someone come over and kiss me on the cheek. I reached up and pulled him in closer, for a real kiss, the type that tells the other just how much I care about him, but it was just a dream. It’s like when I’m dancing to the music in the kitchen and I wrap my arm around No One’s waist and pull him close and rest my head on the air where his shoulder would be. It seems sometimes like life is preparing me for this great romance that hasn’t happened yet, and other times it seems like life is teaching me to be content with fantasy because I’m never going to have a love that satisfies me.

She could see it all so clearly, so commandingly, when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed. It was in that moment’s flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work as dreadful as any down a dark passage for a child. Such she often felt herself – struggling against terrific odds to maintain her courage; to say: “But this is what I see; this is what I see,” and so to clasp some miserable remnant of her vision to her breast, which a thousand forces did their best to pluck from her.

Typically when I read this book I see it as being primarily about Mrs Ramsay, what she means to the people around her, how they react when they lose her. This time I think that the protagonist is actually Lily Briscoe, the marriage-resisting painter. The difficulty she has with her art feels a bit like Woolf peeking out through the character and talking about writing. It does seem indicative of what happens to me when I sit down to write.

The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low. Then one gave it up; then the idea sunk back again; then one became like most middle-aged people, cautious, furtive, with wrinkles between the eyes and a look of perpetual apprehension. For how could one express in words these emotions of the body? express that emptiness there? (She was looking at the drawing-room steps; they looked extraordinarily empty.) It was one’s body feeling, not one’s mind. The physical sensations that went with the bare look of the steps had become suddenly extremely unpleasant. To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have – to want and want – how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs Ramsay! she called out silently, to that essence which sat by the boat, that abstract one made of her, that woman in grey, as if to abuse her for having gone, and then having gone, come back again. It had seemed so safe, thinking of her. Ghost, air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily and safely at any time of day or night, she had been that, and then suddenly she put her hand out and wrung the heart thus. Suddenly, the empty drawing-room steps, the frill of the chair inside, the puppy tumbling on the terrace, the whole wave and whisper of the garden became like curves and arabesques flouring round a centre of complete emptiness.

In thinking about this loss, I don’t really have this continuity of memory and essence of the dead. The people I miss are still alive, but far away, and no longer the people I knew. Seeing my brother makes me wonder if I had been lying to myself before, if he had always been this frantic entertainer hiding ‘a centre of complete emptiness,’ but that thought goes against one of my most important beliefs, in the mutability of mankind. People grow and change; he and I grew in opposite directions. I saw some other friends this weekend too – in Brazil, I would call her my concunhada, but in English we don’t have a good word for the friend whose sister is married to my brother – but without this sense of loss. The things I have always loved about them are still true, even after three kids and thyroid cancer. Yes, they grow and change, but I guess we’re moving in a similar direction. Whatever the cause of it, I can return to them after years away and feel as natural as if I had seen them last week. I always feel loved and welcomed, even though they still embrace that church that denies my right to a romantic relationship. [I was looking through the hymnal and realized that with their emphasis on right behavior and embracing truth, a great many of their hymns are still meaningful to me.] I may get back to them in a few weeks, or it may be a few years, but no matter how we grow, I am certain that they will always love me.

I love this book. I will be the first to admit that nothing happens, that this book takes place inside the mind and not in the outward world, but it is no less beautiful for all that. I love my family too, not for their beauty or poetry, but because they are mine, including the fact that I don’t get close because I know the ways their love falls short. I also love my friends, the family I choose, because their love never does.

 

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.

According to Hardy’s own preface, this was meant to be a bit of a joke, a funny story between the more dramatic Far From the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native. Don’t let that make you think it’s any shorter than the others; it’s quite as long as any late Victorian novel can expect to be. And personally, I didn’t think the joke was very funny. I’ve spent too much time on the edges of society to be amused by the struggles inherent in the position.

