Posts Tagged ‘world war ii’

Once on a Time (A. A. Milne)

This is a fantasy book written for adults (now probably considered YA). Of course, that doesn’t mean that there’s anything inappropriate for children here, merely that they are not the primary audience. There are people who are bad and unhappy because they are miscast, and Milne makes sure we understand that – a good leader can be an underhanded, manipulative follower, and a good swineherd can make a careless, aggressive king. The difficulty in life is to figure out what people’s strengths are, what they are truly well-suited to, and then putting them in those roles. I’m seeing a lot of that in my management class, but it’s true here as well. Magic kingdoms that are somehow excessively small, transformations, foolish men, women who don’t actually need help – it’s a great book.

The Biology of Luck (Jacob M. Appel)

I read this book in unhappy circumstances, sitting on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck, but I don’t think I’d care much for it in the best of contexts. Protagonist writes a book for the woman he loves, recounting the day that he finally gets the courage to ask her to marry him but from her perspective, and then he waits for the day he has the letter from the publisher either accepting or rejecting it to ask the big question. So, we see the day from his side, as he gets his letter and tries to hang onto it during the course of his day as a tour guide. We also read the book he wrote, telling the day from her side, but the two stories keep intertwining, so Protagonist predicted the day accurately, with its deaths and disasters and everything. A better writer would take a little time to speculate on the nature of reality, whether Protagonist is trapped in his own story or whether he is influencing future events in which he is not involved, whether free will exists or we are all pawns in some cosmological plan that he got an accidental glimpse of, but Appel ignores it all. There is no meditation on the fabric of events because Protagonist is completely obsessed with this girl Starshine. She doesn’t think of him at all. He fills the same role in her life as the gay best friend, only without being gay. I’m really confused as to why he would portray the woman he loves as a manipulative bitch, but he does. The common folk would call her a cocktease – she holds the possibility of sex in front of men in order to get them to do what she wants, but she prefers not to actually let them touch her. The boyfriend she meets for lunch is fabulously wealthy and wants to take her away to Europe; the boyfriend she meets after lunch is fabulously sexy and wants to take her away to Europe as well. The first one is young and entitled, the second is older, muscular, and revolutionary. Sleeping with two men is enough; she doesn’t need more sex in her life, but she still presents herself as available to other men so they will donate to the nonprofit she works for or do whatever else she wants. Why does protagonist love her? He digs all into her psyche, but I can’t find anything there to justify his feelings for her.

This book is another example of how New Yorkers think that a book is good, interesting, and important simply because it is set in New York. There’s nothing else to recommend it.

The Witching Hour (Anne Rice)

I first picked this book up in the staff room at my workplace ten years ago. I read through the first chapter, and I knew that this book could completely take me over, so I put it down and decided to leave it alone. Until now. There’s something about Anne Rice’s writing that feels real; it didn’t feel like reading fiction at all. It was a complete experience for me. Which is good, because at over a thousand pages, it took me nearly three weeks to get through it.

This is really two books. Nestled in the center is an epistolary multigenerational Gothic novel, along the order of Daphne du Maurier, about a family of witches. In seventeenth-century Scotland, a girl named Suzanne was a local healer. She slept with a witch hunter who told her all sorts of stories about witches are supposed to be able to do, so she went outside and called forth a spirit who whipped up a storm. She named him Lasher. He guides, protects, and supports her descendants for the next three hundred years. Lasher picks up various tricks from them over the years. The witch gene doesn’t stick with only female children, though, so he gets the idea to breed them for magical talent the way a puppy mill inbreeds for floppy ears and gentle dispositions. There’s some gay content here, but since the gay men in the family also tend to fuck their sisters/aunts/daughters/mothers/nieces, it’s not as gay-positive as I’d prefer. The Talamasca is a group of scholars who try to learn about the paranormal and protect the Mayfairs from their own witchcraft. They provide some genetic material for the line as well.

The frame story, the second longer book, is about the newest witch, Rowan Mayfair. She’s a neurosurgeon sworn never to see the family in New Orleans, who rescues a hot drowning guy and falls for him. He’s a poor Irish from New Orleans as well, so just her type. He gets some psychic powers after his near-death experience, as well as a driving mission to help the Mayfair witches. Not the ones living now, all the dead ones. Lasher’s in on it too, glad to have finally found a Mayfair who understands enough about anatomy to give him corporeal form. I’ll admit that my attention started to flag sometime around page 850, but I pushed through and things got intense there at the end. It’s a good book, just very long. The other two books in the trilogy are of a reasonable length.

