Posts Tagged ‘world war ii’

At work, I’m working on creating a dedicated biography collection, which means that for the last several weeks I’ve been reading a few random paragraphs from each of hundreds of biographies, so I suppose it’s inevitable that I would eventually read one all the way through. This is not my normal genre – I even avoid movies that are based on true stories – but I’m glad I read this one. Our experiences and voices are rather different, but I found enough commonality with Alan Cumming that I’d very much like to know him better.

I suppose something that helps is that he doesn’t try to narrate his entire life, from birth to imagined death. That type of story makes life seem predestined, and Cumming’s story is about taking command of his own life instead of letting his history determine his future. I also appreciate the fact that this isn’t a coming-out story. Yes, he is one of our LGBT heroes, but that’s not the story he’s telling. At one point in the book he has a wife, and at another he has a husband, but there are no tales of homophobic violence or family disapproval, no explanation in between. That story has been told a million times, which is probably why I haven’t felt any urgency about writing up my experience of it. There are only so many times we can observe and internalize those messages – Cumming insists on his husband’s unrelenting kindness, but it’s not a story about being gay, or about being rejected for being gay. This is also not a story about ‘making it’ and becoming famous. There’s one brief scene where he’s standing on a stage with Patti Smith, but there is no other name-dropping or celebrity gossip. He refers to his friends, and I’m willing to believe that most of his friends are entertainers like he is (we tend to socialize with the people we work with), but he doesn’t stress their identities because this isn’t a book about them. It’s an intensely personal story about Alan Cumming and his family.

The bulk of this story is about a short time in his life – during the time that he was filming an episode of a television series where they track down the solutions to mysteries in the families of celebrities. His mother’s father never really came back after World War II, so the TV crew takes him through the journey of finding out what happened. He sees war records and talks with men who served with him during the first week, and then he takes some time away to fulfill other commitments. The war stuff is upsetting, as war should be. Cumming’s grandfather was a bike messenger during the war, riding motorcycles across the European countryside. The actor decides the soldier was a daredevil, and there’s a certain disregard for his own life that could be bravery or a drive to suicide. He had the traditional war hero experiences about killing enemies and carrying comrades to safety. The survivor who tells Cumming about this part was kind of creepy, like he enjoyed the war. Some people never feel so alive as they do when killing others. My own grandfather was a hero to me, but not in the traditional war sense. He never killed anyone, so he avoided most of the trauma that soldiers go through. He was a radio guy; he and one other Ally would be the last two in a city, keeping on the radio, inventing troop maneuvers in order to confuse the Germans. I like to think that his role was to stand between two larger belligerents and keep them from fighting by holding each at arm’s length. Instead of fighting valiantly in battle, he stopped battles from happening. It may have been less personal than lifting someone bodily and removing him from a battlefield, but it is literally impossible to calculate how many lives he saved by keeping the Germans away from the Americans. It could have been in the hundreds or thousands – think about how many fewer people would have died at Stalingrad if the Germans didn’t know how important the town was.

During the week of filming, Cumming is also facing issues with his father. Right before the taping started, his dad calls him up and tells him that there’s another family secret he shouldn’t learn from strangers. He’s the product of an affair, so quite literally Not His Father’s Son. He takes advantage of this part of it to reflect on his childhood and his relationship with his father. Cumming Sr was abusive and terrible to his children, and paraded his affairs openly in front of his wife. They stayed together in order to raise Cumming and his elder brother, but ‘raise’ in this situation means beat, devalue, and humiliate.

Memory is so subjective. We all remember in a visceral, emotional way, and so even if we agree on the facts – what was said, what happened where and when – what we take away and store from a moment, what we feel about it, can vary radically.

I really wanted to show that it wasn’t all bad in my family. I tried so hard to think of happy times we all had together, times when we had fun, when we laughed. In the interests of balance, I even wanted to be able to describe some instances of kindness and tenderness involving us all. But I just couldn’t.

I spoke to my brother about this. He drew a blank, too.

We remember happy times with our mum. Safe, quiet times. But as a whole family? Honestly there is not one memory from our childhoods that is not clouded by fear or humiliation or pain. And that’s not to say that moments of happiness did not exist, it’s just that cumulatively they have been erased by the dominant feelings that color all of our childhood recollections.

And this is true of my childhood as well. My father has bipolar disorder, but he wasn’t diagnosed and medicated until after his second marriage. He seems so harmless now, sadly affectionate and blaming everyone for his problems but himself. I feel a wave of pity pressing inside my throat when I watch him eating, seeing how he’s losing his fine motor control so that his hands shake when doing something that requires precision, like moving a fork to his mouth. I know that he’s changed, partially through getting good brain drugs and partially through the suffering of being rejected by his own children, so I have a cautious relationship with him. He seldom raises his voice, but when he does, it clutches my heart and I freeze in place. I talked with my big sister a few years ago and she assured me that it really was as bad as I remember, and that I was right to be afraid of him. That helps remove some of the subjectivity from my memories, but it doesn’t make me feel any better. Unlike Cumming, though, I was generally too small to be a target, and I had four older siblings to keep my dad distracted from me.

The biggest difference between me and Cumming here is in our mothers. His seems to have been just fantastic. Mine had overwhelming anger issues, just like my dad. She was relatively safer, though, because instead of yelling and hitting she withdrew most of the time. I can remember being spanked by my mother one time, but that one time was so disturbing to me that I vowed never to do anything to make her hit me again. I’ve been pretty successful, though these days it means that I withdraw from her as much as she withdrew from me.

My parents split up instead of sticking it out ‘for the children’, as if we would have derived any benefit from that, which I think was a good choice. But, as I’ve been thinking of what to talk about as I write this entry, I don’t want to dredge up specific memories of the horrible times – I want to discuss how having been in an emotionally abusive home continues to affect me now. If someone raises their arm close to me, even if it’s just to adjust their hair, I duck a little. If anyone, in any context, gets angry with me, I panic. I can’t live in that moment and hear what they’re saying, no matter how reasonable (I’m human; I can’t keep everyone happy all the time). Fear blanks out my mind and all I can do is either run or grope for some way to reassure them or make them happy. There’s a running narrative voice in my head that constantly justifies my choices and actions to a nonexistent third party who might disagree. I’ve gotten my mom’s voice of disapproval to be quiet, but I’m still responding to it. I still expect my endeavors to fail. I’m grateful for supervisors like the one I have at the library, who train me well and provide the scaffolding that I need to be successful, but when something I do turns out well I’m more surprised than anyone else, even after twenty years away. I remind myself that I’m intelligent and capable, but those words aren’t an instinctive part of my self-image. More than in any other area, I expect myself to fail financially, and am astonished when I have more than ten dollars at the end of a month. My family used to tell me, “In the olden times, if you didn’t work you didn’t eat,” so when I’m underemployed I starve myself in order to live within my income. I’m doing better about asking for help when I need it, and I’m mostly finished with the anorexia, but it’s easier for me to turn to friends than to family. I don’t expect my family to do anything for me that doesn’t directly benefit themselves. I sometimes remind myself that I don’t have to earn every second of continued life, but that work ethic is so ingrained that poverty is something I reproach myself with when I hate myself. I don’t hate myself as much as I used to. When I was a kid, the only real safety was in silence and solitude, and I still have a preference for these. I also developed the habit of remaining very still and staying at the edges of rooms. I like sitting close to walls, and I am very uncomfortable with people walking behind me. I also sit near exits, and keep my eye on points of ingress so I know where people are around me. I spend a lot of time looking out of windows. When I go to a house I’ve never been before, it takes a couple of hours for me to become comfortable with the space. Or, comfortable enough to participate actively in the conversation. I’m uncomfortable meeting new people because I don’t know what will make them angry, and the distinction between what will offend and what won’t is never clear to me. Strangers are often loud, which bothers me. Loud noises bother me, so I hate fireworks and parades. Crowds also bother me because there are too many people to separate the crowd into individual people and assess the threat level each one embodies. I have to know someone before I assume they do not want to harm me. Not having grown up with a sense that the world is safe, I withdraw from it as much as I can.

I’m living in the same space I was six years ago when I first came out and got divorced, so all the anger and depression of that time is coming back, like it was lurking in a corner and waiting for me. I looked back at my blog posts from that time, and I’m surprised at how dishonest I was. I was trying to be truthful about myself and what I was experiencing, but the writing is all about hope that I didn’t actually feel. Hope was an intellectual exercise, a fantasy to keep me from hurting myself. When I look back, I remember driving down the street and imagining car wrecks; everything that happened was an opportunity for me to die. Freud theorized that there are two impulses, one toward life (Eros) and one toward death (Thanatos). When I think back over my childhood and my desire for stillness, and then my adult life and the suicidal ideation, I believe that Thanatos has been the most important driving force in my life. Not as a return to the womb, but as an escape from a life that has never seemed to want me in it. I do pretty well at resisting thoughts of physical self-harm, but not financial. I overspend as a way of hurting myself, sometimes with the same level of compulsion as people who cut tiny little maps in their skin, the streets going this way and that. I can stop myself, but it requires a level of self-control and self-denial that I’m not entirely comfortable with. To be clear, I’m much healthier than I was six years ago, but I’m not perfectly adjusted, and the darkness in me is often more palpable than the light.

There was a defining moment in Cumming’s youth, and I wish I had experienced something similar. At the age that young men discover the joys their own bodies provide, he was spending his alone time out in the woods, and once someone from town saw him.

I lie there for a while in the dusk, then make a decision, little knowing how it will affect every facet of my life and fiber of my being for the rest of my life: I say no to shame. This man was the one in the wrong. He was the voyeur, however accidental.

But I didn’t wish him ill. I would have done the same. I actually even thought my father would be glad to learn that some progress was being made in the faltering journey to my manhood. So I rejected shame.

I started rejecting shame much later, and it’s harder when shame has become an established habit. I suppose it’s also harder when your family responds to you with shame – I have been making my family, especially my mother, ashamed of me for most of my life. At times I embraced that as an identity and shamed them on purpose. Now, I tell myself that this is their problem and gives me no truthful information about myself, but when I was a kid I just accepted it. It’s still hard for me to feel and express anger, because when I was a kid everything was my fault. If I got angry, no one ever validated that emotion – I was always treated as the one being unreasonable because I was too sensitive. If someone got angry at me, then I was again unreasonable for causing it. I can’t remember ever being vindicated by an outside source. My pain was unimportant at best, inconvenient and obnoxious if I made others aware of it. The best I could hope for was being ignored, because all I could expect from my parents was shame, anger, and fear.

Typically I’m attracted to people who occupy a similar world, which is why I date (and once married) people who are so unsuitable. I think I have a good one now, but it’s hard for me to trust that he is different, and I look for reasons to be on my guard.

So, this part of it takes up three-fourths of Cumming’s book. The English teacher in me wants him to change the balance of things – if Part One of four is 75% of your project, you might want to subdivide differently – but for this story, it’s right. Part One ends with the DNA test that tells him whether his father’s story is true, and that’s the end of that part of his life. Part Two is about the rest of his grandfather’s story, when he went to Malaysia as part of the colonial police force after the war. He was loved but still recklessly depressed, and died during a game of Russian roulette. Later, Cumming’s father dies, and he uses his inheritance to take his mother to Malaysia to meet the people who knew her father, to see the park and the street named after him, and to see his grave.

In the end, he breaks free of his father’s negative influence and it really does become his past. These things are still very present for me – I’ve been so starved for affection that I’ll take the diseased version of love that my family offers me, better than nothing. Yet, I don’t go building a new chosen family around me. There are people in my life that I love in less complicated ways, which seems to be what people mean when they talk about family, but I don’t apply that vocabulary to them. The word family to me means something weird and toxic and inescapable, a horror that has become internalized. A monster that speaks to me in my own voice and stares back at me from the mirror. And yet, that I love and condemn as I love and condemn myself. I don’t have Cumming’s defiance.

Read this book. It’s not always easy, but it leads toward hope. People with happy childhoods may have a hard time relating, but I felt very close to the author and identified with his struggles. As I said, he’s very different from me, much more extraverted, less willfully unobserved, but still. If he writes more, I’ll be interested to read it.

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house of the dead

So apparently I’ve given up sleeping. I don’t know why, but this week it’s just been really difficult for me to stay down. Two days a week I’m at work for twelve hours, so I ought to be exhausted, but I still pop awake after a few hours. I suppose there are more stressors in my life than I realize, and I’m probably not dealing with them appropriately.

This book is not nearly so Halloween-y as its title implies. When he was in his late twenties, Dostoevsky was arrested for publishing articles that were inconveniently political, and he spent four years in a Siberian prison. This book was his way of understanding and communicating that experience. This was very early in his writing career, so the effects of it ring out through his better-known works, like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. There are some gestures toward fictionalization, but I tend to think that there’s not much fiction in it, so as I’m discussing this I’ll probably conflate the author with the narrator. I know that’s a logically problematic choice, but I’m going with it.

In many ways, the prison is a microcosm of the society as a whole, or at least as men experience it. There is a strong division between the working class and the moneyed class which prevents them from ever crossing over and making friends. In the United States, we sometimes talk about our society as if we really were all created equal, but the Russians of the nineteenth century have no illusions on this subject. They see humanity as divided between servants and masters, and what you are is what you are. When First-Person Narrator arrives at the prison, he tries to be egalitarian and make friends with all sorts, but they are quick to put him in his place – he was raised in the upper class, so he has no business mixing with the workers. It’s not his social peers that class him off, it’s those who are lower who exclude him.

Some people think that if convicts are well fed and well kept and all the requirements of the law are satisfied, that is all that is necessary. This is an error, too. Everyone, whoever he may be and however down-trodden he may be, demands – though perhaps instinctively, perhaps unconsciously – respect for his dignity as a human being. The convict knows himself that he is a convict, an outcast, and knows his place before his commanding officer; but by no branding, by no fetters will you make him forget that he is a human being. And as he really is a human being he ought to be treated humanely. My God, yes! Humane treatment may humanise even one in whom the image of God has long been obscured. These “unfortunates” need even more humane treatment than others. It is their salvation and their joy. I have met some good-hearted, high-minded officers. I have seen the influence they exerted on these degraded creatures. A few kind words from them meant almost a moral resurrection for the convicts. They were as pleased as children and as children began to love them. I must mention another strange thing: the convicts themselves do not like to be treated too familiarly and too softly by their officers. They want to respect those in authority over them, and too much softness makes them cease to respect them. The convicts like their commanding officer to have decorations, too, they like him to be presentable, they like him to be in favour with some higher authority, they like him to be strict and important and just, and they like him to keep up his dignity. The convicts prefer such an officer: they feel that he keeps up his own dignity and does not insult them, and so they feel everything is right and as it should be.

As with the officers, so with the owners of the means of production. I’ve seen this same fact in working with students – not the ones who come to college, but the teenagers who are having a rough life. When I lived in Washington I sometimes was assigned to the school for ‘troubled’ kids: the ones who have to be escorted to school by law enforcement officers, the school with a padded room for students whose emotions get the better of them. It was a difficult assignment for me because I felt nothing in common with these people, and I lack the firmness they require. I am too familiar and too soft for this population, so they don’t have much respect for me. But I like being who I am, so I’m not going to ‘toughen up’ to satisfy a group that I may never have to work with again. This is why I prefer teaching adults; kids who are like this are still forced to come to school, but this is the type of adult who doesn’t see the purpose of continuing his education, so doesn’t. I won’t deny that some of my students may have fit this category in their past, but by the time they get to the community college they are mature enough to recognize that I teach for their benefit, and that it’s their responsibility to take the benefit from what I teach.

Circling back to the guards, the ones he writes about are seldom the fluffy successful type described above. He talks more about the ones that remind me of the stories of Auschwitz guards, and in some ways the Siberian prison camps were a lot like the German prison camps a hundred years later. The same emphasis on work that doesn’t produce anything, like moving a pile of rocks from one place to another and then back again. The same temptation for the guards to become almost inhumanly violent and cruel.

Tyranny is a habit; it may develop, and it does develop at last, into a disease. I maintain that the very best of men may be coarsened and hardened into a brute by habit. Blood and power intoxicate; coarseness and depravity are developed; the mind and the heart are tolerant of the most abnormal things, till at last they come to relish them. The man and the citizen is lost for ever in the tyrant, and the return to human dignity, to repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.

Unlike with the Nazis, though, there is a safe haven: the hospital. Prisoners come to the hospital when they need a rest for a few days, and the doctors are actually kind and lenient with them. Some of the convicts choose a sort of slow suicide: they steep their snuff in vodka, then drink it off. I don’t know the mechanism behind it, but this somehow gives them consumption, from which they die a horrible death. This passage reminds me of some of the stories I’ve heard about people dying of AIDS; I don’t understand why, but AIDS stories always make me extremely emotional.

And now as I write this, I vividly recall the death of the consumptive patient, Mihailov, whose bed was nearly opposite mine, not far from Ustyantsev’s. He died, I remember, four days after I came in. Possibly I have mentioned the case of the consumptives through unconsciously recalling the impressions and ideas which came into my mind at the sight of that death. I knew little of Mihailov himself, however. He was quite young, not more than five-and-twenty, tall, thin, and of extremely attractive appearance. He was in the “special division,” and was strangely silent, always gently and quietly melancholy, as though he were “drying up” in prison, as the convicts said of him. He left a pleasant memory among them. I only remember that he had fine eyes, and I really do not know why he comes back to my mind so distinctly. He died at three o’clock in the afternoon on a bright frosty day. I remember the glowing slanting rays of the sun pierced through the green frozen panes of our windows. The sunshine was streaming full on the dying man. He was unconscious, and lay for several hours in the death agony. From early morning he had scarcely recognised those who went up to him. The patients would have liked to do something for him, seeing his distress; his breathing was deep, painful and raucous; his chest heaved as though he could not get air. He flung off his quilt and his clothes, and began at last to tear off his shirt; even that seemed a weight to him. The other patients went to his help and took off his shirt. It was terrible to see that long, long body, the arms and legs wasted to the bone, the sunken belly, the strained chest, the ribs standing out like a skeleton’s. Nothing remained on his body but a wooden cross and a little bag with a relic in it, and his fetters which might, it seemed, have slipped off his wasted legs. Half an hour before his death the whole ward was hushed, we began to talk almost in whispers. Everyone moved about noiselessly. The patients did not talk much, and then of other things; they only looked now and then at the dying man, who was gasping more and more terribly. At last, with a straying and uncertain hand, he fumbled at the cross on his chest and began pulling it off, as though even that were a weight that worried and oppressed him. The patients removed the cross, too. Ten minutes later he died. They knocked at the door for the sentry and told him. An attendant came in, looked blankly at the dead man, and went to fetch a medical assistant. The medical assistant, a good-natured young fellow somewhat excessively occupied with his personal appearance, which was prepossessing however, soon came in, went up to the dead man with rapid steps that sounded noisy in the silent ward, and with a particularly unconcerned air, which he seemed to have assumed for the occasion, took his wrist, felt his pulse and went away with a wave of his hand. Word was sent to the sergeant in charge: the criminal was an important one and could not be certified as dead without special ceremony. While we were waiting for the sergeant, one of the convicts suggested in a low voice that it might be as well to close the dead man’s eyes. Another man listened attentively, without a word went up to the dead man and closed his eyes. Seeing the cross lying on the pillow, he picked it up, looked at it, and put it round Mihailov’s neck again; then he crossed himself. Meanwhile, the dead face was growing rigid; the sunlight was flickering on it; the mouth was half open; two rows of white young teeth glistened between the thin parched lips.

One of the things that I noticed here, again and again, is that FPN always notices and comments on whether a man is handsome or not. He seems to really enjoy spending time with men who are young and handsome, but he doesn’t expand on why, and this question of why does seem to bother him at times. I’m not saying that Dostoevsky was a closet case; I’m just remarking on a trend. It also seems to me that the convicts have no privacy or personal space, not even to bathe. The bath-house is far too small for them, so they’re packed in as tightly as possible, so tightly that the water runs off of one man and onto his neighbors. It does seem like a great opportunity for some homosexual voyeurism, but Dostoevsky doesn’t go there. FPN sees a mass of limbs but doesn’t get into specifics.

There is a great diversity in this prison – there are some Poles, some Muslims from farther south, and even a Jew. The groups don’t always mix, and the Muslims mostly don’t speak Russian, but sometimes when we read Dostoevsky it seems like Petersburg, Moscow, and a little patch of countryside are all that Russia amounts to, but even at this time it was a vast empire, and convicts from all over got sent to Siberia. The one element of diversity we don’t see is in gender. For the convicts, there are two types of women: good wives and mothers who love unconditionally and are universally absent, and whores. The whores may not be good (or deserve names), but at least they’re here.  There is one exception to this rule, in the story “Akulka’s Husband.” Akulka is a good girl who gets treated like a whore, a passive object for others to project their fantasies on, and so she gets beaten a lot and eventually dies.

I mentioned this as a story – the book is not a continuous narrative. He compresses all of his time into a year, like Thoreau did with Walden, so that we have that same autumn-winter-spring-summer progression that we get in an Austen novel. It’s like someone sat down next to him and said, “So, Dostoevsky, tell me about Siberia.” I recognize it because it’s the same sort of unorganized rambling that I do when someone sits next to me and says, “So, Occ Man, tell me about Saudi Arabia,” or “What was Brazil like?” or “How does someone like you, raised as a Mormon and a true believer, get married, have kids, come out of the closet, get divorced and leave your church?” It’s too big a subject to handle in normal, polite conversation, and the person asking rarely wants a complete answer. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to answer to the other person’s satisfaction – tell a story or two that show a little foreignness but not too much, and make the stories funny. Avoid telling them about the depression and isolation because that’s not what they want to hear. It’s a bit like the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – they want to hear about the adventure, but they don’t want to know that most of the adventure involves being tensely bored, and they certainly don’t want to feel the tension or the boredom. How does one make these intensely difficult experiences into entertaining nuggets to share at cocktail parties? I’m still working on that. The funny stories don’t spring to mind all the time, so I could talk about the two-foot-high sunflowers or the stray cat that got adopted at the desert compound, or I could talk about tromping through the jungle and drinking out of a stream or walking on a road built by slaves two hundred years ago, or I could talk about how much I loved my ex-wife and that my divorce was just like a straight man’s or how it took me seven years to stop being afraid of my own feelings. Dostoevsky’s book is written from the vantage point of the guy who has just finished the experience but hasn’t yet figured out how to share it.

FPN says that prison is the first time he’s ever spent time with the working class, and from the homogenization of them I’d guess it’s Dostoevsky’s first time too. I grew up among the working poor, but my mother did not, unless you count the maid, and in her stories I always felt that we had somehow come down in the world. We might be the poor children of an air-conditioning repairman, but her father had worked closely with Eisenhower during the War, attended Cornell University, and become a civil engineer for the federal government. Sometimes I can still hear her voice in my head, telling us not to act like the neighbor kids (of whom she did not approve, but we were way out in the country and there was literally no one else to play with), or not to act like a black person (that was for my younger siblings, never for me), or not to act like a fairy (that one was for me alone, never directed at the others), because we were better than all of them. Before I finished high school I had worked out that she was wrong, that no person is better than any other, and that money and culture do not determine a person’s worth, but I had to work that out on my own. Dostoevsky learns that lesson too, but here in prison.

There is no standard by which to measure the soul and its development. Even education itself is no test. I am ready to be the first to testify that, in the midst of these utterly uneducated and down-trodden sufferers, I came across instances of the greatest spiritual refinement. Sometimes one would know a man for years in prison and despise him and think that he was not a human being but a brute. And suddenly a moment will come by chance when his soul will suddenly reveal itself in an involuntary outburst, and you see in it such wealth, such feeling, such heart, such a vivid understanding of its own suffering, and of the suffering of others, that your eyes are open and for the first moment you can’t believe what you have seen and heard yourself. The contrary happens too; education is sometimes found side by side with such barbarity, such cynicism, that it revolts you, and in spite of the utmost good-nature and all previous theories on the subject, you can find no justification or apology.

This is one of the things that we come to Dostoevsky for, this understanding of every person’s individual worth and dignity, what George Eliot describes as ‘sympathy,’ but in this book he’s still developing that understanding. I feel like it hasn’t quite become a habit of mind yet; this is me as a kid on the playground, wanting to be involved but left on the outside because I wasn’t athletic and I talked funny (Boston accent in rural North Carolina). The author hasn’t yet reached his maturity. That makes this book an interesting signpost in his development, but for fans of The Major Novels, the ones in The World Literary Canon, it’s a little disorienting and disappointing.

I’ve mentioned before that I love du Maurier’s awareness of the literary tradition, which she shows by telling updated versions of stories from the past – for example, many critics have pointed out the similarities between Rebecca and Jane Eyre. This time she does it again, but the story she’s retelling is by Mark Twain, The Prince and the Pauper. While Twain used the story to ruminate on social class and equality, du Maurier uses the same vehicle to describe something completely different.

One had no right to play about with people’s lives. One should not interfere with their emotions. A word, a look, a smile, a frown, did something to another human being, waking response or aversion, and a web was woven which had no beginning and no end, spreading outward and inward too, merging, entangling, so that the struggle of one depended upon the struggle of the other.

Du Maurier’s novel is about personal responsibility, especially as it relates to family dynamics. The prince is the Comte Jean de Gué, who has recently failed to renew a contract and has thus ruined his family’s finances. The pauper is John, a historian from London who lectures at one of the universities. John spends all of his vacations in France, so his language ability is quite good. On one such vacation, he runs into Jean in Le Mans, and Jean drugs him and takes his place. John thus becomes a contemporary (1957) French aristocrat for a week. Until this point, John’s life has been mostly empty, without family, lovers, or close friends. When he is thrust into a family, with mother, sister, brother, wife, and daughter, it’s overwhelming for him. He spends the first half of the book trying to understand his place in this family, how they expect him to act, what actions of affection are considered normal in this family. As the first-person narrator, he tells us all about the changes in his personality, as he moves through shock and overconfidence to love. He makes all sorts of mistakes along the way – for a historian, he’s really slow about picking up on which girls Jean is sleeping with – but he comes through all right.

For me, there was a real shock and disappointment at the end. John is a little distant with the family and he makes some serious mistakes, but as Americans say, his heart is in the right place. He is figuring out what it means to love, and how to do it effectively. In the end, he finds a way to make each member of his new family happy, useful, and independent, or possibly interdependent. My shock was when the real comte returns, and he sees John as having dismantled his entire life. The comte is a cruel, power-addicted sadist – he likes his family to feel their dependence on him; he likes to feel them squirming under his thumb. John’s biggest blunder of all is assuming that Jean’s life is about love. To some extent, Jean has done the same thing to him: after living in John’s shoes for a week, he quits his job at the university, gives notice on his lonely apartment, and goes on permanent vacation. Everything is dismantled, but John’s life didn’t have people in it. There’s a strong implication that no one will miss him, or even much notice that he’s gone. But when I look at the life they’ve each lived in the de Gué family, I have very firm opinions on whose life is worthwhile and whose isn’t. John may not have attracted people to him, but when they are there, he does his best to treat everyone with love and respect. Jean is connected to many people in a tight web of mutual responsibility, but he has no interest in that responsibility. Everyone else has to dance to his tune, while he insists on playing whatever tune he likes.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, because I know what the title means, and John uses this word to describe himself. It’s commonly understood that the scapegoat is made to carry guilt that isn’t his, but consider the Jewish ritual. The animal is healthy and whole, and the priest heaps all the sins of the people on his head. These are the intentional sins, the unintentional ones having been atoned for by killing a bull. Then they beat the goat and chase it out of the community. If John is the scapegoat, it is essential that he be expelled. No matter how much he loves and is loved, no matter how better fitted he is for the position than Jean, he cannot stay. Cynics will find this ending more realistic than the one I was hoping for, but optimists will be as upset as I was.

I was quick to assign one character to the role of prince and the other to pauper, but the actual financial situation seems to indicate the reverse. Jean has an uncertain income based on a failing glassworks while most of the family fortune is entailed on an as-yet hypothetical male heir (I’m guessing the estate doesn’t bring in anything, or not enough to speak of); John has a steady job, and even if he is unemployed at the end, his habits of saving and living quietly mean that he is in no hurry to find work. Jean accuses him of loving the luxury of his house, but John doesn’t notice it. I think this could be indicative of the aristocracy in general after World War II – old family fortunes on the wane, being replaced by the middle class who works for their money and husbands it well.

The historical moment is very important in this story. During World War II, we know that France was occupied by Germany, but despite having read other books set in this time (I’m thinking specifically of Five Quarters of the Orange), I hadn’t much considered the conflict between the Resistance and the others, largely seen as collaborators or appeasers. Twelve years after the end of the war, these divisions are still significant, and John’s drunken jokes about shooting people at the big annual hunt are a little too on target. In the United States we talk about polarization, and people’s political opinions are becoming more vehement (or I’m becoming more aware of the vehemence they’ve always had), but few people are being killed because of them. After the election the university campus was covered with the hashtag gayandscared, but I never really was. I rely strongly on people’s combination of kindness to strangers and apathy on political matters in daily life. This part of France at this time in history doesn’t have that mix.

The thing that John understands that Jean doesn’t care about is the fact that we have a responsibility to ease the suffering of the people around us. In pursuit of relieving suffering, John causes some, but in the end he hits on a plan where each member of the family can live with the least possible amount of pain. I realize that reducing life to an analysis of quantifiable suffering is a very utilitarian Buddhist thing to do, but in the context of this book it makes sense. The principal difference between John and Jean is their approach to other people’s pain, whether they seek to increase or relieve it. When I think about my own family behavior, I know that I’m often careless of other people’s pain, but at least I don’t try to increase it.

My big struggle right now is figuring out how to explain to him that I’m moving to North Carolina in a way that will cause the least pain. I realize that enough time has passed since I made the decision that that ship has probably already sailed, but still. I don’t like to see him suffering, and he’s doing a lot of that right now on issues that are unrelated to me. I feel bad about taking his last support from him, but I also have my own suffering to attend to, and I know that in the long run, he won’t be happy if I keep increasing my unhappiness. And the longer I stay away from my kids and the place I think of as home, the greater my suffering becomes.

So, fellow du Maurier fans, I’d say that this is a good one. I don’t always connect well with her stories, but this one I really did. The last twenty pages or so are hard, but the rest is fantastic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In education, we talk about the ‘affective filter,’ which refers to the fact that when a person is in a heightened emotional state it is difficult for that person to learn or produce evidence of learning. A student who is experiencing anxiety or depression has a much more pressing need to deal with those emotions than to learn that the capital of Spain is Madrid, or to take your stupid math test. My affective filter has been up for a while now, so while I’m enjoying reading, it’s a little more difficult for me to sit down and write. I finished this book nearly a week ago, and it’s taken this long for me to give myself the space to begin to write. [And it took more than a week to finish this.]

Ozeki is part Japanese, part North American, and her novel celebrates this style of cultural blending. There are two parallel narratives in the book, one about a girl in Japan writing a diary and one about a fictionalized Ozeki living on a small island off the coast of British Columbia. To be clear, the real Ozeki has a husband with the same name and similar academic background as the one in the book, and they have a house in the same area as the one in the book, so the portrayal may not be all that fictional. She alludes heavily to a Japanese genre of confessional novels popular in the 1920s, and this narrative is probably strongly influenced by them.

Ruth finds a diary washed up on the beach and immediately recognizes markers of suicidal tendencies in the writer, so she enlists the aid of several friends and colleagues to find out more about the girl writing in an effort to save her. One of the things that impressed me about Ruth and her friends is the way that people interested in intellectual things seem to find each other. Most of the people I meet outside of work (and in some settings, even at work) have very different interests than I do. They don’t seem to enjoy reading books and talking about them. Ruth’s community on the island seems a collection of Best Possible Helpers who still have individual quirkiness. For example, the guy who runs the recycling center is a native French speaker and reads philosophy.

The other thing that impresses me, both in the book and from my own observations, is just how much academic people care. Most of my non-academic acquaintance is concerned primarily with comfort and helping people they love, but academics are more likely to believe that ideas are important and to let their principles dictate their daily habits. Once there was a large group of us helping someone move into a new house, and halfway through one couple said, “Well, we have to go protest the war now. We’ll see you later.” Protesting the Iraq War wasn’t an option they would get to if they had time; it was a necessity which all other activities had to bend to. Ruth’s friends are similar, though their activities are more concerned with climate change and the health of the Pacific. Oliver, Ruth’s husband, is planting species of trees that were native to the area in the earliest times we can imagine, pre-dinosaur even. That’s a conflict because the island authorities want only native species, meaning currently native species, so Oliver’s trees are seen as invasive. Both he and they are trying to preserve the area; they just have different ideas about the best way to do it.

There are a lot of storms in Ruth’s narrative, because there are a lot of storms in this area at this time of the year, but they also provide narrative tension and delay.

Ruth also spends a lot of time remembering her mother, who died a few years earlier from Alzheimer’s. Her mother is Japanese, so Ruth feels a close connection with this culture even though she seems to have spent her life in North America. I mean, she doesn’t have any linguistic or cultural markers that differentiate her from the academic subculture of the United States. Everyone on the island seems to have loved Ruth’s mother, and she seems to have been more popular than Ruth herself – definitely more engaged, more active in doing community things. Ruth seems a little less social than the people around her. When she finds the diary, it is difficult for her to share it with anyone. She doesn’t even want people to know she has it. It is her special project, and no one else can know about it. Except that they have to so that she can get more information about Naoko and her family. In this sense, I identify with Ruth a lot. It is proving very difficult for me to be in a relationship with someone who is more social; he’s accepted the fact that I’m not going to talk much, so he only turns to me in his quiet times, which are not that lengthy or frequent. This means that I feel like I have to fight to spend time with him, and we’re only alone at night. I feel like he’s losing interest. The relationship between Ruth and Oliver works because he’s only slightly more social than she is, and he takes an interest in her normally quiet activities, like reading. [I’m thinking of the Zone of Proximal Development.] And part of the distance between me and him is my fault, as I’m becoming more hermit-y toward him as he focuses his attention in other places. It’s a spiral of apart-ness.

One of the important historical events in this part of the book is the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster in 2011. The internet has several different opinions on how much the nuclear fallout in Fukushima affects the Pacific coast of Canada and the United States today, but Ruth and her family/friends are concerned about it. The tsunami brought several items from Japan to North America, which is their explanation for how Naoko’s diary reached Ruth. They’re concerned with the health of the Pacific generally, as in understanding the size and scope of the garbage patches and how they will break down over time and poison us all, especially in light of the killer radiation.

Naoko’s story deals a lot with her family as well, but the narrative is about her learning about her family instead of hiding from her community like Ruth. Let’s start at the beginning.

Jiko Yasutani is over a hundred years old. She was a feminist anarchist novelist, until her son died. After that, she devoted her life to Zen Buddhism in an attempt to forgive the individuals and institutions that led to his death. She seems to have succeeded. Sixty years of meditation and gratitude have created mental habits that do not support vengeance or bitterness. Nao says that she has superpowers because her capacity to accept and respect others inspires quiet respect from everyone, even from strangers. She walks into a room and her presence is felt; the room is better for her being there. Aside from the son, she has two daughters, but they don’t occupy a big place in the story. They are loved, and one of them has a son, and that’s all there really is to know. Jiko sees the problems in the lives of her grandson and great-granddaughter and takes steps to help. I admire the way that her respect and acceptance of all things includes herself. She recognizes her competence and uses it; she recognizes her weakness and asks for help. There’s a simplicity, a lack of self-consciousness that I would like to have in my own life. I worry that achieving it would twist me out of shape, because self-consciousness is such a large part of my personality, but there is a serenity that I admire and would like to achieve.

Haruki #1 is her son, and makes the third narrator (after Nao and the third-person who narrates Ruth’s story). He was a philosophy student, the type who is so dedicated that he learns German and French so that he can read European philosophers in the original languages. Partway through his university studies, he is drafted into the army. His entire unit is composed of students, and the drill sergeant and other trainers are merciless in the hazing. He eventually learns that it is easier to take upon himself the punishments directed at his friends than watch the authorities abuse them. It is easier to forgive wrongs done to the self than wrongs done to people we love. He accepts the fact of his imminent death, so when they ask for volunteers to join the kamikaze squad, he raises his hand. He decides to crash into the sea rather than a battleship so that he won’t have to kill Americans. His narration comes through his letters to his mother, but he also keeps a secret diary in French. These writings get stuffed into a lunchbox and taken by the sea, along with Nao’s diary and his watch. How these things get passed around is a little vague, and there’s a little magical realism in it. Since the rest of the book is so thoroughly realistic, this felt like a bit of a flaw, but it makes sense if you accept the Zen philosophy. But if you don’t, you can just assume people look for meaning in things they don’t understand and leave it at that.

Haruki #2 is Haruki’s nephew. He’s gifted in programming, so he moves his family to California and has quite a successful career for ten or twelve years. But the dot-com bubble breaks, and they have to return to Japan. He spends the book in an extreme depression, and attempts suicide twice. It turns out that the bubble popped early for him because he refused to obey orders due to his ethical code, so he’s not really that different from his uncle the pacifist hero, though he slices pages out of Haruki #1’s beloved Heidegger to make complex origami insects. When he realizes his daughter is being cyberbullied, he finds the project that gets him back into a paycheck and a good state of mind – a thing (I don’t know if you’d call it an app or a virus or a bot or what) that, whenever someone looks for you online, deletes the search results. It’s a way of bringing anonymity to the accidentally notorious. This is what makes it so hard for Ruth to find any corroborating evidence that Nao’s diary is real.

Naoko is Haruki #2’s daughter. She starts a diary to honor her old Jiko’s life, but it really ends up being about her. She spent most of her childhood in California, so when they have to move back to Japan, it’s the opposite of coming home. The other kids hate her for being “fat and stupid,” though here in the United States she’s probably pretty normal. Her academic Japanese language skills don’t match her grade level, though, and American kids aren’t expected to look like anorexic anime characters. The other kids hold a funeral for her and post it to youtube, and there’s a scene that reminds me of Carrie, but with a souvenir being sold on eBay. It’s horrible. She stops going to school and spends more and more time with the sex workers in the neighborhood, so her parents send her to spend the summer at a temple with her great-grandmother. She loves it, she loves her grandmother, she is happy. But when she goes back to school, nothing’s changed. She fails her high school entrance exams and joins the sex workers. This isn’t the type of thing where she’s wandering the streets – she sits in a café until one of the guys wants her, then they go to a hotel. Her first guy reminds me a bit of the first guy in Fanny Hill – he’s handsome and really sweet, if you ignore the fact that he’s paying to have sex with a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl. The second guy she’s forced to go with, and she realizes that she really does care about herself enough to get out. There’s a happy ending, but most of the book is dominated by the sense that she’s going to kill herself. I’m glad she doesn’t.

Ruth going online and looking for these people inspired me to do a little of my own. My uncle died when I was young, but he had an ex-wife and a few daughters, so I thought I’d dig around a bit and find out who they were, hoping that these cousins of mine were happy and successful women. But I didn’t find them, because all the internet has to say about my uncle is about his killer, the most recent person to have been executed in that state. The articles talk about how my uncle served in Vietnam without firing his weapon (or even learning to – he was a pacifist), how most of the law cases he worked on were pro bono, and how he donated the produce of his garden to feed the homeless. He seems like the world’s nicest guy, and I never knew him because he died when I was five. My family argued against capital punishment at every appeal, but the killer had other victims whose families had other ideas about things, so the state killed him. One of the papers even interviewed my sister (I saw it on Murderpedia, a website I’m appalled by the existence of), I guess because she was the geographically closest family member to the place of execution.

The whole situation has me really angry and really sad, and the fact that my relationship is fading out means that I don’t feel like I have anyone to talk to about it. The relationship also makes me feel angry and sad, and I get kind of overwhelmed by all the things that feel terrible in my life right now. I don’t feel close to my friends or family – I just feel alone, sort of used, and not strongly wanted. I am not falling into suicidal ideation, though; I’ve realized that I like being alive too much to let it go. But it’s time for the next new thing to start. I need another chapter.

 

There comes a time in a person’s life when he realizes that he is collecting the complete novels of Milan Kundera, and he decides to embrace it as a conscious decision. The local bookshop has two more (the two that I haven’t pursued as steadily because I read them first, fifteen years ago), and then it’ll be off to find the either more elusive or more recent books. When you shop primarily in used bookshops, recent novels are rather elusive.

Kundera didn’t publish any novels until he was about the age I am now, and this one, the second, still has a strong focus on youth. It seems a little allegorical, and I wonder if it might not be a little autobiographical as well. It’s about a young poet who comes of age during the Communist Revolution. While there are several important characters, they’re only named according to their function in the poet’s life, so while he is Jaromil, they are the janitor’s son, the artist, the redhead, the cinematographer, the silver-maned poet, etc. The janitor’s son becomes a policeman and a reminder of how far Jaromil is from the stereotypical adult masculinity he wants to achieve, but he only gets called the janitor’s son, even though his father isn’t in the story. This is indicative of Jaromil’s extreme self-centeredness. The ending makes the Narcissus metaphor explicit, but long before that I was sickened by Jaromil’s contempt for other human beings.

In some ways this book feels like a rewrite of Sons and Lovers – Jaromil’s mother is a little too close to him, and he has a relationship with a shopgirl that he knows she will disapprove of. Maman is imaginative, in the sense that she creates a mental reality when the perceived reality is unpleasant, but not in the sense that she is in any way unconventional. Jaromil (Communist poetry) was conceived by an engineer (the educated working class) out in nature, according to his mother, but it was more likely in a disgusting bachelor apartment borrowed from the engineer’s friend. Indeed, nature as landscape or unenclosed space has very little place in this book at all. Nature exerts itself over Jaromil as weather or as disease, or the idiosyncrasies of human biology. Maman was never that crazy about her shotgun husband, so she liked to pretend that a figure of Apollo (classical influences) conceived the boy without the father’s intervention, despite the obvious limitations of such a fantasy. This reading might seem facile and forced, but issues of artistic inspiration, expression, and responsibility are at the center of the book.

World War II figures largely in twentieth-century Czech history. German occupation and redrawing of boundaries is big on a national scale, but in the daily lives of people, particularly children, it seems to have had little effect. Jaromil’s father was killed in a concentration camp because he was having an affair with a Jewish girl, but his father was mostly absent anyway. This lack of a strong masculine presence in his life, coupled with soft delicate features, leads to his preoccupation with his inferiority as a male human. He does have an art teacher, but the teacher is concerned about the philosophy of art changing under Communism, and Jaromil tries to assert his independence by disagreeing with him, which damages their friendship. Jaromil never tries to build up the rest of his body, so he’s a spindly little artist who isn’t brave enough to talk to girls. Eventually he does find someone, and losing his virginity is a huge milestone for him, but his masculinity has turned toxic by this point. A sexual relationship doesn’t relieve his insecurities; it makes them worse. It leads to sexual violence, which brings up some unpleasant memories for me, and reading this part might explain why I’ve been so anxious and angry these last few weeks. Partially, at least – I have good reasons in my real life, too.

The book reaches a crisis at the end of the fifth section, and it seems like Kundera is about as sick of this kid as I was, because there’s this violent wresting of the narrative at the beginning of part six.

Just as your life is determined by the kind of profession and marriage you have chosen, so our novel is limited by our observatory perspective: Jaromil and his mother are in full view, while we glimpse other figures only when they appear in the presence of these two protagonists. We have chosen this approach as you have chosen your fate, and our choice is equally unalterable.

Still, every person regrets that he cannot live other lives. You, too, would like to live out all your unrealized potentials, all your possible lives. (Alas, unattainable Xavier!) Our book is like you. It, too, yearns to be all the other novels it could have been.

That is why we are constantly dreaming about erecting other observatories. How about putting one in the middle of the artist’s life, or perhaps in the life of the janitor’s son or that of the redheaded girl? After all, what do we really know about these people? We hardly know more than does foolish Jaromil, and he knows precious little about anyone. What kind of novel would it be if we followed the career of the janitor’s son, and Jaromil would appear only once or twice in the course of brief episodes about a poet and former schoolmate? Or we could follow the artist’s story and learn at last what he really thought of his beloved Maman, whose belly he had used like a piece of canvas.

And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was so great to get away from Jaromil for a while, even if only for twenty pages. There’s a middle-aged man, widower, who likes to have a sex life but doesn’t like to get attached, so he sees a girl only once in a while, and he has several girls. One of them is Jaromil’s girl, and they discuss him briefly, but this section is a few years after Jaromil’s death, so he’s seen at a great distance, as one who ruined the girl’s life but now has no more power to hurt her.

But who is this unattainable Xavier? Jaromil dreamt of becoming this guy, young and smart and strong and sexy, like a younger Czech James Bond-Indiana Jones hybrid, but there’s more than that. Xavier only exists in dreams – things get tough, he falls asleep and is instantly in another, equally real reality. He works through problems from one reality in the next, possibly nesting several dreams like in Inception (oh, how I love this film), and ultimately wakes back up to solve his problems and escape, even if only as a dream hiding in dreams. Xavier is Jaromil’s ideal self. But much as the poet dreams of freedom, he is continually caged in by his mother’s vampiric love. This is a trope I see in media a lot, and I suppose is relevant to my own life as well, the mother that wants her children to be strong, brave, confident, and successful, but constantly shelters them from experiences that will allow them to develop strength, bravery, self-confidence, and the other qualities that lead to success. Yes, it’s important for parents to show love to their children, but it’s also important for parents to know when their children can handle things on their own, and to sit back and let them do it. I have a lot of animosity built up toward The Ex, but I admit freely that she is an excellent mother, and I see my children growing up as intelligent, confident, capable boys. I know that living with her is the best choice for them. Perhaps not for always, and I keep hoping that I will be geographically close enough to have an emotionally close relationship with them, but for now they are having their best possible life, and I wouldn’t take that from them.

Today is Mothers’ Day in the United States, and while I have some animosity built up toward my mother as well, it’s the day that I pretend that doesn’t exist and call her. Sometimes she feels abandoned, which Jane Austen would call “the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning”; my mom was emotionally unavailable during my childhood because she was coping with the divorce and her own anger issues, and the work of repressing all that kept me at a distance. In my roving life I often regret the type of relationship we have, and I wish I could be closer to my biological family, but the bottom line is that I don’t miss them, the actual people that they are, very much. There’s a big family thing this summer that I’ve been planning to go to, but these days I’m thinking of skipping it. I miss my kids, and I’d rather put my time, energy, and money into seeing them rather than into seeing people that I’m really angry about.

Art and revolution. Poetry seems to have been at the forefront of the Communist Revolution, at least in Czechoslovakia. The arts were bent toward propaganda, which leads the artists in the book to ask the question, How do I adequately express myself? In modern abstract experimental forms, or in the more mimetic forms that will appeal to the uneducated masses? With the Party taking a strong interest in the arts, the question also becomes, How do I adequately express myself without getting arrested? A lot of artists and thinkers seem to have been sent to do manual labor on farms (I’m thinking forward to the guy in Slowness, as well as back to the teacher from The Joke), and while there is value in that sort of life, it’s not the life that they chose for themselves. So, it’s either follow the unstated, unacknowledged rules of the establishment, or be forced to give up art altogether. It’s a dangerous gamble/game.

This was a hard book for me. I’ve got my own issues with mothers, though, and with governments, and this troubled relationship with the idea of being a writer and whether or not that makes me an artist, so it may not be for you. Happy Mothers’ Day.

This was Kundera’s first novel, and in some ways, it explains his habitual themes more clearly. It’s like The Joke is a key to help understanding his entire oeuvre. While most of his other novels that I have read focus on the Prague Spring or other anti-Communist movements, this one predates all that. It starts with the generation that became Communist after World War II.

I have become such an inveterate skeptic that whenever someone starts listing his likes and dislikes I am unable to take it seriously, or to put it more precisely, I can accept it only as an indication of the person’s self-image. I didn’t for a moment believe that Helena breathed more easily in filthy, badly ventilated dives than in clean, well-ventilated restaurants or that she preferred raw alcohol and cheap, greasy food to haute cuisine. If her words had any value at all, it was because they revealed her predilection for a special pose, a pose long since outdated, out of style, a pose going back to the years of revolutionary enthusiasm, when anything “common,” “plebeian,” “plain,” or “coarse” was admired and anything “refined” or “elegant,” anything connected with good manners, was vilified.

I think that it must have been terribly thrilling to have been a Communist living during the revolution, seeing the old forms of civilization consciously destroyed and replaced by something rational, based on the ideology that you yourself are committed to. Ludvik Jahn is just such a young man, but he keeps a skeptical distance from the crowd. He has a friend, Marketa, who dives in head first, drinks the Kool-Aid, whatever other metaphor you might prefer for a complete commitment to a system of belief. So when she goes away to training camp, he writes her letters, just sort of messing with her because she’s gullible and naively enthusiastic. But. One postcard, intended as this sort of not-funny-to-everyone joke, gets picked up by the Party and his life gets ruined. Sarcasm always stings a little, but here that little sting turns around and eats his entire life. His best friend Zemanek votes him out of the Party, and therefore out of the university. He’s drafted by the military, but that little black mark on his record gets him sent to a prison squad, where he works in a mine with rioters, thieves, and political dissidents. They’re forced to work six days a week, but the only way to get leave passes or other privileges is to volunteer to work on Sunday too, so sometimes they’d go thirteen or twenty days without a break. It’s a lonely, miserable existence.

I know that my experience is not that bad – the universe is generally fairly gentle with me – but this does remind me of my expulsion from Texas, nearly a year ago. I work for a private language company that does intensive English programs, and they sent me to Texas to work at modifying our curriculum to expand the market to boarding schools with international students. Speaking strictly professionally, it was a resounding success. I kept careful records and had enough data to show that my students’ language skill had improved dramatically, but that wasn’t enough. Little did I know that the Christian school where I worked had been watching me like a hawk all year, and as soon as they figured out my Facebook identity they dug through everything I had ever posted, all four years of it, and used it as proof that I was anti-Christian and deserved to be fired. I’m not against Christians or their beliefs, as long as those beliefs aren’t being used to hurt anyone. They were aghast at all the pictures of men I’ve hit the Like button for, but they based their argument on a joke. It’s not a very funny joke, admittedly, but it was a joke nonetheless.

Back when I was religious, sometimes I’d joke with my friends on the day between Good Friday and Easter – Jesus is dead, we can do what we want while he isn’t looking. I even added a bit about him getting back from Hell, when I would go back to being good. Now, I agree that it’s not very funny, but it is completely orthodox. Many theologians have believed that Jesus spent his time between death and resurrection saving souls from their punishment – the Medievals called it The Harrowing of Hell. You can see it in the old Cycle plays (The York Cycle can be found in your local academic library). Before Jesus, everyone went to hell because of Original Sin, then Jesus went down there to personally bring to heaven all those who were actually good people. Now, because of Jesus, the decent people can skip hell and go to heaven. The Harrowing of Hell is a great cinematic moment in the history of the world as envisioned by the Christian Church, yet these people hadn’t heard of it. This is the problem with splinter groups (read: non-denominational independent Protestant Churches) – insufficient education. My supervisor called it a witch hunt because I’m gay, but because the company does want to keep this market open, they relocated me back to the Midwest. The little Christian school would have just fired me because in Texas it is perfectly legal to fire someone for being gay. My company was really great about the whole thing, appropriately appalled at the suggestion I be fired for my sexuality, so they sent me somewhere I would be surrounded by friends and unconditionally accepted. So, a good move.

What bothers me about all this is just how nice the Christians were, right up until they asked my boss to fire me. I should have figured something was wrong – my subconscious was sending all kinds of paranoia messages, like how I was avoiding open spaces because I kept seeing men aiming rifles at me. But I assumed it was a response to past situations and not the present one, and I knew they weren’t really there, so I figured I was just being crazy, like I was back when I was religious. But no, I was ignoring a present warning. I really ought to learn to trust myself. These people were not my friends, even though I thought they were and trusted them almost completely. A year later, I still have a serious aversion to churches. And strangers. And religions in general.

So, drifting back to changes in Czech society in the late 1940s. They absolutely rejected religion and capitalism, replacing them with a belief in progress, community, and communism. As such, familiar habits became crimes, such as sarcasm or a belief in God. The belief in God doesn’t fit with the officially atheistic stance of The Communist Party, but sarcasm is a subtler crime. It evinces a certain pessimism, an antagonistic way of seeing the world, and pessimism is a lack of faith in progress and hence anathema to the Communists. Sarcasm is not the product of happiness. It betokens disappointment and pride, a sense of intellectual superiority. When everyone in the community is holding hands and singing together, sarcasm is extremely anti-social. The Communists were trying to force an individualistic society into becoming collective, and some people resisted. Maintaining individual difference marked people as suspect because difference meant hierarchization. Part of this destruction of the individual is the erasure of the line between public and private spheres. Suddenly I understand why Kundera makes such a big deal out of this in later books – privacy was taken away by the Communist Revolution. It must have made it strange to arrive in the West and see exhibitionism, where people voluntarily arrange a private act for public viewing. So this explains his fascination with writing about public sex, and how weirdly scatological his middle-aged characters can get.

Ludvik’s sarcasm landed him in prison mines for several years. Finally he was allowed to finish his degree and become the academic he had always wanted to be. All this is mostly flashback – the present of the book is about revenge. He’s coming back to his hometown to avenge himself on the man who ruined his life. But he gets sidetracked when he sees Lucie.

Lucie is from a different city. As a teenager, she had a gang that she was friends with, and when they got to be around sixteen they noticed that she was the only girl and proceeded to gang rape the shit out of her, repeatedly. Eventually she got away, and by that I mean got run out of town because everyone said she was a slut, and started a new life in a new town. There, she met Ludvik during his time in the mines and they had a thing for a while, but he never understood why she wouldn’t have sex with him. She’d try to be willing, but in the end she just couldn’t. She coped with the rape by creating a division between her body and soul – the one became dirty and corrupted with the violence of men, but the other was free and pure. She loved Ludvik with her soul, but she needed such an abyss between the physical and the emotional that she couldn’t have sex with him. Eventually they broke up over not having sex, and she left town to start over again. This third town is Ludvik’s childhood home, but she has no way of knowing that. She meets Kostka, a Christian determined to save her. Kostka was a professor at the time of Ludvik’s expulsion, and he was expelled for his religion a short time afterward. He helped to heal her internal divisions, and when the time is right she expresses that personal union by having sex with him, which can sound a little sordid and self-serving on his part, but it’s actually a big step for her to be able to give her body to someone she loves and respects. The sex doesn’t seem to benefit him much; it’s more for her, celebrating her newfound love for her own body. It only happened the one time, like a baptism, and then she went on to lead a conventional life in a conventional marriage to a conventional guy who probably beats her in the conventional way.

Ludvik really has one purpose in coming here: to sleep with Zemanek’s wife Helena. He thinks that cuckolding the guy who derailed his life will make up for all the suffering he’s gone through. But again, this relies on a sense of privacy that the mainstream has abandoned. Ludvik’s seduction succeeds, but his revenge fails because Zemanek doesn’t care. He’s fucking this girl who’s young enough to be his daughter and rubbing it in Helena’s face. Helena thinks she has found someone she can leave her husband for, but Ludvik isn’t looking for a commitment. She might be in love, but to him she’s just a revenge fuck. She has an assistant who’s in love with her and even younger than Zemanek’s girl, but she’s not into him, at least not yet.

Our other essential character is Jaroslav, Ludvik’s childhood friend. While Ludvik and Zemanek embrace the Party in their youth, Jaroslav doesn’t. He’s not in the center of the revolution. But, when the Party announces that it intends to foster art with Communist ideals that still retains a national character, he finds his way in. Jaroslav loves Moravian traditions, especially folk music. He organizes the traditional dances, he writes songs in the folk tradition with Communist-approved themes, he finds ways to keep doing what he loves doing even under a repressive regime. Ludvik may criticize, but Jaroslav did what we all do – he selected and expanded the canon. On a small scale, each of us who reads and writes does this; on a larger scale, academia has trends in what gets taught and what gets avoided. For example, in the 1960s Sir Walter Scott was considered one of the most important Romantic writers, equally with Byron, Keats, and Wordsworth. Now, his poetry is considered too long and tedious to teach, so we mention Ivanhoe in a survey class and move on. Other works get dropped for political reasons, like Heart of Darkness or The Education of Little Tree. Then we choose other things to add, like Felicia Hemans or Oroonoko. There are a lot of subtle currents that add up to big changes.

Youth is a terrible thing: it is a stage trod by children in buskins and fancy costumes mouthing speeches they’ve memorized and fanatically believe but only half understand. History too is a terrible thing: it so often ends up a playground for youth – the young Nero, the young Napoleon, fanaticized mobs of children whose simulated passions and primitive poses suddenly metamorphose into a catastrophically real reality.

When I think of all this, my whole set of values goes awry and I feel a deep hatred towards youth, coupled with a certain paradoxical indulgence towards the criminals of history, whose crimes I suddenly see as no more than the terrible restlessness of waiting to grow up.

While our situations are drastically different, to some extent Ludvik et al are going through the same thing that Generation X is doing today. In our late teens and early twenties, we felt like we were reshaping our world to be kinder, more welcoming. Now that we’re in our thirties or forties, it seems like we’re supposed to have made it, but at thirty-seven I don’t feel like I have anything more together than I did ten years ago. The universe has not acceded to my demand for a better world, and now people are fighting against the movement that I feel really made things better – the Obama presidency. The young people growing up don’t have the same values that people only fifteen years older than they are did. Jaroslav’s son hates folk music; he and his friends are all excited about modernity, so they’re wearing leather jackets and listening to rock music, and in a few years they will propel the Prague Spring to try to take their country back from their Communist parents. Youthful idealism can make a lot of good things happen, but as we age we develop compassion: we learn to see people as individuals instead of masses, ideas as shades of grey instead of the black-and-white ideologies of adolescence. Ludvik’s response, hating youth, is a result of his personal experience of betrayal.

But while it may seem that he is one of those criminals restless to grow up, I don’t feel like he has. This whole revenge thing smacks of immaturity. He sees Helena’s body as belonging to her husband, and his sex act as thieving something to balance the years of freedom stolen from him. Zemanek doesn’t see his wife’s body as his; the Communist idea seems closer to Brave New World, where everybody belongs to everybody else. A woman’s body is never her own. That’s why I think Lucie and Kostka’s experience is so important and good – Kostka teaches Lucie that her body belongs to her, and when they have sex it is her decision about what to do with her body. I don’t make any great claims to maturity myself; I’m preparing to see my family this summer, and as I look ahead, I’m not picturing spending time with the people I love, I’m imagining confrontations with the brothers I feel betrayed by. Without using this vocabulary for it, I’ve been visualizing revenge on them, not by sleeping with their wives but through cutting comments and burning indifference. But that doesn’t make me any better than Ludvik, and it’s not a path that will lead to a good time. I’m not the same person I was when bad things went down, and neither are they. As Kundera points out, revenge is either immediate or worthless. There are no other options.

As long as people can escape to the realm of fairy tales, they are full of nobility, compassion, and poetry. In the realm of everyday existence they are, alas, more likely to be full of caution, mistrust, and suspicion.

The fate of this book is like the fate of its protagonist. Kundera wrote it as a novel, not a political satire. The problem with realism is that if you show real problems realistically, people think you’re exaggerating or being satirical. So, the Communists saw his book the same way his fictional Communists saw Ludvik’s joke, as a serious attack on the establishment. Westerners heard of it and started translating, but they translated poorly and only the bits that served their agendas. Eventually the author left Czechoslovakia and moved to Paris, and he set about having his novels retranslated, so while my copy is an approved translation, it’s not the final definitive one that Kundera supervised in the 1990s. Everyone took it so seriously, even when the title warns us not to.