October 2009 Archives

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath


Welcome to the first installment of the Kristin Lavransdatter readalong, hosted by me and Richard! I can't wait to read everyone's thoughts on the first volume of Unset's trilogy. In case you missed it, Sarah posted about a cool, Kristin-related exchange she shared with a customer at her job; what a lovely little moment. Also, Eva at A Striped Armchair reviewed the entire trilogy the other day, which she devoured in just a week! Go Eva! She was very careful and considerate not to post any spoilers in her review, but just so y'all know, I'm going to talk about some major plot points (of the first volume only!) in my entry. So, be forewarned: if you're not reading along but think you might want to attack Kristin Lavransdatter in the near future with no idea about the plot, you might want to skip my little essay here.

One of the reasons I suggested reading Kristin with a group was that I had heard such great things about it from a huge variety of sources, yet kept putting off the actual moment when I would crack open the covers and begin to read. Historical fiction is pretty far outside my normal reading comfort zone, especially books set in the medieval period that involve some kind of romance. I have certain snobbish instincts to bundle all such stories into my personal stereotype of awkward exposition, overwrought dialog, and anachronistically modern notions of love and marriage. Frankly, I think it's high time that snobbishness was challenged. And so far, Kristin Lavransdatter is doing a good job of challenging it, but in ways that are different than I anticipated. I think I was expecting something more like the work of Icelandic novelist Halldor Laxness: ultra-realistic; moving slowly and hinging on small, everyday events; grimly funny in a militantly anti-romantic way. Instead, Kristin moves quickly and smoothly, and involves big swathes of drama, veering at times into melodrama. I'm still not quite sure what to make of the old seduction-while-sheltering-in-the-barn-during-a-storm chestnut, or the conveniently untimely death of Erlend's first mistress Eline: both of those events disrupted the flow of my reading a bit, and made me direct rhetorical questions at the author: "Really, Sigrid?" I asked. "Really?" Nevertheless, apart from those two examples I was completely sucked into the story while I read it, and I think Undset does an impressive job of writing a thoroughly-researched novel that doesn't force its research down the reader's throat. Kristin, Lavrans, Ragnfrid and the others seem true to what I know about people, as well as being true (as far as I can tell) to their place and time. They don't stop in the midst of the action to explain their culture to the modern reader, which is one of my top peeves about "otherized" literature, including historical fiction. And Undset's descriptions of the Norwegian landscape are understated, yet lovely:

In the middle of the night she woke up when her father touched her shoulder in the dark.

"Get up," he said quietly. "Do you hear it?"

Then she heard the singing at the corners of the house - the deep, full tone of the moisture-laden south wind. Water was streaming off the roof, and the rain whispered as it fell on soft, melting snow.

Kristin threw on a dress and followed her father to the outer door. Together they stood and looked out into the bright May night. Warm wind and rain swept toward them. The sky was a heap of tangled, surging rain clouds; there was a seething from the woods, a whistling between the buildings. And up on the mountains they heard the hollow rumble of snow sliding down.

In one sense, the novel is called Kristin Lavransdatter simply because that's the main character's name: the old Norwegian naming system formed surnames from one's father's first name, so that I, since my dad is named Michael, would be Emily Michaelsdatter, and my dad, son of Warren, would be Michael Warrenson. So in a way Kristin Lavransdatter is as obvious a title as David Copperfield. In another way, though, I think it's more significant, because the relationship between Kristin and her father Lavrans is a major theme, at least in The Wreath. Kristin is her father's best-loved daughter - loved, it turns out, better than his wife, better than the home he's kept for them. In the early scenes, during her childhood, the tenderness between them is palpable. She identifies so much more strongly with her father than her mother that at one point Ragnfrid has to reassure Kristin that she actually loves her - and while I was inclined, as the story began, to sympathize with Lavrans and blame Ragnfrid for this family dynamic, those sympathies were significantly complicated by the end of The Wreath. In many ways, I think the Lavrans/Ragnfrid and Lavrans/Kristin relationships are more interesting and important, in this first volume, than Kristin's courtship and engagement to Erlend. Kristin's wintry standoff with her father, when she is living at home after he refuses to consent to her marriage, is so heartrending to me, and quite delicately done (this is probably the section of The Wreath that most closely approaches my expectations of Laxness-ian desperation). In the end, loving Kristin forces Lavrans to reexamine his own decisions and assumptions about how life works, which I think is an interesting commentary on families - how parents learn from their children, as well as the other way around.

To me, one of the most intriguing aspects of The Wreath is its portrayal of the process of Christianization. Kristin's family are devout Christians; it's established in the early pages of the novel that they're more pious than average: "...the other people in the valley felt that God's kingdom had cost them dearly enough in tithes, goods, and money already, so they thought it unnecessary to attend to feasts and prayers so strictly or to take in priests and monks unless there was a need for them." Yet even for the extremely pious in Undset's novel, it seems that their world has only been partially Christianized: in the villages and cities Christian beliefs apply, but in the mountains, away from civilization, live the elves, dwarves and trolls of the old, pre-Christian belief system. It's as if the medieval Norwegians perceived the work of religious conversion as applying more to the actual land itself than to the people living on it - as if the act of buildling churches and cities transformed a region from the territory of the old beliefs to a Christian region. Even Lavrans, who gives ample proofs of his piousness, sees no contradiction in continuing to believe in other kinds of supernatural beings in the mountains. Before seven-year-old Kristin has her titular vision of a blonde maiden with a golden wreath beckoning to her from beyond a pool, Lavrans admits that "I've seen herds of cattle and sheep, but I don't know whether they belonged to people or to the others." And after the little girl runs terrified back to her father, saying that she thinks the vision was a "dwarf maiden," nobody thinks to contradict her:

"Oh, that must have been the elf maiden - I tell you, she must have wanted to lure this pretty child into the mountain."