The Consumption of Magic (T. J. Klune)

This is the third in the series about the magically bitchy twinks who gather dragons to put down the Rising of the Darks. When we finished A Destiny of Dragons, Sam hadn’t quite forgiven his mentors for concealing some details from him, but he gets over it here. Things are getting too dangerous for him to pass up allies, and this is a book about reconciliation. Even Gary and Kevin get back together, and we’re all glad we don’t really have to imagine what unicorn-dragon sex looks like. Knight Delicious Face is still dashing and immaculate, though once Sam starts telling his own secrets things change a little. Prince Justin is a bit less of an asshole than he has been, so maybe Sam’s charisma is winning him over at last. As ever, Klune’s writing is a joy and a delight, and if I knew him I would be begging for a beef injection. I love this series so much. This isn’t the end, and this installment finishes on an Empire Strikes Back sort of a note.

 

I know that I usually discuss books in the month that I read them, but it’s the afternoon of March 2 and I’ve already finished two more, so I’m going to go ahead and discuss these as well.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (J. K. Rowling)

I’ve heard people say that this series takes a dark turn in the fourth book, that the death of Cedric Diggory changes the series in less pleasant ways. I’d disagree – things get really dark here in Book Two. I know the movie makes him look like a Pixar chihuahua, but Dobby the Self-Harming House-Elf is really disturbing. Far from being the friendly sidekick, he’s one of the primary antagonists, despite the way he gives himself severe burns and bludgeoning trauma. It’s a miracle he hasn’t had any amputations. Then two fourteen-year-olds steal a car, only to have two twelve-year-olds steal the same car a few chapters on. Fortunately for it, the car goes feral and hides in the Forbidden Forest. Then there’s the giant spider, and the even gianter snake who kills on sight. Hagrid continues to be incredibly irresponsible with the children, even though it’s strongly implied that he’s sixty-three, so I feel like he should be more mature than he is. How long do half-giants live? How long does it take them to grow up? There’s also a great deal of cynicism in relation to celebrity culture and government authority, which will persist throughout the series. Bring on the darkness.

Prater Violet (Christopher Isherwood)

I read this book in about twelve hours, and most of those I was asleep. It’s the fictionalized account of Isherwood’s involvement on a motion picture in 1933 and 1934. The book focuses on his relationship with the Austrian director. There’s a lot of talk about politics, Hitler, and preparing for war – writing in 1945, Isherwood knew where things were going so he makes a big deal out of it, but the character Isherwood doesn’t know that World War II is just around the corner and just tries to keep the peace. The real meat of the book, for me, is in the last ten pages, where Isherwood starts thinking about what the experience means. What are we living for? In the midst of a worldwide economic and psychological depression, why do we bother to keep ourselves alive? It’s an expensive business, stuffing food and water in your mouth so that the cells keep replicating. It’s an interesting and intense burst at the end of the book. It got me thinking – he talks about how he takes lovers to hide from his fear and depression and hopes that eventually he will reach a point where he doesn’t need a man’s body to distract him from his terror and despair. I wonder if that’s what I’m doing. Why am I still with this guy? And if I do shake him off, how long will I stay single? Am I into relationships for the sex, or am I using men to avoid facing who I am and how I feel? Am I so in love with being alive that I really think it’s better than the alternative? Haven’t I always wanted the sort of adventure you never come back from? How aware am I of what’s going on in Venezuela, and to what degree does that make me complicit? Maybe I am just a stupid American, using more resources than an entire village, taking up more space than anyone has a right to, foolishly optimistic about the future and so not working to stop war or climate change. I’m hearing the girl from The Last Five Years, singing “I suck! I suck I suck I suck!”

Fromm is a social psychologist from the last century, and I’ve been working my way through his works a little at a time. This book attacks the idea that in 1950s America, healthy and normal were interchangeable concepts. Fromm begins by asking the question, are we sane? Is this a sane society? The answer, of course, is no. He determines this by examining the suicide and murder rates, which were already unusually high in the United States.

The next stage could be a bit controversial: determining what a person needs, regardless of culture. Making claims for universality is always a little dodgy, and although a European emigrant to the United States has had experience of several different cultures, his background doesn’t necessarily qualify him to discuss every culture. But since he’s focused on mine, I found his five needs to be relevant.

  1. Love. We need other people; not just any people, we need people who are similar to ourselves who welcome us. We need to feel like we belong. The failure of loving others productively is narcissism.
  2. Creation. He expresses it as transcendence, but I find that any explanation that uses the word ‘transcend’ becomes excessively numinous. We need to make stuff. I used to make blankets and sweaters, but now I’m making brownies and pies and casseroles. Sometimes I make poems or stories. Sometimes I add color to figurines at work. I like to make music. When we lose faith in our ability to create, we destroy. Later on, Fromm uses this need to explain why laziness is a capitalist construct and only exists when the work-life balance is skewed.
  3. Roots. Glancing back at the idea of love, we need to have a sense of our own origins. If we’re successful, we can distill that universal love into a positive feeling for those people we grew up with; if we’re not, then there’s incest to fall back on. Fromm really takes Freud to task here, arguing that his Oedipus complex and incest drives are abnormal, not part of healthy human development. He points out how ridiculous it is to assume that babies and young children have developed the sexual instincts of adults.
  4. Identity. We need to know who we are, apart from all the groups we belong to – family, community, nation, fandom, etc. Failure to establish an identity leads to conformity to the group. When we think back on the 1950s, it’s the conformity that seems most prominent in our cultural memory, but trauma has a way of forcing individuality on us, and World War II led to the expression of a lot of things that people didn’t want to face. If there’s repression, there has to be something trying to break free, and little packets of individual identity were breaking free all over the place. Kerouac’s On the Road was published in the 1950s, though most of those journeys took place in the 1940s, right after the war. He served in the US Navy for about a week.
  5. Belief. He talks in terms of orientation, which again is a little more abstract than is helpful for me. This is where he talks about reason – some people form beliefs based on observation and rational thought. They might be Christians or Muslims or atheists or Hindus, the thing believed in isn’t important, but the important thing is how they arrive at this belief. Less successful people grab onto superstitions and are guided by imagination rather than reason. Yes, a creative imagination is important; but CS Lewis didn’t believe Narnia really existed and that he could find it by poking around in the wardrobes in his home. A bird that is given food at random times will look for a cause to the random times, and will construct a ritual that it believes will produce the food. If it fluffs its wings just right, or whistles the precise tune, it believes it can cause the food to appear, even if it is still random. Even if the rituals don’t work, the belief persists. People aren’t much different.

 

The rest of the book (most of it) looks at the basis of society and asks whether it can promote these needs in the form it took then. There’s a lot of talk about authoritarianism, as in his previous books, but the thing that sticks out to me here is the commodification of people. Foucault would later write about this more extensively, the way that human beings are quantified and reduced to numbers, abstractions. Fromm takes a lot of time to talk about alienation, the way that we become abstractions to ourselves. It’s all right, even necessary, to work with other people, but when you start seeing yourself as a cog in a machine then something’s wrong. Human life is infinitely more complex and more valuable than the machinery we produce, and ignoring all of the value that people have and caring only for a small part of them is a destructive act.

Fromm also gets into Marxism, and the ways that people have distorted what was essentially a good idea. He really gets excited about socialism, of which I approve. He talks about the Russian attempt and explains how communism isn’t socialism (no matter what they name their republics), and all the ways Stalin got it wrong.

I have to admit that I started losing interest in this later part. I don’t have a strong background in understanding economic or political systems, and that made his arguments a little hard to follow. Also, times have changed, and some of his analyses aren’t relevant sixty years later. Some of it is also just depressing, as we in the United States keep clinging to an extreme form of capitalism that has produced an authoritarian president who is doing everything he can to destroy the country and make himself richer. It’s all quantities and numbers without an attention to the humanity being crushed to make blood wine for him and his fellow one-percenters. Trump’s election is a product of the alienation endemic to capitalism, and I could say some similar things about Bolsonaro. I just hope we can get rid of these bastards soon; I’m not trying to rob them of their human complexity (though some people do), I’m just saying that they are making bad decisions and creating unnecessary suffering for millions of people and I’d like it to stop.

I sometimes talk about being in favor of socialism, but to me that’s really only a second-best system. My ideal would be anarchy, people living quietly in peace without needing to be governed by an external authority. The problem with anarchy is, people are horrible, and left to themselves would rape and kill less aggressive people like me and swipe all our stuff. Because people suck, government is necessary. Because politicians suck, government is most effective on a smaller scale. Trying to govern however many millions of people there are in the United States with a single organization is sort of idiotic. Smaller countries, smaller communities, would work better. Fromm’s suggestions for creating a sane society are a little idealistic and unrealistic, given the nature and temperament of Americans, but maybe we could build a new society somewhere else. If Trump’s supporters get what they want and we’re all expelled to Big Gay Island somewhere, I’d like to think we’d make something better than what we’d be leaving. I like the fact that being gay in America means I’m expected to be in touch with my own feelings and respectful of those of others.

Fromm’s book is a little more connected with literature than the previous ones of his I’ve read – he makes a lot of references to Brave New World and 1984, though he spends a lot more time on Brave New World. We sometimes talk about Huxley’s book as instincts gone wild, but the people are much more mechanized (and hence alienated) than in Orwell. He makes frequent references to Kropotkin without explaining any of them, though he is more careful in examining the works of Marx and Engels. He wrote a book about literature before this one, but somehow I skipped it in my chronological reading of Fromm’s works. I’ll circle back to it soon.

It is always impressive to me that books like this can end in hope. People are shitty and create shitty systems to destroy each other, and it takes a lot of imagination and optimism to believe in the possibility of change. I haven’t been feeling the optimism lately. Apparently I read more books in 2018 than in any of the previous five years, and I think it has less to do with self-care and more to do with the need to escape reality. Reading isn’t always productive – it can be a self-comforting, addictive behavior. But I’m not Fromm, and he found hope that the world could improve, and he gave some specific suggestions on how to make it better. I’ll try to make things a little more beautiful where I can, but large-scale social change is beyond me. But if we’d all make things a little more beautiful where we are, it wouldn’t be beyond all of us.

This book was so delicious and so short that I read it in twenty-four hours. I definitely need more gay sci-fi in my life.

We kiss and the sea catches fire.

The bulk of the story is told by Emmett Leigh, a book collector of our own time. He finds a book of poetry called Time Was in a rubbish bin after one of his favorite bookstores goes out of business. In it there’s a love letter from Tom to Ben, and he goes on a quest to find out who these WWII-era lovers were, what happened to them, and how the letter got into the book and the book got into the shop (archivists, collectors, and sellers do get fascinated by issues of provenance).

But they keep popping up in newsreels and photographs of various wars throughout the twentieth century. The first set of pictures introduces him to Thorn, whose great-grandfather may have known them and whose grandfather is really into the occult. There’s a torrid affair, he moves in with her, but his obsession with time travel and Tom and Ben takes over his life and they separate. He ends up in Rome, where he finally meets Tom and resolves the mysteries.

Interwoven is Tom Chappell’s story, of how he meets Ben Seligman during the war, they fall in love, and then they’re involved in an experiment that goes awry.

The scientists looked uncomfortable in uniform. All but one. Oh, one. One whose boots were firmly planted. One who wore the uniform like skin, like the sky, who stood tall and certain and lifted his hands to his eyes when he stared at this place he had been taken, who shaded his eyes and so could not see me staring. Staring as if there were nothing else in the world, staring like a radar girl at a lone blip on my screen, my stare reaching out across the world and returning an echo. Until he dropped his hand and I was not quick enough to look away – deliberately so – and his eyes caught mine. We knew. We communicated through the airwaves. Then he was swept through the door into beery camaraderie: Boffins Corner, we called it, and I sat on my bench with my beer in the long evening sun and all my notes, all my words and rhymes and rhythms and images, all my thoughts and all the things I held in my heart, were nothing.

Tom is a teenage poet, English, and when the war strikes he works as a messenger, riding his motorbike all over the place, communication in wartime being such a tricky thing. Ben is working on some secret science-y thing for the army. One of the other soldiers mutters about him being a Jew, and I stand by what I’ve said before: I never can tell, and I’m always amazed at people who recognize Jews from their names and faces. There’s so much genetic variety in the world; how can you claim to see that much detail? I suppose it comes down to racism, and while I don’t want to be a racist, I would like to find people less baffling. I’m having a hard time with facial recognition these days; a colleague pointed out that with the amount of travel I’ve done, I’ve probably seen more faces than most people, so it’s to be expected that I have a hard time retaining new ones.

Now I understand. This is what poetry is for. This is why it exists. No gods, no muses, no inspiration, only the need to find words, syntax, structure and meter for feelings that do not go into words.

Emotions have no definitions other than themselves. They are irreducible, the atoms of sensation. All written art is an attempt to communicate what it is to feel, to ask the terrifying question: Is what I experience in my head the same as what you experience? Terrifying because we can never know for certain. We hope; we risk.

My hopeful, fearful little English heart is in smithereens.

Tom is shy and sensitive, and tries to articulate his feelings. Ben is more outgoing, less self-conscious, and draws Tom the Rhymer out a little more than usual. Ben’s project has to do with uncertainty principles. Think about atomic structure – when I was in school, they taught us that electrons traveled around the nucleus in a nice neat little orbit, but in high school teachers started talking more in terms of electron clouds because the truth is that we can’t really know both where an electron is and where it’s going. The cloud shows us where the electron is most likely to be, but it could exist at any point in that range and we can’t really be certain of the exact location. So, what if we were to take that same principle and apply it to something larger, like a battleship? It would be cloaked from enemy radar because they would never be able to pinpoint its exact location. It would exist in time and space differently than we do.

But the experiment doesn’t just take the boat, it takes Ben and Tom as well. They’re most likely to be found in England in the twentieth century, but they appear all over time and space, only not together. They seem drawn to wars, or maybe wars are just documented more carefully than the rest of our lives. Sometimes they’re together, but sometimes they have to leave notes for each other. Hence the book of poetry and its odd instructions – the stores aren’t to sell it, they should just leave it on the shelf as a sort of mailbox. But then, when one dies, how does the other know? When do you stop searching?

I’ve been wondering these things for myself over the past few days. New Guy engineered a traumatic situation for himself, and is now getting help for the trauma, but I worry about him. He seems to believe that pleasure must be paid for with suffering, so he’s (probably subconsciously) creating situations where he can suffer for being in love with me. I don’t think life has to be like this, and I hope his counselors address this attitude, but still. In the long term, how much suffering is he going to create for us because he feels guilty about being happy? And when do I decide that I’ve had enough? There are handsome men everywhere, and while the concentration here is not as high as it was in the last place I lived (I do love a mountain man), every day I see men that I would approach in the proper social setting. New Guy talks about commitment and marriage and all that, but I don’t yet have the feeling that he’s going to be my last relationship. If in the end what he really wants is to be miserable and alone, I’ll give it to him without feeling too bad about it. These last few weeks he hasn’t been coming down to see me very often, almost like I’m being weaned from his presence. I’ll adjust to his absence, just as I’ve adjusted to everyone else’s.

London would have been just more people and what we want is unpeople. Time and space for us.

The project of moving in together is becoming more complicated than I had wanted it to be. I’m hoping for some time and space, but we’ll see what develops. He’s a good guy; he just doesn’t take what he wants. He waits for someone to give it to him, and even then you have to set it in front of him and wait. He pursued me pretty hard at first, but now that it’s been seven months he’s lost his sense of urgency. He’s so caught up in the long-term big picture that we’re missing out on the simple, daily experiences that constitute a life together. My constantly changing life has focused me almost exclusively on the short term, and without that, I lose interest.

This is a fantastic book, as much about historical research as it is about love. Those of you who get uncomfortable about the sexy bits need not worry – there’s only one racy scene, and it’s fairly short and not very detailed. The story is about love, the ways we hold onto it through human interaction and documentation. The time we have together always feels so insufficient – hence the optimism in the way Tom signs his letters:

Time was, time will be again,

There’s always a time in every relationship where that’s not true, where time stops. Our time together ends. The goal is to delay that event for as long as possible, to use our time to the best advantage. I’d like to think that Tom and Ben do that, though we see more of the seeking than the finding. I know that Emmett doesn’t. I hope that I do, that when I’m at the end of my life looking back there will be more love than loss, more finding than searching, that I will think of love as long periods of joy instead of the short moments of suffering in between.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

 

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.