Posts Tagged ‘world war ii’

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.

The promotional material (quotes, blurbs,) markets this as the book of Forster’s gay stories. That’s not always accurate, but it’s pretty close. Chronologically, these stories fall into a few different groups.

PRE-WORLD WAR I

Almost all the writing for which Forster is famous happened between 1900 and 1914. He wrote two collections of short stories during this time, though one was not published until the 1920s. Collected here are five previously uncollected stories, most of them unpublished, and probably with good reason. “Albergo Empedocle” is the one that made it, and it’s probably the best. It’s about an English guy who goes to the Mediterranean with his fiancée’s family, and he realizes that he lived in a Greek colony on Sicily in a previous life (Empedocles having favored the idea of reincarnation). However, the previous life takes over his current life, and he ends up in a mental institution speaking a forgotten dialect of Greek. Despite Forster’s comparative youth, there is some wisdom here:

Had she only realized that it is only hypocrites who cannot forgive hypocrisy, whereas those who search for truth are too conscious of the maze to be hard on others – then the bitter flow of her thoughts might have been stopped and the catastrophe averted. But it was not conceivable to her that he should forgive – or that she should accept forgiveness, for to her forgiveness meant triumph of one person over another.

I like the ability here to understand things from multiple perspectives, as well as the understanding that people who are really in the struggle to understand the world are gentle to those who misunderstand it, and that defining forgiveness as triumph instead of reconciliation leads to bad outcomes.

The first story, “Ansell,” reminds me a bit of Maurice, in that it’s about abandoning society’s ideals and living happily and naturally with a lower-class friend of the same gender. In these early stories, if you’re looking for homosexuality, you can find it, but it’s not obvious. There’s a point here that really irritated me:

Dead silence ensued, which was well enough for Ansell, to whom it merely meant that neither of us had any more to say. But to educated people silence matters: it is a token of stupidity and lack of invention.

I’m quite sufficiently educated, but I don’t often feel silence to be awkward. I don’t see the purpose of education or intelligence to be the obliteration of quiet with idle chatter. I see it as the exact opposite – good friends and intelligent people know when to keep their mouths shut. I have a lot of thoughts that I don’t express (and don’t want to), and I like being able to pursue a train of thought even when there are other people around. Most of the people I love are those who know how to sit quietly with me.

BETWEEN THE WARS

So, Forster wrote Maurice and World War I happened, and there’s a bit of a gap. He wrote his last novel, some say his greatest, A Passage to India, in 1924, and there were a number of other stories, but at one point he decided that he was writing the stories “not to express myself, but to excite myself” and he burned them all. So, there are some racy Forster stories that the world will never see because he thought they were blocking his creativity – he couldn’t write anything publishable because every time he picked up a pen gay sex came out of it. But after the burning, he kept writing stories without publishing them. The three stories in the 1920s become gradually more graphic, but they all have a solemn air – “The Life to Come,” “Dr Woolacott,” and “Arthur Snatchfold.” Gay relationships are punished pretty severely, too – by death in the first two and imprisonment in the last.

“Dr Woolacott” is a ghost story – a young invalid meets the ghost of one of the soldiers his doctor treated during The War, and the ghost casts doubt on his treatment, and as they come together physically the boy dies. “The Life to Come” may be one of the best stories, but it’s also one of the saddest.

Love had been born somewhere in the forest, of what quality only the future could decide. Trivial or immortal, it had been born to two human bodies as a midnight cry. Impossible to tell whence the cry had come, so dark was the forest. Or into what worlds it would echo, so vast was the forest. Love had been born for good or evil, for a long life or a short.

A missionary to an unnamed indigenous group tries to convince them of the love of God, but is only successful after he sleeps with the young chief. The missionary convinces himself it was an evil act, but the chief remains unconvinced. However, he does turn his whole tribe to Christianity in the hopes that he can “come to Christ” with the white man again, but it doesn’t turn out. The missionary feels too guilty, so he marries a woman and has kids and rejects the chief once he’s done using him to advance his work. Several of the stories have an anti-Christianity flavor, but this is one of the strongest. For Forster, religion does terrible things to people by making them ashamed of their natural sexual desires. The repressions that religion exacts warps people and leads to a great deal of unhappiness, such as imprisonment or murder. Typically, when there are this many bad endings to stories of gay love, we critics would say that the author is against them. However, I think in Forster’s case the bad endings are not so much an indictment of gay sex as an indictment of a society that rejects homosexuality. If gay love is love, how can it be bad? If God is love, why can’t he support all kinds of love?

The 1930s have a markedly different feel. I don’t want to speculate too much, but I wonder if the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover had anything to do with it. These stories have an exuberance, a joy, that is missing from the others. “The Classical Annex” is about a museum where all the statues come alive at night and fuck each other. But the small-town museum can’t afford more than miniatures, except for the one full-sized classical subject who goes unfulfilled every night. The townspeople made him a metal fig leaf for decency’s sake, and during the day it seems way too big for what it has to cover, but at night it’s suddenly way too small. The curator blunders in one night and is thoroughly shocked and heads back home. His son, though, goes to the museum to find him, and finds a horny gay Greek made of marble instead.

And in after years a Hellenistic group called The Wrestling Lesson became quite a feature at Bigglesmouth, though it was not exhibited until the Curator and the circumstances of his retirement were forgotten. “Very nice piece, very decent” was Councillor Bodkin’s opinion. “Look ‘ow the elder brother’s got the little chappie down. Look ‘ow well the little chappie’s taking it.”

So the youth is part of the statue magic now, and so is technically no longer alive. But it seems that he’s enjoying spending eternity ‘wrestling’ with the Greek, and Forster makes it into a joke on the dignitaries’ ignorance.

“The Obelisk” pulls a similar stunt. A newly married (but not quite happy) couple on vacation meet a pair of sailors on shore leave. They all head toward the town’s one tourist spot, an obelisk facing the sea. On the way there, they separate and the wife has her own Lady Chatterley experience with the nicer of the two sailors.

Yes, he was wonderful. She would have this gallantry to look back upon, especially at night. She could think of Ernest quite kindly, she’d be able to put up with him when he made his little wrong remarks or did his other little wrong things. She’d her dream, and what people said was false and what the Pictures said was true: it was worth it, worth being clasped once in the right arms, though you never had them round you again. She had got what she longed for, and it was what she longed for, not a smack in the face, not a sell. . . . She had always yearned for a lover who would be nice afterwards – not turn away like a satisfied brute, as handsome men are supposed to do. Stanhope was – what do you call it . . . a gentleman, a knight in armour, a real sport. . . . O for words. Her eyes filled with happy tears of happiness.

But, while she never makes it to the obelisk, she realizes later that her husband never did either, and probably for the same reason she didn’t. But it doesn’t impair their relationship – she actually thinks he’s more handsome and pleasant after bottoming for the sailor.

Forster’s morality tale “What Does It Matter?” makes his philosophy clear – sex is no one’s business but the people who are doing it. The president of a fictional eastern European country has a minister of police who wants to make a scandal, so he engineers a situation where the president’s wife walks in on him and his mistress. But there’s no scandal because the wife keeps her calm. Then the minister gets one of his men to seduce the president and has the mistress walk in, and she goes a little crazy, but the president’s wife talks her down. They all agree to accept the situation, and they publish an edict to that effect, that all three have had sex with the president and intend to continue, and why does that matter? The people take to the idea that sex doesn’t imply possession and it becomes the most peaceful nation in the world. No one will attack them because their sexual ideology is so contagious that they will transform any nation that conquers them. This may have something to do with the fact that Forster spent many years in a loving relationship with a married man, but the idea strikes me as sound. If sex is consensual, and that implies that all parties involved are mature adults, then why is it anyone else’s business?

AFTER WORLD WAR II

By the end of WWII, Forster was in his mid-60s. He’d been busy doing other things, because even if you’re as fantastic as he was there’s more to life than publishing fiction. There are a couple of other gay stories from the late 1950s, and they return to that 1920s feeling of “great” literature. “The Torque” is about a Roman from a newly Christian family who gets raped by a Goth, but in reality the sex seems more unexpected than unwelcome. They don’t speak each other’s language, so the Goth can’t really ask, and afterward the Roman seems to have enjoyed himself. Then later he imagines the Goth asking to be raped in turn, so I really have to question Forster’s use of the word. Rape means that consent is withheld, but in this story it’s only withheld until the rapist’s intentions are clear. This is not what rape is really like. It’s a horrible experience that leaves permanent scars. If the receiver consents, and I mean from the heart and not necessarily in words, then it’s not rape. Some people are pressured into consenting in words when they do not really want to do it, and that is rape. People have started talking about ‘grey rape,’ where the two parties are so chemically elevated that neither is sure whether they had sex or whether consent was given, and I don’t know how to judge that situation, and I’m glad I don’t have to. I do think that it’s a bad idea to have sex if either person is too far gone to judge the situation, but as the name implies, this is a grey area. And, as should be obvious, no one asks to be raped. The request implies consent. In the story, the Roman gets happiness and possibly mystical powers from the experience, not permanent psychological wounds. But Forster is back to hating on Christianity and its demand for chastity.

I didn’t quite see the full extent of Forster’s hatred of Christianity until I got to “The Other Boat.” Here, he not only blames Christianity for homophobia, but also for racism:

He spoke of the origins of Christianity in a way that made her look down her nose, saying that the Canal was one long genuine Bible picture gallery, that donkeys could still be seen going down into Egypt carrying Holy Families, and naked Arabs wading into the water to fish; “Peter and Andrew by Galilee’s shore, why, it hits the truth plumb.” A clergyman’s daughter and a soldier’s wife, she could not admit that Christianity had ever been oriental. What good thing can come out of the Levant, and is it likely that the apostles ever had a touch of the tar-brush?

In terms of Western Civilization, Christianity has been the winning team for about two thousand years. However, it’s not a European religion. It’s not an American religion. It’s from the Middle East. If most American Christians saw Jesus Christ today, they would think he looked like a terrorist. It’s interesting to me that she points out the racial Otherness of the Arabs, but here in the United States we define peoples of the Middle East as white, no doubt so that we can admit that Jews are white. Jewish people have played a large role in positions of power in American history, so of course they can be legally considered white. After all, we can’t go around Othering Jesus. But if we welcome Jesus as part of our group, we also have to admit Syrian refugees as white people, and Iraqis and Saudis and all the other people from the heart of Islam. Which creates a racial conundrum for some people, if they put any thought into it.

Forster juxtaposes racism with homophobia – the white Englishman is okay having a relationship with the ethnically vague foreigner as long as no one knows about it, and he enjoys it as long as he doesn’t think about it. But at the end he realizes the foreigner’s bribes are tipping people off, and he does spend some time thinking about it, and he kills the man he doesn’t love. Then he runs up on deck and jumps in the ocean, killing the other man he doesn’t love, himself.

Taken all together, this is kind of a weird collection because the stories are written at such different times in the author’s life. They can hardly be expected to present a unified viewpoint; we are all such different people at different stages of our development. Forster in his 20s and Forster in his 70s write in very different ways, and “Ansell” and “The Other Boat” don’t seem all that unified. But in some ways they do. Maybe people don’t change as much as I think (hope) they do. “Ansell” ends with the boys happy together because the rich, educated boy isn’t yet thinking of his future, but “The Other Boat” shows what happens when he does. There is an important distinction, though – Edward in “Ansell” loses all the books he needs to write his dissertation, so his love with Ansell grows up because he’s already lost the future he had planned. In “The Other Boat,” Lionel still has a lot to lose when he hooks up with Cocoanut, and he can’t face that expected loss when he realizes that their relationship isn’t the secret he thinks it is.

THREE COURSES AND A DESSERT

Speaking of weirdness. This four-part story was designed for four different authors, each taking a section. You’ll recognize the format from Naked Came the Stranger, as well as its for-charity descendants Naked Came the Manatee and Naked Came the Phoenix. The first author, Christopher Dilke, does a good job of setting up an interesting story, and Forster manages to match his tone and characters pretty well. But the third author, A. E. Coppard, is not their equal. Characters change drastically and become caricatures of themselves, and while James Laver does his best to mop up the damage in the epilogue, the first two parts cohere and the rest do not. I do appreciate Laver’s final twist – Forster ended his part with a murder, and Laver broke the fourth wall by placing Forster in the crowd and saying that the author did it. It’s a bit of a joke, but I think it was the only reasonable way to end it. It’s an unfortunate addition to a short story collection that, at 210 pages, was already long enough to publish. I’ve seen novels shorter than that published without any trouble.

This collection was a real delight. It satisfies the itch for a book like Maurice without being it – early twentieth century, well-written, normative gay romance with a little Lady Chatterley thrown in. No wonder I couldn’t put it down.

 

Oxford, in the rain:

The next day the weather broke. Early in the morning, before the first rays of light had touched the towers and pinnacles of the city, the rain began to fall from a leaden sky. When Nigel woke from a disturbed sleep the streets were already soaking, the elaborate and inefficient drainage systems of Gothic, Mock-Gothic, Palladian and Venetian architecture were already emitting accumulated jets of water on unwary passers-by: From Carfax the gutters streamed down the gentle slope of the High, past the ‘Mitre’, past Great St Mary’s, past the Queen’s, and so down to where the tower of Magdalen stood in solitary austerity above the traffic which ran towards Headington or Iffley or Cowley. Outside St John’s, the trees began to creak and whisper, and the drops rattled with dull monotony from their branches, while a few solitary beams of pale sunlight rested on an architrave of the Taylorian, glanced off southwards down the Cornmarket, and were rapidly engulfed somewhere in the precincts of Brasenose. The cinereous sky echoed the grey of innumerable walls; water ran in streams down the ivy which more or less shields Keble from offensive comment; paused and momentarily glistened on the wrought-iron gates of Trinity; gathered in innumerable runnels and rivulets among the cobbles which surround the Radcliffe Camera, standing like a mustard-pot among various other cruets. The eloquent décor of Oxford is bright sunlight or moonlight; rain makes of it a prison city, profoundly depressing.

And our featured professor of literature, Gervase Fen:

He travelled first-class because he had always wanted to be able to do so, but at the moment even this gave him little pleasure. Occasional pangs of conscience afflicted him over this display of comparative affluence; he had, however, succeeded in giving it some moral justification by means of a shaky economic argument, produced extempore for the benefit of one who had unwisely reproached him for his snobbishness. ‘My dear fellow,’ Gervase Fen had replied, ‘the railway company has certain constant running costs; if those of us who can afford it didn’t travel first, all the third-class fares would have to go up, to the benefit of nobody. Alter your economic system first,’ he had added magnificently to the unfortunate, ‘and then the problem will not arise.’ Later he referred this argument in some triumph to the Professor of Economics, where it was met to his chagrin with dubious stammerings.

Sometimes I think there’s something seriously wrong with me. I’ve been hitting the high culture a little hard lately – looking back, I haven’t read anything that could be considered an easy, relaxing read since October – so I went into the bookstore looking for something “different” (as I framed it to myself), and I came out with Dostoevsky and Kit Marlowe. I tried again a few weeks later, and I bought yet another Kundera novel and one of Joseph Campbell’s books on myth. I’ve also been feeling really tense lately, and I wonder if I even know how to relax any more. Fortunately, I approach the kobo differently. When I browse the website, I actively seek the less snobbish material that I can’t get reconciled to in printed form. Though really, I’m not sure if a book that uses such words as constatation and aposiopesis can really be considered easy, relaxing, or low-culture. I was sent to the dictionary at least five times, not generally a sign of low-stress reading.

Gervase Fen is a literature professor at Oxford, and uses his free time to solve crimes. He loves a good murder. Even though the narrator assures us he’s done this before, I think this is his first appearance in print. He’s delightfully eccentric, alternately exuberant and depressed, as the case progresses. Solving mysteries makes him happy, but the ethical dilemmas prompted by the solution trouble him. Is it right to assist in the conviction, imprisonment, and probable execution of a murderer who has killed someone that no one misses, and in fact most of the victim’s acquaintance rejoice in her demise? Especially when the murderer is an artist who could make a wartime world more beautiful? It’s a tricky puzzle. As much as I value human life and try to consider all lives equal, the damage that surrounds certain individuals makes me think that they and the world would both be happier if they were put out of the way. I’m not planning to murder anyone, I’m just saying that not all deaths are tragic.

The straight man from whose perspective we see the plot unfurl, Fen’s Dr Watson, is Nigel Blake, a former student who now works as a journalist. He quotes a lot, nearly as much as Fen himself, though in truth everyone does in this book. There is a veritable shit-ton of allusion, most of which I didn’t recognize and don’t feel bad about. I mean, how many people are reading Charles Churchill these days? Nigel’s quotations are more recognizable, usually from Shakespeare. The title itself is from King Lear, where he quotes the gilded fly as a symbol of lechery, when he’s praising venery for the illegitimate son who cares for him, as opposed to the honestly-got daughters who throw him out of his own home. One of the characters owns a ring with a gilded fly, a reproduction of an Egyptian artifact, and it’s found shoved onto the finger of a corpse. Hooray for literary theatre puns.

Along with the literature professor who solves crime, there’s a police detective who analyzes literature in his free time. Fen and Sir Richard disagree with each other’s conclusions, but the detective doesn’t play a large role. The Inspector, the more significant police presence, is an old man who is generally appalled and offended by the lax sexual mores of 1940. He spends his time being slowly authoritative and magnificently dense.

And then there are the victims and suspects, a group of theatre people and their hangers-on. The victim, Yseut Haskell, is a total bitch to everyone. She used to be sleeping with the playwright, but he’s moved on to the leading lady and the supporting actress hasn’t got over him. Oxford’s organist is hung up on Yseut, but she ignores him; the prop girl is hung up on the organist, and he ignores her in turn. There are other friends and relations, like the owner of the gun and the half-sister and the stage manager, and there’s more sex going on, but all of it offstage because we are writing in 1943 and things aren’t that lax.

This novel is written and set during World War II, yet the war doesn’t seem to invade Oxford. They have their blackout curtains, of course, and the war had a strong impact on theatre-going (which explains why a famous playwright and talented actors are leaving the West End to put on a show with a repertory company in Oxford), but most people keep doing what they had been doing, studying and teaching and performing, regardless of the Nazi Menace. I suppose if you’re not a soldier, wars don’t hold the attention very long. And since they don’t last forever, the activities that are not directly affected are in some ways more important. Of course, those activities could be ended by a war, but they’re not always. Art flourishes, even in unlikely places. And so does love.

So Nigel turned his attention back to what was left of Yseut. It was curious, he thought, how completely death had drained her of personality. And yet not curious: for her personality had centred entirely on her sex, and now that life was gone, that too had vanished, leaving her a neuter, an uninteresting construction of clay, suddenly pathetic. She had been an attractive girl. But that ‘had been’ was not a conventional gesture to the fact of death. It was an honest admission that without life the most beautiful body is an object of no interest. We are not bodies, thought Nigel, we are lives. And oddly, there came to him at that moment a new and firm conviction of the nature of love.

Yes, this contradicts Poe’s assertion that there is nothing more beautiful than a beautiful woman who has just died, but Crispin’s idea is better, healthier. In a book where sexuality runs rampant, he turns away from necrophilia and makes sure sex is only expressed in healthy, heterosexual ways. Nowadays, when we read that two young men didn’t hear the gunshot because they were listening to German opera and tone poems at high volume, we think that it’s to cover the sounds of gay sex, but they had all the windows and doors open, so less lover-like and more aggressively pretentious. Even in 1943 I imagine that Wagner and Strauss (Richard, not Johann) had a limited appeal. When I was in graduate school I tried listening to them for a class and my newborn son screamed and screamed. He was happy with Donizetti, but could not handle the Germans. But really, who doesn’t like Donizetti? They put some in a Bruce Willis film, and that scene is even more widely remembered and loved than the ending, which is a little anticlimactic. Granted, there’s a crazy electronic cadenza, but it’s still Donizetti.

Life matters. We are who we are because we are alive, and when we die this physical shell, this earthly husk, will become a thing of no worth, something we burn or bury, which is what we do to trash. A body with no breath, a human with no life, is not a thing of great value. Its only use is as evidence – we must find out who or what deprived us of this life. And that’s the conclusion we must eventually come to: Even Yseut Haskell’s life matters and contributes to humanity. Robbing the world of a life is a serious crime, one that people in my home country are only too happy to commit. Our murder rates are rising dramatically, which suggests that people in the United States do not value human life. There are too many bombs, too many shootings, and too much of it is based on identities. People get killed for being black, for being Muslim, for being gay, I mean this guy from Baltimore just ran up to New York because he wanted to kill a black person. Why do you think they’re insisting so much that their lives matter? Because white people think it’s okay to kill them. Yes, all lives do matter, but the majority of American culture does not question the value of white lives. Straight white male Christian lives, to be specific. I was in the mall yesterday, and there were several small-time entrepreneurs setting up booths and tables to sell things, and I heard one of the sellers demean both Jews and Blacks in the space of about twenty minutes. I suppose this is a good community for that, since there aren’t many non-white, non-Christians around, but what a horrible way to see the world. Life is precious, both your individual life and everyone else’s.

Objectively speaking, it has been said that Crispin’s murders are too convoluted, that no one would ever actually kill people in these manners. They’re too unrealistic. Yes, that’s very likely so, and I suppose it’s bothersome if you read mystery novels because you want to figure it out before it’s revealed, but I don’t. I read these stories because I think detectives are interesting people. Intelligent, brave, and eccentric – who wouldn’t want to spend time with them? Crispin’s mysteries, though, are probably best enjoyed by people who enjoy literary quotations and expanding their vocabularies. Like me.

People have been telling me to read Pratchett for quite some time now, but I have not yet succumbed to the attractions of Discworld. I’m a bit nervous that once I get started, it’s going to take over my life, and I don’t really want that. I’ve read a bit of Neil Gaiman, though, and this is sort of what I expect from a combination of the two. You remember the old practical joke, where you balance a bucket of water on top of a half-open door, and then someone walks through the door and gets soaked? Funny, right? Now imagine that the someone walking through the door is one of the Lords of Hell, bent on dragging you down to the Underworld to be punished by Mr Big-and-Scaly himself. And imagine that the bucket is full of holy water, which will dissolve the corporeal manifestations of demons on contact. Imagine further that the you running from this demon is also a demon, albeit of a lesser order, and that sloshing any of the holy water on you will dissolve you just as effectively. What was a funny situation is now a game of life or death with eternal stakes. For me, the life-and-death struggle undercuts the jokes.

What happened to England? At one time they were the mightiest empire on the planet. Then they were the only nation to stand up to Hitler and the Nazis, and through the strength of their endurance they won. But sometime during the second half of the twentieth century the national identity shifted to focus on antisocial, xenophobic, inefficient, and unintelligent behaviour. Somehow they went from Winston Churchill to John Cleese. This is one of the things that I admire about Doctor Who: its insistence that no life is unimportant, and that the British people will continue until the end of the universe. The show is making an attempt to restore English nationalism.

The Antichrist is born on earth. Since this book is a little dated, the Antichrist was born the same year I was, and at the time the story takes place he’s eleven years old. He was accidentally put in a normal British family, so he grows up a fairly normal boy, though with a stronger love of home than I had. When he reaches the age of eleven, the hellhound comes to join him, but the boy’s sense of normal infects the dog, and he becomes a normal dog.

It’s time for the great war between heaven and hell, and all the heavenly and infernal hosts are massing together, ready to strike. Earth is the battlefield, and will likely be annihilated. Well, there’s a demon who doesn’t want this to happen. There’s an angel who feels the same way. Aziraphale tries to avoid heaven, and Crowley hell, in order to reach the Antichrist and save the world. Their jobs have been pretty easy until now, human beings being both worse than demons and better than angels. So they use their earthly tricks to dodge the supernatural and get to the boy. This is the type of antihero, praise-of-mediocrity stuff I was mentioning earlier.

This is all laid out in prophecy, of course. Three hundred years ago Agnes Nutter saw it all and wrote it down, quite literally. But like Cassandra of old, no one understands or believes her. Her book is now in the possession of her descendant Anathema Device. Newt Pulsifer, witch hunter, comes to find her and he falls in love (quite a change from Newt’s ancestor, who led the team that burned Agnes to death). His commander in the Witchfinder Army also gets ensnared by a fortune-teller/aging courtesan. (cf antihero, praise of mediocrity)

And there are the Four Horsepeople of the Apocalypse: Scarlett, Dr Sable, Mr White, and The Other One. Scarlett bounces around the world bringing armed conflict wherever she goes, which seems to be not-quite-industrial societies; Dr Sable is leading a revolution in nutrition in America, feeding us all on fillers without any actual nutritional value; and Mr White brings trash and oil spills everywhere. War, Famine, and Pollution (Pestilence retired after we scientized medicine in the early twentieth century). Death is always present, following the other three but stronger than them all. And they’re coming to start the war that will end everything.

But that normal boy doesn’t want to end everything. He loves his home. He’s spent eleven years making Tadfield the perfect place for a boy to grow up, and he doesn’t want a bunch of angels and demons ruining it. The two factions are equally indifferent to humanity, each intent on bringing glory to their commander by defeating their opponent. But what would happen after? An eternity of nothing. Heaven and hell are both short-sighted in their ambitions. The real goal is play, an activity that has no other goal but its own perpetuation.

I love moments of convergence, when the disparate strands of a story come together at the climax. All these groups find each other at the Air Base that controls England’s nuclear missiles. The missiles are somewhere else, of course, but all the controls are in Tadfield, and the Four Horsepeople are ready to get things moving.

The ancients were always so convinced that the world was going to end. I’m not. The world continues, and life endures. Sometimes it’s funny; sometimes it’s intense; sometimes it’s awful and pointless (full of antiheroes who praise mediocrity), but life goes on. Endings scare us; Death endures when all other spirits have passed. Apocalyptic maunderings are all about the fear of death. When one of us dies, however, the rest go on. The world doesn’t stop for a death. The end of life is natural, mundane. Even if all of humanity died, the world would continue; some forms of life would continue even after a nuclear holocaust. I guess having survived the Cold War gives me a different perspective than people had in 1990.

And I guess that’s what this is really about: heaven and hell and their mutually assured destruction are uncomfortably similar to the United States and the Soviet Union, where ultimately the two sides are working for the same goal, the destruction of everything, and are indifferent to other nations, even their allies. I’ve seldom considered what that would look like to the rest of the world; as an American, I haven’t had to. Sometimes the modern world feels like an old Western movie, and every so-called terrorist organization is waiting to see who’s finally going to kill the aging gunslinger. It may happen soon.

We are a group of former British colonies that were largely settled by Germans, so we have the Nazi viciousness and ravenousness combined with the English endurance and self-control.  No wonder people hate and fear us. For all that Good Omens is billed as a comedy, it’s a Lenny Bruce routine, laughing at what has you scared shitless. Perhaps on subsequent readings I’ll laugh more, but this time I saw this as a book of fear.

The trouble with trying to find a brown-covered book among brown leaves and brown water at the bottom of a ditch of brown earth in the brown, well, grayish light of dawn, was that you couldn’t.

It wasn’t there.

Anathema tried every method of search she could think of. There was the methodical quartering of the ground. There was the slapdash poking at the bracken by the roadside. There was the nonchalant sidling up to it and looking out of the side of her eye. She even tried the one which every romantic nerve in her body insisted should work, which consisted of theatrically giving up, sitting down, and letting her glance fall naturally on a patch of earth which, if she had been in any decent narrative, should have contained the book.

It didn’t.

Which meant, as she had feared all along, that it was probably in the back of a car belonging to two consenting cycle repairmen.

 

I’ve been delaying writing about this, and I’m not entirely sure why. These five stories are good, exactly what you’d expect from Byatt. I love her fairy tales, but these are a little grittier than I remember The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye being.

The Thing in the Forest

During the evacuation, two girls see the wyrm in the woods. It reminds me a bit of Bram Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm, but this wyrm doesn’t transform into a woman. It’s more like a sentient pile of raw meatloaf. Gross, but something about contact with the supernatural pulls these girls back after they’ve grown into women.

Body Art

Starving art student decorates hospital for Christmas, meets a handsome doctor who’s obsessed with the fact that he’s Catholic but doesn’t believe it any more. So when she gets pregnant, he forces her to keep the baby.

“I didn’t understand. I didn’t know.”

Possibility of a happy ending, despite the messy relationships.

A Stone Woman

At some point, someone is going to write a scholarly article on Byatt’s great love of Scandinavian men. It probably won’t be me, though.

A woman transforms to stone, gradually and beautifully. She meets an Icelandic sculptor who takes her to a place where stone women can be at peace, Iceland in the winter.

Raw Material

Community writing classes that the teacher is trying desperately to keep from becoming group therapy sessions. And failing. When someone writes something genuinely good, the sort of writing that touches the heart and wrings the emotions, they pounce on it and destroy it. Sad. It’s hard for people to honour talent in others that they wished they had for themselves.

The Pink Ribbon

An elderly man cares for his wife, who is dying of Alzheimer’s. When my grandmother got this, she went to the Alzheimer’s wing of the assisted living community where they lived. My grandfather asked them if he could stay with her if he promised to act crazy. But this man in the story just takes care of her at home, with the aid of a community nurse. But no one wants to linger with Alzheimer’s, so the astral projection of her younger self comes to beg him to let her die as soon as she can.

I suppose these are not happy stories. People’s lives are transformed, and often ended. Maybe I shouldn’t see that as sad, but this week I do. Sometimes there’s a redemptive feel, and the Stone Woman’s ending is more triumphant than death, but this is a sad and strange book, read at a time when I don’t really need sad and strange. I’m looking for something comforting, and this wasn’t it.

Sorry not to offer you more, but thinking about this book is getting me agitated again, and it’s not an emotion that I have time for these days. I’m living in a family again, and it requires an emotional stability that is hard for me to maintain. Stories of people going off the rails don’t help right now.

I feel sort of bad, like I should apologize to the author, but I really feel like when he says

Self-conscious and didactic, it was not a successful work.

he’s talking about his own novel. I mean, a few of the critics call it a thriller, but it doesn’t have anything scary in it. There are a few moments of mild excitement, but not even cheap thrills. It is very learned, with an advanced vocabulary and heavy with allusion, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a good read.

How many times have we done the fallen priest novel? I wasn’t that fond of Graham Greene’s, but I haven’t found one better. As is often the case, the priest, who is a Father Whatawaste, falls in love and has sex. The physical contact drives him into questioning everything he’s ever believed, because if you can have sex without being dragged to hell immediately, then obviously God doesn’t exist.

Within he wonders what he has wondered for much of his life but has rarely allowed conscious space to: is there a being, transcendent or immanent – either will do – that one might call God (or Dio, or Allah, or Yahweh, or Bog, if it comes to that) and if there is such a being, does he (He?) care one jot or tittle for the spiritual or physical life of this speck of dust crammed into tourist class on an Alitalia flight to London, Heathrow? He reads his breviary, possibly for the very last time. His question remains unanswered, but his body (embarrassingly: he has to shift in his seat to make things comfortable again) answers all to readily to the persistent vision of Madeleine, which exists in a separate but simultaneous part of his mind and has by now opened its legs.

Leo Newman’s conundrum is complicated by the fact that he’s a researcher; once he and his girl (diplomat’s wife) start doing it, he gets tapped to translate a newly discovered scroll. It’s authenticated to earlier than any preexisting gospel narrative, and claims to be Judas Iscariot’s account of the life of Jesus. So, he didn’t kill himself after the crucifixion. Worse, he says that he, Nicodemus, and Saul of Tarsus stole the body and hid it where no one could find it, but that he, Judas, has seen the decomposing body of Jesus, so the resurrection is a fraud. First the scandal about him and Madeleine hits the papers, and then there’s the to-do about the Judas scroll. Everyone sees him as a betrayer, as worse than Judas himself. And they do have a point; betrayal is sort of this guy’s stock-in-trade.

There’s something oddly Victorian about the whole thing; a priest who has Jewish blood and Jesuit training unravels Christianity, and yet the attempt is made to present him sympathetically? Who wrote this novel, Thackeray? I mean, the author seems to struggle between a conscious acceptance of the inevitability of sexual desire and a prurient rejection of its expression. I don’t think of sex as failure or disease; I rather believe it’s a success.

And that was the moment when something turned inside him, something visceral, like the first symptoms of a disease. That was what made it all the more disturbing, that it seemed so profoundly organic. The cerebral he could deal with. The cerebral he could battle against, had long ago learned to battle against. Mental images were things he could chase from his mind like Christ chasing the money-changers from the Temple (an incident that is generally accepted by the most skeptical of New Testament scholars as genuine, indeed pivotal). But when it was the temple of the body that was under assault, the dismissal was not so easy. No easier to dismiss a cancer. And her glance at him as they sat at the long dining table beneath the benevolent eye of Jack and the agonized eye of Saint Clare Contemplating the Eucharist, School of Guido Reni, seemed to plant the first seeds of some disease in his body.

Twined around this story, we flash forward and backward, into his past and his present. The story of his present, living with an artist named Magda, is sort of dull, even when compared to the uninteresting main story. It provides some foreshadowing, and I believe Leo is eventually sort of happy. In my opinion, the interesting part of the book is the story out of the past.

Leo’s parents were German Nazis stationed in Italy during World War II. His mother has an affair with an Italian Jew, gets angry, and turns him in. I mean, it may not be the most original story in the world, but it was a lot more interesting and affecting than the story of their son’s life of betrayal. I suppose there’s an element of “the sins of the fathers being visited on the heads of the sons,” and parts of the story of Frau Huber and Checco parallel nicely with Leo and Madeleine.

“You are a Jew. What can you know of God?”

“I thought we invented him.”

She chooses her words deliberately, as one chooses a weapon that will do the most damage: “You may have invented God,” she says, “but you also murdered him.”

How can this poor kid help betraying everyone and everything around him? His father was a Christ-killer, and his mother was a Holocaust-denying Jew-killer.

“Tell me what it is like . . .” he asks as they contemplate a Venus standing in the long grass. The Venus gestures with half an arm, like an amputee. Her face, part ravaged by time, still contains within its worn features a strange modesty. Her thighs enclose her glabrous pudendum tightly, so that men may look but not see.

“What what is like?”

“To be a woman.”

She laughs. “How can a woman explain that to a man?”

“Tell me how it feels when you make love.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“Or when you have a baby.”

“Painful. You’re being idiotic.”

“I want to understand you.”

“Men cannot understand women.”

“Italian men can. Maybe not German men, but Italian men can.”

“German men are no different from Italian men.”

“They are very different. German men murder children.”

“They do not!” Her voice has risen now. The ghostly, mangled Venus has ceased to matter. She is suddenly angry, her face flushed, her nose, that not-quite-classical nose, sharp and white with a kind of tension. “That is a disgusting thing to say!”

He is grinning at her reaction. “Oh, but they do. Jewish children.”

“Lies! I will not have you saying that kind of thing!” Momentarily, guiltily, she thinks of her husband.

I’d like to say that there’s some interesting stuff about gender, but this is the only passage that moves in that direction. And there are a couple of references to homosexuality, but all of them as something to be avoided in a priest. Back when I was a Mormon, preaching in Brazil, one of my friends said, “If you don’t look once, you’re not a man; if you look twice, you’re not a missionary.” Newman’s fellow priests have the same attitude: it takes a celibate heterosexual man to do God’s work. Anything else is the devil’s work. Mawer recognizes that lifelong celibacy is fucked up, but he represents sex as an inevitable evil, proof of betrayal. Judas and Jezebel, cut from the same cloth, dyed with the same blood. Blood soaks through every symbol and allusion in the book, odd since there’s so little physical violence.

It’s an unfortunate book. I’m sure there are some who like it, and it’s self-consciously literary enough that at one time I may have pretended to, but I’m certainly not one of them.