In some ways, this book feels a little like a sequel; the exposition is pretty serious, as in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Four years ago, Christopher Julian was in love with Ethelberta Chickerel. He was rich and she was a butler’s daughter, so nothing came of it. Instead, she married even further above herself; her husband died a few weeks later, still a minor, so she was sort of adopted into the in-laws’ family. Now he’s fallen in the world; she’s the young, wealthy, beautiful widow Mrs Petherwin, and he’s just Kit Julian, the local music teacher and church organist. It seems like they’d be a good fit for each other, but one of Hardy’s jokes is the way that things build up and then come to nothing.

‘I thought at one time that our futures might have been different from what they are apparently becoming,’ he said then, regarding her as a stall-reader regards the brilliant book he cannot afford to buy. ‘But one gets weary of repining about that.

In the end, he gets a happy finish, a happier one than Ethelberta gets, I believe.

Ethelberta is not a woman to be envied.

A talent for demureness under difficulties without the cold-bloodedness which renders such a bearing natural and easy, a face and hand reigning unmoved outside a heart by nature turbulent as a wave, is a constitutional arrangement much to be desired by people in general; yet, had Ethelberta been framed with less of that gift in her, her life might have been more comfortable as an experience, and brighter as an example, though perhaps duller as a story.

She’s precisely the type that people enjoy reading about, but very few would actually want to be. She was always intelligent and sensitive, so her family gave her a better education than her brothers and sisters received. She became a teacher, then a governess, then married the boss’s son and became a lady. She’s acutely aware of how precarious her social position is and is determined to keep that position no matter the cost. During the first third of the story, she lives with her mother-in-law with a cover story to explain where she came from, so she’s fairly secure and has time to say things like:

Well, no; for what between continually wanting to love, to escape the blank lives of those who do not, and wanting not to love, to keep out of the miseries of those who do, I get foolishly warm and foolishly cold by turns.

But when the mother-in-law dies, she has to shift for herself. How does a single woman work without losing her social position? This is the 1870s, not the 2010s, so this is a serious question for her. The dilemma is easier to understand if we see the social position not only as a circle of friends, but as an identity. Ethelberta is struggling to maintain the vision she has of herself, to continue being the person she truly believes herself to be. It’s more serious than most modern readers would consider.

Persons waging a harassing social fight are apt in the interest of the combat to forget the smallness of the end in view; and the hints that perishing historical remnants afforded her of the attenuating effects of time even upon great struggles corrected the apparent scale of her own. She was reminded that in a strife for such a ludicrously small object as the entry of drawing-rooms, winning, equally with losing, is below the zero of the true philosopher’s concern.

She’s apparently not a true philosopher, because this is only a brief flash on her consciousness. She sets herself up running a rooming house for wealthy, respectable foreigners; since she can’t advertise too extensively (she can’t seem to need money), it never pays well. She supplements her income by becoming a public storyteller, one step removed from an actress. That one step preserves her respectability and position. Unfortunately, she doesn’t go about it sensibly; one show a week, or a fortnight, would keep her audience coming back and preserve the novelty of the entertainment. Going out every night, people get used to it. She loses her popularity and her position declines.

She stood there, as all women stand who have made themselves remarkable by their originality, or devotion to any singular cause, as a person freed of her hampering and inconvenient sex, and, by virtue of her popularity, unfettered from the conventionalities of manner prescribed by custom for household womankind. The charter to move abroad unchaperoned, which society for good reasons grants only to women of three sorts – the famous, the ministering, and the improper – Ethelberta was in a fair way to make splendid use of: instead of walking in protected lanes she experienced that luxury of isolation which normally is enjoyed by men alone, in conjunction with the attention naturally bestowed on a woman young and fair.

And thank God for the improper. They introduce the world to new possibilities. They may be shunned for their audacity, but they are eventually copied and end up setting the ton of the next age. There is no question for Hardy that the fact of her being a woman is the defining feature of her life. As a man, Ethelberta would have been able to fight up the social ladder through education and success in some public enterprise; as a woman, the education is indispensable, but success in public enterprise would prevent her attaining the position she’s after. For a woman to be a public personality is too vulgar. Her only avenue to success is marriage.

Which is why poor Kit doesn’t stand a chance. It doesn’t matter how she feels about him – he’s not moving in the right circles any more. There are several other suitors to her hand, but she doesn’t love any of them and she’s afraid that they wouldn’t love her if they knew about her family. The poor old woman who ‘owns’ the rooming house where she lives is really her mother; the cook and the housemaid are her older sisters; the footman is her fourteen-year-old brother. And her father, of course, is still butler to one of the gentry’s best families.

I could really feel where Ethelberta is coming from, for most of the book. My parents were not well suited to one another – my father started working on a farm when he was fourteen, and the highest he ever rose was to an HVAC technician, the kind of maintenance worker who fixes your heating and air conditioning. My mother studied French and Latin at school and became a teacher, one of the most respectable positions for middle-class American women in the late 1960s. But pregnant women couldn’t teach in elementary schools in the early 1970s, so she had to leave work before my oldest brother was born. Then followed more than a decade of poor financial decisions, six more children, and a divorce. I grew up with a sense of decayed grandeur, surrounded by the feeling that we’re somehow better than the other people in our economic position and the only way to get what I truly deserve is to get a scholarship to a good university, work hard, get a good job, and never come back to rural North Carolina again. I wanted my mother to be proud of me, so I did get the scholarship and work hard, though the rest of that hasn’t quite played out. Some of my siblings got out like I did, but others accepted the reduced circumstances and found work as electricians and auto mechanics. Ethelberta’s family accepts her snobbery and the inequality of their positions, but my family hasn’t been quite as successful. We’re all pretty sensitive, so the fact that our ambitions have led in different directions has created some possibly irreparable conflicts. I try to keep peaceful relations with everyone. It’s not always easy to mix with the more country siblings because I still talk like I’m from Massachusetts, but I find that the rewards are worth the effort. My oldest brother’s wife has invited me to stay with them when I come Down East for Christmas, and this weekend my youngest brother drove twelve hours in one day so that he could see me for about ninety minutes. He’s been listening to the news, so he’s been worried about IS detaining or killing me. He held me so tight – I have a hard time believing in my ability to produce such intensity of feeling, but I can’t doubt that it’s there. The friends I’m staying with were impressed with our similarities: they knew one of my more ambitious brothers ten years ago, and apparently #3 and I have enough resemblance that you can see it, but #7 and I look like we’ve spent years studying each other to get our mannerisms exactly identical. Yet he loves big trucks, Mustangs, and wearing baseball caps, and I read Thomas Hardy novels when I’m vacationing in Paris or São Paulo. Cultural differences that arise from economic disparity may determine whom we feel comfortable living with, but with a little forbearance and good manners, those differences don’t have to limit whom we love.

Hardy’s characters don’t necessarily practice the forbearance unless it’s within their own family circle. Ethelberta’s brother and future brother-in-law end up traveling together one night, and the carpenter and the peer don’t really see eye to eye.

If every man of title was as useful as you are to-night, sir, I’d never call them lumber again as long as I live.’

‘How singular!’

‘There’s never a bit of rubbish that won’t come in use if you keep it seven years.’

In the final third of the novel, Ethelberta’s secret is in danger of getting out, so she determines that a hasty marriage is the only solution.

Life is a battle, they say; but it is only so in the sense that a game of chess is a battle – there is no seriousness in it; it may be put an end to at any inconvenient moment by owning yourself beaten, with a careless “Ha-ha!” and sweeping your pieces into the box.

Hardy says this, but Ethelberta can’t own herself beaten. She can’t see her quest for social position as unimportant or a game. She’s serious; she plays for keeps. She angles for the guy with the highest title, even though he’s older than her dad and has a very low character. Toward the end the novel gets a little Radcliffean, with the vicious viscount in the castle with the beautiful young heroine married in ignorance and partially against her will, but it turns out all right. This book is supposed to be funny, after all.

There are some jokes I appreciated, but they’re generally one-liners.

Ethelberta breathed a sort of exclamation, not right out, but stealthily, like a parson’s damn.

Or

‘O Joey, you wicked boy! If mother only knew that you smoked!’

‘I don’t mind the wickedness so much as the smell.

Or

Like the British Constitution, she owes her success in practice to her inconsistencies in principle.

There’s one little piece that I enjoyed because it seems so realistic, and I think must have happened rather frequently, despite its absence from most novels. Two maids and a footman have just prepared the upper dining room for the dinner in the middle of a ball, and while the quality are dancing on the lower floor,

Away then ran the housemaid and Menlove, and the young footman started at their heels. Round the room, over the furniture, under the furniture, out of one window, along the balcony, in at another window, again round the room – so they glided with the swiftness of swallows and the noiselessness of ghosts. Then the housemaid drew a jew’s harp from her pocket, and struck up a lively waltz sotto voce. The footman seized Menlove, who appeared nothing loth, and began spinning gently round the room with her, to the time of the fascinating measure

‘Which fashion hails, from countesses to queens,
And maids and valets dance behind the scenes.’

One of the most important messages of the novel is the reminder that servants are real people too. They may be treated like furniture, but the only difference between them and their supposed masters is the accident of birth. Their emotional lives are as rich, their pleasures both as simple and as complex. A good servant can still be a man of feeling who takes a bit of fun when no one’s looking.

Hardy introduces some new vocabulary that I like, such as ‘man-famine.’ In the 1870s, young men were being sent out to the colonies to build the empire, so there weren’t many at home. Another example of the hidden effect of imperialism that Said talks about. He also gives us the word ‘indifferentist,’ which I rather like. It seems to imply not only that someone doesn’t care about a given situation, but that he’s studied his indifference and employs it as a tool.

There are also some passages that strike me as beautiful, even in a book that treats serious questions of gender and class as jokes. When Christopher Julian meets Mr Chickerel for the first time, he responds to the family resemblance without knowing that this is Ethelberta’s father.

Ethelberta’s face was there, as the landscape is in the map, the romance in the history, the aim in the deed: denuded, rayless, and sorry, but discernible.

I’m kind of surprised that this novel isn’t more popular with the critics. Hardy is more explicit in his criticism of social structures and gender strictures than in his other books, so it would seem that the Marxists and feminists would have been all over it. But I guess not; some people can’t understand the concept of serious comedy.

I don’t really understand J. D. Salinger’s intense popularity. I first read The Catcher in the Rye in my late 20s, and I was really disgusted by it. Holden Caulfield has more money than problems, and that itself is becoming a problem in his teenage life. He lands himself in a mental institution, apparently so that he can finally suffer authentically. I spent my teenage life suffering in poverty and isolation, so it’s really hard for me to relate. However, I have friends who really get behind Franny and Zooey, so I gave it a try. It’s much easier for me to get into – much less whining and more of a struggle that I understand.

Franny and Zooey is basically a story of three conversations. Since the book is two hundred pages long, the conversations are a bit lengthy. This is not the sort of book to read if you’re into action; more My Dinner with Andre and less Andre the Giant. The main issue is that Franny is trying to ‘pray without ceasing,’ as the Bible recommends. But it’s really stressing her out and not really enlightening her.

The book begins with Franny meeting her boyfriend Lane for lunch. They’re a couple of college kids (attending different schools; this is the 1950s) who are having lunch before a football game. Franny feels kind of sick, which pisses Lane off. Franny’s preparing to drop out because everything is so fake. There’s the established conformity, and there’s the equally established bohemian alternative conformity, and no one is really himself, not even the professors. She’s looking for some kind of authentic experience, so she looks to religion. Religious writers have been saying for centuries that repeated chants can induce a trance state that fosters mystical experiences, and that’s what she’s doing. She found a book in the library about a peasant that wanders around Europe saying The Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a miserable sinner), so that’s her mantra. Franny’s spiritual search is played off of Lane’s materialism: he focuses his attention on objects, what coat is she wearing, what does she order for lunch, that sort of thing, and he reflects with satisfaction on the fact of being seen in the right restaurant with the right sort of girl. Too bad Franny’s behavior is becoming erratic; she’s not the right sort of girl after all. She just looks like it. A sample of their conversation:

“I don’t know what a real poet is. I wish you’d stop it, Lane. I’m serious. I’m feeling very peculiar and funny, and I can’t – ”

“All right, all right – O.K. Relax,” Lane said. “I was only trying – ”

“I know this much, is all,” Franny said. “If you’re a poet, you do something beautiful. I mean you’re supposed to leave something beautiful after you get off the page and everything. The ones you’re talking about don’t leave a single, solitary thing beautiful. All that maybe the slightly better ones do is sort of get inside your head and leave something there, but just because they do, just because they know how to leave something, it doesn’t have to be a poem, for heaven’s sake. It may just be some kind of terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings – excuse the expression. Like Manlius and Esposito and all those poor men.”

Lane took time to light a cigarette for himself before he said anything. Then: “I thought you liked Manlius. As a matter of fact, about a month ago, if I remember correctly, you said he was darling, and that you – ”

“I do like him. I’m sick of just liking people. I wish to God I could meet somebody I could respect. . . . Would you excuse me for just a minute?” Franny was suddenly on her feet, with her handbag in her hand. She was very pale.

I like Franny’s ideas of poetry, particularly of mid-twentieth-century poets. I wish more artists were interested in making the world a beautiful place, instead of merely reflecting the fuckeduppedness they see around them. The world is beautiful, and there are lovely things in it, and I’d like to contribute to that. I want the world to be more beautiful for my having been in it, not angrier.

The second conversation takes place a few days later, in the bathroom. Zooey is reading a letter he received years ago from his brother Buddy while sitting in the tub. Buddy steps forward for a few minutes to identify himself as the narrator and to explain a bit about the family – five brothers, two sisters, just like mine, two dead, not at all like mine. Salinger writes about this family in several other stories; Seymour seems the most important, he being the oldest, and the rest of his family’s stories seem to revolve around him, or the lack of him. He commits suicide in 1948. Seymour and Buddy are only two years apart, and they seem to have been inseparable. Buddy’s narrating the stories might be why Seymour seems so paramount. Seymour and Buddy were in college when Zooey and Franny were young, and they taught their youngest siblings all about Eastern philosophy when they were young children. Franny and Zooey have often felt like freaks ever since, but when Franny has her religious crisis, Seymour’s the one she wants.

I feel more than one pang of envy when I read about the Glass family. Yeah, we have the same complement of boys and girls, but my family is closer in age and further in character. The scene where Zooey goes into Seymour and Buddy’s room hits me the hardest – the two oldest Glass kids had all the same reading interests, so while their room is odd, it’s clear that it is the result of two minds that work in unison. I don’t have that in my family. The brother closest to me in age told me he’d rather have me dead than gay, so he pretends that I am. At almost exactly fifteen months, he and I are the chronologically closest in our family, but we’re pretty far removed in terms of priorities and values. The next older is almost three years older than me. When he flunked out of college and came home in disgrace, we discovered that we had a lot in common. Upon reflection, I think a lot of it was isolation and the need to connect. A few years later he came to the same university I was attending, and over the next three years it became clear that we weren’t quite as similar as we had thought. Eventually I felt like I was valued so long as I was his Mini-Me; when I asserted myself, we tended to drift apart. In general, my family tends to think of me as a useless sort of blank slate. The ex really helped for a while; she presented me to my family in a way that they could understand and like; my solitary visits post-divorce have reminded me that I really do need an interpreter between me and my own family.

Anyway, this second conversation is between Zooey and his mother. She’s concerned about his television career (both parents are old vaudevillians), and she wants him to talk to Franny about whatever’s going on with her. Like Lane, Zooey seems to swear with unnecessary force at strange times in the conversation. Also, they favor the religious swear words, the ones I never use. I will say shit or fuck with somewhat reckless abandon, particularly when upset, but I never use goddamn, and seldom damn or hell. I also do not swear in my mother’s presence, so Zooey swearing at his mother puts me off. I can understand his desire to get her out of the bathroom while he’s in the tub, but the rudeness he uses to accomplish that (which fails, by the way – this conversation is about twice as long as the previous) makes me feel uncomfortable. There’s another treasure trove for the thing theorists when she opens the medicine cabinet – so much useless stuff crammed into a little space.

The third conversation, the one you’ve all been waiting for, is between the two titular characters. Zooey tries to talk Franny into a better frame of mind, and by ‘better’ we mean ‘more similar to his.’ I think that taking on her discontent with academia is a good start, probably because I get frustrated with it too. I think that my frustration may come from my perceived rejection from it – I applied to doctoral programs for years, and never got accepted. In the end, I gave up, because they’re not interested in giving people time and space to develop ideas. They’re interested in finding people who are going to contribute to The Profession and training them to do it properly. Not much caring for The Profession, I don’t get accepted to their programs.

Way back in the early Aughts, I saw a sign up for a demonstration against the impending invasion of Iraq. I (still) think it is/was a bad idea, so I went to the protest. I was fine and happy as long as we were protesting against war, but the person with the megaphone then started making personal attacks on the president and going on about environmental policy. I was never a big fan of Bush Jr, and I’m a big fan of conserving and protecting the environment, but I wasn’t there for that. If we’re here to protest the war, let’s focus on the war instead of mixing the war into a mass of other issues that just foster Bush-bashing. Keep a clarity of purpose. Zooey accuses Franny of making the same mistake.

If you’re going to go to war against the System, just do your shooting like a nice, intelligent girl – because the enemy’s there, and not because you don’t like his hairdo or his goddam necktie.

Haircuts and fashion sense don’t make someone a good teacher. Yet, when students dislike a teacher, they seldom think through precisely what they disagree with. Instead, they’ll launch into this sort of personal attack, as if style were the essential thing. I remember one of my favorite teachers in high school was once criticized for wearing a brown belt with black shoes. To his face.

I think it’s much more important that a teacher feel a vocation to teach. I think that’s what Zooey is trying to get at in this section on ego.

Take your Professor Tupper. From what you say about him, anyway, I’d lay almost any odds that this thing he’s using, the thing you think is his ego, isn’t his ego at all but some other, much dirtier, much less basic faculty. My God, you’ve been around schools long enough to know the score. Scratch an incompetent schoolteacher – or, for that matter, college professor – and half the time you find a displaced first-rate automobile mechanic or a goddam stonemason. Take LeSage, for instance – my friend, my employer, my Rose of Madison Avenue. You think it was his ego that got him into television? Like hell it was! He has no ego any more – if ever he had one. He’s split it up into hobbies. He has at least three hobbies that I know of – and they all have to do with a big, ten-thousand-dollar workroom in his basement, full of power tools and vises and God knows what else. Nobody who’s really using his ego, his real ego, has any time for any goddam hobbies.

When I was in school, I liked just about everything, and was good at the academic subjects. It’s great for being a student, but terrible when you have to specialize. I don’t think there’s any one profession that could consume my entire life like Zooey expects it to. Besides, as much as I like handcrafts, I don’t think I could support myself and my kids with my knitting.

I notice that the passages I’m pulling out are decidedly Zooey-heavy. The story is like that, but I’m a little too close to Franny’s mental state to derive much benefit from her. I’m kind of in the market for a spiritual guide, but I keep rejecting the ones that are available. I’m afraid that I’m going to find something that works for others in my independent reading, try it for myself for a while, then go to pieces when it doesn’t work for me. And,

When you first felt the urge, the call, to say the prayer, you didn’t immediately start searching the four corners of the world for a master. You came home.

I’d like to go home. We can only handle a finite number of stressors at one time; going to a familiar place reduces the stress from the environment. This is an important strategy when internal stress runs high. Mine is becoming problematic, and I’d like to go home now.

Franny and Zooey is a good book. Franny has a major religious crisis, but it remains unresolved, potentially unresolvable (how very 1950s-bohemian). Personally, I’m looking for a little resolution right now, so I may need to file this with Demian as good, but not what I need at the moment. Maybe if I read some of the other Glass family stories; they seem like interesting people, and I’d like to see more of them.