Posts Tagged ‘woolf’

This week I had a student preparing to enter a course of study that I felt was completely wrong for her, so we took the Myers-Briggs personality test, and that helped steer her in a better direction. It reminded me of a lot of truths about myself that I don’t often think about, or that I think of as pathological when they’re really not, like my aversion to conflict. It made explicit the fact that an aversion to conflict and a strong desire to help people can make me popular to others, but that it’s very hard for me to trust them. The doors of my heart are made of heavy steel, and once shut they do not open easily. It’s unfortunately sort of easy to shut them – don’t do something you say that you will, lie to me, don’t try hard at your job or schoolwork, don’t finish things that you start, treat my relationship with my children as if it were unimportant simply because I don’t see them very often, take delight in the conflicts of others, tell me not to trust someone close to me, use the phrase ‘the gay lifestyle,’ that sort of thing. The high standards I have for friendship sometimes makes it seem miraculous that I have any friends at all, and truthfully I don’t keep many people close to me. Those people I do don’t always realize how close they are to me, or how few people are as close to me as they are. I was interested at the way www.16personalities.com added a fifth element, so now I’m INFJ-T, the T meaning Turbulent. This refers to my habit of second-guessing all my decisions and actions, which has a strong effect on the way my Counselor/Advocate personality expresses itself.

Rereading this book, I was a little surprised to see how strongly my life and especially my bloglife are influenced by it. Unlike some of my colleagues, I see the value in people like this:

The common reader, as Dr Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole – a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture, without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

Notice the reflection of my reading habits here. Yes, I get into these high-culture moods sometimes, but I mix Thomas Hardy with Christopher Moore, and French Enlightenment thinkers with mid-twentieth century sociologists, and it’s all a big mishmash of words. I may impart some knowledge, but I’m more interested in receiving it; I have little interest in correcting the opinions of others if those opinions are thoughtfully considered. That both gives me some value as a teacher and keeps me from realizing my full potential in the field – I refuse to become an authority figure (an INFJ trait).

This book came about because Woolf was writing reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and other periodicals, which means that to some extent she and I are engaged in the same pursuit. However, she would probably not have approved of how very personal I get.

Once again we have an essayist capable of using the essayist’s most proper but most dangerous and delicate tool. He has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr Beerbohm the man. We only know that the spirit of personality permeates every word that he writes. The triumph is the triumph of style. For it is only by knowing how to write that you can make use in literature of your self; that self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous antagonist. Never to be yourself and yet always – that is the problem.

Woolf was still looking for essays that say something universal about the human condition. While there is some possibility of that in the way that I write, if people want universality from me they usually have to be able to extrapolate the message from my relation of my experience. I understand that my experience is unique to me, composed of the intersections of all my different identities, and while some experiences are common to certain groups of people, there’s no guarantee that I will have anything in common with another former academic/gay man/ex-Mormon/addictive personality/emotionally abused person.

Though Woolf keeps her experience away from her reviews, there are some qualities and preferences that become clear. A somewhat academic adherence to factual accuracy, as seen in her scathing review of a biography of Mary Russell Mitford, where she refers to the author as Mendacity (with a capital M). She also derides the author’s lack of passion for her subject:

What considerations, then, had weight with Miss Hill when she decided to write Mary Russell Mitford and her Surroundings? Three emerge from the rest, and may be held of paramount importance. In the first place, Miss Mitford was a lady; in the second, she was born in the year 1787; and in the third, the stock of female characters who lend themselves to biographic treatment by their own sex is, for one reason or another, running short. For instance, little is known of Sappho, and that little is not wholly to her credit. Lady Jane Grey has merit, but is undeniably obscure. Of George Sand, the more we know the less we approve. George Eliot was led into evil ways which not all her philosophy can excuse. The Brontës, however highly we rate their genius, lacked that indefinable something which marks the lady; Harriet Martineau was an atheist; Mrs Browning was a married woman; Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, and Maria Edgeworth have been done already; so that, what with one thing and another, Mary Russell Mitford is the only woman left.

I believe that the homophobia and slut-shaming and elitism in the above quotation are qualities that Woolf ascribes to Miss Hill, not attitudes that she herself embraced.

Woolf also had a good value for solitude, as when she describes Elizabethan drama:

But gradually it comes over us, what then are we being denied? What is it that we are coming to want so persistently, that unless we get it instantly we must seek elsewhere? It is solitude. There is no privacy here. Always the door opens and some one comes in. All is shared, made visible, audible, dramatic. Meanwhile, as if tired with company, the mind steals off to muse in solitude; to think, not to act; to comment, not to share; to explore its own darkness, not the bright-lit-up surfaces of others. It turns to Donne, to Montaigne, to Sir Thomas Browne, to the keepers of the keys of solitude.

Sir Thomas Browne, though unknown to me, is one of her heroes, like Max Beerbohm of the above quotation. This volume is arranged roughly chronologically, but there’s some fracturing and avoidance toward the end. We go from Chaucer to the Elizabethans and through the eighteenth century to Jane Austen, but then there’s an essay on modern fiction (compared unfavorably to the novels of the past) before she goes on to the Brontës, George Eliot, and the famous Russians (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, of course, but there are others), but then she jumps back to the Romantic-Era Miss Mitford and a few other earlier writers before she gets on to talking about writing itself for a bit, and only ends with an evaluation of the writing current at the time. Of her contemporaries, Beerbohm gets some special attention:

But if we ask for masterpieces, where are we to look? A little poetry, we may feel sure, will survive; a few poems by Mr Yeats, by Mr Davies, by Mr de la Mare. Mr Lawrence, of course, has moments of greatness, but hours of something very different. Mr Beerbohm, in his way, is perfect, but it is not a big way. Passages in Far Away and Long Ago will undoubtedly go to posterity entire. Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster. And so, picking and choosing, we select now this, now that, hold it up for display, hear it defended or derided, and finally have to meet the objection that even so we are only agreeing with the critics that it is an age incapable of sustained effort, littered with fragments, and not seriously to be compared with the age that went before.

When it comes to the past, scholars are seldom entitled to publish their own opinions. No one wants to be the Victorianist who says that Dickens was nothing special. The monoliths of the past are monolithic in that we can’t disagree with them. Shakespeare was the greatest dramatist in the English language, but that’s because people decided he was a couple of hundred years ago, and few playwrights have even tried to compete. We don’t have different opinions on that now. When it comes to the present, the experts in the past can disagree and be extreme in their devotion or antipathy and it’s all right. The thing is, though, that even scholarly fads change. Walter Scott was once considered one of the most important early nineteenth-century poets who wrote some very influential historical novels, but now he’s largely ignored. Or at least he was when I was getting my degrees ten or fifteen years ago. The trend for the last forty years or so is to look away from the white men and recover works by women and minorities; after all, Byron felt seriously threatened by Mrs Hemans’s popularity, and the first American bestseller was a classic fallen-woman narrative written by a woman. Conrad is held at a distance because of his subhuman portrayal of Africans and Asians, even though in Woolf’s time he was beloved both by the masses and by the critics. And those writers considered obscure or nonacademic in Woolf’s time (evidenced by the fact that they’re included in this book), many are now canonical, like Austen, Brontë, and Eliot. This book focuses on biographies and volumes of letters, so those who only published letters or journals are not as easily embraced by academia. We like poetry and fiction, so this passage about journal-writing is itself a little dated:

Should you wish to make sure that your birthday will be celebrated three hundred years hence, your best course is undoubtedly to keep a diary. Only first be certain that you have the courage to lock your genius in a private book and the humour to gloat over a fame that will be yours only in the grave. For the good diarist writes either for himself alone or for a posterity so distant that it can safely hear every secret and justly weigh every motive. For such an audience there is need neither of affectation nor of restraint. Sincerity is what they ask, detail, and volume; skill with the pen comes in conveniently, but brilliance is not necessary; genius is a hindrance even; and should you know your business and do it manfully, posterity will let you off mixing with great men, reporting famous affairs, or having lain with the first ladies in the land.

Woolf seems most interested in those who refrain from these last three. She assumes her readers to have read the canonical works, and she introduces us to the less frequently taught.

Gently, beautifully, like the clouds of a balmy evening, obscurity once more traverses the sky, an obscurity which is not empty but thick with the star dust of innumerable lives.

Circling back, it’s not just that she’s writing for a general audience, showing them less-known literature, she’s also writing about the general audience. The essays in this volume tend to champion the lives of the not-so-great, the ordinary people who get passed by and whom few consider great. [Perspective: I once read a book that conducted a detailed scientific analysis of nineteenth-century prose styles, counting the ratio of words of dialogue to words of narration, the number of words per sentence, average number of adjectives per noun, that sort of thing. The author, Karl Kroeber, actually felt like he had to apologize for using Austen, C Brontë, and Eliot, because they were clearly inferior to Dickens, Thackeray, and Hardy. The analysis was interesting, he found that Mansfield Park is empirically the most boring Austen novel because it uses dramatically less dialogue and more narration than the others, but the patronizing misogyny was upsetting.] The message seems to be, obscurity does not imply triviality. It’s hard to find anything about me through a Google search, but my friends and family love me, and there are many ways in which my life matters, and has mattered to many different people.

