December 2009 Archives

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Cross


Well, color me confused.

After making my way through the 1100+ pages of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, not only am I puzzled about the decision to award this author the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature, but I am also completely mystified about what seems to be its enduring popular appeal. Because in case you hadn't noticed (and I can understand how you wouldn't, if you were basing your opinion off the responses of our particular readalong participants), this book is BELOVED by many people. It seems to be, for some, not just a good book but one of "those" books: those special, intense journeys that one revisits over the years and by which one is nourished. Check out the Kristin page on GoodReads, for instance: glowing five-star review after glowing five-star review, featuring the warmest of accolades:

  • Brilliant and beautiful!
  • I only intended to read the first book in this trilogy, and was so "hooked" by that time that I read straight through the entire series.
  • This is the best book I've read in a couple of years! It takes place in Norway in the 1300s; the story is compelling and the characters are extremely well developed.
  • I would actually give this hefty tome eight stars if the system would let me.
  • Fantastic read- truly a classic! I was a bit nervous about how religious it was going to be from the description (I didn't want a lot of preaching) but really it was silly to be worried...
  • If you are moved at all by the idea of human nature struggling with both a physical and spiritual identity, or interested by a setting in medieval Norway, I highly recommend it.
  • Undset's Kristen Lavransdatter is one of the best books I have ever read.

Sounds great, doesn't it? Good character development, psychological insight, not too religious...I wonder what I just read.

Maybe the most frustrating thing about Kristin Lavransdatter, to me, was that hidden within this behemoth are several novels that I would actually quite like. Whenever life settled down for a moment and the narrative focused less on melodrama and more on everyday medieval Norwegian life, it had a richness and quiet rhythm that I was often just starting to enjoy...when along came Kristin to throw another temper tantrum or angst weepily about what a sinner she was. If the nonstop, over-the-top melodrama of the plot had been muted, and Undset had focused instead on the quiet lives unfolding in the valley, Kristin Lavransdatter could have been a compelling, realistic portrait of rural medieval life.

Or, on the other hand, if the melodramatic plot points had remained but the narrative had been less interior - in other words, if we hadn't been subjected to ENDLESS resentment and self-flagellation on the part of Kristin but instead observed the characters from without, deducing their emotions and motivations from their actions - the story would have resembled a latter-day Icelandic saga. A bit of subtlety in the characterization could only have been a plus, and without the constant need to agonize about sins of the past, the thing would have moved along much more smoothly and perhaps become a taut tale in the adventure/romance vein.

In other words, and I don't say this often, I found Kristin Lavransdatter to be just too damn long. I love a meaty book, but in this case much of the length was comprised of material I felt to be repetitive and/or uncompelling. Do we really need another description of Kristin's tortured weeping? Does it add anything to the whole that Kristin and Erlend are embroiled in yet another pointless battle of the wills? For me, the answer is no: I picked up on the tension between willfulness and religiosity in the first book, and by the end of the third felt like my head was being bludgeoned with it.

There were parts of the novel I did find beautiful and compelling. The last fifty pages, in which the black death arrives in Norway, fascinated me. (Some of you may already know about my weakness for plague narratives, and this was no exception, despite it being a vehicle for a final bout of melodrama.) For once, the upheaval is spread wide across the countryside, rather than festering silently in Kristin's heart, and I thought Undset did a good job imagining the effects of such a catastrophe on the rural medieval Norwegians.

Death and horror and suffering seemed to push people into a world without time. No more than a few weeks had passed, if the days were to be counted, and yet it already seemed as if the world that had existed before the plague and death began wandering naked through the land had disappeared from everyone's memory - the way the coastline sinks away when a ship heads out to sea on a rushing wind. It was as if no living soul dared hold on to the memory that life and the progression of workdays had once seemed close, while death was far away; nor was anyone capable of imagining that things might be that way again, if all human beings did not perish.

Kristin is good in a crisis but bad - very bad - without one. She's what we moderns call a "drama queen": if there's no emergency, she'll create one. So it's understandable that Undset ends her protagonist's life in the midst of a genuine catastrophe. As Kristin herself lies dying, she even has a much looked-for (by me, at least) epiphany that she has loved her life, despite all her trials, and that she has not alienated herself from God after all:

It seemed to her a mystery that she could not comprehend, but she was certain that God had held her firmly in a pact which had been made for her, without her knowing it, from a love that had been poured over her - and in spite of her willfulness, in spite of her melancholy, earthbound heart, some of that love had stayed inside her, had worked on her like sun on the earth, had driven forth a crop that neither the fiercest fire of passion nor its stormiest anger could completely destroy. She had been a servant of God - a stubborn, defiant maid, most often an eye-servant in her payers and unfaithful in her heart, indolent and neglectful, impatient toward admonishments, inconstant in her deeds. And yet He had held her firmly in His service, and under the glittering gold ring a mark had been secretly impressed upon her, showing that she was His servant, owned by the Lord and King who would now come, borne on the consecrated hands ot he priest, to give her release and salvation.

Despite my own agnosticism, I find this passage quite beautiful. It actually reminds me of one of my favorite moments in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, although Woolf was obviously a much more secular, not to mention restrained and subtle, writer. I think a lot of its power comes from listing; I have trouble resisting a good rhetorical list.

But all in all, these last fifty pages were too little, too late. I am too far out of sympathy with Undset's apparent glorification of religious guilt to value slogging through hundreds upon hundreds of pages with a character as selfish and unlikeable as Kristin, particularly when any mitigating rewards - stimulating prose, original characterization, clever plot twists, HUMOR - are so conspicuously absent. I am bemused that a book which seemed to me so tiresome is, for other folks, so transformative...but that's the beauty of literature, isn't it? To each their own.

Check out others' final posts, and join us for Virginia Woolf in January and February! Much thanks to my reluctant co-host Richard for sticking by this lackluster choice of mine, and to all you other lovely readers who chimed in and made this a fun exercise.

  • Richard takes Undset to task for her lazy storytelling habits.

  • Amy found the repetition in the books annoying, but thought The Cross improved a bit after Erlend's death. She also writes movingly about her personal history with the trilogy.

  • Claire is equally unimpressed with The Cross as with the first two books, and is relieved to cross Undset off her list of Nobel winners to be read.

  • Gavin, despite having struggled with all the weeping in The Wife, gives the trilogy overall a fairly positive review, citing one of my own favorite passages from the plague section.

  • Jill theorizes about why the 1928 Nobel Committee might have awarded the prize to Undset, and concludes that it may have been the easiest choice politically.

  • Sarah likens getting to know Kristin to one of those sort-of-fun but totally out-to-lunch friends that you remember later with a rueful shake of your head.

  • Softdrink laments the totally unnecessary LENGTH of the trilogy, along with the angst and weeping.

  • Valerie sees both good and bad in Undset's trilogy, but thinks its epic length did nothing to improve its quality.

  • Wendy gives the trilogy as a whole a positive review, citing Undset's descriptions of the land, and the wealth of detail evoking 14th-century Norwegian life. (Also, because we were a bit out-of-step and I failed to post Wendy's first reviews, here are her thoughts on The Wreath and The Wife. Sorry about that, Wendy!)

Holidays + Challenges


I hope everyone had/is having lovely holidays (or, if you don't celebrate anything at this time of year, stress-free days off!) Personally, I am over the moon about the solstice being behind us and the days gradually lengthening again. Secular Christmas was also great, with some bookish gifts. Check out what my mother-in-law MADE for us:


An Evening All Afternoon accent pillow! Isn't that the coolest thing ever? Thanks, Anne!

I'm really looking forward to the New Year and new reading projects, and thought I would take a moment to join a few challenges (just a few, I promise!) and talk about what I'll be up to. First up:

The Women Unbound Reading Challenge

I'm almost done with my first book for this challenge, so I knew I had to get my official joiner post up! As I have more than five books currently on my shelves that would qualify, I'm going to go ahead and join at the Suffragette level: eight books, at least three of them nonfiction. Here's my list thus far:

  • Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, by Elliott Gorn: This is the one I'm almost finished with. It's fascinating!

  • Ladies and Not-So-Gentlewomen: Elisabeth Marbury, Anne Morgan, Elsie de Wolfe, Anne Vanderbilt, and Their Times: I've somehow ended up with an area of specialization in upper-class, turn-of-the-century New York. I'm not sure how it happened, as I'm not particularly a Wharton or James fan, but there you go. Should be an interesting contrast to the militantly working-class philosophy of Mother Jones.

  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft: This is coming up in my Great Ideas series, but it's one of the abridged volumes. So I bought a trusty Norton Critical Edition for myself. Should be good.

  • A Natural History of the Romance Novel, by Pamela Regis: This is one of the books that helped initiate scholarly studies of the romance genre. I don't generally read romance (beyond Austen and the Brontës), but the genre does tread a fascinating line between feminist and anti-feminist. It's also the single highest selling market in publishing, hugely female-dominated, and almost universally dismissed. Coincidence?

  • The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines, by Mike Madrid. Like romance novels, the sexually-charged, powerful-yet-marginalized female characters of classic American comic books walk an interesting line between throwing off and participating in oppression of women. This was a surprise Christmas present from my folks!

  • Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson: Does this have to do with womens' studies? Basically, I just love Robinson and this is the last book of hers I haven't read.

The GLBT Reading Challenge
Yup, I'm doing it: joining at the pink triangle level (eight books). I actually bought The Color Purple to read for this challenge, but then I got sucked in and, you know, finished it before the year ended. Before the DAY even ended, to tell the truth. But there's lots of relevant things I'd be interested to read for this one, such as:

  • Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides: I'm curious to read this family epic of intersexuality, especially since I didn't think Eugenides' earlier book, The Virgin Suicides, was very sexually enlightened.

  • The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters. Mmm, Sarah Waters. She's like literary crack, without the unhealthy connotations.

  • The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen: Passing, Quicksand, and The Stories. I've heard a lot of talk around the blogosphere lately about Larsen's Passing, and confess myself intrigued.

  • The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. The novels that were adapted into I Am A Camera and Cabaret: hedonistic inter-war Berlin during the fascists' rise to power.

  • Anything by Patricia Highsmith. I've never read The Price of Salt, The Talented Mr. Ripley, or anything else by Highsmith.

  • Anything by Jeanette Winterson. Again, a massive gap in my reading. I ended up reading just about all of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit while standing in a bookstore one gray afternoon, but I've never given her work the attention it deserves.

  • And, of course, I'll be reading Woolf in January and February, although I don't know whether I'll end up counting her toward this challenge or not.

Essay Project

This is just a little something I think I'll do on my own. I've had a book sitting around for years, entitled The Art of the Personal Essay (compiled by Phillip Lopate). I've been trying to think of a useful way to write about this book as I read it, since reviewing essay collections as a whole seems almost completely useless. Since there are 76 essays in the book, I've decided to start reading four a week starting in the New Year and extending over 19 weeks. Of the four I read each week, I'll pick the most interesting to write about, hopefully publishing those reviews on Fridays. Lopate's book is chronological, so my first four essays will all be the work of my old friend Seneca. After that, things will get more interesting: in a week composed of Carlos Fuentes, Wole Soyinka, Sara Suleri and Henry David Thoreau, who will I choose to write about? I hate Thoreau and quite like Soyinka, but how does that translate into "interestingness"? ONLY TIME WILL TELL. These entries might not be as long as my essays on full-length books, but hopefully the "battle royal" aspect will make for some fun times. Y'all can even place bets if you want to. :-)

Other than that, it's just Woolf in Winter in January and February, and continuing to write about the Great Ideas series as I finish them. Happy 2010, everyone!

The Color Purple


For so many years, I've avoided Alice Walker's The Color Purple. Based on - who knows what? - I assumed it would depress me, discourage me, saddle me with another preachy narrative about blameless victims being crushed under the heel of faceless tyrants. I heard about the starting premise - that of a 14-year-old girl raped and impregnated twice by her own father - and thought it would be a crushing downer, an everyman story (a la Sister Carrie and The Good Earth) whose characters are more blank slates upon which the reader is supposed to project his- or herself than developed individuals in their own rights. I expected simplistic, undifferentiated portraits drawn in blunt strokes to serve a political purpose.

I could not have been more wrong.

I loved this book like nothing I have read for a long time. Over the course of the ten hours it took me to devour it, I barely surfaced for air. When I did, I walked through my daily tasks with that blazing, triumphant feeling of having traveled hundreds of miles in spirit, and having encountered truth and poetry in the land I discovered. That complete submersion in story and voice that I remember from my childhood reading, of pure connection with a character and, finally, sadness that my time with her is limited to a certain page count. Yes, there are dark themes aplenty here. Abuse of power is rampant: racial and most notably sexual oppression are inescapable, and central to the novel's development. But they are not the overarching "message." The novel does not exist to show the reader that such horrors exist, but to explore the journey and transformation of an unforgettable character within the world that contains them. Celie's voice is taut and consistent; she is one of those narrators (like Holden Caulfield, John Ames, Molly Bloom) whose cadence follows me around in my head well after I've finished the book. She is a complicated, fleshed-out human, and one I found intensely sympathetic. Her world, that of poverty-stricken, depression-era rural Georgia, is palpably present, and the sexual and racial politics of the book are thoughtful.

      Shug halfway tween sick and well. Halfway tween good and evil, too. Most days now she show me and Mr. _______ her good side. But evil all over her today. She smile, like a razor opening. Say, Well, well, look who's here today.
      She wearing a little flowery shift I made for her and nothing else. She look bout ten with her hair all cornrowed. She skinny as a bean, and her face full of eyes.
      Mr and Mr. ______ both look up at her. Both move to help her sit down. She don't look at him. She pull up a chair next to me.
      She pick up a random piece of cloth out the basket. Hold it up to the light. Frown. How you sew this damn thing? she say.
      I hand her the square I'm working on, start another one. She sew long crooked stitches, remind me of that little crooked tune she sing.
      That real good, for first try, I say. That just find and dandy. She look at me and snort. Everything I do is fine and dandy to you, Miss Celie, she say. But that's just cause you ain't got good sense. She laugh. I duck my head.

The Color Purple has a reputation as a feminist classic, and it's true that Celie gathers solace, community, and meaning more from other women than from men. What impressed me, though, is the complexity Walker brings to this dynamic. It's far from a facile "men are evil, women are blameless" depiction. Her women are often downright terrible to one another: they knock each others' teeth out, advise other womens' husbands to beat their wives, and freeze each other out of their affections. But here's something unusual about The Color Purple: true reconciliation is possible. It even happens quite frequently. People actually talk to one another, and when they talk, they often reach understanding of each others' humanity. The women are at an advantage, because they usually break down and talk to one another more quickly than the men. But Walker's men, too - even Celie's husband, who spends the early part of the novel beating her, condescending to her, hiding important facts from her and generally treating her like shit - are capable of getting over their pride and reaching out to other people on a human level. (Nor is Mr. ______'s transformation into the more human Albert presented as a wish-fulfillment scenario for abused women wanting to "change" their men. By the time he's ready to relate to Celie on a human level, she's already moved out of his house, fallen hard in love with his ex-girlfriend, and come to the realization that she's not attracted to men in general. But I was impressed with Walker for her depiction of Celie and Albert's latter-day course from wary circling through rehashing of old history, to, finally, easy, open friendship.)

I've read so many novels obsessed with the unforgivable trespass: the line for whose crossing no amends are possible. I've also read a spate of stories involving love triangles, and even more whose plots revolve around secrets and silence - a lack of conversation that stretches on for years and sometimes lifespans. The Color Purple turns all three of these conventions inside out in ways I found totally exhilarating. In more ways than one, Mr. ______ crosses that unforgivable line. He beats Celie; he brings his mistress into their house; he hides evidence about the only thing she ever cared about before Shug. There is a time, after Celie finds out about this last, when she walks through her days with murder blotting out all other thoughts in her mind. Yet, years later, both she and Albert have become different people. They haven't forgotten or even forgiven the events of years before, but neither do they pick up their interaction in the same place they left off. It's not as if the unforgivable trespass doesn't exist, argues Walker: for any person, the line is there. It's just that with time, Person A becomes Person X - a different individual, whose perspective may bear little resemblance to that of years before.

Likewise, Walker's handling of the love triangle theme was a breath of fresh air after Maugham's more traditional treatment in Of Human Bondage. Usually, in a plot where a husband takes up with a mistress, the wife is expected to be jealous and hostile toward the girlfriend. Much possessiveness and humiliation follow. In The Color Purple, though, Celie never desired or loved Mr. _____, and falls immediately for "the other woman," Shug Avery. Not only that, but the love among the three of them, far from blinding them with passion, allows them all to see each other more clearly. Celie, hearing Shug talk about the Albert she once loved, realizes that there is (or was once) a kinder, more human side to the husband who has always treated Celie as a slave. Shug, seeing clearly how the man she used to love has become cruel and petty, is disgusted and grief-stricken, and sets out to show Celie real love and friendship. And Mr. _____, shocked that Shug could take up with his ugly, submissive wife, is forced to take a closer look at both women and his own behavior. Likewise, when Celie returns to Georgia years later, one of the subjects over which she and Albert bond in friendship is their mutual love for Shug.

Then he say something that really surprise me cause it so thoughtful and common sense. When it come to what folks do together with they bodies, he say, anybody's guess is as good as mine. But when you talk bout love I don't have to guess. I have love and I have been love. And I thank God he let me gain understanding enough to know love can't be halted just cause some peopes moan and groan. It don't surprise me you love Shug Avery, he say. I have love Shug Avery all my life.
      What load of bricks fell on you? I ast.

Far from the Proustian, Maugham-esque vision of love-as-sexual-obsession, as a veil that obscures our humanity from one another, Walker insists that love is a force for understanding - that loving other people, as much as it hurts, ultimately makes us better people, improves our lives, and allows us, eventually, to know ourselves. She doesn't argue this in a Little Sally Sunshine way, but in the course of a narrative that acknowledges how difficult it is to love bravely and well, especially within a culture that devalues and oppresses people based on their gender, class, and skin color. A magnificent accomplishment, and one I won't soon forget.

Year of Challenges: Complete!


Can you believe 2009 is almost over? This was the first year I spent keeping up a dedicated book blog, and I've met so many amazing people and read so many great books as part of the reading challenges I signed up for in the early days of Evening All Afternoon. Now that they're all finished I'm thinking about what my 2010 reading project(s) will be. Far fewer challenges, I think (although I am planning on joining Women Unbound - and just maybe the GLBT Challenge). I'll continue with my thoughts on the Great Ideas series. I'm greatly looking forward to the Woolf in Winter readalong in January and February, and further readalongs that will follow. Other than that, I think 2010 will be a year of less directed, more spontaneous reading. Sounds lovely.

And with that, here are the finished list, with links to all my reviews. They're in reverse finishing order.

Decades '09
(10 out of 10 completed)

Japanese Literature Challenge 3
(1 out of 1 completed)

Orbis Terrarum
(10 out of 10 completed)
I have to give a special shout-out to the Orbis Terrarum Challenge. Without it I wouldn't have met Richard, Claire, Sarah, and probably others of my bloggy friends as well (it's hard to keep track of where y'all came from!). MUCH THANKS to Bethany for putting it all together.

Dewey Decimal
(10 out of 10 completed)

What's in a Name
(6 out of 6 completed)

9 for 2009 Challenge
(9 out of 9 completed)

Of Human Bondage


Back in July, I wrote about the ways in which Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain reminds me of the work of Marcel Proust: Mann's obsession with human perceptions of time, and the complex ways in which large and small quantities of time flex and bend as we experience them. So it's only fitting that I'm closing out the year with another book which reminded me forcibly of In Search of Lost Time: W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage. Instead of sharing Proust's philosophical preoccupation with memory and chronology, though, Maugham brought back to me two other Proustian qualities: a fierce cynicism about the perversity of human behavior in what is commonly called "love," and a transparently - yet confusingly - encoded narrative about homosexuality.

Of Human Bondage is a classic bildungsroman: it follows young Philip Carey, a shy boy with a club foot, from his early childhood (the death of his parents; his life with his well-meaning aunt and cold, self-involved Vicar uncle; the cruelties of the other children at his boarding school) through his life as a student in Heidelberg and, later, his several abortive career starts. Along the way he makes all the mistakes typical of one's teens and early twenties: he breaks hearts and gets his own broken, spends his money too quickly and has to revise his plans as a result; becomes enamored of careers that don't suit him; tries on the identities of the idealist and the cynic before settling out somewhere in the middle. He also loses religion, gains a sense of humor, and struggles to define a useful morality outside of an organized faith.

Philip can be a bit of a sad sack, and (especially in his early years) pompously self-righteous, but for me the narrative was saved by the fact that Maugham doesn't take his protagonist too seriously. He shares with Proust the wry stance that all his characters are a bit ridiculous, and those who take themselves seriously are even more so. Maugham's satire is gentle, infused with compassion: he never despises Philip, but neither does he share Philip's own estimate of how vitally important his emotional crises might be. Take this passage, from shortly after Philip becomes an atheist:

To Philip, intoxicated with the beauty of the scene, it seemed that it was the whole world which was spread out before him, and he was eager to step down and enjoy it. He was free from degrading fears and free from prejudice. He could go his way without the intolerable dread of hell-fire. Suddenly he realized that he had lost also that burden of responsibility which made every action of his a matter of urgent consequence. He could breathe more freely in a lighter air. He was responsible only to himself for the things he did. Freedom! He was his own master at last. From old habit, unconsciously, he thanked God that he no longer believed in Him.

It seems to me that Maugham is striking a delicate balance here between acknowledging the power of Philip's existential breakthrough, and gently poking fun at his naive idea that his entire life will be immediately transformed and all responsibility be lifted from his shoulders simply because he has stopped believing in the Church of England. Maugham maintains this balance throughout the book, and struck me as one of the novel's most impressive feats: to have compassion for its characters, while at the same time maintaining a slightly amused distance from their self-importance.

Which is not to say that the characters themselves act in a balanced way. Maugham shares Proust's cynical view that what people call "love" is a destructive, perverse sexual passion that involves, almost by definition, an unequal power struggle between the two parties involved. There is the lover and the loved, argue Maugham and Proust, and to the loved, the lover's desperate passion is sometimes useful, but also increasingly distasteful. Ironically, the only way to inspire passion in another is to get over your own infatuation to the point where you can treat your lover with indifference - at which point, you won't care anymore whether they love you or not. The tendency on the part of lovers is to fall for people who will abuse and reject them; no amount of reasoned argument can overcome this tendency and allow the ardent lover to settle down with someone who treats him well instead. Never, in either work, is romantic love depicted as a true meeting of minds/hearts/souls; never are lovers depicted as both sexually passionate and actually enjoying each others' company. As such, I don't believe either Maugham or Proust is actually writing about "love," but about sexual obsession (and in fact Philip comes to more or less this realization late in Of Human Bondage).

Personally, although I recognize the existence of sexual obsession and have suffered my time with it, and although I think both Proust and Maugham write about it perceptively, I miss the presence of a more genuine love in both authors' work. I don't share their pessimistic opinion that a true and nourishing romantic connection is impossible - after all, my partner and I have created one ourselves, and so have many other couples I know. As a matter of fact, I don't believe either Proust or Maugham actually believe in the impossibility of genuine human connection either; it's just that in their novels, this dynamic is allocated to the close male/male friendships cultivated by their protagonists. These friendships, in turn, are part of the encoding of same-sex desire in both novels, which is more complex than it at first appears.

In the 1910s in England homosexual acts were still punishable by law, and written material about homosexual relationships would have been banned under the Obscenity Publications Act. So it's understandable that Maugham's Philip, like Proust's Marcel, falls in love with women instead of men. In Proust's case many of Marcel's female amours are thinly-veiled references to Proust's own male lovers: his chauffeur Albert, for example, with whom he had an unhappy and controlling affair, is transformed into the fictional Albertine. Proust scholar Joshua Landy argues convincingly that Proust's presentation of sexuality and gender is much more complex than this (for example, why veil Marcel's sexuality while including other, openly gay characters?), but in a way Marcel can be read as "actually" having relationships with men, who are only encoded as women for propriety's sake. In Maugham, on the other hand, Philip seems more like a man who is having relationships with women who disgust him, when he's actually attracted to men. In one case the author creates the closet as a kind of blind; in the other case the character is actually in the closet. Philip has several love affairs throughout the novel, including one extended "Grand Passion," but in none of them does he find the woman beautiful or even attractive, more often describing her with adjectives like "repulsive" and "grotesque." In the absolute best-case scenario, he appreciates a woman's beauty aesthetically, as he would admire a well-executed painting. His male friends, on the other hand, are often painted in terms of physical beauty: our attention is often drawn to their "long, tapering fingers" and "muscles that stood out as though they were made of iron." Their physical appearances inspire Philip's artistic urges, and observing them physically leads to a desire to draw closer, to spend more time with them. It's not hard to distinguish which is the more appetizing set of descriptors.

Mildred, the woman with whom Philip becomes obsessed in the middle section of the novel, is quite androgynous, and he is forever dwelling on her flat chest and narrow hips. He finds her, like he finds all women, ugly - even at his most obsessive he never calls her beautiful. She has crooked teeth and anemic, greenish skin, and is skeletally thin. Yet there are also moments, like this one, when I felt that Mildred doubled as a Proustian encoded man, and that Maugham was using her presence as a way for Philip to work out his conflicted feelings about his sexuality. (Hayward is a close male friend of Philip's.)

...Hayward would have been astonished at [Philip's] weakness. He would despise him, and perhaps be shocked or disgusted that he could envisage the possibility of making Mildred his mistress after she had given herself to another man. What did he care if it was shocking or disgusting? He was ready for any compromise, prepared for more degrading humiliation still, if he could only gratify his desire.

To me this does not seem like guilt over taking a mistress who has been with other men; both Hayward and Philip have been involved with sexually experienced women before. Philip's vision of a love that others may think is "shocking and disgusting" seems much more like anxiety around homosexual desire to me, and Mildred's boyish stature backs this up. Mildred's ability to walk the line between man and woman is one of the most interesting things about Of Human Bondage. Within the text she occupies a kind of liminal space between male and female, combining Philip's feelings of disgust for her femaleness and attraction for her maleness. Her androgyny provides him with a more socially acceptable way to approach the subject of his homosexual feelings - and it seems to me very consistent with Philip's character that he would need this. Sadly for him she's also a total psychopath. C'est la vie.

I know quite a few people are doing the Challenge that Dare Not Speak its Name in 2010, and if you're up for a 600-pager, I'd recommend Of Human Bondage as a fascinating peek into the early 20th-century experience of writing about same-sex desire. For those not doing the challenge, I'd recommend it anyway! So there.

(Of Human Bondage was my tenth and final book for the Decades '09 Challenge. Which is also my final challenge of 2009! Wrap-up post to come shortly.)

The Stranger Issue (McSweeney's 19)



After a couple of disappointing reads I was in dire need of a palate-cleanser, something light and distracting and candy-like that would be fun to breeze through. I've had this delightful collection of historical ephemera, otherwise known as McSweeney's #19, hanging around the to-be-read shelf for quite some time, and figured it was just what the doctor ordered. Those folks at McSweeney's sure know how to put together an appealing package: housed within this vintage-inspired "cigar box" is not only the standard paperback literary periodical one would expect, but a whole collection of pamphlets, photographs, battle plans and informational circulars associated with wartime and politics throughout American and British history.


These are reproductions of actual pamphlets, letters, and so on, which make give them that special "artifact" feel. I find it's hard to resist a curated exhibition of primary-source documents - especially ones so hilarious and heartbreaking. One of my favorites is a pamphlet, apparently circulated by the Nixon/Agnew campaign to their female supporters, entitled "Your Horoscope Tells You How You Can Help Republican Party WIN!" In addition to the Cro-Magnon-esque syntax of that title, it features stunning pieces of advice like this one (to the Cancer lady):

You can turn chaos into order, especially in the filing drawers. You'll be effective on the telephone, too...

Or this, to the Leo Nixon supporter:

Try to invade the camp of the opposition and go after the opposite sex in the crowd; they'll buy Nixon/Agnew all the way! One word of warning: the most important feature of this campaign is teamwork. It may kill you, but COOPERATE.

Awesome. So, what's your poison: secretary or prostitute? Either way, Nixon/Agnew wants YOU on board this November.

Also included in the menagerie of political detritus is an incredibly jingoistic WWI-era pamphlet that tries to prove "scientifically" why soldiers shouldn't drink, gamble, or sleep around ("The other nations say that our boys win because we make a business of it, that we go at it hard and drop everything that interferes. I guess they are right."); a pamphlet by a Civil War-era ambulance chaser working to extend veterans' pensions; a 1957 pocket guidebook distributed by the US Marine Corps to servicemen stationed in the Middle East ("As an American you will not be a stranger in the Middle East. Even though you may occasionally find some antagonism, a reservoir of good will toward us has been developed over the years."). And check out this amazing illustration, part of a brochure distributed by the Department of Defense in 1961 on what to do in the event of nuclear war. Dude's gonna weather the fallout from a 5-megaton blast under a FRONT DOOR PILED WITH DIRT, tipped against his house. The mind reels.


Imagine having seen photos of the nuclear wreckage at Hiroshima, and then receiving this brochure in the mail and reading advice like "Farm machinery, troughs, wells, and any produce you cannot get into barns should be covered with tarpaulins." Tarps. Excellent.

I found the stories in the actual bound-and-printed portion of #19 less remarkable than the fascinating first-hand flotsam that accompanied it. The high point, by far, was the T.C. Boyle novella Wild Child - a fictionalized (although very true to history) account of the relationship between the 18th-century Wild Boy of Aveyron and his would-be mentor and civilizer, Jean Marc Gasapard Itard. I was actually just reading about Victor of Aveyron last February (bizarre coincidence), as part of a nonfiction study of feral children and their discoverers. Interestingly, Boyle's novella was effective for the very reason I felt the nonfiction book fell flat: in most cases, there is no direct evidence of the subjective experience of these feral children, because most of them never acquire language (sadly, most of them die within a few years of being "discovered"). So Michael Newton's nonfiction treatment ended up being, in actuality, a history of the people who worked with these children, who tried, usually unsuccessfully, to break them of their "uncivilized" ways and make them into "productive members of society." Newton examines the struggles and motivations these scientists and social workers faced. Which is kind of interesting, but not nearly as interesting as the question of what the experience is like for the children themselves: something Boyle, because he's working with fiction and his imagination, can explore.

Did he somehow come to understand that people were his tribe in a way that a bear instinctually consorts with other bears rather than foxes or wolves or goats? Did he know he was human? He must have. He had no words to form the proposition, no way of thinking beyond the present moment, but as he grew he became less a creature of the forest and more of the pasture, the garden, the dim margin where the tress and the maquis give way to cultivation.

This was actually my first exposure to Boyle (I know; where have I been? chock it up to my resistance to the authors "everyone's reading"), and I quite liked him. Apparently, "Wild Child" is an excerpt from his 2006 novel Talk, Talk, which is intriguing to me since I hear the primary plot concerns credit card fraud - not exactly what you expect to see paired with 18th-century France. Do any Boyle fans out there have a recommendation for my first full-length novel by him? I'm a little resistant to reading The Women, despite its beautiful cover, but other than that I'm open.

In any case, a romp through wartime McSweeney's-land was exactly what I needed to get my reading back on track. Next up: W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage!

(Want your own cigar box of fascinating wartime ephemera? Number Nineteen is on sale right now from the McSweeney's store for only five dollars, which is significantly less than I paid for it. Makes a great gift!).

The Ark Sakura


By rights, I should have been head over heels for Kobo Abe's The Ark Sakura. I mean, check it out: a bizarre, absurdist-yet-thoughtful plot; a strong narrative voice; a small cast of characters semi-quarantined together in a (relatively) small area; a sharp, satirical political ethos...this book was obviously written with my wholehearted enjoyment in mind. And it starts out in a hilariously promising way: our protagonist, who because of his obesity and underground dwelling-place is known as Mole, leaves the latter-day "ark" - actually a vast, abandoned stone quarry converted into a survivalist bunker - to run some errands in town. He's almost finished his ark, which is designed to withstand the coming (according to him) nuclear winter as well as isolate him from his abusive father. But he is distressed by the fact that he has yet to hand out any invitations to others to accompany him into the brave new underground world. In the course of his wanderings he encounters a shady but possibly sympathetic insect-dealer who is peddling mounted "eupcaccias": apocryphal insects whose legs have atrophied due to the fact that they never travel, instead staying in the same place and using their mouths to move in a tight circle, excreting and consuming their own excretions at the exact same rate.

(Let me just pause a moment here to note that if you're easily grossed out or don't think it's cool to read about solid waste, this is not the book for you. It shares with Joyce's Ulysses and Saramago's Blindness the dubious honor of including at least one graphic shitting scene, and its spiritual center is a gigantic, oversized toilet used for flushing all manner of things out to sea.)

Mole pretty much knows the eupcaccias are bogus (the insect dealer has concocted an entire mythology about them, in which they dwell on an imaginary island and inspire an imaginary tourist trade), but it doesn't matter: he still finds them so allegorically compelling that he's immediately convinced the insect dealer should join him on the ark. Along with a male/female con-artist team who work the craft bazaars drumming up business by pretending to be interested in the rinky-dink merchandise, they both end up back at the bunker, where Mole introduces the other three to his stash of beer, chocolate, jerry-rigged weaponry, holographic air photography, and, of course, giant, ultra-powerful toilet.

One of the real strengths of the novel, I think, is Mole's narrative voice. Despite being an abused, unattractive loser with delusional paranoia, the twisted alternate-reality he creates for himself is oddly compelling. He tends to be so fixated on tiny details - the clever mechanical workings of the booby traps he's set up throughout the quarry, for example - that he never has to acknowledge the lunacy of his entire project. (His methodical obsession with obscure details reminded me of the narrators in the works of Kenzaburo Oe and Kazuo Ishiguro, as well as Samuel Beckett - high praise indeed, in my world.) It quickly becomes apparent that Mole imagines a full "crew" for his ark - over three hundred people - and yet it floods him with anxiety even to admit three new faces to his sanctuary. At the same time, once he's committed to inviting the three of them, he can hardly let them "escape"; they might spread the word around about how to get into his ark. He's filled with adolescent fantasies about power and sexuality; he envisions everyone on the Ark addressing him as "Captain," yet even the other outcasts, like the insect dealer and the shill, have more leadership ability. And his sexual understanding has never progressed beyond that of a twelve-year-old boy with a pile of porn stockpiled under his mattress. Yet he kids himself that he's in control of the situation, that he'll continue to control the running of the ark even after hundreds of people join it, even after he's sealed off the entrances from the encroaching nuclear winter. Meanwhile, the female half of the shill-couple has absolutely no trouble manipulating him with a single tug on her fake-leather skirt.

This brings me to the reason I'm lukewarm about The Ark Sakura: the gender roles in it really just bummed me out. Which makes me a little bit frustrated with myself, because the gross, masturbatory interactions in the book were so cartoonishly over-the-top that their satirical nature can hardly be doubted. Take this passage, in which Mole and the insect dealer take turns slapping "the girl" (nobody ever bothers to learn her name) on the ass:

        "One of these would supply about enough electricity for one twelve-watt bulb, and that's it," said the insect dealer, and launched a second attack on her backside. There was the sound of a wet towel falling on the floor. He'd scored a direct hit, in the area of the crease in her buttocks. She emitted a scream that was half wail.
        "Eventually I intend to convert all those old bikes in that pile over there. With twenty-eight bikes operating at the same time, charging up the car batteries, there would be enough energy to supply an average day's needs."
        Pretending I was going to activate one to show them, I drew closer to the woman and laid a hand on her myself, not to be outdone. It was not so much a slap as a caress: that prolonged the contact by a good five times. Using her hand on the handlebars as a fulcrum, she swung herself around to the other side, bent forward, and giggled. On the other side, the insect dealer was waiting, palm outstretched. It was a game of handball, her bottom the ball.

See what I mean? It seems silly even to be offended by such an obviously absurd set of events. A little later, Mole goes from zero to creepy in three-point-two seconds when he momentarily fancies himself a sensitive guy:

Perhaps I shouldn't have said so much. But I wanted to impress it on her that I, for one, was not the sort of man who could go around brandishing the traditional male prerogatives. I was a mole, someone who might never fall into a marriage trap, but whose prospects for succeeding in any such scheme of his own were nil. Yet I was the captain of this ark, steaming on toward the ultimate apocalypse, with the engine key right in my hand. This very moment, if I so chose, I could push the switch to weigh anchor. What would she say then? Would she call me a swindler? Or would she lift her skirt and hold out her rump for me to slap?

Abe is plainly using Mole's interactions with "the girl" to point up his own ridiculously immature, even delusional, outlook on life, and the panting ease with which he lets himself be led around by his schlong. His fetishized image of the girl takes over his life and undermines his decision-making power, and yet he remains totally unable to relate to her as a person. The one time we hear her express her own reality, he immediately makes it all about himself. I think all of this is quite well-done, actually.

And yet, reading it made me feel tired. I mean, the downside of portraying Mole's inner world is that Abe HIMSELF is relieved of the need to make "the girl" into any kind of interesting character. And hey look, she's the only female in the book (if you don't count the roaming horde of junior high school girls lost somewhere in the quarry). And oh huh, how unusual, a single, fetishized female in the midst of males endowed with subjectivity. You don't say. Ho hum. Wake me after the revolution.

Despite my (possibly mood-induced) reservations, there are many thought-provoking elements in The Ark Sakura. As satirical as Abe's portrayal of Mole is, he's never quite AS nuts as a similar person would seem in America. Japan, after all, is the one country which actually has directly experienced the fallout of nuclear war, which gives Mole's paranoia a different cast. And the fact that he's reacting against the abuse he suffered at the hands of his biological father - a man of the generation that propelled WWII forward - gives the story an allegorical cast; it's addressing the experience of the children who grew up to face the atrocities their fathers committed. I'm reminded of the section of Günter Grass's Dog Years in which sets of magic spectacles circulate around Germany as the children of former Nazis reach adolescence. When the young adults don the spectacles, they see the things their parents have done, and lose all faith. There's a certain similarity here, in Mole's interactions with his bestial father, and his own consequently stunted emotional growth. So too, his use of the giant toilet is significant: he condemns the actions of his father and wants to start over with a clean slate, and yet he himself survives by accepting money to flush toxic waste down the john, washing it out to sea. He's condemning the waste and selfishness of his own father, while simultaneously following in the father's footsteps by accelerating the destruction of his environment and naively imagining he can separate himself from that destruction.

So, certainly not a complete loss. In a different mood, at a different time, probably a big win. But right now, what I want is a well-drawn, realistically sympathetic female character. One not wracked into continual sobs by religious guilt, or flattened to two dimensions by male lust. One that makes me feel the author understands the plain, unadorned humanity of women as well as men. I have Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, A.S. Byatt's Possession, and a biography of Mother Jones on my to-be-read shelf, but any suggestions from you, my bloggy friends, would be much appreciated as well.

(The Ark Sakura was my book for the Japanese Literature Challenge 3.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography