Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Sometimes reading a book reminds us of a friend so forcibly that we read the whole thing smiling.

Don’t worry that you’ve never heard of this book. It seems few have. The author published it about five years ago, and her only previous publication on Amazon is a book of poems from fifteen years prior. I enjoyed it rather a lot, so the fact that she doesn’t put something out every other year should be no deterrent. I rather like the idea of a novelist who doesn’t approach writing like a nine-to-five job. I’m not opposed to a slow, reticent muse.

This book is very similar to the picaresque adventures of Smollett and Fielding, which I suppose links them to Gil Blas and Don Quixote as well. Gabriella Mondini is a doctor in Venice in 1590. Trained by her father, of course, because how else would a woman get such an education in the sixteenth century? It turns out that many of the women in Venice prefer a woman as a doctor, a preference I fully understand, so she’s actually fairly successful. Unfortunately, the physicians’ guild is a jealous set, and they expel her from their ranks. It’s sort of fortunate, because ten years before her father had gone on a journey, and he recently wrote that he will not return. The Dottoressa’s goal, then is to travel across Europe in search of her father, in an effort to keep him from disappearing from her life.

The other goal is to finish the book. Her father began writing The Book of Diseases, a compendium of his lifetime of learning about medicine, but he is too disorganized to bring it to completion, so Gabriella has taken this task on as well. Many of the diseases sound more poetical or mythical than real, as are the cures, but if you look past the Renaissance point of view, she’s dealing with a variety of mental illnesses that happen in women who are constrained by the Renaissance point of view. The systematic and extreme thwarting of self-direction of half the population is going to throw society out of balance, and the thwarted individuals as well.

But one dank January, she would not return to us. Every afternoon for a month I visited Messalina, spoke to her, touched her arm or hand, but she didn’t respond. Once, in a moment of weakness, I confided to my friend an unforeseen yearning for other parts of the world. I confess that her silence encouraged me, and I began to work out my plans in the presence of her fixed demeanor. Other times I hoped that my schemes would draw her into my own imaginings or that my discontent would distract her from her own. But it became clear that I wasn’t helping her to recover. She was always seated at the window, her chin resting upon one solemn fist, her eyes blankly measuring nothing.

It seems that in literature, journeys always entail loss. This may be an American tradition – I’m thinking of Captain Ahab and the Bundrens – but often, we read about journeys, the characters lose whatever they brought with them. If the journey is a metaphor for life, then I guess we get filled full of garbage as children that we have to get rid of as adults. The journey is about losing tools, losing friends, until all the traveler has is her own body, which she has to disguise as a man to avoid being robbed, raped, or locked in a convent. Sometimes things come back, sometimes lovers come back, but those moments of joy cannot be expected or anticipated. Sometimes reunions are not as sweet as we had hoped.

The state of medicine in sixteenth century Europe is unrecognizable as medicine today. Part of it seems like sadism, forcing the patient to vomit, bleed, or defecate, and another part of it seems like magic, with rituals involving the position of the moon. The third bit is something we can hang onto, plant cures. Roots, herbs, flowers, many of the parts of plants can be used to cure diseases in humans and animals.

Though rue may be employed internally as a remedy for many ailments, among them headache, colic, and women’s lunar pains, and externally for gout, chilblains, and bruises, the water of rue is marvelous for sight and second sight. Writers, engravers, and artists relish the fresh herb with watercress and brown bread. Dabble the water around the eyes to settle murky vision and to summon foreknowledge in all things. The herb of sorrow is thus also the herb of grace, for the future already repents of its errors. Some also claim that rue repels plague, biting chiggers, and curses. The evil eye squints from the scent of rue.

And this is what her father’s ten-year journey was about, as well as her own training: finding a cure for his own mental illness. I’m not qualified to diagnose her father’s trouble, but he eventually lost all sense of his own identity and ended up a raving lunatic locked in a barn in Morocco. If she had known where he was, she could have skipped traveling through northern Europe in the middle of winter and she might have been able to help him before he needed locking up. But there are other things she would have missed, like the conception of her own child with a handsome Scotsman.

It may seem odd that there are no repercussions for conceiving a child out of wedlock, but people were more relaxed about things than they are now. People have become so polarized in their opinions that it’s hard for many to deal with someone whose life looks different than theirs. O’Melveny may be romanticizing or imagining the past differently than it was, but I really don’t have a problem with that. I do it often enough myself.

One of the reasons I was looking forward to going back to school was for the availability of mental health services, but now I have some anxiety about going to set an appointment. But I was meeting with my kids yesterday, and my eldest wanted to show me some of the things he’s learning in a martial arts elective at school, and it threw me off my internal balance like I was going back to PTSD-land, like I was in Texas. Maybe I do need to go looking for a cure to my own madness.

This book isn’t going to set the Thames on fire, but it’s good. There are so many feminist novels these days that it seems another one could get lost in the crowd, and that may be what happened to this one. But the book deserves to be read and loved, and not only by me.

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This novel was originally published in 1980, and the quotes on the cover are all about how Graham Swift is the literary novelist of the decade. And to some extent, they’re right. His book fits all the conventions for the literary novel of his time. It felt like something I’d read before, even though I’ve never read anything of his before, because there’s nothing to mark it as different or distinctive. It’s the same literary novel that people have been writing since the mid-1970s.

We meet Willy Chapman on the last day of his life. He knows that it is, and there are almost constant references to this fact, even though it’s never explicitly stated. Because it’s his last day, he tries to make it both completely normal and a form of leave-taking, so of course he fails. People catch on to the fact that something’s weird, but they don’t know what.

But of course this isn’t the real story. The real story is his life, told in a series of flashbacks, sometimes in order, sometimes not.

Past the winning post, round the first bend, the shadows on the grass swivelling round mockingly in front of them. Barely half the race run, but already – you can sense it – they are getting lost in their struggles. A grimness setting in. They don’t notice the wails of the crowd or the encouragement of the figures clustered round the winning post and the judge’s desk – sports masters, house monitors in blazers and flannels, Mr Hill, bending over the track, waving what seems a threatening fist as they approach; the clock-tower, the spire. Don’t they see, the secret is not to think of the race? But they notice only the endless dark circuit of the track. A grimness. The crowd senses it. The cheering changes tone. They like a battle.

This is written close to the end, but it’s from one of the earlier scenes. Chapman was a high-school track star in 1931, where he realized that for most people life becomes a constant struggle, a battle that never ends. Until it does. People like that; they enjoy watching the fight. But that’s not what Chapman lives for. He wins the race by thinking of the encouragement, or the crowd, or anything but the struggle, the difficulty of filling lungs while moving too fast for the air to be drawn in naturally, the ache of tiring muscles, and the inevitable slowing. Chapman hangs back until the last lap, then races past for the win. His primary opponent, Jack Harrison, pushes himself to be faster than everyone else, and finally comes in second.

Irene Harrison is a reasonably nice girl from a wealthy family. They run a chain of laundries, I think all in London. Her parents pick a suitor from a similarly ‘good’ family with a ‘good’ future, so of course he date-rapes her. They insist she go out with him again, and he does it again. The family had drummed her head full of all this nonsense about feminine purity, so premarital sex kind of destroys her. She ends up going to a mental institution for a few weeks, but that only keeps her from acting out. It doesn’t heal anything.

Literature from this time seems to require a rape, or an abortion (either unwanted and forced or wanted and denied), or both. It’s like the fiction of the twentieth century is fueled by trauma inflicted on women. Thinking about it this morning, it’s like the last century went along steadily denying people the comfort of traditional gender definitions. The wars became so obscene that men doubted their masculinity simply because they refused to lose their humanity. I hate the fact that masculinity is so often defined by violence – not only because it destabilizes the gender identity of men who like peace, but mainly because it leads men to perform acts of violence simply to understand who they are. Defining masculinity through violence means that every man needs a victim, usually a woman or a child. Drawing our attention to toxic masculinity is important, but it’s most helpful to pair it with the nontoxic variety. Pointing out toxic masculinity without providing an alternative expression of male gender identity has the tendency to normalize the unhealthy attitudes. “Don’t rape women” is a fantastic rule, but we also need “Do treat women with respect, as you would any other equal.” Provide Do’s for all the Don’t’s to avoid creating a behavior vacuum, that people will then fill with other forms of bad behavior.

Chapman is sort of like the good example – the rapist and the girl’s brothers treat him like a patsy, just like in all those eighteenth-century novels where the cast-off mistress is married to a sidekick or lesser hero. But really, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with marrying a girl whose hymen is already broken, or even understand why everyone is laughing behind their hands at him. She’s pretty, he likes her, she tolerates him, so what else matters?

Throughout the book, they talk about their deal. Irene is marrying Willy because she thinks he’s the only one who will have her. He’s not her equal, either socially or intellectually. Handsome, athletic, and malleable, yes. Willy is marrying her because she’s amazing: beautiful, rich, smart. They never talk about their deal, but it runs something like this. Irene can offer Willy everything he wants except love, so he won’t bother her with that. They’ll go through the forms of marriage without ever offering or eliciting the word Love.

When they marry, he’s a lower employee in a printer’s office. His hands are almost permanently dyed black with newsprint. She buys him a newsstand so that he can own his own business, though he leans more toward offering the candy and marketing to children than focusing on the papers. Eventually he also starts selling toys, and expands to a second location. Professionally, Willy Chapman is very successful. Unfortunately, before he opens for the first time, as he’s hanging the new sign, he falls off the ladder and breaks his leg. Due to the state of medicine in 1938, this is a life-changing accident. Now, a man in his 20s can break a leg and heal without it materially affecting his movements a year later. Chapman gets a permanent limp. You could read the runner’s sudden inability even to walk comfortably as a castration, but again, it doesn’t seem to bother him too much. Or at least, his feelings aren’t important enough to dwell on.

There’s a lot of talk about World War II, but they get through it without too much trouble. He works in the quartermaster’s, and she goes to live in the country for a while, but then comes back and gets a job (pointedly not working for her father). It seems to be a theme in the British literature around World War II – just keep buggering on. Irene’s brother, the runner, dies, but she’s not that sorry to have one fewer family member to boss her around, disrespect her husband, and gaslight her.

Then there’s Dorothy. Part of the deal, what Willy and Irene give to each other, is a child. Just one. He loves children, but he’s working all the time, so Dorry is really Irene’s daughter, imbued with all of her mother’s values and faults. She’s the classic baby-boomer, as seen in the early 1970s – entitled, rude, rebellious, ungrateful. So, sort of how the baby-boomers see the millennials. Takes one to know one, I guess. Swift himself was born the same year as his character, so I want to see him identifying with her, but I never found her all that sympathetic. He seems to be celebrating his parents’ generation and partially condemning his own.

I’m tempted to discuss the differences in values in terms of gender, but it is probably more accurate to frame the discussion around class. Willy Chapman has little in common with the family he marries into, and we see it most clearly in his interactions with his wife and daughter. He’s from a working class background, and pushed his way to the lower middle before marrying a girl from the upper middle. This being the twentieth century, there are no titles, but the Harrisons are definitely gentry while Chapman would normally be permitted to shine their shoes for a nickel if he washed his hands first. Remembering the emphasis on feminine purity, Irene inherited a great deal of money from her mother, who got it when her brothers died. It’s sort of like the payment she receives for holding herself together and marrying someone the family can tolerate. She’s being paid for not going too far off the rails – or in other words, for letting her rapist get away with it, for staying silent and accepting injustice. She invests some of the money in dish sets, china that will keep its value (she insists). When she dies, it seems logical that the fifteen thousand pounds should go straight to Dorothy, but the new generation isn’t into purity. She’s been living with a fellow student without marrying him, and the sense of social outrage is too much. No inheritance from her dead mother. She’s furious, of course, and comes around to take the china, which makes Chapman very sad. He hates the idea that his daughter is so obsessed with the money – he’s not seeing it as a symbol of familial acceptance, an acknowledgment of worth. Eventually he does write her the check (it’s not like anyone else in her family is still around to care), even though he doesn’t understand why it’s so important to her. She’s going to inherit when he dies anyway, but I think he wanted her to know that he’s giving it to her of his own free will, not as a default.

Contrast that with Chapman’s work, selling newspapers and candy.

Memorials. They don’t matter. They don’t belong to us. They are only things we leave behind so we can vanish safely. Disguises to set us free. That’s why I built my own memorial so compliantly – the one she allotted me, down there in the High Street. A memorial of trifles, useless things.

Newspapers are, by their very nature, disposable. I’m always sad when I hear of people who hoard the papers, because they lose their value very quickly. I don’t mean their financial value, I mean their use value. What good is last year’s newspaper? If you buy them daily, what use is it to keep one from last month? I’ve heard that one of my father’s sisters (he has two, I’ve never met either) is one of these, and it’s sad. The trajectory of my life has been away from physical possessions, toward finding my sense of permanency within myself. Wandering through a house with floor-to-ceiling stacks of newsprint is not how I want to pass my old age, nor how I think anyone should. For the Harrisons, the newsstand is kind of a Fuck you, you don’t deserve anything permanent; for Chapman, it’s also kind of a Fuck you, I’m devoting my life to the transient, disposable things of life, not your lasting value.

And none of it – that was the beauty of it – was either useful or permanent.

The irony is that in the end, they live on Chapman’s business and not his wife’s family or inheritance. The Harrisons wither and collapse while Willy’s business expands. He assumes that Dorothy will sell the business after he dies, but he’s really built something that the most mercenary of materialists would be proud to have, despite his celebration of the temporary.

The thing that really struck me about this book, aside from seeing a valorization of my own principles, is the way that the world shrinks. He’s in London, one of the most exciting cities on the planet, but his world consists of his house, his shop, and the road he drives to get between them. It’s not even a very long road. There’s a lot more to the city than he ever sees; a lot more to England, a lot more to Planet Earth, but he tightens his gaze to a handful of buildings and a few short streets. Having traveled as much as I have, I don’t understand it. I can’t comprehend the type of fortitude and courage it takes to live according to the same routine in the same narrow orbit for thirty years. I haven’t been able to manage it for three. My life has taken me around a continent and onto three more, but Chapman’s life is circumscribed within a few miles. I’m not even sure I want to understand.

Is Graham Swift going to be studied in literature classes in fifty years as a preeminent British novelist of the late twentieth century? I don’t know. I’m inclined to say not, because there’s nothing really too experimental, nothing to grab the eye. Will I remember this book in six months? I’m not sure. Like Willy Chapman, the book itself is like a small pebble dropped in a large pond, that makes a ripple or two and then is lost. Within reach, but not important enough to retrieve.

 

When you find your seat you glance at the businessman sitting next to you and decide he’s almost handsome. This is the second leg of your trip from Miami to Casablanca, and the distance traveled already has muted the horror of the last two months. What’s to stop you from having a conversation with this man, possibly even ordering two vodka tonics with the little lemon wedges that the flight attendant will place into your plastic cups with silver tongs? He’s around your age, thirty-three, and, like you, appears to be traveling alone. He has two newspapers in his lap, one in Arabic, and the other in English. If you get along well enough, you could enjoy a meal together once you get to Casablanca. You’ll go to dinner and you’ll sit on plush, embroidered pillows and eat couscous with your hands. Afterwards, you’ll pass by the strange geometry of an unknown skyline as you make your way back to one of your hotels. Isn’t this what people do when they’re alone and abroad?

But as you get settled into your seat next to this businessman he tells you he plans to sleep the entire flight to Casablanca. Then, with a considerable and embarrassing amount of effort he inflates a neck pillow with his thin lips, places a small pill on his outstretched tongue, and turns away from you and toward the oval window, the shade of which has already been shut.

Thus begins a book about disappointments, betrayal, and starting over. The entire book is told in the second person, so the protagonist is always this ‘you’, and while I understand that this can be an effective rhetorical strategy to make the audience empathize with the protagonist, it came out as false and forced to me, because she is constantly making choices that I wouldn’t. It took me a long time to read this book, much longer than it should have because it’s so short, because of the cognitive dissonance between me and her.

But really, my biggest problem with the book is that it ends too quickly. A number of events happen to shatter her sense of identity (we never do learn her name), but she doesn’t create a new sense of herself as a whole person. She has one big scene where she cries over the people she’s lost, but that only moves her from Denial to Anger. There’s no healing; she just keeps running, inventing false identities, jumping on whatever is going to get her through the next ten minutes. At the end, the author makes it clear that she’s really looking for herself, the self that she has lost, but she just runs again. She doesn’t reach any stability or honesty; nothing is resolved. The stakes actually get smaller and smaller as the book goes on, the opposite of the usual trajectory, so that her last change of identity is simply to avoid social embarrassment in front of a group of total strangers, people she has never seen before and will never see again, except for the one person who knows her trauma and would be sympathetic. So maybe she doesn’t get out of Denial after all.

People going on vacation really need to take some time to think and plan it out. If you’re going to Casablanca, watch the movie and see what it’s like: a rat’s nest of criminal activity that no one wants to be in. I’m sure that there are lovely bits in the city, and some really nice people, but when the guidebook says that the first thing to do when you arrive in Casablanca is to leave, maybe it’s best not to go there at all.

As part of the whole identity shift, she spends a good part of the middle of the book working as a stand-in for a famous American actress (also unnamed). Things seem good here at first, but she starts to be too good, and the director tells the famous actress to take some notes from the stand-in, and that is problematic. The actress also sends her on a date with a wealthy Russian that she wants to distance herself from, but the girl is more successful than she is with him as well, and some photographers get shots of her drunk and falling over, and of course they assume she’s the actress. Role reversal at work plus tabloid smack equals no more job. But it’s while she’s acting, doing a scene in a big mosque, that protagonist lets go of her tears and is finally able to admit to herself what happened. Acting can be a means of self-revelation, even revealing the self to the self, finding bits of you that you were hiding from. I don’t think I was very good at it – I had the desire to be someone else that so many teenage amateur actors have, but I didn’t have the self-knowledge to portray feelings appropriately. If you don’t know what you’re feeling, you can’t display feelings well. Also, I was too tightly self-controlled to emote much in my daily life, and that makes it hard to do it on a stage. Subtleties can be hard to read at that distance.

Life is hard. But sometimes we make choices that make it harder, and this protagonist just keeps making things difficult for herself. We never see her actually pay for her bad choices because she never has a moment where the choices in the book catch up to her. She has the one moment where she faces her trauma, but then she goes right back to running away from the consequences of her decisions, and that makes it really hard for me to identify with her, or even like her.

If you’re fond of books that imply that the best way to deal with trauma is to keep lying and keep running, and if you are about to get caught then lie and run some more, then this is the one for you. If you’re looking for a book that involves learning to deal with trauma in healthy ways, then stay away. There is so much poor mental health here, and very little healing.

I don’t know what business I have buying a small collection of Bradbury stories when I have an omnibus collection of all his stories. And yet, here I am.

bradbury

Bradbury seems best known for The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, and this collection is pretty much in the same vein. There are a couple of stories about humans moving to Mars, a few about the distant future, the ocean, immigration, and other things.

The title story is about crank cures in the Middle Ages. A girl is wasting away from a mysterious illness, and after attempting various treatments, is cured by a night of passionate love, so the title of the book means Sex. Maybe a little scandalous in the 1950s, but less so now.

Bradbury’s Martian stories can have different foci, but these are centered on the way we respond to unfamiliar environments. As a foreign traveler, they make a lot of sense to me. In “The Strawberry Window,” a family needs the comfort of familiar objects, so the father blows all their savings on shipping the front porch steps and other things from home. In “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed,” the people gradually become the foreigners they were afraid of. These concepts are accurate in my experience. For me, it’s not the porch steps or the wind chimes that help me feel safe and comfortable – it’s my books. I had nearly an entire suitcase of books that I brought with me, and even if I didn’t read them, just having them near me helped me feel more like myself. And then, human beings are remarkable plastic, so contact with foreign cultures and environments changes us. Like the colonists, we begin to use the native names of places, and then other verbal habits of the natives, and while we don’t change eye color and body type, we seem to come to belong to a place, even if it’s not where we want to be. The melancholy can become part of our character; it seems to belong to us, or to the place; the sadness is the correspondence between ourselves and our environment. We need to belong so fiercely that even depression can bind us together.

Despite his apparent sympathy for immigrants, Bradbury’s stories about Ireland seem intent on perpetuating the stereotype of a nation of oddly canny, yet unworldly and innocent, drunkards. They’re a little unfortunate.

The beach can be a strange place. I know that beaches are quite popular, but they don’t draw me as strongly as they seem to other people. I’m happier in the mountains – all that open space can make me agoraphobic. Bradbury was from the Midwest, so it must have been new and marvelous to him. In “In a Season of Calm Weather,” a tourist sees a retired Picasso drawing something large and fantastic in the sand with a discarded ice cream stick. As with so many things, it is beautiful and overwhelming and temporary, washed away with the tide. “The Shore Line at Sunset” is about a mermaid washing up. As is ever the case in such stories, one man wants to make money by selling her to a university or a traveling show, and the other man wants to let her go and be free and beautiful in her natural home. Because this is Bradbury, the fantastic and imaginative wins.

These are short little stories, pleasant to read and easily got through in ten or fifteen minutes, emblematic of their time, the hope, the conformity, the unreality, the fear. Some of his stories can be threatening or scary, but I didn’t find any of that here. Nice little stories.

BILLY BUDD

Billy Budd is sort of a gay Christian allegory. The Christian part is fairly obvious – Budd is falsely accused of mutiny and accidentally kills his accuser, a superior officer. Even though that officer was the only man on ship who wasn’t openly in love with Billy Budd, the captain has to kill him to maintain law and order.

And yes, it’s quite gay.

When Claggart’s unobserved glance happened to light on belted Billy rolling along the upper gun deck in the leisure of the second dog watch, exchanging passing broadsides of fun with other young promenaders in the crowd, that glance would follow the cheerful sea-Hyperion with a settled meditative and melancholy expression, his eyes strangely suffused with incipient feverish tears. Then would Claggart look like the man of sorrows. Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.

This short novel wasn’t published in Melville’s lifetime, and it was written toward the end of his life, forty years after Moby-Dick. The big whale book has some clearly homosexual passages, and here Melville just drags it into the fore. The only “ban” against Claggart loving Billy is society’s ban against homosexual behavior, and in single-sex environments like a warship that ban is a little relaxed. After all, there’s an older Dansker who calls Billy “Baby,” and Melville just says that it’s for “some recondite reason.” Even casting my imagination back to 1891, when the story was written, or to 1797, when the story is set, trying to reason that there’s a nonsexual yet secret reason to call a grown man Baby is kind of complex.

Baby Budd is a great Christ figure, and after the book was first published in 1924 there was a rash of Christ figures in American literature. The classic elements are derived from him – blond, innocent, acting spontaneously from his own good nature. Billy is beautiful and charismatic, despite his naivete and tendency to stutter. Everyone loves him, and the one who lets that love get twisted is the only one who works against him. It’s a tragedy in that an innocent man has to die, but it’s also a tragedy that Claggart has to distort his entire character for some imaginary social code that no one else cares about and that he dies for it.

I am not certain whether to know the world and to know human nature be not two distinct branches of knowledge, which, while they may coexist in the same heart, yet either may exist with little or nothing of the other.

I think the world is beautiful and fascinating, and with the amount of traveling I’ve done, I could be considered to know something of it. But while I do all right understanding people in books, in real life I’m a little less skilled. Real people have all kinds of secret motivations and do underhand things, like spying on a significant other online or selling shoddy merchandise or plagiarizing an essay. I’ve been feeling a little taken-advantage-of lately; while that may just be the effect of reading about a Christ figure or two (remember The Old Man and the Sea), it may also have some merit. For a long time I’ve been worried about my mental stability, but I’m not going crazy. I’m struggling not to overreact, because I know I do that, but at the same time I know that I can trust my feelings. If I feel this way, there’s a problem, not with my brain function, but with the way I’m being treated. I wish I knew how to fix it.

THE PIAZZA TALES

The Piazza Tales is a short story collection that Melville published in 1856. Except the first, these were all written for Putnam’s Monthly Magazine. He was simultaneously publishing other stories in Harper’s, and those were collected after his death and published as The Apple-Tree Table and Other Stories. That later collection is now a little harder to find, but it contains the frequently anthologized “Paradise of Bachelors and Tartarus of Maids” and “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” Piazza has the stories that people generally think of, if they think of Melville short stories at all, “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno.”

The Piazza

Just to be clear, Melville loved Nathaniel Hawthorne. I mean, so much that after they met Hawthorne started avoiding him because there was something a little excessive in his fan-boy-ish-ness. NH sometimes used the first piece in a story collection to establish a sense of place, as in “The Old Manse” (Mosses from an Old Manse) or “The Custom-House” (The Scarlet Letter, which was originally conceived as the beginning of a short story collection). Melville gives this strategy a try here. He’s settling into a house in the mountains, and decides that it’s a real crime to have a spectacular view and nowhere to sit outside and enjoy it from, so he builds himself a deck facing his favorite view. He becomes interested in a spot on the mountain opposite, investing it with all sorts of fairy qualities from Shakespeare and Spenser, and one day he goes to see it. It turns out, there’s an isolated girl in a cottage there, and she spends her time looking over at his house and imagining how happy and magical his life must be.

There are a few ways to read that. People often say that it just means that our fantasies are all just illusions, and that if we get to the heart of what we really want there is only equal or greater unhappiness. But I’m feeling optimistic this morning, so I’d rather say, even in the least happy life there is magic, if we have eyes to see it. Glory and beauty are all around us; we just have to learn to look for them. We need to value what we have instead of letting familiarity breed contempt. And perhaps the good things are easiest seen at a little distance.

Bartleby

In many ways, I think this story is a response to Thoreau’s essay “Resistance to Civil Government.” We’re familiar with the idea of civil disobedience that has shaped protests in the West, particularly with the American Civil Rights movement, and so we typically see this as a good thing, a way to get stuff done. Melville imagines a passive resister in ordinary life. Bartleby isn’t making a political point or taking a stand on an issue; he just quietly says that he “would prefer not to” do anything he is asked. In other ways, this is a response to Dickens’s Bleak House, which began serial publication the year before “Bartleby” was published. The characterization here, with the quirky extreme personalities, is very similar to Dickens, and both stories tell about law-copyists. Before the Xerox machine, the courts still needed several copies of legal documents, so someone had to copy all those papers by hand. Scrivener is a dull, mechanical profession, and both Dickens and Melville try to humanize these machine-like people. Enter Bartleby, the copier who won’t do what he doesn’t like.

Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity, then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.

The narrator, the lawyer who employs Bartleby, is an older, active gentleman who takes a paternal interest in his employee, but he cannot figure out all of this preferring not to do things. This type of polite disobedience leads to Bartleby doing some inappropriate things, like living in the workplace outside of working hours, eavesdropping on important meetings, and being insubordinate to his employer, to law enforcement, and indeed to everyone else. He clings to the secret dictate of his heart, just like Robinson Crusoe or Ralph Waldo Emerson, but “doing his thing” is doing nothing. Narrator can’t figure out what to do with him, so eventually he moves to a different office. The new lawyer who takes the office eventually has Bartleby arrested for vagrancy, and he dies in jail after refusing his meals.

I’ve been taking the lens of Transcendentalism, but you could also read this story as a warning against depression-induced inanition. Bartleby used to work in the dead letter office, burning all the letters that could not be delivered. If every letter represents a desire, a wish to connect with another human, the dead letters are the failures. After who-knows-how-long destroying all these wasted desires, Bartleby lost any desire of his own. There’s no implication that he’s looking to the future; he seems like a remarkably clear example of what clinical depression looks like. No active sadness, but no hope either. Just doing nothing, wanting to do nothing, until death. I admire Bartleby’s adherence to himself, but the result makes me sad.

Benito Cereno

Oh my god, the racism, the racism. I suppose you could argue that this is free indirect discourse, or a narrated monologue, so these terribly offensive opinions are Captain Delano’s and not Melville’s, but even so. The racism.

“Benito Cereno” is the most like Billy Budd, it being a naval story featuring The Handsome Sailor set in the 1790s. Captain Delano seems like what Billy Budd could have been, had he lived and advanced.

Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories at that day associated with those seas, Captain Delano’s surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good nature, not liable except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man.

This is also a classic Gothic tale – Captain Delano gets into a mysterious and vaguely threatening situation, until about two-thirds or three-fourths of the way through, when the real threat is revealed and he defeats it.

The threat comes from the extreme racism – think Heart of Darkness. Don Benito Cereno is captain of a merchant vessel carrying slaves along the coast of South America. They’re in distress and put in for water on the same island that Captain Delano has stopped at to restock his water supply. He goes on board to render assistance, and the Nordic-looking white boy (I always picture him as whiter than white, sort of glowing) is surrounded by Africans. His inner monologue is full of comments on the ethnic differences between himself and the Africans – he thinks of them as the perfect servants because of their (he thinks) natural stupidity and servility. He thinks of them as animals, little different than deer or monkeys. Even the few Spanish he sees are marked in the text as different, not quite as white as he is. He can tell that something fishy is going on, maybe Don Benito is plotting to murder him, but he quickly dismisses the thought because he’s such a nice guy (as some of my acquaintance would say, “It’s awful white of him”). Of course, the truth is that the slaves have taken over the ship and are much more intelligent than he had taken them for, but the intelligence is bent toward evil so the white captain is still better than they are.

This story is based on the real events that happened on board the Amistad, which were memorialized in the film of the same name with Matthew McConaughey and Anthony Hopkins. Africans who had been illegally kidnapped and sold into slavery took over the ship and forced the Spanish to sail them back to Africa, but the Spaniard turned the ship north and it was taken off Long Island. The film focuses on the trial and how the brave white lawyers overcame their own racism to rescue the poor black victims, so I think it’s still a little white-centric, but it’s better than Melville. “Benito Cereno” moves the story back into the time when slavery was legal in South America (The United States was about forty years behind the times when it came to abolition) and makes the Africans evil murderers and thieves, the worst of mutineers, slaughtering the beloved slaver Alexandro Aranda. Don Alexandro is Don Benito’s childhood friend – some people read the relationship as gay because they think Don Benito is effeminate, but the evidence is not as strong as it often is in Melville. They want to overtake Captain Delano’s ship too, but of course they are sufficiently white to conquer the former slaves quite easily, incidentally killing most of the remaining Hispanics in the process.

“Benito Cereno” is just as long as Billy Budd, but without chapter breaks, which helps build suspense and all but makes it harder to find a good place to stop. The sentences are also simpler, and it’s less allegorical, which will appeal to a lot of readers who aren’t put off by the racism, which is so intense I would feel bad quoting any of it.

The Lightning-Rod Man

A short piece about a man who makes his living by scaring people to death, and Melville’s “The Piazza” narrator is having none of it.

The Encantadas; or Enchanted Islands

A series of ten sketches describing the Galapagos Islands. They’re mostly volcanic rock, and while I’ve seen some really beautiful specimens of black glass from volcanoes, Melville sees them as ugly misshapen hellrocks. They’re called enchanted because sailors had some major problems with their navigation; people thought they moved around because they’d find them a hundred miles away from where they were expected. There are a few narratives, but this is mostly description – I would go so far as to say that it’s of limited interest. The descriptions are only partially original; he’s writing years after he came back to shore, so he did some borrowing from previously published accounts.