And of course, my favorite essay about writing is here, “The Patron and the Crocus,” with my favorite quotation about writing,

To know whom to write for is to know how to write.

Here on this blog I have several dozen followers, but I don’t deceive myself about their actually reading what I write. There’s a small group of four or five people who read and comment occasionally, and those are the people I write this blog for. If other people read and enjoy it, great. Little bit of trivia: most people who find my blog through an internet search are trying to find out whether Hesse’s Demian is about a gay relationship or not.

It seems a bit odd to acknowledge to myself that even though my favorite book is Ragnarok and I went through four-year obsessions with As I Lay Dying and Mansfield Park, that this is the book that seems to have shaped me the most, the book whose philosophy vibrates in tune with my own heart, one of the most important books to me, even though I haven’t read most of the material she’s reviewing. I love Woolf’s novels, but I love her nonfiction even more – the way that her voice reaches out to me and holds me gently, the way she affirms much that I had already believed, the polite manner in which she sometimes disagrees with me, the way that I feel her to be speaking in my own mind, across the abyss of years, gender, and mental illness. When I read Woolf’s novels, I love her writing and her characters; when I read Woolf’s nonfiction, I love her.

 

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

And lo, from the very beginning, I am in love again.

There is something about this book, this woman, that makes me feel all relaxed and happy, Smollett’s ‘agreeable lassitude.’ I read the first page, the first line, and I am instantly more composed, more reconciled to the world I live in. I’ve been analyzing myself on this reading, trying to figure out why Mrs Dalloway should affect me in this way, and I think it’s her approach to life.

And of course she enjoyed life immensely. It was her nature to enjoy (though, goodness only knows, she had her reserves; it was a mere sketch, he often felt, that even he, after all these years, could make of Clarissa). Anyhow there was no bitterness in her; none of that sense of moral virtue which is so repulsive in good women. She enjoyed practically everything. If you walked with her in Hyde Park, now it was a bed of tulips, now a child in a perambulator, now some absurd little drama she made up on the spur of the moment. (Very likely she would have talked to those lovers, if she had thought them unhappy.) She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, saying things she didn’t mean, blunting the edge of her mind, losing her discrimination.

Mrs Dalloway enjoys life indiscriminately. Everything and everyone pleases her. Her servants love her because she makes their work easy for them without losing the ineffable sense of glamour that she casts on everything. I find her enthusiasm compelling and irresistible, though not quite infectious. She awakens in me the desire to love the world as she does, but I’m not quite there yet. She has a gift for making things beautiful that I do not possess. She certainly has a way with people that I do not. For all I try, I do not have the manners that make strangers feel comfortable, and that deficiency makes it harder for me to make new friends and enjoy large parties as she does.

Though I suppose that I lack discrimination as well, and this is one of the reasons that I didn’t quite succeed in academia. Edmund Wilson said that the true connoisseur is the one who can distinguish between the various qualities of literature and always prefers the highest; I’m more in love with the B-List. I can read and enjoy Dickens, but I get much more pleasure from Wilkie Collins, who is not quite as reputable. Indeed, I even find my appreciation for George Eliot fading a bit, though my late-20s self thinks it sacrilege to admit the possibility. As you can see from this blog, I mix classics with zombies and sci-fi. I may be able to distinguish between the various cuts of literature, but I don’t insist on the absolute best. The apathy toward discrimination keeps me from being a true literary connoisseur/critic.

And now Clarissa escorted her Prime Minister down the room, prancing, sparkling, with the stateliness of her grey hair. She wore ear-rings, and a silver-green mermaid’s dress. Lolloping on the waves and braiding her tresses she seemed, having that gift still; to be; to exist; to sum it all up in the moment as she passed; turned, caught her scarf in some other woman’s dress, unhitched it, laughed, all with the most perfect ease and air of a creature floating in its element. But age had brushed her; even as a mermaid might behold in her glass the setting sun on some very clear evening over the waves. There was a breath of tenderness; her severity, her prudery, her woodenness were all warmed through now, and she had about her as she said good-bye to the thick gold-laced man who was doing his best, and good luck to him, to look important, an inexpressible dignity; an exquisite cordiality; as if she wished the whole world well, and must now, being on the very verge and rim of things, take her leave.

Mrs Dalloway as a mermaid here makes me think of that line from Prufrock, and to Peter Walsh she does seem a little inaccessible, uninviting. She and Peter and Sally Seton spent a lot of time together thirty years previously; Peter and Sally were both in love with her, and Clarissa and Sally even shared a kiss that Mrs Dalloway still lingers over in memory. Peter proposed, which she finds much less agreeable. And yet, she chose Richard Dalloway, who seems so much less of a person than the other two. There’s a much clearer portrait of him in The Voyage Out, chapters three through six. It was published ten years earlier, and the Dalloways serve as a type of ideal for the young protagonist. In the earlier novel they travel briefly with a group of academics and/or artists, of that type that you’re not sure if they create art, criticize it, or both. The Dalloways bring a certain elegance to the party, however much the other members may dislike it. But what I really wanted to point out from the earlier story is that Clarissa explains why she chose Richard. He was the first person she felt truly understood her. Despite their devotion, Peter and Sally don’t see to the heart of her. I think that in order to see something in other people, the same quality has to exist in ourselves. Clarissa Dalloway is essentially different from Peter Walsh and Sally Seton. A part of it is class, a larger part is patriotism and duty. It sounds a bit mad to me, but the parties, the clothes, the house in town, the frivolity, all that Peter can’t comprehend, is her responsibility to England. The upper classes have a duty to adorn the nation. The desperate poor need something to hope for, and the wealthy give them that ideal. To many people it seems like selfishness, but Mrs Dalloway sees it as service.

I read The Voyage Out three years ago, and in response I wrote, “I read to escape as most fiction readers do, but I also read for the people. I see patterns of being that I would like to emulate, models of what I could be. Some are happy, some are sad, some are lovable, some are evil, but I see the seeds of them in myself, and I see that it’s possible for me to be other than as I am. Novels serve as a mirror in which I see my own potential.” It continues to hold true. I love Mrs Dalloway because she has a grace and social talent that I don’t have but that I would like to develop. My social anxiety and social position keep me from large parties with the Prime Minister, but the comfort under observation would be a real benefit.

Mrs Dalloway is all light and beauty and elegance, but for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Her dark Other is Septimus Warren Smith, a young man still suffering from the post-traumatic stress of World War I. The officer he loved and served under died in the War, and five years later Septimus is still insane with grief.

So they returned to the most exalted of mankind; the criminal who faced his judges; the victim exposed on the heights; the fugitive; the drowned sailor; the poet of the immortal ode; the Lord who had gone from life to death; to Septimus Warren Smith, who sat in the arm-chair under the skylight staring at a photograph of Lady Bradshaw in Court dress, muttering messages about beauty.

Paranoia, hallucinations, delusions of grandeur . . . It’s bad. Many of his symptoms were Woolf’s own, such as the belief that the birds were giving him messages in Greek, which he does not speak. The thing that touches me about the portrayal is not so much him as his wife. He married Lucrezia in Milan before he came back from the war, and she does her best to take care of him. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be afraid of going crazy, and then inventing a character who loves you and takes perfect care of you. And then acknowledging that it isn’t enough. Rezia can’t save him. The doctor comes again, but he just can’t take it any more and escapes.

Even though they never meet, Mrs Dalloway hears about what happened and she understands. She knows that the pressure of doctors could drive someone to suicide, and she doesn’t judge him for it. She knows, and feels sympathy. Between The Voyage Out and Mrs Dalloway, there was the influenza epidemic, and Clarissa fell deathly ill. She recovered, but with a fresh awareness of death, which follows her throughout the day of this story. Facing the reality of her death takes some of her sweetness away. There is strong rage hiding under the white or red roses and mermaid gowns. Most people see only the surface; Peter and Sally see only the depths; but she is both. Mrs Dalloway is a real human being, which means she has rivals and hatreds and friends and loves and everything that makes a life. She sees all of life, whether good or evil, and values it all. She loves life so much that she loves even the pain. She accepts herself completely.

Last week, when I went back to North Carolina, I was baffled by these last six months. How could I have imagined I could be content in the Midwest, when so much of what I love is hundreds of miles away? My children, the friends who helped me through my divorce and coming-out, so much of what really matters to me, so much of what I consider my life is there. I want to go home. And when I think of Mrs Dalloway, I’ve been realizing that I don’t have faith in myself. I don’t think that I will be able to make it there. The him that I’m with now I think can really help me reconcile myself with my family, as well as give me the courage to go after what I really want in life, even if it’s without him. He can show me the way, but I have to do the work myself. I need to continue to decide that my happiness is worth working toward. That could involve a new life, a new career, all kinds of scary things. But if it gets me home, that will be worth it. I just can’t bear the thought of dying here.

 

This is a short collection of short pieces, some of them very short. When I finished, I honestly felt as if I hadn’t read anything; the most characteristic quality of the text is evasion. It’s a book about the inability to express oneself, so by the end I felt as if she hadn’t. I mean, one of the longer pieces is a transcription of conversations overheard as people pass by a spot in Kew Gardens on a Sunday afternoon. It could be the beginnings of a story, the source of a novel, but in isolation, it feels as if there’s no story at all. When we sit in public and eavesdrop, it may pass the time, but it doesn’t satisfy. We get a few seconds of dialogue with no context; we may invent a story for them, as Woolf does again in “An Unwritten Novel,” but it feels fake. I once tried to get a Brazilian to tell me the Portuguese word for eavesdropping, but the best he could come up with was “lack of education,” their way of indicating “bad manners.”

Of course, this is Virginia Woolf, so there are some things we know to expect, like beautifully descriptive passages:

Now to recollect by the fireside on the white square of marble. From ivory depths words rising shed their blackness, blossom and penetrate. Fallen the book; in the flame, in the smoke, in the momentary sparks—or now voyaging, the marble square pendant, minarets beneath and the Indian seas, while space rushes blue and stars glint—truth? or now, content with closeness?

Lazy and indifferent the heron returns; the sky veils her stars; then bares them.

But they don’t really go anywhere, here. The heron doesn’t lead us to truth. Monday or Tuesday is like having dinner with a famous writer when she really has nothing to say.

The most famous piece from this collection is “The Mark on the Wall,” a stream-of-consciousness essay in which Woolf stares at a mark on the wall and wonders what it is, letting her attention wander down different paths but without reaching any destination. She always returns to that mark, which might be a bit of soot, or a protruding nail, or a snail that wandered in out of the garden. She says a number of things that are right and true and beautifully expressed and almost instantly forgotten.

The piece that hangs in my memory most firmly is “A Society,” Woolf’s version of Rasselas. A group of women decide to infiltrate the institutions of men to determine if they produce good men and good books. Some have to go undercover; one of them ends up pregnant. But the end is alarming, and disappointing.

But more significant than the answers were the refusals to answer. Very few would reply at all to questions about morality and religion, and such answers as were given were not serious. Questions as to the value of money and power were almost invariably brushed aside, or pressed at extreme risk to the asker.

It seems clear to me that men don’t answer because it would expose their privilege in uncomfortable ways; indeed, privilege-exposing is one of the ways people use the internet a lot, but it doesn’t seem to gain them any friends. I have one friend that I felt close to in high school who frequently makes me feel ashamed of myself for white cis-male privilege, even though some of that privilege is canceled by poverty and homosexuality. And that’s a weird identity to have; spending time with the gay community makes it seem like coming out is a luxury of the wealthy. And yet Woolf’s women don’t speculate on male privilege, or how their incomes and ethnicity make them privileged as well. [Mental note: check on immigration figures in the early twentieth century. How much exposure would Woolf have had to Asians or Africans?] I can’t say for sure why these women stop talking; all I can say is that the answer to their questions, are men good and do they produce good books, eventually becomes unsayable. I suspect that the answer is no, but they don’t say it. The more Woolf’s women know, the closer they get to the sources of power, the less comfortable they feel criticizing ineffective social institutions. In this story, education and experience do not give women a voice the way that modern readers expect; they rob women of their speech. Maybe they do see their privilege and don’t yet have a vocabulary for it; maybe they see their privilege and don’t yet have a solution for creating a more equal society. Or maybe they don’t want to implicate people they’ve grown to love and respect. They say that innocence and purity are hardly worthwhile goals, but ignorance can feed self-satisfaction in a way that education and experience cannot.

Stranger still, after Woolf died, her husband rereleased this collection and cut “A Society” from it. The more I think about things, this fact seems stranger and stranger: the author of A Room of One’s Own at some point changed her name because of a man. Maybe she loved him, maybe she wanted to get out of her father’s house (when I try to think of what I’ve read about the relationship between her and her father, I get it confused with Maria Edgeworth), maybe society dictated and she acquiesced, I don’t know. But for a woman who writes so passionately for women’s voice and independence, it seems strange. Maybe it would have been just as strange to call her Virginia Stephen, since her maiden name is a man’s first name [Try starting a sentence, “Stephen says that women . . .”].

It’s a weird collection. They’re not quite stories and they’re not quite essays. They don’t really seem to fit well together. It’s like one of those Russel Stover samplers – here are some little bitefuls of Woolf. We hope you like them.

Enfin, here’s a bit from the end of the “Kew Gardens” piece:

Thus one couple after another with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower-bed and were enveloped in layer after layer of green blue vapour, in which at first their bodies had substance and a dash of colour, but later both substance and colour dissolved in the green-blue atmosphere. How hot it was! So hot that even the thrush chose to hop, like a mechanical bird, in the shadow of the flowers, with long pauses between one movement and the next; instead of rambling vaguely the white butterflies danced one above another, making with their white shifting flakes the outline of a shattered marble column above the tallest flowers; the glass roofs of the palm house shone as if a whole market full of shiny green umbrellas had opened in the sun; and in the drone of the aeroplane the voice of the summer sky murmured its fierce soul. Yellow and black, pink and snow white, shapes of all these colours, men, women, and children were spotted for a second upon the horizon, and then, seeing the breadth of yellow that lay upon the grass, they wavered and sought shade beneath the trees, dissolving like drops of water in the yellow and green atmosphere, staining it faintly with red and blue. It seemed as if all gross and heavy bodies had sunk down in the heat motionless and lay huddled upon the ground, but their voices went wavering from them as if they were flames lolling from the thick waxen bodies of candles. Voices. Yes, voices. Wordless voices, breaking the silence suddenly with such depth of contentment, such passion of desire, or, in the voices of children, such freshness of surprise; breaking the silence? But there was no silence; all the time the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear; like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another the city murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air.

 

This entry is tremendously long. Please, sit somewhere comfortably and refill your cup before you proceed.

This book was difficult to read. Not the vocabulary or sentence structure, it’s the outdated ideas. Some of them, anyway. It’s twenty years old; society has moved on.

Badinter is a French feminist theorist, writing about men. I should have known to be more careful. Do you remember what Virginia Woolf said about Charlotte Brontë? I’m sorry I don’t have the quotation from the letters to hand, but she basically said that Brontë had a way of putting herself between her material and her readers, which prevents her from reaching the objectivity of Jane Austen. I don’t think any of us complain about finding Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre, but the novel isn’t a work of scholarly nonfiction. Badinter’s book is, and finding the author putting her offensive opinion between me and the facts upsets me. For example,

The medicalization of homosexuality should have protected it from moral judgments. Nothing of the sort happened. The problematical question of “perversions” allows for all kinds of ambiguities. No distinction is made between disease and vice, between psychic illness and moral illness. By consensus people stigmatize these effeminate men who are incapable of reproducing!

Or in other words, she attacks homophobia not by saying that fearing and hating other people based on a difference in sexual orientation is dumb because that type of fear and hate is irrational and leads to violence; she says homophobia is dumb because girly men are inherently unthreatening. Which fills me with shock and rage, but it isn’t nearly as intolerant as her comments on transgender individuals. She denies the validity of the very idea that some people’s gender identity does not match their biological sex. Maybe you could have this idea and still be a successful academician in the 1990s, but I don’t think the attitude would get published now.

All of that being said, most of her comments are absolutely spot on. When she puts herself aside and delivers the theory, it’s accurate and well done.

In traditional societies, becoming a woman is a fairly straightforward process. A girl separates from her mother in infancy, then sometime later begins to menstruate. While it’s not a smooth ride, it is not as complicated as becoming a man. Woman is at least defined positively, she is; man exists by not being something, which is much harder to prove. Badinter describes three stages, or gates, that a person must pass through in order to become a man. First, I am not my mother. Second, I am not a girl. Third, I am not gay. These are typically accompanied by rituals that mark the person’s developing masculinity. In industrial Euro-America, we’ve lost the rituals and the traditional definition of being a man, and while some of that isn’t terrible, it leaves a void.

The difficulties of masculinity are obvious, especially nowadays, in our countries, where the power that served as man’s armor is crumbling on all sides. Without his age-old defenses, man’s wounds are exposed, and they are often raw. One has only to read the literature of European and American men of the last fifteen years to grasp the entire range of feelings by which they are assaulted: rage, anxiety, fear of women, impotence, loss of reference points, self-hatred and hatred of others, and so on. One element that is found in all these texts is a man crying.

She frequently refers to novels as evidence of men’s thought processes; some that she finds significant are Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides and everything by Philip Roth. I’ve never read the Conroy book (or seen the movie – in my childhood, watching it was proof of effeminacy, sort of like Beaches), and I hated that one Roth novel I experienced, so I’m not sure if she and I have similar ideas about masculinity. But then, I feel like there’s someone inside me who’s crying all the time and never stops, so maybe we’re not so different after all.

I AM NOT MY MOTHER

And thank God for that. I was the fifth child; my brother’s fifteen-month birthday was the day after I was born. Our proximity in time meant that our mother’s body hadn’t recovered sufficiently for me to be a completely successful pregnancy. Since there were three more before him, she was sort of worn out with the childbearing. Fortunately, I was the youngest for two and a half years, so my little sister developed in a more nurturing womb than I did. I was a sick baby – now I know that I was allergic to breast milk, but back then there wasn’t a reason; there was only the fact that I did better with soy formula. My mother didn’t like nursing anyway. She likes babies because they love you without your having to work for it, but that’s hardly enough reason to have seven. I suppose the point is that for me, the mother-child dyad was never as pleasant or healthy as other people seem to think it should be.

On the other hand, if this total love has not been reciprocal, the child will spend the rest of his life painfully seeking it.

And that explains a lot.

Of course there exist here and there admirable mothers who give their child what he needs to be happy without holding him prisoner, who spare him excesses of frustration and guilt, hindrances to his development. But these “gifted” women, like great artists, are miraculous exceptions that confirm the rule that the reality is difficult, unclear, and most often unsatisfying.

Indeed, yes. As an adult, I find that my relationship with my mother is still difficult, unclear, and unsatisfying. I talk with her once or twice a year of my own volition, and from time to time I text her because she doesn’t know how to text back. She likes to feel that she’s involved in my life, and I like to feel that she’s not. My mother is not great with the idea that we’re different people; she is the most adamant about projecting an identity onto me that doesn’t fit with reality. She’s been doing this as long as I can remember, at least as far back as my parents’ divorce. I was eight, so I retreated from my feelings, and thus the entire outside world. It was easier for my mom to fill in the blanks with her own rage than to get to know me. Remember the six siblings, most of whom directed their energy outward and so got the attention they needed. I found greater acceptance from my remaining parent by not needing attention. It was easier for me not to challenge her assumptions, to let her act as if she knew what was going on inside me until I could figure it out. I didn’t really figure it out until I was an adult, so that became how I interact with the world. It’s unpleasant for me to assert myself if I’m not being confronted directly; it’s still easier to let other people assume I’m the same as they are. Which I seldom am. This is how I have so many people who think of themselves as my friend whom I don’t. And this is also why I feel alone most of the time, because I need to feel known in order to feel accepted, or like I belong. I keep searching for this mythical feeling of home/family/security without finding it.

I AM NOT A GIRL

I have three older brothers. My mother and my older sister really wanted a girl. I was a bit of a disappointment, from birth. And now I find myself in the midst of a community of men who sometimes use female pronouns and references, which is very odd. Just last week a friend of mine called me princess – I have rarely been so offended. I had to think through the fact that he enjoys being offensive and pushing limits; he’s cultivated this persona of the lovable idiot so that he can say whatever he feels like, and if it’s bothersome, he can fall back on the “I’m too stupid to know better” routine. It’s designed to turn other people’s anger into pity, and is actually a fairly common tactic among men of our socioeconomic group.

A girl is just one of those things that I am not, and other people seem to want me to be. No matter how many times I erase it, they keep writing it on my blank slate.

I AM NOT GAY

Okay, so in my case we all know this one isn’t true. But people have long expected this as part of being an adult man.

Masculine identity is associated with the fact of possessing, taking, penetrating, dominating, and asserting oneself, if necessary, by force. Feminine identity is associated with the fact of being possessed, docile, passive, submissive. Sexual “normality” and identity are inscribed within the context of the domination of a woman by a man. According to this point of view, homosexuality, which involves the domination of a man by another man, is considered, if not a mental illness, at least a gender identity disorder.

We all know that a long time ago some homosexuality was considered a normal part of a boy’s education. Some groups believed that a boy had to drink the “man’s milk” from a penis in order to become a man; others that the close relationship with an older man was necessary to learn how to be a man. The part that was always missing, though, is just how much older this older man should be. We imagine guys in their fifties sleeping with ten-year-olds, but that’s not how it was done. Older man really means only slightly older; it’s much more likely that a fourteen-year-old was hooking up with an eighteen-year-old. People expected a man to put away his homosexuality when he became an adult ready to marry. Under this model, men who are honestly gay are seen as either arrested in development or regressive. And, men who are “normal” and straight these days deny themselves the expression of a natural desire. Gay is a socially constructed identity; before a hundred and fifty years ago (estimating), gay was an action, not a person. The heteros have lost a lot by this polarization we have; if they get interested in another guy once, they feel like it ruins everything they are, it makes them not-man. Teenagers may look around the locker room, but they’re often too afraid to reach out and touch. Even with adults, it’s natural for usually straight guys to form an attachment with another man, but now it’s overladen with the “No homo” recitative. It’s a special friend who will let you sit in the seat next to him in an uncrowded movie theatre.

But, some facts:

Thus, the sociologist Frederick Whitam, after having worked for many years in homosexual communities in countries as different as the United States, Guatemala, Brazil, and the Philippines, suggests six conclusions: (1) homosexual persons appear in all societies, (2) the percentage of homosexuals seems the same in all societies and remains stable over time, (3) social norms neither prevent nor facilitate the emergence of a homosexual orientation, (4) homosexual subcultures appear in all societies that have a sufficient number of persons, (5) homosexuals of different societies tend to resemble one another as to their behavior and their interests, and (6) all societies produce a similar continuum between very masculine and very feminine homosexuals.

PROBLEM MAN 1: THE TOUGH GUY

The tough guy is the natural response to this sort of society. He denies any sort of femininity in himself. If he feels compassion or emotion, he hides it. From himself, if possible. Acknowledging any internal womanishness is failure. The problem with this is that society has arbitrarily divided basic human qualities into masculine and feminine categories, so the tough guy is really only half a person.

Jourard postulates that men have fundamentally the same psychological needs as women (to love and be loved, to communicate emotions and feelings, to be active and passive). However, the ideal of masculinity forbids men to satisfy these “human” needs. Others have insisted on the physical dangers that lie in wait for the tough guy: boys are forced to take risks that end in accidents (e.g., various sports); they smoke, drink, and use motorcycles and cars as symbols of virility. Some of them find confirmation of their virility only in violence, either personal or collective. In addition, the competition and stress that follow in their professional life, and their obsession with performance, only add to men’s fragility. The efforts demanded of men to conform to the masculine ideal cause anguish, emotional difficulties, fear of failure, and potentially dangerous and destructive compensatory behaviors. When one sizes up the psychosomatic uniqueness of the human being, the influence of psychic distress on physical illness, and when one realizes that men find it harder to consult medical doctors and psychologists and do so less often than women, then the shorter life expectancy of men is easier to understand. If one adds that in our society the life of a man is worth less than that of a woman (women and children first!), that he serves as cannon fodder in time of war, and that the depiction of his death (in the movies and on television) has become mere routine, a cliché of virility, one has good reason to regard traditional masculinity as life-threatening.

The violence is really a problem, especially in the United States. We have more people in jail than any other country in the world, and that doesn’t cover the crimes that aren’t reported.

Rape is the crime that is increasing the most in the United States. The FBI estimates that if this tendency continues, one woman out of four will be raped once in her life. If one adds that the number of women beaten by their husbands every year is estimated at 1.8 million, one will have some idea of the violence that surrounds them and the fear of men they legitimately feel. The threat of rape – which has nothing to do with the fantasies of the hysteric – has caused one woman to say: “It alters the meaning and feel of the night . . . and it is night half the time.” More generally, the fear of being raped looms over the daily life of all women.

I question the word all. It’s a big world, and I don’t believe that 51% of it is living in fear. But more of them are than I might realize. Strange women seem to find me threatening; being alone and silent and male is enough to be considered dangerous. Though I suppose the silence and the solitude aren’t as important as the maleness. Giving women I don’t know a wide berth seems to be a good solution, and living in the Middle East was good training. Now I don’t even look at women.

PROBLEM MAN 2: THE SOFT MAN

For a long time I dealt with the problem of being a man as many others do: we reject the aggressive, violent qualities of the tough guy and end up a softie.

The couple that consists of a feminist and a soft man share all household tasks and organize “a scrupulously exacting democracy, to such a degree must the division of tasks be fair.” Merete Gerlach-Nielsen points out that adaptation to the role of the soft man is not easy: it is often the feminist spouse who imposes this new behavior on her partner, though it may be profoundly alien to him. The man feels his masculinity is being attacked, his identity becomes uncertain, and most often the couple separate.

The ex and I were like this at first. I spent my undergraduate career reading feminist theory, and shortly before graduation I married someone who seemed to share these ideals. But after a year or two she didn’t want a soft man anymore. She wanted a tough guy, but I wasn’t him. So she lived with a man she didn’t respect, and I was plagued with my own inadequacy. Then, when the kids were born, she thought I was too violent to be left with them. I kept being pushed this way and that without being respected, without someone who claimed to love me taking the time to find out who I am.

The absence of attention (love?) on the part of a father prevents a son from identifying with him and establishing his own masculine identity. As a consequence, this son, lacking a father’s love, remains in the orbit of his mother, attracted by feminine values alone. He regards his father and his virility with the eyes of the mother. If the mother sees the father as “maybe brutal . . . unfeeling, obsessed . . . and the son often grows up with a wounded image of his father” and refuses to be like him.

Or, in my case, the son reproduces his parents’ relationship in his own marriage, with a similar situation of depression, dissatisfaction, suicidal ideation, and separation. I can only hope that my sons are going to make better choices.

To judge from Ernest Hemingway’s biography or those of other famous American men, an all-powerful mother who ceaselessly castrates those around her and a father obsessed by a feeling of incapacity produce boys who are very badly off.

I feel less incapable now than when I was still with the ex. Getting divorced was a terrible experience, but I’ve gained so much in self-respect that I’m glad I did it.

THE WAY FORWARD

Badinter points out that fathers are separated from their children in almost all these situations, and writes that bringing fathers back into their children’s lives is the best way to create a masculinity that doesn’t destroy traditionally feminine virtues.

All the studies show that paternal involvement also depends on the willingness of the mother. Yet many women do not want to see their companion become more occupied with the children. In the 1980s two studies showed that fathers who wanted to involve themselves a little more were not encouraged to do so: 60 percent to 80 percent of their spouses were not in favor.

To explain their rejecting attitude, many women mention their husband’s incompetence, which makes more work for them than it saves. But on a deeper level, they experience their maternal preeminence as a form of power that they do not want to share, even at the price of physical and mental exhaustion.

As with FGM, male personality mutilation is often performed by women. The ex hasn’t wanted me to be involved with her children for a long time. She used to say that she did, but she wanted me to interact with them in ways that she had scripted without giving me my lines. Naturally, I didn’t perform according to expectations. Even today, her children are her source of power and identity. I’m not sure if she exists without them. She thinks I don’t love them, perhaps because I understand myself as a separate human being.

Single mothers who work full time know that children are a heavy responsibility. For some, the emotional compensations are well worth the price. But for others, the reasons for the choice have more to do with guilt and a sense of duty – pressures that as yet do not weigh very heavily on fathers!

Badinter doesn’t have much use for fathers either, apparently. Guilt and a sense of duty weigh so heavily on me that they’ve often pointed me toward self-harm.

The thing that Badinter couldn’t predict, that I believe no one could have predicted, is what has actually happened. There was this show called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The title serves as an abbreviation for this complex cultural phenomenon where heterosexual men have appropriated traits seen as characteristic of homosexuals while retaining their heterosexual “real man” identity. For a while there was the metrosexual, who seemed totally gay while still being totally hetero; now straight guys put some work into their hair and clothes, and even get a little flamboyant in their style. Badinter wanted a mixture of tough guy and soft man attitudes, and it’s sort of happened by absorbing the gays instead of by reforming parenting styles.

One would have to be ignorant of identity problems to believe that one and the same generation of men, brought up with the old model, could succeed all at once in performing the dangerous triple somersault: first, questioning an ancestral virility, then accepting a feared femininity, and last, inventing a different masculinity compatible with that femininity.

I’m not sure where in this triple somersault we are now. I’d like to think that we’re on that last stage of things, but there’s no real way of knowing. The thing is that it’s like an idea I used to think about a lot: that every person goes through the ages of history in his own life. In childhood we’re interested in physical pleasures and making everything into a god, like the classical empires; later childhood is sort of Medieval, with the superstition and the ignorance; the Renaissance is an early adolescence, followed by an Age of Reason in young adulthood, a bit of Romance/Romanticism, and a Victorian middle age. Then it’s all (Post-) Modern and fragmented as we drift into senility. We each have to question the old virility, accept the feminine side of ourselves, and then figure out what that means. Every man has to relearn how to be a man; we recreate masculinity in ourselves all the time. That’s the inevitable result of an identity that is always provisional and based on negation. The important question is, is it the same old masculinity or something new? Does our gender performance lead to violence against women or not? Is it based in fear or respect? Are we more concerned about being a man or being a human?

More generally, those in favor of the tough guy or the soft man are making the mistake of thinking that there exist certain qualities exclusively characteristic of one sex and alien to the other, such as aggressivity, supposed to be specifically masculine, and compassion, essentially feminine. In fact, whether one considers aggressivity as an innate virtue or an acquired disease, one would have to be blind to say that women are not aggressive. Even if the patriarchal education and culture have taught them – more than men – to turn it against themselves, women are thoroughly familiar with this human impulse. They are, like men, influenced by the degree of violence in the social environment. Aggressivity is characteristic of both sexes, even if it is expressed differently. What is more, it should not be identified merely with a destructive, gratuitous violence. It is not only that, as Freud saw. It can also be equivalent to survival, action, and creation. Its absolute contrary is passivity and death, and its absence can mean loss of freedom and human dignity.

This entry has gone on for rather a long time, rather longer than necessary for a book this short. It provoked a strong response, and I have even more quotations that point out that my experience of my sexuality (convinced I was straight, marrying and having kids, then coming out) is far from idiosyncratic, as well as my experience of the homosexual community (not so polarized into female or male gender stereotypes as people think), and I was going to talk about a return to nearly traditional heroes after September 11, but it’s really quite long enough. Just one last thing:

Today, in our societies in which rituals have lost their meaning, the transition is more problematic, for it is not sanctioned by glaring proofs.

Fight Club showed us that rituals have not lost their meaning. Meaningful rituals are perhaps rare, but humans will never completely lose their taste for them. And while becoming a man is indeed problematic, we affirm each other; we negotiate manhood in communities rather than on the lone prairie. Every day we remind each other that being a man does not mean cleaving one’s heart in twain and throwing away the worser part of it; it means accepting all of ourselves, kindness and strength and compassion and anger and fortitude and adventure. All things human belong to all beings human. It takes a real man to love himself and others.

Had I picked up this novel when it was first published, I doubt I would know what to think. Woolf’s first two novels, The Voyage Out and Night and Day, are fairly straightforward, the narrative voice simple and clear, the books move as we expect books to. Then along comes Jacob’s Room, and it’s none of those things. Now, we know Woolf as experimenting with the techniques of painting in her novels, some blending of Cubism, Impressionism, and Expressionism, but in Jacob’s Room she’s still working on her technique. It’s kind of like what Mrs Dalloway would be, if it were written by David Lynch – disjointed, pregnant with the unsaid, flirting with obscenity, not making much sense the first time through but not establishing sufficient exigency to experience it again right away.

In short, the observer is choked with observations. Only to prevent us from being submerged by chaos, nature and society between them have arranged a system of classification which is simplicity itself; stalls, boxes, amphitheatre, gallery. The moulds are filled nightly. There is no need to distinguish details. But the difficulty remains – one has to choose. For though I have no wish to be Queen of England or only for a moment – I would willingly sit beside her; I would hear the Prime Minister’s gossip; the countess whisper, and share her memories of halls and gardens; the massive fronts of the respectable conceal after all their secret code; or why so impermeable? And then, doffing one’s own headpiece, how strange to assume for a moment some one’s – any one’s – to be a man of valour who has ruled the Empire; to refer while Brangaena sings to the fragments of Sophocles, or see in a flash, as the shepherd pipes his tune, bridges and aqueducts. But no – we must choose. Never was there a harsher necessity! or one which entails greater pain, more certain disaster; for wherever I seat myself, I die in exile: Whittaker in his lodging-house; Lady Charles at the Manor.

After reading the book, I think about how we react to people after they’ve died. We look at every moment of their lives at once, as if the person never aged but lived all his life in one Eternal Now. Fiction and biography give us the idea that lives have trajectory, as if death is a destination that we are all traveling toward, but our lived experience of death is different. Our daily lives seem static, and one day passes like the next, and then suddenly someone isn’t here any more and we forget the bad things and tell the funny stories and good impressions, the loves and endearing habits without the hatred and mistakes. We can forgive the dead nearly anything, because it’s often only after someone is dead that we realize that love is more durable than anger, and therefore more significant.

In subject matter, this book comes nearer D. H. Lawrence than anything else I’ve read by Woolf. She’s much franker about sex than she is customarily, especially the idea that some men prefer each other’s company to that of women. Young men strip their clothes off but don’t go swimming immediately, and some men reach middle age without marrying but forming possessive attachments with their peers. But the details are reserved for loose women.

The letter lay upon the hall table; Florinda coming in that night took it up with her, put it on the table as she kissed Jacob, and Jacob seeing the hand, left it there under the lamp, between the biscuit-tin and the tobacco-box. They shut the bedroom door behind them.

The sitting-room neither knew nor cared. The door was shut; and to suppose that wood, when it creaks, transmits anything save that rats are busy and wood dry is childish. These old houses are only brick and wood, soaked in human sweat, grained with human dirt. But if the pale blue envelope lying by the biscuit-box had the feelings of a mother, the heart was torn by the little creak, the sudden stir. Behind the door was the obscene thing, the alarming presence, and terror would come over her as at death, or the birth of a child. Better, perhaps, burst in and face it than sit in the antechamber listening to the little creak, the sudden stir, for her heart was swollen, and pain threaded it. My son, my son – such would be her cry, uttered to hide her vision of him stretched with Florinda, inexcusable, irrational, in a woman with three children living at Scarborough. And the fault lay with Florinda. Indeed, when the door opened and the couple came out, Mrs Flanders would have flounced upon her – only it was Jacob who came first, in his dressing-gown, amiable, authoritative, beautifully healthy, like a baby after an airing, with an eye clear as running water. Florinda followed, lazily stretching; yawning a little; arranging her hair at the looking-glass – while Jacob read his mother’s letter.

The concerns that Woolf will become more well-known for do assert themselves from time to time, as in this passage that seems to belong to A Room of One’s Own or Three Guineas:

But coming along Gerrard Street was a tall man in a shabby coat. A shadow fell across Evelina’s window – Jacob’s shadow, though it was not Jacob. And Fanny turned and walked along Gerrard Street and wished that she had read books. Nick never read books, never talked of Ireland, or the House of Lords; and as for his finger-nails! She would learn Latin and read Virgil. She had been a great reader. She had read Scott; she had read Dumas. At the Slade no one read. But no one knew Fanny at the Slade, or guessed how empty it seemed to her; the passion for ear-rings, for dances, for Tonks and Steer – when it was only the French who could paint, Jacob said. For the moderns were futile; painting the least respectable of the arts; and why read anything but Marlowe and Shakespeare, Jacob said, and Fielding if you must read novels?

“Fielding,” said Fanny, when the man in Charing Cross Road asked her what book she wanted.

She bought Tom Jones.

At ten o’clock in the morning, in a room which she shared with a school teacher, Fanny Elmer read Tom Jones – that mystic book. For this dull stuff (Fanny thought) about people with odd names is what Jacob likes. Good people like it. Dowdy women who don’t mind how they cross their legs read Tom Jones – a mystic book; for there is something, Fanny thought, about books which if I had been educated I could have liked – much better than ear-rings and flowers, she sighed, thinking of the corridors at the Slade and the fancy-dress dance next week. She had nothing to wear.

They are real, thought Fanny Elmer, setting her feet on the mantelpiece. Some people are. Nick perhaps, only he was so stupid. And women never – except Miss Sargent, but she went off at lunch-time and gave herself airs. There they sat quietly of a night reading, she thought. Not going to music-halls; not looking in at shop windows; not wearing each other’s clothes, like Robertson who had worn her shawl, and she had worn his waistcoat, which Jacob could only do very awkwardly; for he liked Tom Jones.

There it lay on her lap, in double columns, price three and sixpence; the mystic book in which Henry Fielding ever so many years ago rebuked Fanny Elmer for feasting on scarlet, in perfect prose, Jacob said. For he never read modern novels. He liked Tom Jones.

“I do like Tom Jones,” said Fanny, at five-thirty that same day early in April when Jacob took out his pipe in the arm-chair opposite.

Many people seem to think that the significant thing about someone is whether she reads, and everyone who loves books will naturally have a great deal in common about which they can talk. Fanny Elmer has realized the lie in that thought. It’s not enough just to read; you have to read the same things, though frankly even with people who like the same books as I do, I don’t have much to say. I feel a great surge of affection for someone who shares my taste in books, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into conversation. Our books shape our pattern of thinking, and it’s the recognition of the similarity in mindsets that draws readers together, but generally in a companionable silence.

It is curious, lying in a boat, to watch the waves. Here are three coming regularly one after another, all much of a size. Then, hurrying after them comes a fourth, very large and menacing; it lifts the boat; on it goes; somehow merges without accomplishing anything; flattens itself out with the rest.

What can be more violent than the fling of boughs in a gale, the tree yielding itself all up the trunk, to the very tip of the branch, streaming and shuddering the way the wind blows, yet never flying in dishevelment away? The corn squirms and abases itself as if preparing to tug itself free from the roots, and yet is tied down.

Why, from the very windows, even in the dusk, you see a swelling run through the street, an aspiration, as with arms outstretched, eyes desiring, mouths agape. And then we peaceably subside. For if the exaltation lasted we should be blown like foam into the air. The stars would shine through us. We should go down the gale in salt drops – as sometimes happens. For the impetuous spirits will have none of this cradling. Never any swaying or aimlessly lolling for them. Never any making believe, or lying cosily, or genially supposing that one is much like another, fire warm, wine pleasant, extravagance a sin.

When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I felt confined by government policies and social norms. The impetuous spirit in me is still raging against confinement, but now it’s an inconvenient economic situation penning me in. I just want the freedom to go out and find someone to love; it doesn’t seem like much to ask for, but apparently it’s entirely too much. I’m going to have to work my ass off at two jobs just for the privilege of driving an hour to the nearest establishment for men of my type, buying a drink or two, and meeting someone. I keep thinking that life shouldn’t be this hard, but it continues as ever, heedless of my railing.

My grandfather died last week. The funeral is a week from tomorrow, and already I can feel his life being flattened under a slide for the microscope. My mother will remember that he was a churchgoer who served in World War II, worked for the government, and raised a large family. Other family members will remember his support for liberal politics, and the fact that he loved his children more than religious dogma. I’ll think of how he always played with us when they came to visit. I’ll miss buying a bag of pecans at Christmas (and a bag of Dove chocolates for my grandmother, who died a few years ago), and playing Scrabble with one of the world’s sorest losers. He didn’t lose often, probably because he kept the score. He always said, “A scorekeeper who doesn’t win isn’t a very good scorekeeper.” I’m very proud of the fact that he spent his time in the war saving lives without taking any. He worked closely with General Eisenhower, and he used his radio to deceive the Germans into thinking Allied troops were where they weren’t, often by being himself one of only two American soldiers in an area. He was kind, and patriotic, and loving, and popular in a way that I don’t think I shall ever be. When I think that I will never see him again, that word never seems to make my life stretch out like a desert highway with no relief or shelter in sight. Death always makes me feel so alone.

After reading a book about him, I still don’t feel as if I knew Jacob Flanders well at all. I don’t think anyone else does either. I worry that when I die I’ll leave a similar impression on the world. I’ve been called mysterious and secretive, but I really just want to love and be loved. And in order for me to trust that I am loved, I need to feel known. I don’t want to end up like him, a bunch of letters and receipts scattered around a room, with a pair of old shoes.

O M G. Of all the books in the Simon & Schuster catalog, why, why would you put a reading group guide in the back of this one? It is, first and foremost, a comic novel. We read it because it’s funny, not because it’s thought-provoking. Christopher Moore is my favourite bit of fluff, but then, since I read Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf for fun, I may have skewed definitions. Also, you’d think a house like S&S would be more careful about typos. This one is full of them.

I first read one of Moore’s vampire books around the time that I first read The Waves, so it’s feeling a bit like Old Home Week around here. I kind of need that because I’m in such an upheaval. Two weeks ago I was looking for work, and now I’ve moved halfway across the country and just finished my first week at my new job. I’m going to look at apartments this afternoon, and if that turns out well, I’ll move in on Monday or Tuesday. I’ve also registered on a dating site for the first time in my life, and it’s convinced me that I’m much more attractive than I had ever thought. Not that men are seeking me out, but I’ve seen some of their pictures. I am just not that inbred.

So, the book.

They might have been the Magnificent Seven or The Seven Samurai. If each of them had been a trained professional, a gunfighter with a character flaw, or a broken warrior with a past – or if each had a secret reason for joining a suicide mission, an antihero’s sense of justice, and a burning desire to put things right – they might have become an elite fighting unit whose resourcefulness and courage would lead them to victory over those who would oppose or oppress. But the fact was, they were a disorganized bunch of perpetual adolescents, untrained and unprepared for anything but throwing stock and having fun: the Animals.

We begin by meeting the Emperor of San Francisco, a homeless senior citizen with two dogs. He’s loved and considered crazy by all. He sees a vampire and spends the rest of the book wandering through the city, helping people and hunting evil. He’s based on a real person; there was a homeless man who proclaimed himself Emperor of San Francisco, I think in the late nineteenth century. He even sent diplomatic letters to the heads of actual states. When he died, his funeral was one of the largest the city had ever seen. Moore imagines him forward into the mid-1990s, but I don’t think the Emperor would mind. Despite the fact that we see him pissing in alleys and sleeping on benches, dumpster-diving for dinner, he’s always portrayed as having this incredible sense of dignity and self-worth. He may need to bathe more frequently, but that doesn’t change the fact that he is the only royalty this city will ever have.

And then Jody gets turned into a vampire. She’s a petite redhead with a soulless job at Transamerica who lives with a too-good-for-all-this boyfriend named Kurt. He’s not important. She’s rather attractive but still has low self-esteem. Becoming a vampire is actually really good for her, because it helps her get past a number of mental blocks that had been preventing her from living her life.

Not long ago she would have been terrified if she’d found herself in the Tenderloin at night. She couldn’t even remember coming down here during the day. Where had that fear gone? What had happened to her that she could face off with a vampire, bite off his fingers, and carry a dead body up a flight of stairs and shove it under the bed without even a flinch? Where was the fear and loathing? She didn’t miss it, she just wondered what had happened to it.

It wasn’t as if she were without fear. She was afraid of daylight, afraid of the police discovering her, and of Tommy rejecting her and leaving her alone. New fears and familiar fears, but there was nothing in the dark that frightened her, not the future, not even the old vampire – and she knew now, having tasted his blood, that he was old, very old. She saw him as an enemy, and her mind casted for strategies to defeat him, but she was not really afraid of him anymore: curious, but not afraid.

In some ways, turning into a vampire for her is like getting divorced was for me. Once the worst thing you can imagine happens to you, you’ve nothing left to be frightened of. I’m not afraid of being alone, or of being really really poor, or of being hungry for a few months. I didn’t transition as quickly as she does, but the end result is similar.

And so we meet Tommy. He’s a sweet kid from the Midwest, probably not far from where I’ve just moved to, who wants to become a writer.

Finally Harley said, “Well, if you’re going to be a writer, you can’t stay here.”

“Pardon?” Tommy said.

“You got to go to a city and starve. I don’t know a Kafka from a nuance, but I know that if you’re going to be a writer, you got to starve. You won’t be any damn good if you don’t starve.”

“I don’t know, Harley,” Tom Senior said, not sure that he liked the idea of his skinny son starving.

“Who bowled a three hundred last Wednesday, Tom?”

“You did.”

“And I say the boy’s got to go to the city and starve.”

Tom Flood looked at Tommy as if the boy were standing on the trapdoor of the gallows. “You sure about this writer thing, son?”

Tommy nodded.

“Can I make you a sandwich?”

So, while visions of Kerouac dance in his head, Tommy drives to San Francisco to starve. He ends up sharing a room with five illegal immigrants from China who start leaving him gifts in the hope that he’ll marry them and they can get a green card. He gets a job supervising the night crew at the local Safeway, and meets Jody. She needs someone to handle daytime business transactions, like picking up her last paycheck and finding a new apartment, and he needs someone to rescue him from The Five Wongs. It’s a match made in . . . well, not heaven, but they could each do a lot worse (Kurt, one of the Wongs).

Tommy’s vampire bible is The Vampire Lestat, and apparently there are more subtle references to Anne Rice, including a chapter titled A Nod to The Queen of the Damned, but I’ve never read any of her books so I can’t comment. I haven’t seen any of the movies either. I once read the first chapter of The Witching Hour, but I was still caught up in being the perfect Christian husband and father, and I could tell that if I kept reading this book it’d take over my life and I’d be sucked into the world of horror fiction. I’ve got space in my life now; I suppose I could give her a try. The thing with a character in a book using another book as his vampire bible is that every author changes the rules. Count Dracula could go outside during the day; he was just weakened at sunrise and sunset. True Blood vampires can stay awake, but they start bleeding inconveniently and burst into flame in the sun. Jody burns in the sun, but she dies suddenly whenever the sun rises, and pops awake just as suddenly when it sets. She misses the speech about how to be a vampire, primarily because Elijah isn’t all protective of his progeny like the True Blood guys. He’s intensely lonely, so every now and again he turns someone into a vampire and watches her suffer and die over the first few days or weeks. Jody has to prove that she’s going to survive before he’ll teach her anything. Instead, he keeps leaving dead homeless people outside her apartment.

The murders, of course, lead to the police. Rivera and Cavuto are two of my favourite fictional detectives. Rivera is a little Latin guy, smart, good at his job. Cavuto is big, Italian, and gay; he overcompensates for that last one by being really aggressive. That whole hypermacho closeted thing. They do their job, making trouble for Tommy and Jody, then eventually helping.

The Animals are the stocking crew at Safeway. Most of them are not fully realized as characters – just a quick detail about skin colour or type of hair and a single personality quirk – but that’s what sequels are for. Their leader is Simon Wheeler, a loud cowboy type who can’t read, so probably isn’t qualified for any other sort of work. Simon is kind of like Tommy’s dad’s friend Harley, the Alpha who needs a Beta sidekick. Moore explores the psychology of the Beta male more explicitly in A Dirty Job, but you can see the traces of it in most of his books. Another sterling beta example is the protagonist of Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity. By the end of the book, though, Tommy doesn’t need Simon’s protection or guidance. He’s still a nineteen-year-old idiot (sorry, folks, it comes with the age. I was one too), but he can stand on his own feet.

It can be easy to disregard subtitles, but I think this one is important. This is a comic novel, yes, the cover art tells us that much. It’s also a vampire story, with some of those tropes thrown in. But the important thing here is that this is a love story. It’s about Tommy and Jody meeting and falling in love. They have some issues that make it complicated, but this is essentially a romantic comedy.

Jody thought, I guess not everything changed when I changed. Without realizing how she got there, Jody found herself at Macy’s in Union Square. It was as if some instinctual navigator, activated by conflict with men, had guided her there. A dozen times in the past she had found herself here, arriving with a purse full of tear-smeared Kleenex and a handful of credit cards tilted toward their limit. It was a common, and very human, response. She spotted other women doing the same thing: flipping through racks, testing fabrics, checking prices, fighting back tears and anger, and actually believing salespeople who told them that they looked stunning.

Jody wondered if department stores knew what percentage of their profits came from domestic unrest. As she passed a display of indecently expensive cosmetics, she spotted a sign that read: “Mélange Youth Cream – Because he’ll never understand why you’re worth it.” Yep, they knew. The righteous and the wronged shall find solace in a sale at Macy’s.

One other important thing to mention, though. We’re in San Francisco in the mid-90s. There are gay men everywhere, selling makeup, waiting tables, and dying of AIDS. It’s just that most of them are not main characters. And one of them proves that Moore, as well as making me laugh all the way through the book, can also bring me to tears.

His name was Philip. His friends called him Philly. He was twenty-three. He had grown up in Georgia and had run away to the City when he was sixteen so he wouldn’t have to pretend to be something he was not. He had run away to the City to find love. After the one-night stands with rich older men, after the bars and the bathhouses, after finding out that he wasn’t a freak, that there were other people just like him, after the last of the confusion and shame had settled like red Georgia dust, he’d found love.

He’d lived with his lover in a studio in the Castro discrict. And in that studio, sitting on the edge of a rented hospital bed, he had filled a syringe with morphine and injected it into his lover and held his hand while he died. Later, he cleared away the bed pans and the IV stand and the machine that he used to suck the fluid out of his lover’s lungs and he threw them in the trash. The doctor said to hold on to them – that he would need them.

They buried Philly’s lover in the morning and they took the embroidered square of fabric that was draped on the casket and folded it and handed it to him like the flag to a war widow. He got to keep it for a while before it was added to the quilt. He had it in his pocket now.

His hair was gone from the chemotherapy. His lungs hurt, and his feet hurt; the sarcomas that spotted his body were worst on his feet and his face. His joints ached and he couldn’t keep his food down, but he could still walk. So he walked.

He walked up Polk Street, head down, at four in the morning, because he could. He could still walk.

When he reached the doorway of a Russian restaurant, Jody stepped out in front of him and he stopped and looked at her.

Somewhere, way down deep, he found that there was a smile left. “Are you the Angel of Death?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“It’s good to see you,” Philly said.

She held her arms out to him.

Has it really been seven years since I last read this book? The receipt is stuck in the back, and I don’t think I’ve read it since the first time, so yes. I bought it at the Borders in Tallahassee, two weeks after my birthday. That probably means that the Borders Rewards people sent me a 25% off coupon for turning twenty-eight. Now Borders is gone, Tallahassee is no longer part of my life, and my life is such that I would not then have recognized it as my future. But the books remain.

I’ve read some people say that The Waves most perfectly reflects Virginia Woolf’s ideas about fiction. That may be true; I can’t really speak to her nonfiction or meta-writing. I love Impressionism, as in the earlier Mrs Dalloway, but this one feels like it’s approaching the line of too much. I mean, if what’s happening in my room right now were happening in The Waves, she’d write the lyrics to the music I’m listening to instead of the words I’m writing. This book stays on the periphery and rarely approaches the center, the part of the story that we’re used to caring about. Seven years ago I was reading my first Woolf novel and enraptured with her language; this time around I was looking for a narrative and had a hard time figuring out what, if anything, was actually happening.

There are six narrators: Bernard, Louis, Neville, Jinny, Rhoda, and Susan. This isn’t some weird Faulknerian thing where you have to guess: Woolf makes sure the reader always knows who’s speaking. They’re not really friends, but their lives wind in and out of each other, and once or twice they put some effort into meeting. They begin the novel as very young children in the same school; then they go to their separate schools, finishing schools, universities, careers, lives, death. Throughout the novel there are short passages describing an idealized country house, which passes through different times of a day as the characters pass through different times in their lives. This voice sometimes sounds like Bernard, sometimes like Louis, sometimes Neville or Rhoda. Possibly Susan, but never Jinny, who I doubt would spend a great deal of time studying a house empty of people. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that at different times each of them sounds like it, because this voice is the most consistent.

There’s also Percival, who in some ways seems to be the center of the novel. As with all centers in this novel, his voice is missing. Even he sometimes vanishes from before our eyes. The six narrators get together to bid him goodbye as he leaves for India, and once he arrives the narration ignores him all through dinner until it’s time for him to leave the restaurant. Almost as soon as he gets to India he dies, leaving them all to grieve in their different ways. At one point someone wonders if they aren’t all really a single person, and if they are Percival is probably it.

Heavens! how they caught at me as I left the room, the fangs of that old pain! the desire for some one not there. For whom? I did not know at first; then remembered Percival. I had not thought of him for months. Now to laugh with him, to laugh with him at Neville – that was what I wanted, to walk off arm-in-arm together laughing. But he was not there. The place was empty.

It is strange how the dead leap out on us at street corners, or in dreams.

That first time I read this book I identified most strongly with Bernard. I sometimes feel like we should all bond with Bernard the most on a first read-through: he’s fascinated by stories, so he spends his childhood transforming experience into narrative, which is extremely helpful in a book full of stream-of-consciousness narrations. Bernard also narrates the most, primarily because the final chapter is his, and he rattles away like an old man for sixty pages. He seems to be trying to form some coherent whole out of six disparate lives, remembering his childhood from his advanced age.

But we were all different. The wax – the virginal wax that coats the spine melted in different patches for each of us. The growl of the boot-boy making love to the tweeny among the gooseberry bushes; the clothes blown out hard on the line; the dead man in the gutter; the apple tree, stark in the moonlight; the rat swarming with maggots; the lustre dripping blue – our white wax was streaked and stained by each of these differently. Louis was disgusted by the nature of human flesh; Rhoda by our cruelty; Susan could not share; Neville wanted order; Jinny love; and so on. We suffered terribly as we became separate bodies.

Though, realistically speaking, they always were.

I also felt a good deal of affinity with Louis, that first time of reading, because he is so perpetually an outsider. Even in his early youth he knew he was different than the others because of his Australian accent. It was also clear to him from an early age that his adult life was going to be different. Louis is the most clearly bound by economic necessity. His father, the banker at Brisbane, can’t afford to send him to the university with Neville and Bernard, so he goes to work at eighteen (ish?) even though he was a better student than anyone else. He works in an office and reads Latin poetry at lunch. He embraces this identity, and even after he becomes an economic success story, he still prefers to live in a little attic room with his books and his loneliness. I don’t really like him as an adult – he never seems really happy.

This time around, I connected with Rhoda a little better. She tends to efface herself, so it’s easy to forget that you read from her if you’re in a good place in your life. Now that I’ve been through a great deal of suffering, including suicidal ideation, I can understand her better. Rhoda sees the beauty of the world a little more clearly than the others, but she also sees its horror. The beauty and the horror cross and recross themselves in her mind until running out to buy stockings becomes a tale of Gothic terror.

This is Oxford Street. Here are hate, jealousy, hurry, and indifference frothed into the wild semblance of life. These are our companions. Consider the friends with whom we sit and eat. I think of Louis, reading the sporting column of an evening newspaper, afraid of ridicule; a snob. He says, looking at the people passing, he will shepherd us if we will follow. If we submit he will reduce us to order. Thus he will smooth out the death of Percival to his satisfaction, looking fixedly over the cruet, past the houses at the sky. Bernard, meanwhile, flops red-eyed into some arm-chair. He will have out his notebook; under D, he will enter ‘Phrases to be used on the deaths of friends.’ Jinny, pirouetting across the room, will perch on the arm of his chair and ask, ‘Did he love me?’ ‘More than he loved Susan?’ Susan, engaged to her farmer in the country, will stand for a second with the telegram before her, holding a plate; and then, with a kick of her heel, slam to the oven door. Neville, after staring at the window through his tears will see through his tears, and ask, ‘Who passes the window?’ – ‘What lovely boy?’ This is my tribute to Percival; withered violets, blackened violets.

Percival’s death strikes Rhoda harder than it does most of the others; indeed, everything strikes Rhoda harder than it does other people. She’s so retiring because she is so sensitive. I don’t feel that I know her well yet, but I intend to gain a great deal more of experience and maturity before I die. There will be time for Rhoda and me.

This time around I felt closest to Neville; one of the things this means is that I don’t really identify myself primarily by my isolation and poverty any more. Sexual preference has become more important. Of our narrators, Neville is the one most in love with Percival, and has been since they were hitting puberty.

Now I will lean sideways as if to scratch my thigh. So I shall see Percival. There he sits, upright among the smaller fry. He breathes through his straight nose rather heavily. His blue, and oddly inexpressive eyes, are fixed with pagan indifference upon the pillar opposite. […] He sees nothing; he hears nothing. He is remote from us all in a pagan universe. But look – he flicks his hand to the back of his neck. For such gestures one falls hopelessly in love for a lifetime. Dalton, Jones, Edgar and Bateman flick their hands to the backs of their necks likewise. But they do not succeed.

Percival was a cricketer, and Neville was literary. I’m also stuck rubbing against the edges of words, fascinated by the men who use their bodies in more physical ways.

But I cannot stand all day in the sun with my eyes on the ball; I cannot feel the flight of the ball through my body and think only of the ball. I shall be a clinger to the outsides of words all my life. Yet I could not live with him and suffer his stupidity. He will coarsen and snore. He will marry and there will be scenes of tenderness at breakfast. But now he is young. Not a thread, not a sheet of paper lies between him and the sun, between him and the rain, between him and the moon as he lies naked, tumbled, hot, on his bed. Now as they drive along the high-road in their brake his face is mottled red and yellow. He will throw off his coat and stand with his legs apart, with his hands ready, watching the wicket. And he will pray, ‘Lord, let us win’; he will think of one thing only, that they should win.

Maybe Neville becomes a don at the uni or something; it’s not clear, and not important. Regardless, as he grows up, he wants the same sort of thing that I want.

I want this fire, I want this chair. I want some one to sit beside after the day’s pursuit and all its anguish, after its listenings, and its waitings, and its suspicions. After quarrelling and reconciliation I need privacy – to be alone with you, to set this hubbub in order.

I’d like a quiet, comfortable life with someone I love – someone with whom I feel as if I’ve found privacy when he’s still there. Someone who helps me to rest from the private tortures of a too-sensitive life in public.

I have never really identified with Jinny, and I don’t think I ever will. She’s privileged by being both wealthy and beautiful. At nineteen she achieves everything that she’s ever wanted in her life, and she manages to hold onto it for the rest of her life. She never settles down with one man, but she doesn’t need to either.

All this I see, I always see, as I pass the looking-glass on the landing, with Jinny in front and Rhoda lagging behind. Jinny dances. Jinny always dances in the hall on the ugly, the encaustic tiles; she turns cartwheels in the playground; she picks some flower forbiddenly, and sticks it behind her ear so that Miss Perry’s dark eyes smoulder with admiration, for Jinny, not me. Miss Perry loves Jinny; and I could have loved her, but now love no one, except my father, my doves and the squirrel whom I left in the cage at home for the boy to look after.

Despite this passage from Susan’s unhappy years at school, neither she nor Jinny is a lesbian that we can see. Jinny loves to be admired, and she doesn’t get too picky about who’s doing the admiring. First it’s everyone, then primarily men, then she hangs onto the admiration of much younger men as she ages (apparently she ages very well). Jinny is the perfect personality for the community she lives in; unlike everyone else, she always definitely belongs.

Susan is the type of person that I have always respected, even admired, but that I can somehow never become close to. She loves nature and the country; while everyone else is gravitating toward London, she runs as far from it as she can. Like Louis, Susan knows from childhood what she will be as an adult: a farmer’s wife. She knows that it will be a hard life, but she chooses it and never willingly deviates from it. Her parents send her to a finishing school in Switzerland, which I tend to think of as the acme of stupidity, that sort of finish being the opposite of what Susan actually wants in her life. Susan hits her peak later than Jinny, but I think of her life – with children, a long-term relationship, a close relationship with animals, crops, and soil – as the more rewarding of the two, possibly the most rewarding of the six.

But who am I, who lean on this gate and watch my setter nose in a circle? I think sometimes (I am not twenty yet) I am not a woman, but the light that falls on this gate, on this ground. I am the seasons, I think sometimes, January, May, November; the mud, the mist, the dawn. I cannot be tossed about, or float gently, or mix with other people. Yet now leaning here, till the gate prints my arm, I feel the weight that has formed itself in my side. Something has formed, at school, in Switzerland, some hard thing. Not sighs and laughter; not circling and ingenious phrases; not Rhoda’s strange communications when she looks past us, over our shoulders; nor Jinny’s pirouetting, all of a piece, limbs and body. What I give is fell. I cannot float gently, mixing with other people. I like best the stare of shepherds met in the road; the stare of gipsy women beside a cart in a ditch suckling their children as I shall suckle my children. For soon in the hot mid-day when the bees hum round the hollyhocks my lover will come. He will stand under the cedar tree. To his one word I shall answer my one word. What has formed in me I shall give him. I shall have children; I shall have maids in aprons; men with pitchforks; a kitchen where they bring the ailing lambs to warm in baskets, where the hams hang and the onions glisten. I shall be like my mother, silent in a blue apron locking up the cupboards.

I believe that Susan has a blessing that has always been denied me: she forms a lifelong plan and carries it through. Part of my problem is the reluctance to make plans so far in advance; part is the certainty that forces beyond my control disrupt every plan that I make, so the planning itself often seems pointless. When I do look forward, I seldom see things that I want. I can warn myself away from some forms of future misery, but I can’t lead myself to future fulfillment as unerringly as Susan does.

A businessman, a recluse, a homosexual, a city girl, a country girl, and a family man: perhaps it’s not Percival who is made up of these disparate elements; it’s probably Woolf herself. And in uniting all of these pieces, she makes me feel as if it might be me too. It’s like seeing The Breakfast Club fifty years early. Each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basketcase, a princess, and a criminal, Bernard, Neville, Louis, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda.