Posts Tagged ‘son2’

Lately it seems that I’ll do anything other than what will conduce to my mental, physical, or financial health.

So. We’re all familiar with the stereotypes of the Irishman – a drunken idiot more interested in carousing than in learning how to do anything the right way, a ready victim for its more self-controlled neighbors. FitzPatrick’s stories do nothing to change this perception. The constant perpetuation of negative stereotypes really turned me off to her writing. I suppose that without conflict there is no story, but there are ways of being Irish that are healthy and constructive. Any people who have maintained a sense of distinct identity and ethnic pride over thousands of years deserve a little more respect, even if you are one of them.

The other stereotype at play here is one I’ve contended with more directly, the one about how people who are good at school are terrible at everything else. Smart people in these stories go crazy, poison the world, die strange deaths, get raped, and are marginalized by a society that refuses to accept them. So. Let’s talk about what a pain in the ass it is to be smart.

When I was in high school, I had a series of seizures which I believe left me less intelligent than I was before. People remark on my brains now, but back then I was brilliant. It was hard for me to relate to other people because my mind worked so much faster than theirs, and could hold more information in short-term memory. This sort of mind represents power, and adults find power in children to be threatening. I spent my childhood being told that I couldn’t do things when all I really needed was a few more tries to get it right. I got locked into this habit of dropping activities that I didn’t excel at initially because people were so happy with my failures, and I was so ashamed. This is what makes people become supervillains, by the way – the keen sense that humanity rejoices in our pain.

There were times that my intelligence was useful, though – administrators liked the fact that I made their schools look good with very little effort on their part. Or mine either, I suppose. When they’d talk about school statistics, I felt used.

Being smart meant that I was isolated from my peers, who laughed if I got any questions wrong. I don’t mean quiet snickering; I mean, a full-class disruption that lasted for several minutes. I suppose I talk less than most people because I had to be right the first time, or suffer the disproportionate response of my classmates. I just couldn’t communicate on their level. I’m sorry, that sounds elitist; it would be more accurate to say that communication was difficult because I had dramatically different interests and a wider vocabulary. Later on, I would meet people who were equally as intelligent, but it was still hard to talk to them because I didn’t have the social skills they developed by having friends.

My younger sister used to warn her teachers at the beginning of the year not to expect her to be like me, because she wasn’t. She was equally exceptional, but in athletics instead of academics. She has always had a facility for being happy that I have never had, and I’ve been envious for most of my life. If intelligence is supposed to be its own reward, it ought to translate into something more positive than a bullet point on your resume, ten years in the future. When she’d joke at home about these conversations with her teachers, I felt rejected. I was busy being rejected by nearly everyone in my life at the time, so I had more urgent pain to deal with, but looking back on that now, it hurts.

Being a smart kid for me meant being alone, unhappy, and unwanted. And sometimes forgotten. I suppose I can’t blame all of this on intelligence – it probably also has to do with manner. I wasn’t reticent about my intelligence, and maybe people would have been different if I had been more patient and more kind. Then again, maybe being friends with me would have been just too much work, and they had their own stuff to go through. There’s a girl that I went through school with, and we reconnected on facebook a few years ago. But it took me a while to recognize her because she’s so happy now. She grins from ear to ear in every photograph she takes, and I have no memories of her smiling as a child. When I mentioned this, she agreed that none of us had much to be happy about back then. Life was so Faulknerian back then – not cheerful, Cash talks Darl into going to Jackson Faulkner, I mean Quentin Compson getting his head dumped full of incestuous revenge tragedies and going to the watch shop before drowning himself Faulkner. Like Quentin, being smart was just depressing, and adding up the pieces of our lives and synthesizing them leads to adult forms of truth we’re not ready for. Being smart was a bit like a disease, and no one wanted to catch it from me.

I’ve passed it on to my kids, though. When I went to college, I met someone who was also smart and felt as rejected as I did, so of course we got married and reproduced. My children seem happier and more socially adjusted than I was, but that could just be me projecting my desires onto them. My youngest seems to have absorbed my childhood habit of saying things that are true and unpleasant, like the fact that he is less drawn to me than his brothers are because he was still just a baby when we got divorced. The fact that he said it so plainly to me makes me think that some adult said this when they thought he wasn’t listening, and he’s been trying to use this fact to make sense of who he is. I worry sometimes that he doesn’t like me the way the other two do, but that might be related to the fact that he’s right, we don’t connect as easily. But maybe I was hard to connect with at that age too.

It’s like the whole teacher thing. A lot of people think that smart people become teachers, but that’s a load of bollocks. People become teachers because they had positive experiences in school, which is why cheerleaders and football players teach high school and late-blooming misfits teach at colleges and universities. I was really unhappy as a child, so now it’s hard for me to relate to children, even my own. I didn’t have any really close friends until I was eighteen, and that’s about the age of students that I can start connecting with. I do better with adults. Even as a kid, I was more drawn to grown-ups than to people my own age.

So, wrapping up. Society seldom values intelligence unless it’s partnered with common interests and emotional accessibility. FitzPatrick’s book was five dollars at a used shop, but you can buy it new on Amazon for only $4.50. There are some funny moments, but I found the cumulative effect depressing, which is sort of to be expected from a self-consciously literary book from the 1990s. Unhealthy stereotypes of Irish people and intelligent people, and putting them together you get characters who are just not suited to the real world.

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The promotion for this book (at least the copy I have) seems to be, “If you loved Possession, you’ll like this.” Yet it was published twelve years earlier, and the author seems to be at a different stage in her thinking and writing. Like Possession, it deals with the private lives of people who give their lives to literature; unlike Possession, these people are not career scholars, they’re teachers at a little school in Yorkshire. Stylistically, she’s writing as an academic instead of as someone who wants people to read her sentences.

He did not look, as she had supposed, perhaps feared, he might, silly.

Do not separate the predicate adjective from a linking verb with a long subordinate clause (and a second clause embedded in the first! Oh my).

This book draws a lot from D. H. Lawrence, explicitly from The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. There are also a lot of parallels with The Virgin and the Gipsy. Two sisters growing up and learning about life and love, the older more serious, the younger a bit of a firecracker. Unfortunately, Stephanie and Frederica are being raised by Bill Potter, a verbally abusive, frustrated academic. He’s replaced the Bible and Christianity with Lawrence and the Romantics. It’s a curious trade, and one that leads to results he himself does not condone.

Good teaching is a mystery and takes many forms. Stephanie’s idea of good teaching was simple and limited: it was the induced, shared, contemplation of a work, an object, an artefact. It was not the encouragement of self-expression, self-analysis, or what were to be called interpersonal relations. Indeed, she saw a good reading of the Ode on a Grecian Urn as a welcome chance to avoid these activities.

I agree with Byatt’s comment on the mystery of being a good teacher, but I’m not sure if Stephanie goes about it correctly. Her method was highly valued in the early 1950s, when we were trying to make the study of literature dispassionate and scientific, but my experience with literature professors is that they generally want students to connect with the poem, or with the poet through the poem, or with themselves through the poem. Self-expression, self-analysis, and interpersonal relations are desirable and indeed necessary aspects of today’s classroom, like the time I wrote to my professor that I was having a hard time relating to Shakespeare’s sonnets because I had never been in love. [I glance backward at my twenty-three-year-old self and shake a fist, shouting “Come out of the closet! You’re gay! Pay attention to your crushes on men!”]

Stephanie is the older, steadier sister, and as such, is the one I’m more interested in. She rebels against her father, first by leaving Cambridge and teaching in the same middle-of-nowhere town she was raised in, and then by marrying the curate. Wasting her intellectual talents is one thing, but allying herself so strongly to a professional Christian is just too much. Daniel isn’t actually that great of a Christian; he doesn’t believe or care about the dogma. His interest is in social justice, so instead of spending a lot of time studying and writing sermons, he goes around finding ways to help people. This is a mission Stephanie can agree with. Her feelings don’t seem to heat up that much; he wants her, he’s a logical choice, and he represents a way to escape her father. A common sad story.

Frederica is the titular virgin, an unpopular seventeen-year-old anxious to lose her virginity. It’s the year of Elizabeth II’s coronation, so the local artsy people are doing a celebration of Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen. Apparently there are numerous parallels between the life of Elizabeth and Frederica’s story, but I am no Renaissance scholar. Alexander Wedderburn, her father’s younger colleague at school, has written a play about the queen that will serve as the centerpiece to the Elizabethan festivities. They hire a few professional actors, but Frederica is chosen to act the part of the teenaged Elizabeth. The play gives her license to find someone to have sex with, and by the two-thirds point this is the primary element of suspense. Who? When? Where?

He produced a macintosh and laid it out under a somewhat Wordsworthian thorn bush. Frederica sat stiffly on the edge of it, telling herself that there were certain things that when she knew them would not bother her in the same way any more. She had read Lady Chatterley, true, and The Rainbow too, and Women in Love, but it cannot be said that she expected a revelation from the traveller in dolls. She wished her ignorance, part of it, to be dispelled. She wished to become knowledgeable. She wished to be able to pinpoint the sources of her discontent.

She’s not discontented because she’s a virgin. If she were, she wouldn’t have so many near-misses. There are a few times she has the opportunity to have sex but backs out at the last minute. She gets called a cock-tease, but I don’t think it’s intentional. She means to have sex, but gets disgusted with the men. There are a lot of disgusting men out there, and those who want to sleep with a teenager (after they’ve passed into their legal majority) are among them. Austen heroes, I’m looking at you – Colonel Brandon and Mr Knightley, especially. They are both my age when they marry, but Marianne Dashwood is only nineteen and Emma Woodhouse twenty-one. I have no business running after little boys like that. Frederica’s discontentment comes from her social isolation and her volatile father.

When she finally creates the right mixture of partner, place, and time, she finds that sex is different from what she had expected.

She had learned something. She had learned that you could do – that – in a reasonably companionable and courteous way with no invasion of your privacy, no shift in your solitude. You could sleep all night, with a strange man, and see the back only of his head, and be more self-contained than anywhere else. This was a useful thing to know. It removed the awful either/or from the condition of women as she had seen it. Either love, passion, sex and those things, or the life of the mind, ambition, solitude, the others. There was a third way: you could be alone and not alone in a bed, if you made no fuss. She too would turn away and go to sleep.

I found that out too, but since my first time was on my wedding night, it wasn’t immediately. At first it was this cosmic force binding us together, but in time I could also see it driving us apart. I had to learn to accept love without a physical component – love and sex became divided for me because I got love without sex, not sex without love the way most people seem to.

I suppose the reason I don’t find Frederica very interesting is that different versions of her story get told over and over and over again. Bookish teenage outcast finds her place in society? How many times have we told that story?

I identified more with their brother Marcus. He’s sixteen, but I kept visualizing him as younger. Like me, he has family-trauma-induced mental problems, including hallucinations and sporadic extreme sensitivity to light. I pushed it all into religion, where you can pass that kind of stuff off as proof of divine favor (or at least attention – Old Testament prophets did not lead peaceful lives). Marcus’s father doesn’t allow of religion, so he pairs up with a teacher who has some weird beliefs about the natural and supernatural worlds. In another time, Lucas Simmonds would have been a ghostbuster or an internet conspiracy theorist, tracking ley lines and all that good stuff, but in the 1950s the information isn’t available to him. He keeps trying to make something happen, find some proof that the supernatural is real (The Truth Is Out There), and in the process lose himself. There’s something suicidal about his desire to vanish into the air, cast off this mortal flesh and join the elementals or whatever he wants to do. Marcus isn’t really into this like Lucas is, and the self-dissolution aspect of it worries him, but Lucas has answers (however wonky) and gives him time and attention, which no one else is willing to do. It seems like Lucas’s biggest problem is one he won’t face: he’s gay. His flight from the body is really a flight from his own sexuality. If chemical castration were offered to him, I think he would take it. Instead he ends up really going off the deep end. Marcus ends the book in a bad place too, primarily because he feels responsible for Lucas. Lucas’s insanity isn’t Marcus’s fault though; you can blame society for denying the viability of homosexuality as a mode of existence, you can blame Lucas for refusing to accept himself, but none of this can be traced to Marcus. He got to the party too late to be responsible for it. I do wish that Lucas could have danced by the pond with flowers twined through all the hair on his body without being crazy – if I ever have a nervous breakdown, I hope it’s beautiful like that.

I’ve been visiting my kids this week, and I first saw them on a playground. My oldest ran up to me and commented on how many children were there and how scary crowds are, and I thought, “Oh good, you’ve inherited my social anxiety.” I’m happy for any connection with my kids. He unwrapped the book I got him and was really excited – The Ex and I both enjoyed Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence when we were his age, so Over Sea, Under Stone was a good choice – so excited, in fact, that by the time I left the next day he had finished the entire book. It’s sometimes harder to see similarities with my middle boy – he’s more Emilio Estevez than Anthony Michael Hall – but he has my preference for showing love through physical contact and my impatience with unnecessary conversation. The youngest is still sort of a mystery to me; it’s like he’s a batch of muffins that have only been cooking for seven minutes. Just not done yet. He’s sensitive and affectionate, and likes whatever his brothers are into.

I saw my dad a few weeks ago, and I’ve been crying ever since. It’s not that I miss him, though I did, it’s that my parents are kind of horrible. In the course of one evening he pointed out that even though I’ve lived in the Midwest/Southwest for two years, he’s the first one to come visit me [subtext: I’m the only one who loves you and you can’t trust anyone else], AND that he had way too many kids and he jokingly/not-jokingly wishes abortion had been more socially and morally acceptable back in the 1970s [subtext: I wish you were never born]. He tried to give me a handshake instead of a hug [subtext: You’re a stranger to me, stay out of my personal space, keep your gay filth to yourself]. This whole love/rejection thing is toxic and hard and makes the concept of family very difficult for me, so I’m not participating in my guy’s holiday family get-togethers the way he’d like me to. I’m not sure what he wants, maybe another version of his brother’s partner, but my relationships with my family (or The Ex’s family) have not prepared me for the kind of interactions he wants me to have with his parents and extended family.

I worry about my family life. I don’t know how to do any of this, being a good son or a good father or a good partner to someone who is close to his family. I try to be myself and act in ways that are natural to me, and show love whenever I can, but lately I’ve been feeling like it’s not enough. The collapse of the Potter family feels like a warning, but I don’t know how to profit from it. There must be a way to hang onto love without losing the self, there must be a way to reach out to loved ones without hurting them, and there ought to be a way to interact with my parents that doesn’t leave me sobbing for months afterward. But twentieth-century literature may be the wrong place to look for them.

What a sad little book.

This should hardly be a surprise; Hesse generally writes sad little books, and this one came out before he got into psychoanalysis. But even here, in his comparative youth, Hesse is one of the writers who can most clearly articulate the experience of depression, and while it can evoke painful memories for me, there is a reward greater than the pain: the knowledge that I am not alone in my suffering.

“Do you think so?”

“Yes. You are suffering from a sickness, one that is fashionable, unfortunately, and that one comes across every day among sensitive people. It is related to moral insanity and can also be called individualism or imaginary loneliness. Modern books are full of it. It has insinuated itself into your imagination; you are isolated; no one troubles about you and no one understands you. Am I right?”

“Almost,” I admitted with surprise.

“Listen. Those who suffer from this illness need only a couple of disappointments to make them believe that there is no link between them and other people, that all people go about in a state of complete loneliness, that they never really understand each other, share anything or have anything in common. It also happens that people who suffer from this sickness become arrogant and regard all other healthy people who can understand and love each other as flocks of sheep. If this sickness were general, the human race would die out, but it is only found among the upper classes in Central Europe. It can be cured in young people and it is, indeed, part of the inevitable period of development.”

I don’t believe everything about depression that Mr Lohe says here, and I don’t think Hesse does either. First, there is nothing imaginary about feeling lonely. The people I love live hundreds of miles away, and the best friend I’ve made here is a student who is graduating in a week. He’s going to school in the Pacific Northwest next year, so I may never see him again. This thought makes me sad. Second, depression would not stop the entire human race. Depressed people are capable of having sex, and many try to use that to treat their depression. And even without that, we don’t all kill ourselves. Thirdly, what do you mean, it’s confined to rich Europeans? Have you ever met someone outside the upper classes of Central Europe? We’re all the same; human nature is a constant, and the same types of personality exist in all strata and in all places.

In other ways, of course, Mr Lohe is completely right. Our society values the mental habit of finding patterns and formulating general theories from a few pieces of evidence. This is what is measured on IQ tests, and I do it well, so people think I’m smart. But people with this habit, people with high IQs who are considered intelligent, will draw huge overarching conclusions about the entire world based on the flimsiest evidence. This is where stereotypes come from. When I was young I thought the world was cold and indifferent because I could not mix with the people around me; now, I think that the people in the town I grew up in are weird and that I was suffering from my family situation without acknowledging the suffering or its cause, which kept me from interacting well with people. I think that my current living situation is temporary, but I still have to fight against the temptation to believe that I will always be alone and that while I may move from one place to another, nothing important will ever change.

When music stirred my being, I understood everything without the aid of words. I was then aware of pure harmony in the essence of life and felt that there must be a meaning and a just law behind everything that happened. Even if this was an illusion, it helped me to live and was a comfort to me.

This week I’ve been grateful for a key to the practice rooms at school. I’ve found it useful to have a language without words; I’m playing Mozart on the piano again. [I wish I still had my Debussy music.] Sunday was Mothers’ Day, and I had been planning to be a good and dutiful son, but when the day arrived I just couldn’t. I went to church as usual, but all I wanted to do was run away and scream. The reverend had a word or two to say to me after the service, and he had to hold me in place to keep me from running. [I crocheted him a blanket for a housewarming gift and he wanted to thank me; it wasn’t anything threatening.] I did scream some in the car later. After church I get a latte and use the free internet to check facebook and wordpress, and my friends were all grateful about their mothers and posting happy pictures – I honored the day by posting Joan Jett singing “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” So I’ve pinpointed my mom as some source of past trauma and present stress, but I don’t know how to deal with it. The music helps, but it doesn’t heal.

I soon realized that these teachings could only be of solace and value to those who could accept them literally, and sincerely believe them to be true. If, as it seemed to me, they were partly beautiful literature, partly intricate symbols, an attempt at a mythological explanation of the world, one could be instructed by them and hold them in esteem, but one could not learn how to live and gain strength from them. One could perhaps be a worthy and religious theosophist, but the final solace beckoned only to those who accepted simple beliefs without too much questioning. In the meantime, it was not for me.

Religion is not the answer. I convinced myself for a long time that it could solve my troubles, but for all my heroic efforts, I just can’t believe in it. I don’t think that stories have to be literally true in order to be powerful, but the Hebrew mythology is not as useful for me as it once was. I just can’t accept things without interrogating them. No idea really stands up under a steady stream of questions. I think this is part of my attraction to academia; it’s a subculture that doesn’t expect (or fully value) definitive answers. Only the questions matter; answers are necessarily provisional and incomplete, so life is about learning to ask the right questions. I can accept that, though I can’t often come up with the right questions on my own. I have a strong value for and feel a profound connection with those friends who ask me good questions.

Anyway, the book. Our first-person narrator/protagonist is a crippled composer whose ideal woman (Gertrude) falls for his best friend, a depressed but talented singer who drinks too much and beats his girlfriends. There’s another girl who loves him but whom he does not love in return. So for all his teacher’s comments on how wrongly people with depression view the world, in Hesse’s world everyone falls in love with the wrong person, and some of them die.

I think one can draw quite a distinct division between youth and maturity. Youth ends when egotism does; maturity begins when one lives for others. That is what I mean. Young people have many pleasures and many sorrows, because they have only themselves to think of, so every wish and every notion assumes importance; every pleasure is tasted to the full but also every sorrow, and many who find that their wishes cannot be fulfilled, put an end immediately to their lives. That is being young. To most people, however, there comes a time when the situation changes, when they live more for others, not for any virtuous reasons, but quite naturally. A family is the reason with most people. One thinks less about oneself and one’s wishes when one has a family. Others lose their egotism in a responsible position, in politics, in art or in science. Young people want to play; mature people want to work. A man does not marry just to have children, but if he has them they change him, and finally he sees that everything has happened just for them. That links up with the fact that young people like to talk about death but do not really think about it. It is just the other way round with old people. Life seems long to young people and they can therefore concentrate all their wishes and thoughts on themselves. Old people are conscious of an approaching end, and that everything one has and does solely for oneself finally falls short and lacks value. Therefore a man requires a different kind of continuity and faith; he does not work just for the worms. That is why one has a wife and children, business and responsibility, so that one knows for whom one endures the daily toil. In that respect your friend is quite right, a man is happier when he lives for others than when he lives just for himself, but old people should not make it out to be such an act of heroism, because it isn’t one really. In any case, the most lively young people become the best old people, not those who pretend to be as wise as grandfathers while they are still at school.