This group does have the second female character, Hunilla the Chola widow. She’s a mixture of Hispanic and Native American ancestry, which the Latins call Cholo (though anthropologists lean toward Mestizo). She was left on an island with her husband and brother, who both died. There’s some implication that passing ships would stop and the seamen would do unspeakable things to her, before Melville’s ship rescues her. Melville usually writes about male-only worlds, so he doesn’t do much with female characters, and this lack of practice is evident. He seems to understand that the lives of women are unnecessarily difficult because their dependence on men (and transportation by them) isolates them, but he seems incapable of realizing or understanding their characters. It’s like women are another species to him, as different as the Africans in “Benito Cereno.”

The Bell-Tower

This is another piece strongly influenced by Hawthorne. Think of the Promethean allegories, like “The Birth-Mark” or “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” A Renaissance architect builds a bell-tower. He goes way overboard, both with the height and the ornamentation, even making a mechanical man with arms like clubs to strike the bells. Like any good Frankenstein story, the attempt to create life leads to death, so it’s hardly cheerful, but then Hawthorne is seldom cheerful himself. In all his admiration for Mosses from an Old Manse, this is his closest approximation to one of those stories, which I suppose makes it a fitting bookend for “The Piazza.”

The Piazza Tales is a weird collection, indicative of the weirdness Melville got into after the failure of Moby-Dick. Pierre has a lot of that reaction, when Melville suddenly stops telling his story to complain about literary critics for several pages, but the insistence on writing what he likes to write instead of what paying customers might like to read is still evident, as is his problematization of ideals beloved by Emerson, Thoreau, and their attendant Transcendentalists, as well as his extreme admiration of Hawthorne. Very intertextual, sometimes engaging, interesting reading.

THE TOWN-HO’S STORY (CHAPTER 54 OF MOBY-DICK)

I guess whoever edited this collection for Signet Classics thought the project wouldn’t be complete without a little Moby-Dick, so here’s the obligatory excerpt. It works well as a stand-alone piece. It covers mutiny at sea, so it’s thematically linked to Billy Budd and “Benito Cereno,” but there’s a much stronger sense of destiny. This collection is arranged roughly backward, chronologically, so it seems that Melville’s interest in predestination waned over his lifetime, because here in Moby-Dick everything is predestinated or foreordained. The white whale is not just one face of God, as in Ahab’s “strike through the mask” speech, it’s the bringer of Fate. The whale decides men’s destinies at sea.

The Town-Ho is a leaky boat, which is apparently not unusual at the time. It’s a bit like my friends who have a fluid leak in their cars and just keep putting water in before they drive to town. You keep your men on the pumps and go where you need to go. Working the pumps can be exhausting work, so another type of The Handsome Sailor (but without the innocence of Capt Delano or Baby Budd) wears himself out and sits down for a rest. The ugly commanding officer tells him to get up and sweep the pig shit off the deck. Steelkilt replies that that job is for the little boys, who aren’t busy just now. Radney tells him to get off his ass and clean the deck. Now in one sense Steelkilt is right, cleaning the shit isn’t in his job description, but in another sense he doesn’t have the right to refuse a direct order. He refuses anyway, they get into a fight, and Steelkilt breaks Radney’s jaw. He starts up a mutiny, but the captain gets it under control. Radney gets to whip Steelkilt, who then starts plotting murder. Fortunately, the white whale comes along and removes temptation. Ahab may have lost a leg, but Radney got straight up eaten by Moby Dick. Steelkilt later gets everyone to defect and the captain never sees him again, but Ishmael swears that he has seen and spoken with him, I guess in a White Whale Survivors’ Club meeting.

Looking at the collection as a whole, it seems Melville had a real issue with authority – the artificial distinctions created by society keep us from acting toward each other as equals. Men are divided by arbitrary social roles, which leads to poisonous behavior. Maintaining a sense of freedom and innocence is a natural response, but when an underling does not conform there are unfortunate consequences. Similarly, when a leader abuses his power there are unfortunate consequences, because the abuse of power leads to rebellion. Love seems like a good answer, but it’s not always enough. We love and admire the extraordinary, but the world insists on conformity to usage, so it’s safer to be average. Don’t get noticed and you can lead a long, mediocre life. Be amazing and you die young. I don’t agree with this attitude, but it does seem to be what Melville is pushing. I get in the mood for Melville every so often, and Billy Budd is a much quicker fix than Moby-Dick, but this fatalism is not the direction I want to go in. I steer my course, and I’m guiding my ship to a happier port.

Before I get into Shen Fu, I have a confession to make. Because I love The Woman Warrior, I’ve been trying to read Maxine Hong Kingston’s fiction, but it’s been killing my motivation pretty quickly. This is the second time it’s happened, so I checked something. Tripmaster Monkey, the one I was reading last week, features a character named Wittman Ah Singh, and I find him thoroughly unlikable (in the first chapter, which I didn’t finish). I looked back at The Fifth Book of Peace, which I’d started a few years ago – the first section, the one on the San Francisco Fire, is great, but then she starts telling a story about that same guy, Wittman Ah Singh! I couldn’t stand him then either! Maybe I need to find a book of hers that isn’t about him.

Shen Fu lived in the later part of the Eighteenth Century, in China. Some things were weird and foreign, yes, but what surprised me is just how similar he is to British authors writing around the same time, like Coleridge, Blake, and Wordsworth. Lavish descriptions of nature, interest in ruins and other picturesque features of the landscape, travel, and fragmented narrative. Each of these six records shows a different side of his life, but they don’t follow each other chronologically.

First, he talks about the happiness of his marriage. He marries a girl who seems like his intellectual (but not social) equal, so they make jokes about literature and laugh all the time. He and Yün are very happy and love each other very much. Yeah, sometimes they leave a party drunk and he sends her on ahead so he can have sex with a stranger, but attraction to third parties doesn’t change their feelings for each other. They live in beautiful places and find joy in their everyday lives. Besides, in China at the time lesbianism was kind of a normal thing that didn’t upset straight marriages. His wife has a couple of very dear friends, and whenever they come over the three women get the bed and he gets the couch, which he accepts with the same good cheer that men in my society accept “Girls’ Night Out.” In their early thirties, she starts looking for a concubine for him, but she’s really looking for a woman she can love too. When they find one, she falls hard for her, but it doesn’t work out and she becomes seriously depressed.

But later Han-yüan was taken off by a powerful man, and all the plans came to nothing. In fact, it was because of this that Yün died.

Ending the chapter like this, it seems like we’ve started a murder mystery, but there is no mystery. Grief and stress rob Yün of her health and kill her at the age of forty.

The second part is about his hobbies, so there’s a two-page section on flower arranging. He likes entertaining and landscaping. He is quite the aesthete.

Third, we have the story of his sorrows. Life with Yün isn’t a bed of roses, like it may have seemed in the first part. His parents don’t really like her, which makes for some serious problems. He’s not that great with money, or holding down a job, so they’re always poor and relying on friends for help. His parents also don’t like Han-yüan, so they’re part of the plot to prevent the concubine thing from working out. Nevertheless, he takes his father’s death pretty hard, as well as his younger brother’s attempt to take over as head of the family. He talks about his children here, but not in the first part, and I take that to be a little odd since my children were the happiest part of my marriage, but he is separated from them and his son dies in childhood, so it makes sense.

The fourth story is about his traveling. Up until now, Yün has seemed like the protagonist of this story because everything he talks about involves her. But he spends a lot of time away from her, following the demands of his changing professions, and maybe she really was happier living with a girlfriend than with him. This is the longest section of the book, so I think that spending time away from each other must have been critical to maintaining the happiness that was so strong in the first chapter. When he goes to the Land of the Floating Whorehouses (my title, not his), he looks for a girl who reminds him of his wife, and even though there are several girls living in the houseboat he sticks with the one he likes. His friend makes the rounds, though. He’s always traveling with some close male friend, so maybe there’s some male homosexual behavior going on too, but he never alludes to the possibility of that. The closest we come is when he talks about being in a room with a few friends and all their rented girls and being teased for wanting a private room. I’ve never been in a room with people who are having sex when I’m not involved, so I think it must be very awkward, but I suppose in a society that’s less puritanical it’s like watching a porn video. Except that it features your friends and coworkers. Even when I was in an all-male workplace, I still wouldn’t want to see my coworkers naked. I would be really uncomfortable.

Hsin-yüeh had a son named Chu-heng who was quiet and well bred. We never quarreled, and he was the second close friend I have had in this life. The pity is that we only met like bits of duckweed drifting on the water, and were not together for long.

This is why I hang onto Facebook, even when it’s full of sad news about world events. My entire life has been drifting along a stream, and I meet many interesting and lovely people, but then I move away, or they do, and we are never together for long.

I know it’s called the Six Floating Records, but today there are only these four. The other two have been lost to time. People have claimed to find them, but so far all “recovered chapters” have been forgeries. Some scholars think he may not have finished writing them, like one of those verse dramas by the English Romantics that are only ever published in fragments. He gets to the end of his travels, especially the traveling he does to recover from his wife’s death, and the book just ends with no real conclusion.

I felt very close to Shen Fu while I was reading his book, like he’s telling the story of my hypothetical life in China two hundred years ago, being bad at business but interested in art and literature and history and making everyday life beautiful. The Chinese astrologers would say that this makes sense, because we’re both born in the year of the Goat. Goat babies are unlucky, vain, unable to save money, and very proud of their homes. We like our lives to be nicer than we can afford on our own.

Normally this would be the part where I talk about him and how great it is that I live with someone who has a job and likes to take care of me, but he’s been out of work for the last six weeks and it’s given me a lot of stress because I don’t make enough money to support my kids and myself, much less another person. But he’s being trained in a new position this weekend, so I’m hoping that our financial situation will improve very soon.

Hope is so very important. Shen Fu and Yün are always hoping something will turn up, and it always does. There’s a certain amount of drift involved in living by hope, the Floating from the title. After she dies he loses his hope that anything good will happen again. I’ve heard depression defined as the inability to see a future, and that is his problem not just in his widowerhood but throughout his life. He doesn’t plan specifics – there’s only the vague hope that things will work out. It’s like when The Ex got pregnant for the first time, and we went to the midwife and she asked, “What form of birth control were you using? Hope?” Hope is not an effective method of preventing pregnancy, nor is it an effective tool for taking control of your own life. Relying only on hope means that your life will be determined by external events; it keeps the locus of control outside of yourself. However, for those of us who frequently feel that our life is in fact controlled more strongly by sinister outside forces than by our own will, hope is also the only thing we have to hold on to. Hope gives us a way out, a light in the darkness. Hope is our escape. Hope gives us the ability to sketch a vague plan that can keep us from dying from depression. Yün loses hope and dies. Shen Fu’s friends keep supplementing his hope with their own, keeping him alive long enough to find goodness in the world again.

This is a short and beautiful book, and it apparently gives us the most detailed look into private life in this period of Chinese history. I enjoyed it thoroughly. When I first came out a lot of people were after me to tell my story, but the task always seemed too big. This may be a good approach, though, taking just one element at a time. It could be a way for me to get a handle on it.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. It is a joy to read an author who knows her tradition, and no one understands two hundred years of Gothic fiction like Daphne du Maurier. Stephen King also knows the tradition he’s writing in, but somehow when I read his short fiction I start recognizing his plots from old episodes of The Twilight Zone; not an issue with du Maurier. She’s more likely to draw from Radcliffe or Brontë. This book is a collection of shorter pieces, but since they’re each around fifty pages (or a little more), I have a hard time calling them short stories. Maybe novellas? Each story involves travel, the fear of being in an unfamiliar place, sometimes finding strangely familiar things in the unfamiliar, sometimes the self itself becomes strangely unfamiliar. While Stephen King sometimes mixes in stories that are sweet – ghost stories about love beyond the grave or something of that nature – du Maurier’s collection is all spooky, uncanny, and while the stories end ‘correctly,’ with a feeling of fitness, there’s no sense of good things continuing. The transformations don’t make the protagonists happy.

DON’T LOOK NOW

Tourists in Venice meet a stranger with psychic powers. She tells them of a vision of their recently deceased child, then warns them to leave town. There’s a bit of that familiar British fear of Italians and distrust of the Scottish. Difference is weird and bad. According to the cover of my paperback, this story became “a spine-chilling film!” starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. A more complete treatment of a similar theme can be found in Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers.

THE BREAKTHROUGH

Very Dr Moreau-ish. The only story to take place primarily in England. Down on the east coast, a conventionally mad scientist is working on psychic machinery, communicating between minds at long distances. His principal experiment involves capturing a person’s soul, the electrical impulses of the brain that determine identity, at the moment of death and thus preserve the soul indefinitely.

NOT AFTER MIDNIGHT

A good old mystery, in the vein of Dashiell Hammett or John Franklin Bardin. Things do become a bit supernatural at the end, but most of the story is very realistic. A misanthropic teacher goes off to Crete on vacation, hoping to do some painting. With the way he describes himself, he sounds kind of gay, but that’s never pursued.

I am a schoolmaster by profession, or was. I handed in my resignation to the headmaster before the end of the summer term in order to forestall inevitable dismissal. The reason I gave was true enough – ill-health, caused by a wretched bug picked up on holiday in Crete, which might necessitate a stay in hospital of several weeks, various injections, etc. I did not specify the nature of the bug. He knew, though, and so did the rest of the staff. And the boys. My complaint is universal, and has been so through the ages, an excuse for jest and hilarious laughter from earliest times, until one of us oversteps the mark and becomes a menace to society. Then we are given the boot. The passerby averts his gaze, and we are left to crawl out of the ditch alone, or stay there and die.

If I am bitter, it is because the bug I caught was picked up in all innocence. Fellow sufferers of my complaint can plead predisposition, poor heredity, family trouble, excess of the good life, and, throwing themselves on a psychoanalyst’s couch, spill out the rotten beans within and so effect a cure. I can do none of this. The doctor to whom I endeavored to explain what had happened listened with a superior smile, and then murmured something about emotionally destructive identification coupled with repressed guilt, and put me on a course of pills. They might have helped me if I had taken them. Instead I threw them down the drain and became more deeply imbued with the poison that seeped through me, made worse, of course, by the fatal recognition of my condition by the youngsters I had believed to be my friends, who nudged one another when I came into class, or, with stifled laughter, bent their loathsome little heads over their desks – until the moment arrived when I knew I could not continue, and took the decision to knock on the headmaster’s door.

The story ends a little abruptly, so when I got to the end I flipped back to the beginning to read these first two paragraphs again, to fix the sequence of events clearly in my mind. I had to do the same when reading du Maurier’s Rebecca, where the aftermath of the final crisis is alluded to in the first chapter, and the final resolution is tucked away in the middle of the book.

A BORDERLINE CASE

Shelagh Money is a nineteen-year-old actress preparing to play Viola in Twelfth Night when her father dies. She decides to go see her father’s old friend from whom he has been estranged for years. She goes to Ireland and finds that Nick is even more eccentric than she had thought. He’s into practical jokes, including photographic fakery, and he also organizes bombing raids to protest the English occupation of Northern Ireland. He stays on his side of the border and warns the locals so there aren’t any casualties, but buildings go up in smoke. Shelagh learns the dangers of deception, and there’s a little gender-bending, as in the Shakespeare play. Nick doesn’t jump straight into her pants, so she jumps to conclusions a bit. What can you do? She’s rich, pretty, and nineteen, therefore accustomed to getting what she wants.

Nick was a homo. They were all homos. That was why Nick had been sacked from the Navy. Her father had found out, couldn’t pass him for promotion, and Nick had borne a grudge ever afterward. Perhaps, even, the dates she had copied from the list referred to times when Nick had got into trouble. The photograph was a blind – homos often tried to cover themselves by pretending they were married. Oh, not Nick . . . It was the end. She couldn’t bear it. Why must the only attractive man she had ever met in her life have to be like that? Goddamn and blast them all, stripped to the waist there down by the megalithic tomb. They were probably doing the same in the control room now. There was no point in anything anymore. No sense in her mission. The sooner she left the island and flew back home the better.

Of course, less than ten pages later he’s proving just how very wrong she is.

She could see nothing in the darkness of the van, not even the face of her watch. Time did not exist. It’s body chemistry, she told herself, that’s what does it. People’s skins. They either blend or they don’t. They either merge and melt into the same texture, dissolve and become renewed, or nothing happens, like faulty plugs, blown fuses, switchboard jams. When the thing goes right, as it had for me tonight, then it’s arrows splintering the sky, it’s forest fires, it’s Agincourt. I shall live till I’m ninety-five, marry some nice man, have fifteen children, win stage awards and Oscars, but never again will the world break into fragments, burn before my eyes. I’ve bloody had it . . .

There is some fear of mental illness, but in the end, I don’t think that’s the problem. You don’t need nonstandard brain chemistry to rebel against society, to do questionable things just because you can. I mean, visiting your best friend’s wife while he’s out of town, getting her drunk and date-raping her simply because she doesn’t like your jokes, is criminal, not funny. And while some of that can be explained by the possibility of Nick being mentally ill, explaining it does not excuse it.

THE WAY OF THE CROSS

A group of people come to Jerusalem to see the holy sites. Unfortunately, their minister becomes ill and has to stay on the boat in Haifa, and they adopt another churchman to guide them. However, Jerusalem is a disorganized mess, and so are they. People get lost, overhear things about themselves they weren’t meant to, make mistakes, nearly die. These aren’t humble pilgrims, they’re vacationers (there’s even a couple on their honeymoon), and they’re almost all wealthy and proud. So the story is a course of humiliation, crowds, danger, fear. Many of the important events of the Biblical story of the Passion are parodied. This story is less straightforwardly Gothic than the others; it’s more often sad than scary.

So, not only am I fond of reading Gothic stories, but I’m also fond of watching scary movies and TV shows. It’s given me a lot of time to ponder fear, and what our culture is afraid of. It seems that the answer is, death. We tend to be afraid of what we don’t know or understand, and death is fundamentally unknowable. Culturally, we turn to the supernatural in order to cope with the fear of death. Religions have grown up as a way of helping us handle fear and grief. The ancient mythologies are full of assurances that life continues after death, with a system of rewards and punishments for the activities of our current lives. I heard someone saying recently that she’s not too upset about her twelve miscarriages because she believes that she’ll raise those children in the afterlife. Her version of Christianity negates death altogether. It makes sense, then, that Gothic experiences a revival when faith is in recession. It seems a human trait that we need some experience with the supernatural, whether it’s God or the devil or the spirits of nature or vampires or zombies or mummies or whatever. We don’t need to believe in it; we need to experience it, either for ourselves or vicariously through fiction. The desire to elude death through supernatural powers seems to be a human trait. At least in Western cultures, we can’t get away from the need to get away from death. If we become comfortable with the idea of our own mortality, we’re called a danger to ourselves and others and prescribed medication. Death is natural and inevitable, so I try to accept it with the same equanimity with which I accept my same-sex attraction.

Du Maurier writes some beautiful stories. These aren’t exceptions, they’re just shorter than the pieces I’m used to working with. Each one can be read in the length of time it takes to watch a movie. So, bite-size du Maurier, like a little snack. Enjoy it.