"Be quiet," said Lavrans harshly. "We shouldn't have talked about such things the way we did here in the forest. You never know who's under the stones, listening to every word."

He pulled out the golden chain with the reliquary cross from inside his shirt and hung it around Kristin's neck, placing it against her bare skin.

"All of you must guard your tongues well," he told them. "For Ragnfrid must never hear that the child was exposed to such danger."

So the Christian ethos, while real for these characters, is something that needs to be guarded and invoked, rather than something that naturally permeates the whole world around them. And threats to a Christian enclave are often localized and external - similar to a modern person's bodily fear of venturing into a "bad neighborhood." It's a take on religious conversion I'd never run across before, and one that fascinates me.

Tuesday over at Tuesday Reads wrote a couple of posts on the question of whether or not Kristin is a "modernist" novel, and I think it's an interesting question - one that speaks to what I was expecting from Undset versus what I got. Because it was published between 1920 and 1922 and often labeled "modernist," I was taken by surprise by the relatively traditional, un-experimental narrative style, and the somewhat Victorian level of drama (I wouldn't have batted an eyelash at the barn scene in, say, a Bronte novel, but I was surprised to find it in the twentieth century). So I think Tuesday's on to something in her rejection of the idea that this book is "modernist." On the other hand, there are certain, more subtle ways in which Undset plays with our expectations. Despite the romance elements and the fact that Kristin and Erlend triumph over steep odds to achieve their wedding, the end of The Wreath definitely doesn't feel like a happy-ever-after. Kristin experiences her wedding as a surreal nightmare, haunted by the sins she feels she has committed, and by the knowledge of how many people she's hurt to get what she wants. And the book itself doesn't end with the happy, reunited couple in their bridal bed, but with Kristin's parents, who must face up to their regrets about their own married life. So perhaps Undset is more transgressive than at first appears.

Regardless, I'm looking forward to continuing on to Part 2: The Wife.

Be sure to check out everyone else's thoughts! (I'll update this list as more folks post):

  • Amy mentions that, despite its 14th-century setting, Kristin still has many aspects that are relevant to 21st-century life.

  • Claire enjoyed the setting but was otherwise lukewarm about The Wreath. She theorizes that the novel may have been considered "modernist" for its frank sexuality.

  • Dawn writes about the role of religion in Kristin, and singles out a remark by Fru Aashild.

  • E.L. Fay commends Undset for creating a protagonist true to her time, unlike many "anachronistic feminists" found in historical fiction, and includes intriguing parallels with Dante.

  • Frances muses on her aversion to the historical fiction genre, and wonders what a useful definition of said genre might be.

  • Gavin is enjoying the historical aspects of the book, including the descriptions of the land and the growing role of the Church, but finds Kristin's storyline overly melodramatic.

  • Jason discusses the tragedy inherent in Kristin's renunciation of self: the way she's defined and self-defined solely in relation to the men around her.

  • Jill, who has finished all three volumes, says that she thinks The Wreath is the weakest of the three, and makes an interesting comparison between Kristin and Fiddler on the Roof.

  • Lena questions whether the love between Kristin and Erlend is worth having at the cost of Kristin's ties with the rest of her family, and also makes the interesting point that Undset was discouraged from writing historical fiction at the beginning of her career, only to return to it once her reputation had grown.

  • Lu does a fascinating analysis of Undset in light of her contemporary Simone de Beauvoir's writings on the traditional depiction of women in literature as the mysterious "other."

  • Richard acknowledges a few high points of The Wreath, but overall finds the overwrought plot to be a big turn-off.

  • Sarah gives The Wreath an overall good review, although she's dubious about the direction the larger book is heading, and is liking Kristin less and less as time goes on.

  • Softdrink writes hilariously about her conflicted sympathies - the characters frustrate her, but she also feels their flaws make for a memorable read.

  • Tuesday, as I mentioned, rejects the idea that Kristin is "modernist," and reads it as a tribute to Romance. (It's only fair to say that these are Tuesday's reading notes, not a final review.)

  • Valerie raises the interesting question of whether Kristin is a male-centered story, despite having a female protagonist.



In a comment on my entry on Seneca, Cynthia asked to hear more about the physical realities of the Penguin Great Ideas books whose attractiveness I had written about so lustily. As well she should have! I can't believe I forgot to include some shallow gushing about how pretty these books are in person. So here it is, a fitting counter-balance to the gloom and doom of Marcus Aurelius: these books are SO PRETTY. Really, they're even prettier than I anticipated, largely because the covers are matte-finished and the art is pressed into them, so each slim volume has a super-satisfying, tactile element to it that's absolutely irresistible. In addition, they're light and thin, and both their height and width is smaller than an average paperback, which gives them that undeniable "smaller is more appealing" aesthetic. The print is just the right size and spacing: the text isn't cramped, but there's enough substance on each page that you feel you're sinking your teeth into something. Finally, I love the texture of the pages: just right for absorbing my underlining ink in a satisfying way, and they exude that delicious, new-book smell. All in all, I'm even more excited about these than I was when I first posted. Hooray!