I find much of this to be true. Having children and family can give a meaning to an otherwise purposeless existence; the trick is to find the right people to devote one’s life to. Kuhn latches onto his mother (his father dies shortly after giving this speech), even though they’ve never understood or even liked each other. At first it’s a bad situation, but it gets better with time. They learn to respect each other, and perhaps love too. I spent eight years living for my wife and children, and it just made things worse in the end. She didn’t respect my work (reading Wuthering Heights is not playing when you’re taking a degree in British literature), and in the end she didn’t trust or value me for myself. I was useful to her when I could be controlled, but I hate feeling controlled. She encouraged me to examine my emotions critically, but when I did the result was not complimentary to her. My children are as independently minded as I am, so it was hard to base my emotional life in them because children don’t reciprocate well. They’re excessively pragmatic, in a short-sighted way. But at least their machinations and motivations are obvious. I love my sons and miss them horribly, but I’m so glad to be away from their mother that it’s not often apparent.

So, it’s a book about famous people and the reality of being around them:

Gradually the walk in the night cooled me down, and although my own wound was still open and needed healing, I was induced to think more and more about what Marian had said and about my stupid behavior that evening. I felt that I was a miserable creature who really owed an apology. Now that the courage the wine had given me had worn off, I was seized by an unpleasantly sentimental mood against which I fought. I did not say much more to the pretty woman, who now seemed agitated and moody herself as she walked beside me along the dark streets where, here and there, the light of a lamp was suddenly reflected on the dark surface of the wet ground. It occurred to me that I had left my violin in Muoth’s house; in the meantime I was again filled with astonishment and alarm at everything. The evening had turned out to be so different from what I had anticipated. Heinrich Muoth and Kranzl the violinist, and also the radiant Marian, who played the role of queen, had all climbed down from their pedestals. They were not gods or saints who dwelt on Olympian heights, but mere mortals; one was small and droll, another was oppressed and conceited, Muoth was wretched and self-tormented, the charming woman was pathetic and miserable as the lady friend of a restless sensualist who knew no joy, and yet she was good and kind and acquainted with suffering. I, myself, felt changed. I was no longer a single person but a part of all people, seeing good and bad in all. I felt I could not love a person here and hate another person there. I was ashamed of my lack of understanding and saw clearly for the first time in my young life that one could not go through life and among people so simply, hating one person and loving another, respecting one person and despising another, but all these emotions were closely tied up, scarcely separable and at times scarcely distinguishable. I looked at the woman walking by my side who was now also silent as if she too realized that the nature of many things was different from what she had thought and said.

And about the nature of creative work:

Then my work appeared before me, so familiar and yet so alien, which no longer needed me and had a life of its own. The pleasures and troubles of past days, the hopes and sleepless nights, the passion and longing of that period confronted me, detached and transformed. Emotions experienced in secret were transmitted clearly and movingly to a thousand unknown people in the theatre. Muoth appeared and began singing with some reserve. Then his voice grew stronger; he let himself go and sang in his deeply passionate manner; the soprano responded in a high, sweet voice. Then came the part which I could so well remember hearing Gertrude sing, which expressed my admiration for her and was a quiet confession of my love. I averted my glance and looked into her bright eyes, which acknowledged me and greeted me warmly, and for a moment the memory of my whole youth was like the sweet fragrance of a ripe fruit.

But the depression covers it all.

If you’re not comfortable with reading about depression, stay away from Hermann Hesse. If you’re suffering from it, he can help you feel like someone understands, even if it’s a German who’s been dead for fifty years. I think that the solutions Hesse finds later in his career are more helpful: think Steppenwolf, for example. It’s a good book – Hesse writes beautifully, and his translators do too – but sad. I should go look for something cheerful to read next.

Another atypical novel. There’s nothing Gothic or weird about this; it’s depressingly real. It begins with The Hon. Charles Wyndham calling his wife and her family a bunch of parasites, and then they spend most of the rest of the novel remembering their lives together.

Maria and Niall are not actually brother and sister; her father married his mother when they were both infants, and produced the third child, Celia. Maria and Niall are sometimes like two halves of a single person, they rely on each other so much, but at other times not.

The tunes he had written for this tiresome revue were maddening, insistent; you could not forget them for one single moment. Once you heard them, you went on humming them all the time, throughout the day, until they nearly drove you crazy. The trouble was, thought Maria, that when the time came to dance to them, she would be dancing with Charles. And Charles was a stolid, safe dancer, steering you rather as he might steer a little ship through shoal water, an anxious eye to the bumps of other dancers. Whereas Niall . . . Dancing with Niall had always been like dancing with yourself. You moved, and he followed. Or rather, he moved and you followed. Or was it that you both thought of the same moves at precisely the same moment? And anyway, why think about Niall?

Their parents were performers, so the children grew up in theatres, even when they were very young children who really needed the attention of their parents. Pappy was effusive but careless, and Mama was cold and distant. She began to connect with Niall when he showed a gift for music, but she died so shortly afterward that it couldn’t make up for all the time she didn’t care for him. Niall is the only one to go away to school, and he hates it, running away all the time, usually to go find Maria. She went upon the stage at the same time he went to school. Maria is always dogged by her father’s spectre; people assume that she gets roles because she’s his daughter, not because she has any talent of her own. By the time it’s clear that she is a good actress, her fears of inadequacy are too deeply ingrained to be easily overcome. Niall leaves school shortly before graduation, to run away to Paris with a friend of his parents. Pappy always talks about his French blood, saying that all his vagaries are due to the unknown biological father. He never learns discipline, and it takes decades for him to learn to write down music himself. There are times he reminds me of myself. Discipline has never been easy for me; I believe that I write well, but I never work at the craft, and rarely write anything original. If I were dedicated to writing, I’d do it more often, and think more about my sentences, and chart plots in my head, and listen for characters’ voices. Niall cranks out popular songs of the Irving Berlin/Cole Porter variety, good for revues, but he wishes he could write concertos, something that he perceives as worthwhile and lasting.

Celia’s problem would be a different one. People, finding her more sympathetic than either Niall or Maria, would pour out to her the story of their lives. “You have no idea what he does to me,” and she would find herself involved in another person’s troubles, her advice sought, her co-operation demanded, and it would be like a net closing round her from which there was no escape.

Celia, the youngest, product of both famous parents, the only legitimate child of the three, yet has no desire to follow them. She always wanted a family, so she spends her youth taking care of Pappy, as he declines into alcoholic old age. Her attention is always on other people; she draws well, and writes children’s stories to accompany the pictures. Her drawings capture her mother’s grace and her father’s emotive range, but without their drive to pursue Art. She has more pressing matters to attend to. Of the three, I find Celia the easiest to like, because she does care for ordinary people. Maria and Niall are too full of The Artist’s Vocation to notice or care about other people. I suppose they learned that from their parents.

And yet, whom do I identify with the most? The antagonist, the angry husband from the first chapter.

The movement from the armchair, as Charles changed his position and straightened out the sports page of the Sunday Times, should have warned them of irritation, but they took no notice.

This is me all over. If an actor is supposed to be so attuned to the use of the body and how it reveals character, why would they then ignore me, when my body language speaks so loudly? It was true with The Ex, and true with the guy I was seeing at the holidays. I guess they look long enough to figure out who I am, and then they stop. I’m not exactly mercurial, but nor is my interior life placid. I’m layered, like an onion, and I show more and more of myself as I build trust. Once you get past that first layer of silence, you can’t assume that you know me well enough to stop paying attention. Not if you want me to stick around.

“I will tell you what matters,” said Charles; “it matters to have principles, to have standards, to have ideals. It matters to have faith, and a belief. It matters very much if you love a woman, and a woman loves a man, and you marry, and you breed children, and you share each other’s lives, and you grow old together, and you lie buried in the same grave. It matters even more if the man loves the wrong woman, and the woman loves the wrong man, and the two come from different worlds that just won’t mix, that won’t turn into one world, belonging to both. Because when that happens, a man goes adrift and is lost, and his ideals and illusions and traditions get lost too. There is nothing much to live for any more. So he chucks his hand in. He says to himself: Why bother? The woman I love does not believe in any of the things that I believe in. Therefore, I may as well stop believing in them too. I also can lower standards.”

I’ve felt like this about the Midwest, including Texas. Texas and Illinois are not so different as Texans would have you think. I’m an East Coast guy; over there, I feel free, like it’s easy to find friends I have things in common with, like everything is possible. Here, I feel confined by the expectations of others. Back home, there are lots of different kinds of people, but here there are only two: Normal, which means moderately conservative straight-ticket Republican Christian; and Weird, which is everyone else. But while at my high school Goths and cowboys could be friends, here the Weird make the Normal really uncomfortable. I’d say this isn’t so much a Midwestern thing as a not-academia thing, but even when I was at the university in Illinois I had a hard time fitting in. My friends were a guy from Scranton PA and the local girl who had lived in Paris for several years. The Middies do their best to be kind, but I feel like I’m visiting a foreign country where they happen to speak the same language I do. You know, like Canada, but without the tundra.

To some extent, we create the world we live in; I’ve made some good connections here, primarily with students, but I’m thinking about The Ex. When we first got together, we seemed to inhabit the same world, but in time we built up in opposite directions. And this is where I feel like Charles; we both married the wrong woman. I shouldn’t have married a woman at all, honestly, but it was necessary for me to figure out that I’m not attracted to them. I went adrift and was lost, for what feels like a long time. I also lost the ideals and illusions and traditions, and now I’m working toward new ones. Charles goes directly toward another relationship, but I’ve been learning to do things alone. A month or two ago my son and I were both sick, and I told him how fortunate he was to have his mother to take care of him while I didn’t have anyone to do that, and he said, “Yes, you do, Dad. You have yourself.” And I’ve been pondering that, the fact that I complain about having no one to love and be loved by, but I have myself. And valuing myself and taking care of myself is important right now, because I don’t have anyone else. One day he will come, and I’ll stop singing “Someday My Prince Will Come” and “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along,” and I’ll enjoy the fact that he has. And this man I hope to meet deserves to be with a guy who has his shit together. So I’ll keep learning to be the guy that the guy I’ll love will love.

This thought isn’t really related to anything, and I don’t have anything really to say about it, but it struck me as beautiful:

They say that when we sleep our subconscious selves are revealed, our hidden thoughts and desires are written plain upon our features and our bodies like the tracings of rivers on a map; and no one reads them but the darkness.

As we near the end, as their memories catch up to the present moment, Charles confronts them with the question of whether they are or are not parasites. They evade the question, but I think it’s important to say it outright: No, they are not. Artists are not parasites (and the idea of Celia as a parasite doesn’t even bear considering – cf the Surplus Woman Question of the nineteenth century). The word parasites assumes that they feed on us, that without our applause they would die. It’s just not like that. These artists create for the sake of the Art itself. Niall despises the people who whistle his songs, and Maria only notices the audience as a collective entity. Ordinary people like Charles are just not interesting to them. If anyone matters, it’s the other artists. She acts to prove that she can, both to herself and to the other actors. He writes music because he must, and to please his lover and his sister. There are rare occasions when a story will affect me that way, but when you work sixty hours a week and have a tiny apartment full of children and a talkative wife, as I did for several years, you learn to block it out. But if The Words are coming back, I want to welcome them. I want to make time to write; I want to have the energy and attention to get things down in the evenings. If I can use words well, I want to use them to make my friends’ hearts glad, to make the world beautiful. There’s nothing parasitic about that.

No one questions the supremacy of Mr Dickens in the realm of the Victorian novel. Not only was he the most popular novelist, he made sure that ladies could read his stories without wandering outside the boundaries of respectability. Perhaps this is why I almost always mentally refer to him as Mr – there’s something about him that keeps me at a distance. No amount of biographical research has conquered this respectable lack of intimacy. Most of his contemporaries that we still read were not so cautious. Thackeray, for example, once tried to flirt with Charlotte Brontë by talking about the ‘naughty’ books they both wrote [She shut him down, of course, with absolutely no hesitation]. The lack of respectability doesn’t seem to have injured Brontë any, as she was second in popularity, and coming in at third was the fiercely antagonistic Wilkie Collins. He chafed at selling fewer books than a woman, but when all the reviews pan your books for their immorality (despite their commercial success), you have to face the consequences.

Collins’s career falls into three stages: before 1860, 1860-1870, and after 1870. The early novels were a bit shorter than we’re used to from the 1850s (think about the size of Bleak House, or Villette), and they rocked the boat a little. Collins likes to use characters who are traditionally excluded from society, as in Hide and Seek, where the heroine is deaf. That book also ends without a marriage; Collins creates a family without legal ties. The middle stage of his career is by far the most successful, and contains the two books that still get read in college courses. For Collins, 1860 means The Woman in White, the novel that launched his fame. He was so proud of it that he had it etched on his tombstone. Everyone’s favourite character from it, Marian Halcombe, received a number of marriage proposals, and I’ll admit to falling in love with her a little myself. Then there were No Name and Armadale, both fine novels. But everyone gets all het up over The Moonstone, which TSEliot once called the first, best, and longest British detective story. I tend to take issue with all of these superlatives, because there were clearly fictional detectives before 1868, some of them were longer (The Moonstone isn’t that long, compared to other books of its time), and I don’t find that it improves on rereading. Yes, I laugh at Miss Clack, yes, I identify with Ezra Jennings and Mr Murthwaite, but Gabriel Betteredge, Franklin Blake, and Rachel Verinder, the most prominent characters, fail to keep my attention. Once you know the secret, the book loses its interest. In 1870 Collins produced Man and Wife, which is like No Name and Armadale in being a perfectly fine Victorian novel overshadowed by the ones the academy pays more attention to. It marks the turning point in Collins’s career because the plot is obviously politically motivated. In the later part of his career Collins points out the absurdity of the complex marriage laws in the United Kingdom, by writing stories that illustrate the nonsensical points by which unethical men can contest their own marriages to unsuspecting ladies. They’re so painfully allegorical that they stop being believable. There are also some short stories that feel like truncated novels. The bright spot of the later career is The Law and the Lady, which features the first female detective. Valeria is out to clear her husband’s name, and deserves some attention for being a pregnant first-person narrator written in the 1870s. Seriously, sometimes fictional Victorian babies just pop out of nowhere.

Despite gendered comments on his rivalry with Brontë, Collins seems to have had a higher opinion of women than most people of his time.

You say I am driving you on to do what is beyond a woman’s courage. Am I? I might refer you to any collection of Trials, English or foreign, to show that you were utterly wrong. […] The woman was handsome, and the sailor was a good-natured man. He wanted, at first, if the lawyers would have allowed him, to let her off. He said to her, among other things, ‘You didn’t count on the drowned man coming back, alive and hearty, did you, ma’am?’ ‘It’s lucky for you,’ she said, ‘I didn’t count on it. You have escaped the sea, but you wouldn’t have escaped me.’ ‘Why, what would you have done, if you had known I was coming back?’ says the sailor. She looked him steadily in the face, and answered: ‘I would have killed you.’

Can you imagine such a passage in one of Mr Dickens’s? His female murderers, aside from being French, are generally not this chatty. They’ll do it, but they won’t go in front of a judge and affirm their willingness to commit a crime that they have not yet committed. To use a colloquial vulgarity, Collins’s women have balls. Big huge lady-balls. Most of them are in positions that no man of his time would have submitted to, but they survive and find ways to be happy. The efforts are often heroic, and sometimes almost superhuman.

But I don’t complain; I only mourn over the frailty of our common human nature. Let us expect as little of each other as possible, my dear; we are both women, and we can’t help it. I declare, when I reflect on the origin of our unfortunate sex – when I remember that we were all originally made of no better material than the rib of a man (and that rib of so little importance to its possessor that he never appears to have missed it afterwards), I am quite astonished at our virtues, and not in the least surprised at our faults.

Collins just can’t stand conventional people. His disdain of them is rather apparent in most of his novels; they have so few characters because his protagonists have to hate the run-of-the-mill as much as he does.

What had Allan seen in him to take such a fancy to? Allan had seen in him – what he didn’t see in people in general. He wasn’t like all the other fellows in the neighbourhood. All the other fellows were cut out on the same pattern. Every man of them was equally healthy, muscular, loud, hard-headed, clean-skinned, and rough; every man of them drank the same draughts of beer, smoked the same short pipes all day long, rode the best horse, shot over the best dog, and put the best bottle of wine in England on his table at night; every man of them sponged himself every morning in the same sort of tub of cold water, and bragged about it in frosty weather in the same sort of way; every man of them thought getting into debt a capital joke, and betting on horse-races one of the most meritorious actions that a human being can perform. They were no doubt excellent fellows in their way; but the worst of them was, they were all exactly alike. It was a perfect godsend to meet with a man like Midwinter – a man who was not cut out on the regular local pattern, and whose way in the world had the one great merit (in those parts) of being a way of his own.

Of course, such a man must fall in love with an unusual woman. Instead of the customary beautiful teenager full of airs and graces, Allan takes to Miss Milroy:

She was pretty; she was not pretty – she charmed, she disappointed, she charmed again. Tried by recognized line and rule, she was too short, and too well-developed for her age. And yet few men’s eyes would have wished her figure other than it was. Her hands were so prettily plump and dimpled, that it was hard to see how red they were with the blessed exuberance of youth and health. Her feet apologized gracefully for her old and ill-fitting shoes; and her shoulders made ample amends for the misdemeanor in muslin which covered them in the shape of a dress. Her dark grey eyes were lovely in their clear softness of colour, in their spirit, tenderness, and sweet good humour of expression; and her hair (where a shabby old garden hat allowed it to be seen) was of just that lighter shade of brown which gave value by contrast to the darker beauty of her eyes. But these attractions passed, the little attendant blemishes and imperfections of this self-contradictory girl began again. Her nose was too short, her mouth was too large, her face was too round, and too rosy. The dreadful justice of photography would have had no mercy on her, and the sculptors of classical Greece would have bowed her regretfully out of their studios. Admitting all this, and more, the girdle round Miss Milroy’s waist was the girdle of Venus, nevertheless – and the pass-key that opens the general heart was the key she carried, if ever a girl possessed it yet.

After all, Marian Halcombe, of the numerous marriage proposals above, is first introduced like this:

The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window—and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps—and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer—and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!

But Marian is so completely badass that you forget her physical defects because Collins shows you the person she really is. Her beautiful sister is rather empty-headed, even before the amnesia. Miss Milroy is unfortunately no Marian Halcombe. She can’t even support the name Eleanor; everyone calls her Neelie.

All that female badassery is concentrated in Lydia Gwilt. The novel may be titled Armadale, but it’s about her. The critics called her

One of the most hardened female villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened fiction

and she may deserve it.

There are five men in this novel named Allan Armadale. It works like this: AA1, a wealthy landowner with plantations in the Caribbean, had a son, AA2. AA2 was rather a disappointment, so he was disinherited in favor of a distant cousin, Allan Wrentmore. Wrentmore got everything, provided that he change his name to AA3. Of course he changed his name. He was really young, so when AA2 showed up under the name Fergus Ingleby, he gave him a position of trust despite all the warnings. Wrentmore’s mother wanted to separate them, so she wrote to one of her old admirers and proposed marrying her son to his daughter. Fergus used a nonlethal poison to keep Wrentmore out of the way long enough for him to take his place on the ship back to Europe and marry Miss Blanchard with his real name. Wrentmore figures out the identity theft and goes after them. He kills Fergus in the confusion of a shipwreck, but the guilt eats at him for the rest of his short life. The former Miss Blanchard gave birth to a son, AA4, and Wrentmore married a Creole woman who also gave birth to a son, AA5. As he’s dying, Wrentmore writes his son a letter warning him to stay clear of AA4 (Allan hereafter). AA5 has a terrible childhood with his stepfather, so he runs off and starts going by Ozias Midwinter. Midwinter knows the story, but Allan doesn’t. The secret of Midwinter’s real name is revealed only to Mr Brock, the clergyman who helped raise Allan, and Miss Gwilt.

Miss Gwilt seems to have been abandoned as a baby. She was picked up by a couple of con artists as an advertisement for their supposed hair tonics, but when the Blanchards showed some interest in her, the cons dumped her on their hands. When she was twelve, she was working as Miss Blanchard’s maid. There was some difficulty to be overcome when Miss B was marrying Fergus Ingleby/Allan Armadale, so the happy couple forced her to forge some letters for them. After the forgery and the marriage, they hid her in a French convent to keep her quiet. When she was seventeen, her music teacher committed suicide for love of her, so she was moved to another convent in Belgium. She nearly took the veil herself, but decided against it. She got involved with a different set of cons, and married one of their marks when the police busted their gig. He was abusive, and she fell in love with another guy, so she poisoned him. There was a well-publicized trial, and she was convicted. The public rose up in outrage, though, a beautiful woman who had been mistreated and all that Roxie Hart stuff, so she wasn’t punished. Celebrity trials worked pretty much the same then as they do now. Journalists can have as much influence on justice as the judges themselves. So she tries to hook up with her Cuban lover, but their marriage is invalid because he’s already married. He takes her money and leaves; she tries to kill herself, but one of the Blanchard men was (coincidentally) on the same ship she jumped out of, so he saves her. He gets a cold and dies – his other male relatives are in an avalanche on their way back for the funeral, so the Blanchard estate goes to Allan. Midwinter was briefly an usher in a school, but when he got sick he was fired, and wandered away until he turns up in Allan’s town, again by coincidence, and they become best friends.

For a while the novel is taken up with the struggle over fate or coincidence. How can all of these things have happened by accident? Then, Allan and Midwinter go for a boat ride one night (Allan was drunk and unmanageable), and they end up onboard the wreck of the ship where Wrentmore killed Fergus Ingleby. Allan has a series of prophetic dreams that may or may not warn him against getting close to Midwinter and Miss Gwilt. Midwinter becomes convinced that there’s a malevolent Fate that has brought Allan and him together to recreate the murder, even though they love each other. My gay heart leaps up when I read casual details, like Allan giving Midwinter a set of gold studs (do straight men give each other expensive jewelry? Not in my experience), or Midwinter’s closing affirmation on the last page of the book,

Your love and mine will never be divided again

So yeah, you could read them as gay before that existed as a cultural concept. They do fall in love with women, but that’s secondary to their interest in each other. The middle of the novel gets mired in the circumstantial evidence necessary to debate the existence of accidental coincidences – the introduction of Mrs Milroy perks things up for a while, but they slow down again, until halfway through Book Four we start reading Miss Gwilt’s diary and the character of the novel changes.

Miss Gwilt initially schemes to marry Allan, but she hates him. She falls in love with his friend instead. Her love for Midwinter changes her in some significant ways.

I have seen handsomer men by hundreds, cleverer men by hundreds. What can this man have roused in me? Is it Love? I thought I had loved, never to love again. Does a woman not love, when the man’s hardness to her drives her to drown herself? A man drove me to that last despair in days gone by. Did all my misery at that time come from something which was not Love? Have I lived to be five and thirty, and am I only feeling now, what Love really is? – now, when it is too late?

Hardly the monologue of a hardened villain, but Miss Gwilt is more complex than that. One of my frustrations with Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon is that it’s the classic Gothic story told from the point of view of the villain, but Thackeray’s villain is no more nuanced than those of Ann Radcliffe. Miss Gwilt is not your average villain, and I don’t mean that because she’s more evil than the rest, but because she’s a lot more subtly drawn than they are. There’s no motiveless malice; she’s abused and depressed, and her society has left her with very few alternatives.

Poor dear Midwinter! Yes, ‘dear’. I don’t care. I’m lonely and helpless. I want somebody who is gentle and loving, to make much of me; I wish I had his head on my bosom again; I have a good mind to go to London, and marry him. Am I mad? Yes; all people who are as miserable as I am, are mad. I must go to the window and get some air. Shall I jump out? No; it disfigures one so, and the coroner’s inquest lets so many people see it.

I know that I’ve been going on for quite a while now, but Victorian novels lead me into tangled wildernesses of thought from which it is difficult to extricate myself. I just have one more thing to talk about, so hang on just a little longer.

This novel gives a close look at a marriage, and it’s rather similar to what mine became. The ex was like a lot of conservative Christians:

In the miserable monotony of the lives led by a large section of the middle classes of England, anything is welcome to the women which offers them any sort of harmless refuge from the established tyranny of the principle that all human happiness begins and ends at home.

She saw her job, her mission in life, as taking care of her children. Just that. She got out of the house when we had only one, but after the second came, she only left the house when necessary. She had a couple of friends whom she could neglect for months at a time without offending, but she confined her daily life to her family. She ended up centering all her hope of adult interaction on me. I may have mentioned this before, but I’m a shy person who doesn’t like spending all of his time interacting with people. But as a teacher, that’s my job, so I’d talk to people all day long, and then I’d look forward to coming home where I could just be quiet. We had very different ideas about how I’d spend my time.

It is not in his nature to inflict suffering on others. Not a hard word, not a hard look, escapes him. It is only at night, when I hear him sighing in his sleep; and sometimes when I see him dreaming, in the morning hours, that I know how hopelessly I am losing the love he once felt for me. He hides, or tries to hide it, in the day, for my sake. He is all gentleness, all kindness – but his heart is not on his lips, when he kisses me now; his hand tells me nothing when it touches mine. Day after day, the hours that he gives to his hateful writing grow longer and longer; day after day, he becomes more and more silent, in the hours that he gives to Me.

The ex used to say that while I could make any sort of sacrifice of money and possessions for her and the boys, I was extremely selfish with my time. Maybe she was right, but I find that I need time alone in order to be able to handle being around people, even people I love. I get too much alone time now, but back then I never got any. I’d get home from work after the kids were in bed, and she’d want to spend time with me. All I wanted to do was eat my cold dinner and go to sleep. It may have been the introversion, or it may have been the homosexuality, but at the end of our time together I couldn’t stand her touching me. I just wanted to be left alone. Then the baby would lie between us perpendicularly and kick me in the face half the night, and the middle boy would wake himself up at 4:30 so that he could see me before I left for work in the morning. I didn’t leave until 6:45, so having another hour to sleep would have been really nice, but not going to happen when a two-year-old wants his breakfast.

These days I feel like Lydia Gwilt. I want someone gentle and loving to make much of me; I want to rediscover what it feels like to fall in love when I’m thirty-five. However, I’ve been in a relationship where I’m everything to the other person, and I don’t want that again. I want to be with someone who has interests outside of me – other friends, hobbies I’m not interested in, activities to pursue that leave me time to be alone. I’m finding the ability to set boundaries extremely sexy.

One last thing, and then I promise to stop. The last chapter, the one with The Purple Flask, is one of the most emotionally intense reading experiences I’ve ever had. The effect is not diminished with time or repetition. You see, Midwinter’s idea of fate is always negative, and coincidence is neutral. The novelist seems out to prove that you can interpret the events of your life to mean that there is a positive supernatural force guiding our lives, one that’s interested in using Midwinter to save Allan’s life, and ultimately, even in redeeming Lydia Gwilt. Christianity might be full of hypocrisy (evangelical churches and theatres blend into each other in this book), but that doesn’t mean that atheism is the only alternative.

This volume has three short pieces, each fifty or sixty pages in length, so they fall right on that line between short story and novel. Maybe they’re short novels, maybe novellas, maybe there’s no need to classify them based on length. It also reminded me of the buyer-beware aspect of used bookshops, since every page from 137 to 162 is torn neatly across from the edge into the binding [proof that it didn’t come from my two favourite shops, since they have such high standards that they always refuse around half the books I try to trade in]. The tears start close to the bottom of the page and move progressively upward, as if someone was trying to rip the book in frustration but got a bit twisted up. But nothing is missing, so after reading, I don’t think there’s any reason to be so angry at this little book. Porter’s delightful.

OLD MORTALITY

The story begins with a portrait of an ideal, Aunt Amy, and the two little girls who grow up in her shadow. Throughout their lives, everyone is compared unfavourably with the deceased Aunt Amy, who was apparently more beautiful, more charming, and more daring than any other woman anyone had ever known. In an era when women’s actions were carefully guarded, Amy did whatever she liked, bugger the consequences. She could bat her eyelashes and smile her way through nearly any situation, and when her brother shot at (or possibly just shot) a man to protect her honour and had to move to Mexico for a year, he was happy to go on an adventure for her. There are worse places than Mexico during the Old West for a Texan who’s just committed a violent crime on his sister’s behalf. There are some people who can get away with stuff and become legend while the rest of us learn to behave. My older sister was one, and I suspect that my middle son is becoming one. I was not – too much conscience, too little popularity. Examples: as a teenager, my sister once locked all of the adults at her summer camp in their cabin, and my son sang several verses of “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” in McDonald’s when he was three years old.

And what happens when we meet the stuff of legend?

They had just turned their dollars over to the bookmaker for the fourth race when a vast bulging man with a red face and immense tan ragged mustaches fading into gray hailed them from a lower level of the grandstand, over the heads of the crowd, “Hey, there, Harry?” Father said, “Bless my soul, there’s Gabriel.” He motioned to the man, who came pushing his way heavily up the shallow steps. Maria and Miranda stared, first at him, then at each other. “Can that be our Uncle Gabriel?” their eyes asked. “Is that Aunt Amy’s handsome romantic beau? Is that the man who wrote the poem about our Aunt Amy?” Oh, what did grown-up people mean when they talked, anyway?

He was a shabby fat man with bloodshot blue eyes, sad beaten eyes, and a big melancholy laugh, like a groan. […] Miranda and Maria, disheartened by the odds, by their first sight of their romantic Uncle Gabriel, whose language was so coarse, sat listlessly without watching, their chances missed, their dollars gone, their hearts sore.

Like so many stories from the 1930s, this is a story of losing faith in ideals. We build up hopes and dreams, a Technicolor Oz of the imagination, only to wake up in gray Kansas. When Miranda follows in Amy’s footsteps, the family that laughed over the aunt condemns the niece. So. Not so ideal after all.

NOON WINE

I find I don’t have much to say on this story, probably because it addresses one of the issues that is most emotionally laden for me – mental illness. There are aberrations on both sides of my family, and one of my deepest fears is that I’m going to stop perceiving reality accurately. When I was religious, I was into mystic experiences, seeing visions, hearing voices, and so forth. When I think of my life then, I’m relieved that I don’t hallucinate any more, and that I no longer feel like I ought to. Leaving off the delusions of grandeur relieves a lot of pressure, too. But if I were to have a traumatic experience like that of Mr Thompson, I wonder even now if I would do any better at keeping track of what is happening, whose hands are doing what, and what degree of responsibility I have for actions that turn out to be mine.

And what clue do we have of insanity? Silence. Mr Helton doesn’t say much. I don’t say much. The extreme verbosity on this blog is a way of compensating for the extreme silence in my non-virtual life. I seldom talk much, unless I am (a) in front of a classroom, (b) drunk, or (c) with people I know well, or more accurately, with people whom I feel know me well. Mr Helton’s silence seems perfectly natural to me without explaining it with madness; indeed, the behaviour of most mad characters in literature seems normal to me until the author tells me they are mad. Which is one of the reasons that I worry.

PALE HORSE, PALE RIDER

Whenever I realize that a story is set in 1918 and a character begins to catch a cold, my heart quails within me. There are some implications that this is our old friend Miranda from Old Mortality, now in her mid-20s and surrounded by bored soldiers and busy newspapermen. This is primarily the story of Miranda’s delirium, with some moments of lucidity. It reminds me of the Porter story I used to teach, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall,” though the titular Granny declines steadily instead of by fits and starts. She also doesn’t seem to realize how quickly she’s dying, while Miranda expects and welcomes death. An influenza patient in love with a soldier during a war; of course she’s reconciled herself to the coming death.

Miranda sighed, and lay back on the pillow and thought, I must give up, I can’t hold out any longer. There was only that pain, only that room, and only Adam. There were no longer any multiple planes of living, no tough filaments of memory and hope pulling taut backwards and forwards holding her upright between them. There was only this one moment and it was a dream of time, and Adam’s face, very near hers, eyes still and intent, was a shadow, and there was to be nothing more. . . .

“Adam,” she said out of the heavy soft darkness that drew her down, down, “I love you, and I was hoping you would say that to me, too.”

He lay down beside her with his arm under her shoulder, and pressed his smooth face against hers, his mouth moved towards her mouth and stopped. “Can you hear what I am saying? . . . What do you think I have been trying to tell you all this time?”

For Porter, illness and death isolate us slowly, putting a gradual yet firm distance between the sufferer and humanity. It’s like when you’re trying desperately to stay awake but not quite succeeding, so bits of current sensory information mix with the coinages of the unconscious mind, all in a briary tangle of reality and dream-logic. Disorienting because you don’t know you’re dreaming and it’s just real enough to be utterly convincing.

I once asked a class if they didn’t think Granny Weatherall was a hoot, and they looked back at me in gaping silence until someone said, “But she dies at the end.” I replied, “Yes, but before that?” A story is more than its ending. The end can give a clue to an overall meaning, but the joy of the story is seldom concentrated there (it is in Catch-22, a few hundred pages of stagnation followed by five pages of unbridled joy, but that book is hardly representative). The joy is in the telling; it’s in the language, the moments, everything that makes up the middle. That’s where the important stuff is. That’s why there’s more of it.

So, to me, it doesn’t matter so much if Miranda lives or dies of influenza, if Adam survives the war or gets blown up by a mine, or even if he snatches Miranda’s influenza death from her like the sacrificial lamb she compares him to. For me, it’s a story of hating the war and narrating delirium in a stream of consciousness like Esther Summerson or Quentin Compson. People called it The Great War, but it’s not like it solved that much. This story is set in 1918 at the end of the war, first published in 1939 as the world was moving into the next great war, and this paperback was published in 1962, around the time we were not starting a great war over Cuba.

My grandfather did some very brave things in World War II, but without killing anyone, so he feels a little effete when his friends in the nursing home talk about their experiences. My father spent his war in Thailand, working on the radio most of the time and spending the rest of the war hauling his fellow soldiers out of prostitutes’ beds so they could do their work. After seeing a touring production of Miss Saigon, he spent the rest of the night in tears. And me? I don’t have a war. I don’t feel the lack of one either. I don’t doubt the possibility of there being another world war in my lifetime, I could be around for another forty years, but I’m far too much of a pacifist actually to get involved. And when I hear my students tell me about how they can’t quite get their brains to work right ever since they drove over that IED in Fallujah, I’m grateful that I have a disposition for peace. I also don’t mind having a president whose war record consists of caring for those who survived. I’d rather have someone leading a war who has a clear memory of lost limbs and fractured minds than someone whose mind was fractured and is still caught up in jingoistic rhetoric about the glory of war. There’s no glory. Just confusion, a fog of delirium in which people die. Kind of like an influenza epidemic.

So, three little stories about death, disillusionment, conflicts that cannot be resolved, and being Texan between 1885 and 1919. I suppose the volume is rather sad, but this too is life. None of us can expect an unbroken chain of affirmations; sometimes we have to let the ideal die and accept the world as it is, in which forces beyond our control shatter our dreams and leave us abandoned and dispossessed. But life is still worth living, and hope still flutters its fragile wings. I believe there are bright futures and new dreams to be had, despite the passing crepuscular present.