And now, to the Romans. I'm glad I read Seneca before Marcus Aurelius, because they inform each other in interesting ways (props to the people at Penguin who curated this collection!).* Written about two hundred years after "On the Shortness of Life," Aurelius's Meditations still exists in a recognizable ethos of Roman stoicism, but one I found significantly more pessimistic and restrictive than its precursor. Whereas Seneca celebrates the act of retiring into philosophy, devoting time to educating oneself and developing one's mind and spiritual well-being, Marcus Aurelius claims that the only rational way to spend one's time is in a life devoted to civic service. Seneca seems more "contemporary" (by which I might just mean that I agree with more of his points) in his attempts to balance public and private life; Marcus Aurelius defines humans as "rational, social beings," and holds us up to a constant standard of rationality and sociability. Understandably, given that yardstick, he's pretty disgusted with the actual behavior he sees around him, but he sees the shortcomings of the populace as just more evidence that we shouldn't fear death, but wait calmly for our time to come. It's people, and not Nature, which is problematic, he argues: since death is part of Nature's plan, there can be nothing to fear.

I found a lot to disagree with in the Meditations; overall, this phase of Roman stoicism isn't a philosophy that really speaks to me. I don't believe, for example, in many of Marcus Aurelius's core precepts, such as that the universe is organized logically, and that every event happens for the best of the world as a whole:

Universal Nature's impulse was to create an orderly world. It follows, then, that everything now happening must follow a logical sequence; if it were not so, the prime purpose towards which the impulses of the World-Reason are directed would be an irrational one. Remembrance of this will help you to face many things more calmly.

I can see how such beliefs would help a person to face many things more calmly, but I just don't feel they describe for my experience of the twenty-first century. I'm reminded of a character in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (a book I hated, but this one passage rings true), who rejects her psychiatrist's claim that the patient's feelings about the threat of nuclear war are identical to those of a mythological Greek character dreamed up 3,000 years previous. Much in the Meditations struck me the same way: these may have seemed like plausible theories to an emperor in 170 AD, but I don't believe that nuclear warfare or the decimation of the earth's ecosystems is happening for any kind of abstract "best," or proceeding according to any overarching "logic." Marcus Aurelius counsels holding oneself to an uncompromisingly upright standard while more or less ignoring the misdeeds of one's neighbors. On one level, I this makes sense: he's essentially cautioning against becoming a busybody or a hypocrite; he's promoting tolerance. But what he doesn't acknowledge is the degree to which we are all profoundly interconnected: there are some actions on the part of others against which I feel morally obligated to fight. Marcus Aurelius's position that we all live and die alone, independent of one another, has been convincingly disproved as far as I'm concerned - nor would I want to live in a world where we are all such islands as he imagines.

Neither do I believe, as Marcus Aurelius suggests, that we ought to "Erase fancy; curb impulse; quench desire." Fancy, impulse and desire, along with pleasure (which he's equally down on) are sources of inspiration and motivation for great things. Sure, they can get out of hand; a person who ONLY thinks about his or her own pleasure is hardly a worthwhile member of society. But so much has been accomplished because of the pleasures of creativity, because of a visceral delight in music, or color, or the intricacies of electronic circuitry, or the mysteries of the human brain. Curiosity is not rational, nor is the urge toward personal expression. I believe humans are largely IRrational (although reason plays its part in our lives), and whether we like that or hate it, we're setting ourselves up for spectacular failure if we attempt to deny our less rational components. Likewise, Marcus Aurelius makes this argument about pleasure:

Repentance is remorse for the loss of some useful opportunity. Now, what is good is always helpful, and must be the concern of every good man; but an opportunity of pleasure is something no good man would ever repent of having let pass. It follows, therefore, that pleasure is neither good nor helpful.

I mean seriously, what tosh. Who HASN'T repented of having let some opportunity for pleasure pass by? Good grief, I'm still kicking myself over having missed that Liz Phair concert in 1995! Every time an out-of-town friend is in for a short time and I can't see her, I regret it. When I used to work on Saturdays, there were a whole parade of local events that I regretted having to miss. All of this is not because I'm some kind of degenerate, but because consuming art and maintaining healthy relationships are "useful opportunities," and they're also pleasurable. I would even maintain that a large part of their usefulness comes from the pleasure they give. Come to think of it, it's odd that Marcus Aurelius so readily claims that humans are social beings whose only rational option is to devote ourselves in service to the State, and yet refuses to acknowledge our interconnectedness, and the ways in which we nourish and help one another on a more intimate level. Either that, or he's refusing to acknowledge any other type of pleasure than unrestrained bacchanalian orgies. Either way, I think he's full of it.

But despite all the axes I could grind with Marcus Aurelius, there was a lot that impressed me in the Meditations as well. He writes eloquently about change - how we persistently fear it, but how it is really at the bottom of all life: inescapable, and ultimately positive, since Nature obviously set up the world to include so much of it. I was impressed at his postulation of conservation of energy:

I consist of a formal element and a material. Neither of these can ever pass away into nothing, any more than either of them came into being from nothing. Consequently every part of me will one day be re-fashioned, by a process of transition, into some other portion of the universe; which in its turn will again be changed into yet another part, and so onward to infinity.

And, despite its pessimism, I'm utterly in love with this passage on the fleetingness of everything we tend to value in the world:

In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being in incessant flux, his senses a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful. In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapours; life a warfare, a brief sojourning in an alien land; and after repute, oblivion.

In fact, the flashes of breathtaking literary beauty were what saved the Meditations for me, even when I disagreed with most of its ideas. Sometimes these were no more than lines: "All things fade into the storied past," he claims at one point, and "the soul becomes dyed in the color of its thoughts." Such loveliness.

I disagreed with Marcus Aurelius, but I still enjoyed reading him, and I'm enjoying engaging critically with a chronological progression of thought. Next up in the Great Ideas series: a re-match between me and St. Augustine of Hippo.

*I realize that the first part of this essay sounds like I'm being paid by Penguin to shill for them. This is not the case. Although, given that I'm already a fan, I wouldn't say no to a free set of these books...Penguin? Are you listening?

Nathaniel's Nutmeg


I'm marginally ill today - mild fever, slight achiness, low energy - and because of that, I'm disappointed that I've already finished Giles Milton's Nathaniel's Nutmeg: or, the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History. Because this, my friends, is my version of the perfect home-sick-from-work book. A true story (more or less), it nonetheless reads like an old-fashioned swashbuckler, complete with bravery, treachery, derring-do, clandestine dealings, betrayals, base incompetence, and much adventure on the high seas. A highly-colored chronicle of the European race for control of the spice islands (the small south-east Asian archipelago that produced the entire world supply of nutmeg and cloves during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), Nathaniel's Nutmeg introduces the reader to a rollicking cast of brigands, merchants and adventurers, all of whom are out for a piece of the spice pie. Milton paints a portrait of a Europe obsessed with nutmeg and other spices - not merely as luxurious additions to a meal, but as (they thought) a cure for everything from the common cold to the Bubonic plague. Some London apothecaries even claimed that enough saffron, taken with sweet wine, could raise the dead. (I'm not sure how you were supposed to "take" the wine/saffron combo once you were no longer living, but presumably few people were wealthy enough to find out.) Spice prices in London and other European centers was sky-high, and fortunes could be made by those with enough knowledge and capital to fit out an expedition, and enough bravery or foolhardiness to risk their lives sailing around the world in order to buy nutmeg and other spices at their source.

I was fascinated by the "early modern" character of the world portrayed; the Age of Exploration brought a glut of new information about the world outside Europe, but people - even highly-educated people - had no way of separating the true stories from what, in retrospect, we know to be absurd. The wealth of nations was allocated to missions that now seem outlandish: seventeenth-century geographers, for example, were convinced that the North-East Passage (a supposed navigable sea route from Europe over the North Pole and into the Pacific) must exist, because surely God made the world symmetrical up-and-down:

In an age when men still looked for perfect symmetry on their maps, the northern cape of Norway showed an exact topographical correspondence to the southern cape of Africa. Geographers agreed that this was indeed good news; the chilly northern land mass must surely be a second Cape of Good Hope.

In retrospect, it's amazing that an unproved assumption about geological symmetry would have trumped, even for the most intelligent people of the time, the proven fact that if you get water cold enough it will freeze, thereby trapping your ships in the frozen Arctic wastes. In another amazing development, more "evidence" for the existence of a North-East Passage came with the return of a failed Arctic expedition:

[T]he crew returned to England with a strange horn, some six feet long and decorated with a spiral twirl. Ignorant of the existence of the narwhal - that strange member of the whale family that has a single tusk protruding from its head - the rough English mariners confidently declared that this odd piece of flotsam had once belonged to a unicorn, a highly significant find, for 'knowing that unicorns are bred in the lands of Cathay, China and other Oriental Regions, [the sailors] fell into consideration that the same head was brought thither by the course of the sea, and that there must of necessity be a passage out of the said Oriental Ocean into our Septentrionall seas.'

So future expeditions, hugely expensive and incredibly risky, were launched on the basis of global symmetry and the knowledge that unicorns are bred in China, along with some ancient texts by Pliny the Elder, claiming that there were open waters at the North Pole. Which is a pretty astounding testament to the power of magical thinking, and makes you wonder which modern assumptions will seem similarly absurd to future generations.

Milton's narrative gets even more exciting once the expeditions actually set off. In addition to stand-offs among the Portuguese, English and Dutch, and the inherent dangers of the voyage (most expeditions lost at least a third of their men to scurvy, dystentry and tropical diseases), there were legion clashes among the grandiose and idiosyncratic personalities involved in these explorations. Henry Hudson, for example, was commissioned to find the North-East Passage: he was given explicit instructions and signed an agreement saying that he would sail up the coast of Norway and then attempt to turn east. Unbeknownst to his backers, however, he never intended to follow this route at all, but immediately headed west to explore the possibility of a North-WEST Passage. There was such a thin membrane of allegiance in many of these stories: Sir Frances Drake, who defeated the Spanish Armada for England and then led an early, successful expedition to the Spice Islands, turned down the next job offer he got from the British East India Company: he had decided to pursue a career of straight-up piracy instead. Even in later years, each voyage sent by the East India Company was out for its own profit, and a second British ship would often commandeer the goods won by a first British ship, rather than working together for the overall profit of the Company. Milton did a good job depicting the chaotic, winner-take-all quality of the times, and made it all seem as fun to read as a nineteenth-century adventure story.

Which is actually a little bit disturbing.

Because, if you think about it, the reason an old-fashioned swashbuckler is fun to read is that the narrative makes certain pirates into the "good guys," and other pirates into the "bad guys." Obviously, in real life NO pirates are good guys, but Milton, despite writing non-fiction, does exactly this same thing. Consistently, throughout his narrative, he paints the British as the good guys and the Dutch as their treacherous adversaries, even when the two sides are acting more or less equally reprehensibly. Every instance of an unprovoked attack or secret conspiracy on the part of the Dutch is treated with an attitude of condemnation, yet not of surprise. Miton seems to be asking the reader "Well, what else would you expect? Gruesome, isn't it?" Whereas stories of the exact same kind of plotting and scheming on the part of the British are met either with excuses on Milton's part, or with outright approval. Milton calls Nathaniel Courthope's practice of running spies under cover of darkness "ingenious," but classifies the actions of a Dutch spy who betrays Courthope as underhanded treachery. In one instance, the British captain William Keeling (a funny duck by all accounts - he organized early productions of Shakespeare plays among his sailors while crossing the Atlantic) has been trying to overcome his Dutch rivals on the islands of Ai and Neira, and has been sending spies among the natives. Many might assume that Keeling was therefore in on the native uprising that ended up slaughtering 48 Dutchmen, but Milton goes to great lengths to suggest that he wasn't:

After the passing of almost four centuries it is hard to piece together exactly what happened next. The Dutch records suggest that William Keeling helped instigate the ensuing massacre, but this accusation contradicts his own diaries. Although he had certainly struck a number of secret deals with the natives, there is nothing to suggest he was actively inciting them to violence. Indeed, he was busy buying nutmeg at Ai Island, a day's sailing journey from Neira, when rumors of a plot began to circulate.

It could just be me, but if I were conspiring with the natives to overthrow my Dutch adversaries, that's the kind of information I might elect to exclude from my journals. You know, so as to avoid HANDING THEM EVIDENCE in the event of my capture. Of course I don't know anything about the circumstances here; it could be that Keeling really didn't know anything about the uprising. Yet Milton seems willing to impugn Dutch captains and bureaucrats on flimsier, more circumstantial evidence than we can read between the lines here against Keeling. And when he is forced to relate distasteful behavior on the part of the British (such as the men in Henry Hudson's expedition who made a sport of shooting American Indians with muskets from the deck of their ship) he seems extremely grieved by it, whereas similar behavior by the Dutch can pass without comment.

So, Nathaniel's Nutmeg was not the most balanced, bias-free history I've ever read. There was a definite jingoistic/nationalistic bent that bothered me more as the book went on, and inspired some eye-rolling toward the end. I would still recommend it, though, to those in the mood for the true(ish) version of the old-fashioned sea yarn.

(Nathaniel's Nutmeg was my tenth and final book for the Dewey Decimal Challenge, representing the 900 century.)



Full disclosure: Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is one of my favorite novels of all time, so I'm hardly coming to its companion, Home, with fresh eyes. I was nervous about starting Home, as a matter of fact: nervous it wouldn't live up to Gilead's precedent, and that I would inevitably be disappointed, even with a very good book. In fact, that wasn't what happened at all. For one thing, despite its relative lack of action, I absolutely could not put down Home and read it in just a few days. For another, I found that the two novels speak to each other in unique and thought-provoking ways. They are very different, and much of what I found magical about Gilead is absent from Home. Yet Home gave me a new perspective on the story I first heard in Gilead; and on finishing it, I'm almost convinced to privilege the second telling despite being seduced by the style of its brother. The first book, interestingly, is a closing, a coming-to-terms with a full life about to end, in which old demons are acknowledged and absorbed in the overflowing of new love. The second is a continuous and desperate struggle, very much engaged, still, in the business of living in the flawed and often cruel world.

Both novels are set in the same place, over the same stretch of time. In a small Iowa town in the mid-1950's, two minister friends are growing old: John Ames, the Congregationalist minister, and Robert Boughton, the former leader of the Presbyterian flock.

There were so many jokes between them. Once when they were boys in seminary they were walking across a bridge, arguing about some point of doctrine. A wind had blown her father's hat into the water, and he had rolled up his pant legs and walked in the river after it, not gaining on it at all, still disputing, as it sailed along in the current. "I was winning that argument!" her father said.

"Well, I was laughing too hard to keep up my side of it." The hat finally caught on a snag, and that was the whole story, but it always made them laugh. The joke seemed to be that once they were very young and now they were very old, and that they had been the same day after day and were somehow at the end of it all so utterly changed.

Ames is the narrator of Gilead, and one of the most stunning things about that book is his wise, lyrical narrative voice. He's wrapping up loose ends the best he can, and preparing for death: he finds himself, at the end of his life, unexpectedly married, with a young son, and the purpose of his narrative is to relay the story of the Ames family to his child, so young Robby will know his roots. It's an extremely intimate narration, infused with love and quietness. Even as it tells of the past theological struggles in the Ames family, between John's father and grandfather during the time of the Civil War, the current John Ames speaks out of calm, in the last stages of making peace with his life.

Home, on the other hand, while also quiet by most standards, is told in a third-person narration that centers on a trio, not a single person. Just down the street from Ames and his young wife and son, his old friend Reverend Boughton welcomes his middle-aged daughter Glory, who is leaving her own disappointed hopes in order to care for her father in his old age. Shortly thereafter, the Reverend's best-loved and prodigal son Jack also returns, "to stay awhile." Both brother and sister have secrets, wounds from their former lives which they hold close to themselves and only gradually reveal to one another. And even though the Reverend is nearing the end of his life, just like his old friend, he doesn't seem to have Ames' peace. He is tortured with guilt and worry over the unresolved grief in his life, and his inability to come to terms with Jack's mistakes - either to forgive his son, or to stop loving him. Neither is he able to engage with the struggles in Jack's own life that are tormenting him, and thereby achieve the connection with his son that he so craves. For those who come to Home from Gilead, and therefore know what Jack is keeping from his family, there are many heartbreaking moments between father and son, in which the reader knows that the stakes are much higher - or, at least different, more complicated - than Reverend Boughton realizes:

     Jack watched him for a moment. Then he said, "I heard you all laughing about that magazine. It's pretty foolish, all in all. Could I see it for a second? Thanks. I thought he made one interesting point in here somewhere, though. He said the seriousness of American Christianity was called into question by our treatment of the Negro. It seems to me that there is something to be said for that idea."
     Boughton said, "Jack's been looking at television."
     "Yes, I have. And I have lived in places where there are Negro people. They are very fine Christians, many of them."
     Boughton said, "Then we can't have done so badly by them, can we? That is the essential thing."
     Jack looked at him, then he laughed. "I'd say we've done pretty badly. Especially by Christian standards. As I understand them." Jack sank back into his chair as if he were the most casual man on earth and said, "What do you think, Reverend Ames."
     Ames looked at him. "I have to agree with you. I'm not really familiar with the issue. I haven't been following the news as closely as I once did. But I agree."
     "It isn't exactly news--" Jack smiled and shook his head. "Sorry, Reverend," he said. Robby brought the tractor to show him, let him work the steering wheel, ran the tractor along the arm and over the back of the chair.
     Boughton said, "I don't believe in calling anyone's religion into question because he has certain failings. A blind spot or two. There are better ways to talk about these things."

One of the things I love about both versions of the Gilead/Home story is the complex way it's engaged with issues of race: even in this rural, middle-American town (so homogeneous that Glory says "There aren't any colored people in Gilead"), the scars of American racial cruelty reach deep into both the Ames and Boughton stories, estranging fathers and sons throughout the generations. This seems to me a profound truth about oppression: Martin Luther King said, famously, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and Robinson makes the point that injustice anywhere is also a threat to human connection, to communion among family members, even those living sheltered lives hundreds of miles away from the apparent sites of conflict.

But she also portrays how complicated it is even to address, let alone resolve, these issues, because they involve different versions of "right" colliding. Reverend Boughton, Jack and Glory are all sympathetic characters who love each other - and that can only get them so far. Not to go on a name-dropping extravaganza, but I think it was Hegel who pointed out that tragic conflict is often not the collision of Right and Wrong, but of Right and Right: two different sets of priorities and principles, two parties acting according to their consciences, are unable to budge from the collision course they've set. By these standards Home isn't an unmitigated tragedy: the characters, through their quiet struggles, are able to approach one another more closely and come to some degree of peace before the story ends. But there is a tragic underpinning, a gulf between these people that cannot be wholly traversed. Throughout it all, though, Robinson is so perceptive and subtle in her depictions, and so lyrical in her prose, that the elements of tragedy and quiet triumph come together in a work of great beauty.

(Home was my ninth book for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge, representing the United States. Specifically, Iowa.)

On the Shortness of Life


This past week, although fun, has been TOTALLY INSANE for me. What with driving up to the out-of-town wedding of some close friends, preparing for and attending an art opening showcasing my knitted work, getting to witness two amazing dance performances (one of them by ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov!), going with David on a fantastic professional photoshoot, and various dinners out with friends and family, I've barely had time to read at all, let alone write about my reading. In fact, in the past ten days I've barely had time to get through this first slim volume of the Penguin Great Ideas series: Seneca's On the Shortness of Life.

Which is actually kind of fitting. Seneca would point out that I obviously need to heed his advice if I'm finding myself so overwhelmed with commitments that I lack any time for myself. One of the central tenets of his first essay (the titular "On the Shortness of Life") is that taking time for leisure and reflection, for communing with the works of philosophers and meditating on one's own past, is absolutely essential in order to feel, at the end of one's life, that one has lived a long and full existence. Most people, Seneca says, have only truly lived a fraction of their actual time on earth: the rest has been spent in "preoccupation," which I interpreted (possibly a little loosely) as any form of mental busy-ness that fails to bring a person into closer contact with the deeper truths of themselves and the universe. (Heady!) So, he classes those addicted to vice as "preoccupied" (drunks, misers, the avaricious, the lazy, the gluttonous), but also those who are so blindly ambitious or just busy that they can never stop to look back, reflect, or ponder. These people, he says, fear death and try not to think about it, spending their time as if it were infinite, and are then panic-stricken when the death they have not prepared for comes for them at last. But those with tranquility of mind, who have spent their time in "learning how to live" and becoming mature mentally, can face death with equanimity. Life will not have seemed short to them, because they lived it fully, and learned from it what they needed to know.

Most human beings, Paulinus, complain about the meanness of nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, and because the spell of time that has been given to us rushes by so swiftly and rapidly that with very few exceptions life ceases for the rest of us just when we are getting ready for it. Nor is it just the man in the street and the unthinking mass of people who groan over this - as they see it - universal evil: the same feeling lies behind complaints from even distinguished men. [...] It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death's final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.

And again:

So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long. For suppose you should think that a man had had a long voyage who had been caught in a raging storm as he left harbor, and carried hither and thither and driven round and round in a circle by the rage of opposing winds? He did not have a long voyage; just a long tossing about.

I adore, by the way, the rhythm of that opening line: "Most human beings, Paulinus, complain about the meanness of nature..." Those old Roman rhetoricians really knew their stylistic stuff. The mid-sentence apostrophe-to-actual-person is one of my favorite rhythmical and rhetorical devices; it is, of course, used famously by Shakespeare ("There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy"), but it's also central to one of my favorite Charles Bukowski poems, which begins:

William Saroyan said, "I ruined my
life by marrying the same woman

there will always be something
to ruin our lives,
it all depends upon
what or which
finds us
we are always
ripe and ready
to be

I imagine Bukowski leveling his intoxicated yet withering stare at Saroyan while his gravelly voice pauses on that "William," like a stern teacher who has caught a pupil in wrongdoing. It tickles me to trace such a tiny rhetorical thread all the way from Seneca to Bukowski - not that the latter necessarily read the former, but he swam in a cultural soup that was still seasoned with Roman stoicism, even if he himself was severely "preoccupied" by Seneca's standards.

And speaking of that: I really liked how Seneca divided the world into "tranquil" and "preoccupied," rather than "good" and "evil" or "righteous" and "sinful." Even though his rubric wasn't actually any more value-neutral than any other (believe me, he's really down on the preoccupied), it seemed more usefully descriptive to me: I can feel when I'm becoming preoccupied; I experience preoccupation on a day-to-day basis, and I can take concrete steps to avoid it in a way I don't feel is true about becoming more "evil" or "sinful." I don't say to myself "I'm feeling a little evil today," but I've often remarked that I'm feeling a little preoccupied. Sin and evil are such huge and fraught concepts, involving as they do entire belief systems that I may or may not share, that their presence can often be distracting if all an author really wants to talk about is preoccupation. But I'm not sure if this would be true for a reader more accustomed to thinking about sinfulness as part of their everyday life.

One of my favorite ideas from Seneca's essay is that of one's past as a precious possession, that, if one has lived well, will be richly rewarding to summon into one's mind. I connected deeply with this passage as a way of talking about virtue in a secular world. Religious philosophers sometimes claim that without fear or hope for an afterlife, people will fail to act honorably, but I think this is an excellent counter-argument: I want to feel satisfied with the net effect of my presence on earth, and with the person I know myself to be, regardless of any other factors.

The man who must fear his own memory is the one who has been ambitious in his greed, arrogant in his contempt, uncontrolled in his victories, treacherous in his deceptions, rapacious in his plundering. And yet this is the period of our time which is sacred and dedicated, which has passed beyond all human risks and is removed from Fortune's sway, which cannot be harassed by want or fear or attacks of illness. It cannot be disturbed or snatched from us: it is an untroubled, everlasting possession. In the present we have only one day at a time, each offering a minute at a time. But all the days of the past will come to your call: you can detain them and inspect them at your will - something which the preoccupied have no time to do. It is the mind which is tranquil and free from care which can roam through all the stages of its life: the minds of the preoccupied, as if harnessed in a yoke, cannot turn round and look behind them. So their lives vanish into an abyss; and just as it is no use pouring any amount of liquid into a container without a bottom to catch and hold it, so it does not matter how much time we are given if there is nowhere for it to settle; it escapes through the cracks and holes of the mind.

As I am by nature a thoughtful introvert, this argument really struck a chord with me, and made me wonder why I was spending so much time amid the hubbub of other voices. Which leads me to the place where "On the Shortness of Life" falls, um, short: it doesn't really address the fact that things like relationships with other people, doing hard jobs or challenging oneself in one's art, are all valuable experiences that DO bring people more in tune with larger universal truths - provided, of course, that they have the occasional opportunity to look back at the process and learn from their experience. I got the impression that Seneca was addressing a lack he perceived in those around him: not enough people were taking time out to philosophize and reflect. The whole piece is addressed to Paulinus, after all, who has lived a full life in the public eye, and whom Seneca is now advising to retire into a life of reflection. Taken out of context, though, it seems like he's recommending that nobody should do anything BUT reflect and philosophize - advice which would lead to quite the navel-gazing culture if we all acted on it together. Reading and thinking about philosophy is great, but ideally we should be absorbing those theoretical constructs and comparing and applying them to our rich and multifaceted extra-literary existences. I'm pretty sure Seneca would agree with me; after all, he was a Roman magistrate and tutor of the young Emperor Nero. One just needs to take him in a larger context in order to understand his intentions.

The other two essays in this volume - "A Consolation to Helvetia," which attempted to console Seneca's mother upon his exile from Rome; and "On Tranquility of Mind," an imagined dialog with his friend Serenus - didn't grab my fancy as strongly as the first, but they were occupied with many of the same themes: the power of attitude to change perception, the importance of a tranquil and reflective mind, the benefits of living a life of semi-retirement and making the most of your limited lifespan. This was one of those books that came along just at the right time: a slim volume that reminds me to make time for larger ones.

Roman Fever and Other Stories


After the blood and guts of Blood Meridian, I needed to add a little civilization back into my reading life - and nobody does over-civilization like Edith Wharton. Whether they meet the challenge by laughing, crying, or overdosing on exhaustion and sleeping pills, her characters are beset on all sides by the constrictions of unimaginative convention - a force with which McCarthy's cowboys are entirely untroubled.

I have a mixed history with Wharton; I found The House of Mirth overwrought, and wouldn't have been inspired to read The Age of Innocence except that I ran across a pristine Norton edition of it for under ten dollars. (Would I read anything if given a free Norton edition of it? Probably anything but Walden.) When I finally got around to cracking it open, I was surprised at my hearty enjoyment: it's a later, more mature novel, and Wharton displays her delightful satiric edge to a far greater advantage. With more distance from her subjects, I felt she could both enjoy them more herself, and allow her reader a bit of breathing room. I felt the same way about the short story collection Roman Fever and Other Stories: Wharton is most enjoyable, to me, when she is in rollicking satirical mode, or at least writing drama with a satirical edge, rather than giving in to full-blown melodrama. One of my favorite stories, "Xingu," is a famous example of Wharton at her cutting, cackling best: a clique of haughty New York society matrons are looking forward to giving a luncheon for a famous female author, and lamenting the necessity of inviting their least fashionable member, as she's bound to spoil the atmosphere. She simply doesn't know how to behave, the ladies tell each other. Why, just the other day she was so outré as to ask Mrs. Plinth her personal opinion of the book they were discussing:

It was the kind of question that might be termed out of order, and the ladies glanced at each other as though disclaiming any share in such a breach of discipline. They all knew there was nothing Mrs. Plinth so much disliked as being asked her opinion of a book. Books were written to be read; if one read them what more could be expected? To be questioned in detail regarding the contents of a volume seemed to her as great an outrage as being searched for smuggled laces at the Custom House. The club had always respected this idiosyncrasy of Mrs. Plinth's. Such opinions as she had were imposing and substantial: her mind, like her house, was furnished with monumental "pieces" that were not meant to be disarranged; and it was one of the unwritten rules of the Lunch Club that, within her own province, each member's habits of thought should be respected. The meeting therefore closed with an increased sense, on the part of the other ladies, of Mrs. Roby's hopeless unfitness to be one of them."

When the author in question turns out to be even more of a pill than her Lunch Club companions, Mrs. Roby manages to get her own by introducing "Xingu" as a topic of conversation: nobody knows what it is, but they're not willing to admit their ignorance, and hilarity ensues.

On a darker satirical note, I also loved "After Holbein," which is almost a ghost story but written about a still-living people. According to Hermione Lee's biography, Wharton loved ghost stories and wrote a number of them throughout her life, and "After Holbein" has many of the tell-tale conventions: huge mansions that used to be grand centers of entertainment, now mostly sheeted and run with a skeleton staff; a dark night; a past estrangement; the impression of a whole world that has slipped into the past. But rather than ghosts, this setting is populated by two ancient denizens of Old New York: Mrs. Jaspar, stroke victim and erstwhile society hostess, and the decrepit Anson Warley (based on Ward McAllister, the super-elite arbiter of Old New York Society and author of the list designating the members of "The 400" who would be invited to Mrs. Astor's yearly ball and therefore be "received"). While Mrs. Jaspar badgers her maid into preparing her, night after night, for the same dinner party she was to give on the eve of her stroke, Mr. Warley engages in an interior monologue about how many invitations he still receives, and how young he still feels. He's planning to go out this very night, despite the disapproval of his valet. He gloats to himself that he's still "in the running" - not like that fossilized Mrs. Jaspar, whom he remembers snubbing wittily in his youth to the delight of all his many society friends. He spares a moment to hope that his barbed witticism didn't get back to the lady herself, but can't be too bothered about it. He shakes off his valet and steps outside - only to forget which of his friends invited him to dine. The outcome of the night for both Mrs. Jaspar and Mr. Warley is deliciously creepy - much more so than if the two friends and rivals were actually coming back from the dead to haunt the dinner tables and ballrooms of their pasts. Their lives as living fossils also allows Wharton, writing from her home in Paris after having forsworn everything her characters stand for, to comment on the few remaining New Yorkers still yearning after the old ways, the old society - and more than that, to comment on people, like Anson Warley, who become so entrenched in their routines of pandering to others, that they are left with little or no inner life of their own. As a character in the final story implies, the only rational cure for over-civilization is to promote a rich inner life, and these relics of Old New York certainly don't have it:

We're all imprisoned, of course - all of us middling people, who don't carry our freedom in our brains.

There was another story in the collection that interested me for more personal reasons, although it was in Wharton's dramatic, rather than satirical, mode: "Souls Belated" tells of a woman, recently divorced, who wants to continue living with her lover unmarried, rather than attempt to rejoin their former stuffy, hypocritical society by accepting the state sanction of marriage a second time. I don't write about it much here, but I live in a long-term, committed relationship in which both I and my partner have chosen, for personal and political reasons, not to get married but to safeguard our legal rights in other ways. I've always felt uncomfortable with the cultural baggage around marriage, and it was fascinating to read a story featuring a character who had a related set of feelings. As you might imagine, it doesn't happen very often: there are scads of happy and unhappy marriages in literature, plenty of illicit love affairs and passionate flings, lots of unrequited love, and a few portraits of people who find themselves happier leading a single life, but not a lot of stories about the attempt to live in a caring, committed way outside the bounds of matrimony - especially when those attempts are chosen, rather than forced. (If you know of any, I would love to check them out.) Unfortunately for Wharton's characters, their particular attempt doesn't end very well: the woman's lover doesn't understand her unwillingness to marry him, and she finds, to her disgust, that they both care more about the opinion of Society than they imagined. Wharton's own attitude toward her protagonist, while sympathetic, seems to me slightly rueful at the woman's idealism. Still, it was an interesting and perceptive read, and made me think about how my own situation would have differed had I been born a century earlier - and, it goes without saying, wealthy.

Overall, this slim volume of shorts was just what the doctor ordered as an antidote to Cormac McCarthy - subtle and thoughtful, often melancholy, sometimes deliciously sardonic.

(Roman Fever and Other Stories was my sixth book for the Decades '09 Challenge, representing the 1930s. This is a little bit of a stretch, since not all the stories in the collection were published in the 30s, but the titular one was, so I think it counts.)

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography