January 2010 Archives

To the Lighthouse


Welcome to the second round of Woolf in Winter, hosted by yours truly! I'll be proactive about checking around at all the blogs that posted on Mrs. Dalloway two weeks ago, but if I've missed you please leave a comment below and I'll add your post as soon as I can. I can't wait to discuss To the Lighthouse with everyone! (Note: I will be at work this morning, and I abstain from the internet on Saturdays have moved my no-computer day to Sunday in order to keep arguing so pleasantly with y'all, so if your post doesn't get linked right away it's just because I'm away from the computer.)

Edit: It's been real, guys. I really am taking Sunday off the computer, but this discussion has been grand. Thanks to everyone who read (or is reading) along, stopped by and/or commented!


It's often said that To the Lighthouse is Virginia Woolf's "most autobiographical" book. Personally, I think aspects of Woolf's biography slip into all her works in interesting ways (Orlando is based on her lover Vita Sackville-West's family background; Mrs. Dalloway contains her most explicit depiction of mental illness). It's certainly true, though, that Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay are modeled on Woolf's own mother and father, celebrated beauty Julia Duckworth and famous National Biography writer Leslie Stephen, and that the Ramsay family's summer home on the Isle of Skye mirrors Talland House, where the Stephen family spent summers in the 1880s and 1890s. (As you can see from the link, modern-day Talland House has been converted into a suite of "luxury holiday apartments" and painted a somewhat blistering chartreuse.) Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf's sister and fellow Bloomsbury Group member, wrote to her after first reading To the Lighthouse that

...in the first part of the book you have given a portrait of mother which is more like her to me than anything I could ever have conceived of as possible. It is almost painful to have her so raised from the dead. You have made one feel the extraordinary beauty of her character, which must be the most difficult thing in the world to do. It was like meeting her again with oneself grown up and on equal terms and it seems to me the most astonishing feat of creation to have been able to see her in such a way. You have given father too I think as clearly but perhaps, I may be wrong, that isn't quite so difficult. There is more to catch hold of. Still it seems to me to be the only thing about him which ever gave a true idea.

And Woolf herself wrote to Vita:

I don't know if I'm like Mrs. Ramsay; as my mother died when I was 13 probably it is a child's view of her: but I have some sentimental delight in thinking that you like her. She has haunted me: but then so did that old wretch my father. Do you think it sentimental? Do you think it irreverent about him? I should like to know. I was more like him than her, I think; and therefore more critical: but he was an adorable man, and somehow, tremendous.

I like this second short letter fragment because it gets at much of the ambivalence in To the Lighthouse toward both senior Ramsays and everything they represent. In many ways the novel is an affectionate, sympathetic look back ("an adorable man, and somehow, tremendous"), but in other, perhaps more important ways, it's a definitive break with Woolf's parents' generation. Like Lily Briscoe, Woolf acknowledges the tremendous appeal, the tremendous charisma of women like her mother: Victorian beauties, Angels in Houses, models of self-abnegation, providing steadfast moral and emotional support for all the men and children in their lives - and at the same time, like Lily placing her salt-shaker on the tablecloth to remind herself to move her painted tree more to the middle, she gently refuses to take on that role herself.

Not only that, but she explores the way in which Victorian men used such women as crutches, and the way in which such women themselves were instrumental in coercing other girls and women to conform. Lily notes that Mrs. Ramsay holds women to a higher standard than she does men, that she "pitied men always as if they lacked something - women never, as if they had something." As such, she is forbearing with men even when they act like complete babies, but stern with her daughters and other women if they diverge from her idea of proper feminine behavior. Mrs. Ramsay, albeit with great charm, belittles the importance of Lily's painting, arguing that any woman who fails to marry is missing the best of life; Mr. Ramsay barely notices Lily enough to deprecate her art. (Woolf herself said that if it hadn't been for her father's death when she was a young woman, she would never have been able to write.)

Oh, but, Lily would say, there was her father; her home; even, had she dared say it, her painting. But all this seemed so little, so virginal, against the other. Yet, as the night wore on, and white lights parted the curtains, and even now and then some bird chirped in the garden, gathering a desperate courage she would urge her own exemption from the universal law; plead for it; she liked to be alone; she liked to be herself; she was not made for that; and so have to meet a serious stare from eyes of unparalleled depth, and confront Mrs. Ramsay's simple certainty (and she was child-like now) that her dear Lily, her little Brisk, was a fool.

Likewise, although Woolf does, in a way, admire and even enjoy men like her father - note that in her letter to Vita she identifies more strongly with Leslie than Julia - she is also harshly critical of a system that allows boys, men and husbands to remain emotionally infantile, blindly twisting any situation to put themselves at its center, and being supported by a group of women trained to safeguard their delicate egos at all cost. As Lily observes while Mrs. Ramsay coerces her into conciliating Charles Tansley, saving the dinner party when Tansley is being an ass, this kind of social structure makes naked sincerity between men and women well nigh impossible - it's unfair to both women (who never get the chance to assert themselves) and men (who never get the chance to do anything else). "What happens if one is not nice to that young man there?" Lily asks herself, and one can almost hear the tantalizing possibilities simmering behind her question, the unaccustomed freedom in demanding that both parties treat each other equally. But no, she must abandon the experiment to suit the charm of Mrs. Ramsay, and the tyranny of men like Mr. Ramsay. I think one reason Woolf could look back affectionately on her parents' generation is that she herself had achieved what Lily only finds later with William Bankes: she had a frank, multi-gendered, intellectually stimulating group of friends who respected each others' humanity and intelligence enough to delight in honest conversation. That's one reason.

And another reason is to be found in the darkness surrounding Mrs. Ramsay, a near-nihilism reminiscent of the grimmest portions of Mrs. Dalloway. For as much as her children and acolytes strain against her influence, strive for a different life that seems impossible; as much as she seems to Lily always to get her way in the end, Time Passes: even overweening personalities can be snuffed out quietly, in a sudden parenthesis, as if they hardly mattered at all. And even before Mrs. Ramsay is whisked from the land of the living, she herself feels uneasily the emptiness, almost a panic, at her own core:

And yet she had said to all these children, You shall go through it all. To eight people she had said relentlessly that (and the bill for the greenhouse would be fifty pounds). For that reason, knowing what was before them - love and ambition and being wretched alone in dreary places - she had often the feeling, Why must they grow up and lose it all? And then she said to herself, brandishing her sword at life, Nonsense. They will be perfectly happy. And here she was, she reflected, feeling life rather sinister again, making Minta marry Paul Rayley; because whatever she might feel about her own transaction, she had had experiences which need not happen to every one (she did not name them to herself); she was driven on, too quickly she knew, almost as if it were an escape for her too, to say that people must marry, people must have children.

As Lily notes, it's "almost impossible to dislike any one if one looked at them," and in looking so carefully at the inner workings of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, Woolf is able to critique her parents' generation while also making her peace with them. Their lives were what they were, beautiful and flawed, and she chose to live hers differently.

And although that would probably be the best ending for this little essay, I can't resist inserting a few notes on odd, disconnected things I love about this novel. This time around (this is my third read through), I was struck by Woolf's skill at evoking entire exchanges with just a single line. When Charles Tansley, walking with Mr. Ramsay on the terrace, is heard to pronounce "Brilliant but I think fundamentally flawed," the reader feels the entire conversation - Tansley's and Ramsay's absorption in ideas, their self-satisfied pomposity - present in those few words. (Woolf's entire introduction of Tansley is, I think, hilarious.) Likewise, when William Bankes protests the English habit of cutting the skins off vegetables, "'In which,' said Mr. Bankes, 'all the virtue of the vegetable is contained,'" one can hear the palpably mounting indignation on the part of Mr. Bankes and Mrs. Ramsay as they egg each other on about British cooking, and eventually bring the rest of the dinner guests to break down in laughter. There is not much dialogue in this book, but entire conversations are conjured into the imagination with a few deft strokes.

My other favorite effect, of course (I mentioned it with regard to Mrs. Dalloway) is Woolf's conflation of the interior and exterior worlds of her characters, so that one bleeds into and reflects the other. The characters' experiences of the world around them are inextricably tied to their emotions and inner workings, so that James sees his magazine pictures "fringed with joy" at the thought of going to the lighthouse, Lily marks her artistic breakthrough by placing the salt-cellar on the tablecloth, and Mr. Ramsay perceives the urns and hedges of the house as having "so often decorated processes of thought," and externalizes his inner conflict with a bombastic and almost confrontational recitation of Tennyson. Like the rest of this novel, it's beautifully done.

In case it's useful...I think it's fun to analyze Woolf's references to other texts, and maybe other people do, too. Here are a few links, if you're curious, and thanks to Julia for pointing me to "The Fisherman and His Wife":
  • "The Fisherman and His Wife" by the Brothers Grimm: the story that Mrs. Ramsay is reading to James as she poses for Lily's painting
  • "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson: the poem Mr. Ramsay is reciting as he charges around the yard and almost runs into Lily and Mr. Bankes
  • "The Invitation" by Percy Bysshe Shelley: The source of a line Mrs. Ramsay remembers Mr. Ramsay shouting at "poor Miss Giddings"
  • "Luriana Lurilee" by Charles Elton: recited as the dinner party is breaking up
  • "Sonnet 98" by William Shakespeare: the poem that forms the denoument of the passage describing Mrs. Ramsay's reading process
  • "The Castaway" by William Cowper: which dominates the last section, "The Lighthouse."

Be sure to drop by others' posts! And please consider joining us for a discussion of Woolf's Orlando (at Nonsuch Book on February 12) and The Waves (at Kiss a Cloud on February 26).

L'amant de la Chine du nord


Inspired by Richard's commitment to multi-lingual reading and blogging, I've decided to try to work on my languages as well, and read more novels in the original French. How many is "more"? Well, last year I read a grand total of one. So, in order to top that, this year I'll need to read...two. Maybe the year after that I'll read three. As you can tell, I'm practically signing up for À la recherche du temps perdu already.

Considering that last year's pick, J.M.G. Le Clézio's Ourania, was something of a struggle for me and took several months to complete, I'm startled to find that I've already finished my first French book of 2010: Marguerite Duras's L'amant de la chine du nord (available in English translation as The North China Lover). Duras's book is actually a re-working of her earlier novel L'amant; it re-envisions the story as a film, and retells it from a more complete, possibly mature angle. Both L'amant and L'amant de la chine du nord are fictionalized memoirs dealing with Duras's sexual coming-of-age as a young - very young - Frenchwoman in 1920s Vietnam (then French Indochina). Well, let me be blunter: it tells the story of her first consummated affair, with a wealthy 28-year-old Chinese man, when she was fourteen.

Given that plot there's obviously a lot to talk about here vis-a-vis sexual and gender dynamics, but let's get some formalist stuff out of the way first: Duras's prose is vivid and lush, and the fact that she wrote this novel as if giving screen directions (including camera pans, fade-ins and fade-outs, etc.), makes the reading experience overwhelmingly visual. This kind of narration is often a turn-off for me; I tend to find it choppy or overly mannered. But in Duras's case I think it works perfectly for two reasons. In the first place, this is one of those books in which the setting is almost as much of a character as the characters themselves. The hot monsoon nights, the flooded rice fields, the night sounds of the young Vietnamese night guards singing outside the gates of the main character's colonial boarding school - presenting all this to the audience front-and-center brings it to the foreground, and persuades the reader to concentrate on it, to see it. And secondly, in a film all the viewer knows about a character's motivations is how she sees them acting - she has no direct access to their interior monologue. A cinematic approach, then, plays perfectly into one of Duras's main themes in this novel: the ambiguity of human actions.

For L'amant de la chine du nord does not leave the reader with any clear answers about why the characters act as they do, or how we ought to feel about it. Compared to, say, Lolita, which argues pretty plainly for Humbert as a delusional, dirty old man and Delores Haze as his victim, Duras's moral universe is extremely murky. The main character, known only as "l'enfant" ("the child"), comes from a desperately poor family of French settlers in Indochina; we later learn that she has already had several offers of marriage/concubinage from men in their thirties, which her mother has pressed her to accept in order to alleviate the family's poverty, but which she has refused. In her boarding school, certain teachers and even students choose to prostitute themselves in the streets. In this light, her meeting with and choice to pursue her wealthy lover (known in the novel as le Chinois or The Chinaman) seems a clear economic decision, the best she can do in a bad situation.

But things are not so simple. There's no question that l'enfant lusts after le Chinois - that her psyche is, in fact, super-saturated with lust. She has incestuous thoughts about her younger brother, with whom she is extremely close. She is already involved in a semi-sexual relationship with one of her female school friends, and the two of them fantasize about taking the place of their prostitute teacher - the idea of forbidden sex being thrilling to them. From practically the moment she meets le Chinois, she is fascinated by his physicality - she is the aggressor in their relationship, and it seems as though she is acting from real feeling, not just aping the actions of adults in order to produce a desired effect.

At the same time, it's not completely positive for her, or comfortable to read; her experiences of actually having sex, especially at first, involve a lot more pain and suffering than pleasure, and she seems perplexed by the strength of Le Chinois's emotions when he falls in love with her. He is weeping about how his magnate father will disinherit him if he marries her, and she is teasing him and wanting him to tell her more about life in China. Duras does a creepily effectual job at blending L'enfant's precocious sensuality and sexuality with certain other, very kid-like, qualities in her. She kind of just wants to experiment and learn about the world, and also to have sex. Would she want to have sex if it weren't for her family's poverty, and the possibility of getting her hands on some of Le Chinois's money? Would she want to have sex if she hadn't been prematurely sexualized by the men who want to buy her from her mother, and by her feelings for her brother, and by the boarding school atmosphere? One can't help asking these questions, but at the same time they're a bit pointless: if those things had been different, she would have been a completely different person.

And here's another thing that's unusual in this type of story: L'enfant and Le Chinois enjoy each others' company. You never get the sense that Lolita and Humbert ever have fun together, but L'enfant and Le Chinois go out late at night to restaurants in the Chinese section of town, tell each other stories, laugh at each others' frankness. To be fair, there is also a lot of crying in the book, and overall it's somewhat melancholic, but unlike Kristin Lavransdatter it also has its fair share of mutual enjoyment of the present moment. And although the affair (inevitably) ends, and everyone feels sad about that for a while, L'enfant doesn't really suffer as a punishment for having sex, in the way that Lolita, Tess Durbyfield, and other literary sexual victims do (dying in childbirth, no less! Talk about sexual punishment). Duras's protagonist goes through a mixed emotional experience and then gets on with her life, but one never gets the sense that she is suffering, or enjoying herself, as a vehicle for the author to make a point about who is right and who is wrong. Duras's book is the most non-judgmental treatment - in either a positive or negative way - of sex between a very young person and an older person, I've ever come across. I wouldn't call it primarily a love story, but neither would I say it's primarily a tale of oppression. (And speaking of oppression: the racial dynamics among the transplanted white French, colonized Vietnamese, and wealthy landowning Chinese are another whole fascinating subject.)

The whole tale brings up interesting questions about the triangulation of love, lust, liking, and money. If L'enfant is more or less engaging in sex work, does that mean she doesn't love Le Chinois? Does it mean she doesn't like him? If her first feeling upon seeing him is one of lust, does that invalidate the money motive? To what extent are the desires for money and sex interwoven? And what should we, as readers, be hoping for as we read this story? Duras allows all of these elements to coexist in uneasy harmony, which in itself is an admirable feat.

(Because of the strong, thought-provoking themes of young female sexuality, I'm counting this novel toward the Women Unbound Challenge.)

Essay Mondays: Montaigne


Aww, well. One of these Mondays I'll focus on an author who's a new discovery for me, but this week I can't resist singing the praises of an old favorite yet again. I wrote my undergrad honors thesis partially on Montaigne's "Of experience," but I had forgotten what a great old codger he is, and how much I enjoy spending time with him and his rambling, provocative, great-spirited essays.

Lopate obviously knew what he was doing in choosing "On some verses of Virgil" for his collection; it's a perfect showcase of all Montaigne's trademark strengths and eccentricities. One of the things that struck me when I was studying him in college was how suited this 16th-century Frenchman seems to the tastes of my generation: not only is his style frank and conversational, laden with quotes and outside cultural references (often left un-sourced, since the author assumes any quote from, say, Catullus, will be instantly recognizable to his audience - and if it's not, he doesn't really care), but the structure of his essays strike me as familiarly labyrinthine. "Let me begin with whatever subject I please," he writes, "for all subjects are linked with one another." "On some verses of Virgil," for example, resembles a Simpsons episode in the way it wanders around its main subject: beginning with a lament about his old age and failing health, it gradually works around to a lively discussion of male versus female sexuality, poking fun at both sexes and becoming progressively bawdier as he warms to his theme. In characteristic Montaigne fashion, he brings in a plethora of illuminating examples of customs from around the world and throughout history, employing them as stepping-stones in his hilariously meandering thought process:

       What mischief is not done by those enormous pictures that boys spread about the passages and staircases of palaces! From these, women acquire a cruel contempt for our natural capacity.
       How do we know that Plato did not have this in mind when, imitating other well-constituted states, he ordained that men and women, young and old, should appear in one another's sight stark naked in gymnastics?
       The Indian women, who see the men in the raw, have at least cooled their sense of sight. And although the women of the great kingdom of Pegu, who have nothing to cover them below the waist but a cloth slit in front and so narrow that whatever ceremonious modesty they seek to preserve, at each step they can be seen whole, may say that this is a device thought up in order to attract the men to them and divert them from their fondness for other males, to which that nation is altogether addicted, it might be said that they lose by it more than they gain and that a complete hunger is sharper than one that has been satisfied at least by the eyes.

As much as some of his conclusions are ridiculous (of which he was completely aware - his enjoyment of testing readers' credulousness was the subject of my thesis), I so admire Montaigne's lusty curiosity. So too, I love his willingness to muster any odd conglomeration of evidence - from classical antiquity to contemporary far-flung lands to examples from his own experience - to support whatever idea he may be exploring at the moment, only to turn about a few pages later and muster a different set of evidence in support of the exact opposite contention. In this essay, for example, he makes the Chaucerian claim that women are earthier and more sexually omnivorous than men, only to turn about forty pages on and promote the idea that women are naturally passive, made to receive male desire rather than express their own. His tangible enjoyment in exploring both options is obvious: Montaigne is often more about the process of arguing than the point being argued.

After his playful exploration of sexuality through the ages and nations, he drifts off on a beautiful little tangent about how good writers and thinkers benefit the languages in which they write and think, only to return to his sexuality theme in a more expansive and slightly more serious mood, making the heartfelt argument that our cultural shame around sex is misplaced and unnatural, and we really have enough to be worrying about without creating more problems for ourselves on top of those Nature provides.

Alas, poor man! You have enough necessary ills without increasing them by your invention, and you are miserable enough by nature without being so by art. You have real and essential deformities enough without forging imaginary ones. Do you find that you are too much at your ease unless your ease strikes you as unpleasantness? Do you think you have fulfilled all the necessary duties to which nature obligates you, and that she is wanting and idle in you unless you take on new duties? You are not afraid to offend the universal and indubitable laws, and are proudly intent on your own laws, which are partial and fanciful: and the more particular, uncertain, and contradicted they are, the more you devote your effort to them.
In short, whoever would wean man of the folly of such a scrupulous verbal superstition would do the world no great harm. Our life is part folly, part wisdom. Whoever writes about it only reverently and according to the rules leaves out more than half of it.

And above all, this is what I love about the man: his great, humanist soul, always so curious about, and so deeply, humanely interested in, himself and the world around him. Re-reading "On some verses of Virgil" motivates me to revisit other favorite corners of Montaigne's work.

Up next: One essay by Abraham Cowley (which I didn't quite get to this week), one by Joseph Addison, and three by Richard Steele. I haven't read any of these men before, so I will be FORCED into writing about a new-to-me essayist for once.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

The New York Trilogy


As I could feel myself coming down with my partner's cold on Wednesday afternoon, I rushed into the bookstore to pick up a birthday present for my dad, and there was the beautiful Penguin Classics edition of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, marked down a tempting thirty percent. It was the right time for this book, my friends, and the universe offered it to me as compensation for spending the next two days groaning and snuffling on the couch. The three novellas - City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room - are my definition of perfect home-sick-from-work reading: literary, metafictional takes on the private eye genre, they evoke that familiar noir-ish atmosphere while at the same time weaving in enough off-kilter ambiguity, rejection of plot resolution, and what my friend Alan would call "thinky-ness," to keep things interesting for an inveterate thinky-pants like yours truly. I won't go so far as to say it made me happy to have come down with a nasty head-cold, but it definitely helped me to bear up with good grace.

All three of these novellas are detective novels concerned with books, writing, and writers: writers mistaken for detectives, detectives staking out writers, writers of detective novels impersonating detectives, writers who disappear under mysterious circumstances that lead other writers into investigating their disappearances. Auster reminds me irresistibly of Roberto Bolaño in the way that discussions of literature, and of the acts of reading and writing, are seamlessly incorporated into his text in ways that are delicious fun to read. In most cases, too, literary conversations between characters come to be mirrored in the structure of the book itself: never does Auster forget that what his reader is holding in her hands is an artifact, an object capable of explaining and referring to its own existence. The first novella, City of Glass, for example, begins with a triple-screen: the novelist Daniel Quinn, writing detective fiction under the nom de plume William Wilson. Wilson's private-eye investigator is named Max Work, and Quinn is starting to feel that the detective Work is taking up more and more of his consciousness. Then Quinn starts getting mysterious calls in the middle of the night, and the caller is looking for a private detective named...Paul Auster. I think, at this point, you are either tickled by the novelty or disgusted by the cleverness.

It's always a daring move for an author to insert himself into his own fiction. Sometimes it's a total turnoff for me, but I thought Auster handled it well: he had already built up such a self-reflexive series of identities for Quinn/Wilson/Work that doubling all the way back around and having Quinn be mistaken for his own author is, I think, delightful. He's constructed a situation where we have an author writing a detective novel about an author of detective novels, who is mistaken for a detective who is, in actuality, not a detective but an author. For Quinn later tracks Auster down, and he's not a private eye; he can't explain why he should have been taken for one. He does sit Quinn down, though, offer him an omelette, and regale him with a complex, circular theory about the novel Don Quixote. The book we take for a novel by Cervantes is, argues Auster-the-character, a legitimate artifact: Cervantes really was approached (as the text claims) by someone in a bazaar, ostensibly an Arab who was the real author of the work. In reality, Auster-the-character goes on, this person was Don Quixote himself in disguise: he had feigned madness and concocted an elaborate con on Sancho, the barber, and Samson Carrasco, basically orchestrating the events in the novel and manipulating his three friends into creating the manuscript in order to ensure his reputation would live on in perpetuity. Quinn and Auster-the-character begin this conversation by narrowing in on Cervantes's preoccupation with verifiability:

      "It's quite simple. Cervantes, if you remember, goes to great lengths to convince the reader that he is not the author. The book, he says, was written in Arabic by Cid Hamete Benengeli. Cervantes describes how he discovered the manuscript by chance one day in the market at Toledo. He hires someone to translate it for him into Spanish, and thereafter he presents himself as no more than the editor of the translation. In fact, he cannot even vouch for the accuracy of the translation itself."
      "And yet he goes on to say," Quinn added, "that Cid Hamete Benengeli's is the only true version of Don Quixote's story. All the other versions are frauds, written by imposters. He makes a great point of insisting that everything in the book really happened in the world."
      "Exactly. Because the book after all is an attack on the dangers of the make-believe. He couldn't very well offer a work of the imagination to do that, could he? He had to claim that it was real."
      "Still, I've always suspected that Cervantes devoured those old romances. You can't hate something so violently unless a part of you also loves it. In some sense, Don Quixote was just a stand-in for himself."
      "I agree with you. What better portrait of a writer than to show a man who has been bewitched by books?"

By the end of the conversation, then, Auster-the-character is arguing that Cervantes is offered a faked manuscript by a person who is, in some way, a stand-in for himself, and going on to insist on this story in order to prove that the faked manuscript is, in fact, real. Which turns out to be unnecessary, since the events in the book actually did take place, just not for the reasons that the writers (and Cervantes) believed. Which in turn means nothing, because even though the events took place, they were intentionally manipulated, so that Cervantes inherits a faked manuscript (faked by Sancho et al) which is a genuine chronicle of faked events (faked by Don Quixote), from a man who may or may not be just another version of himself. Not only that, but by the end of City of Glass we find out that the text we have been reading is similarly an artifact, similarly at many removes, and similarly preoccupied with obsessive adherence to "verifiable" facts that, nevertheless, were sketchy to begin with.

This kind of game delights me, although I can understand if it doesn't delight you.

I found Ghosts to be the weakest of the three novellas (although still quite enjoyable), with The Locked Room reminding me, unexpectedly, less of Bolaño and more of Kazuo Ishiguro's typical detail-obsessed narrator, haunted by demons from his past. All three books really should be read together in one unit, as The Locked Room ends up shedding new light on the events of the first two books, twisting their context and making the reader double back on herself to figure out what exactly happened. True to postmodern form, it all almost makes sense in the end...but not quite. For someone like me, who dislikes any mystery whose ends are tied up any tighter than those in, say, Chinatown, this was just right.

I have to say, though, that as much as Auster's sparkling literary cleverness and smoky retro atmosphere reminded me of Bolaño and Ishiguro, I didn't find in this trilogy the same greatness of soul possessed by the other two writers. Despite the darkness in both their works, Bolaño and Ishiguro both address the human capacity to continue on and create meaning for themselves in the face of horror. Auster's only comment on the human experience seems to be that we're all a hair's breadth from descending into madness and non-meaning - true as far as it goes, which is not that far. This didn't bother me - I think a certain amount of nihilism is to be expected even from mainstream noir, and that much more from a postmodern deconstruction of the genre - but it means I didn't think Auster's content quite lived up to his style in this particular instance. That's okay, though - not every book needs to present an entire philosophy of being. As I said, the nihilism fits the genre, and there were more than enough compensations to make this a highly enjoyable read.

Essay Mondays: Sei Shonagon


It was surprisingly difficult making the call this week for Essay Monday! Lopate introduced me to the fourteenth-century Japanese essayist Kenko, who writes with gorgeous precision and anticipates an hilariously Wordsworthian Romanticism hundreds of years before the English got in on the act. To wit:

Does the love between men and women refer only to the moments when they are in each others' arms? The man who grieves over a love affair broken off before it was fulfilled, who bewails empty vows, who spends long autumn nights alone, who lets his thoughts wander to distant skies, who yearns for the past in a dilapidated house - such a man truly knows what love means.

Yearning for the past in a dilapidated house. Awesome. He also suggests composing poems on such subjects as "Going to view the cherry blossoms only to find they had scattered." Even as I recognize its influence on my own thinking, I tend to have a hard time taking Romanticism (or un-self-critical philosophies resembling Romanticism) very seriously, so on one level I found Kenko's writing to be deliciously ridiculous, but on the other hand I do genuinely admire his eye for detail and mood.

As predicted, though, my final selection for "most compelling" has to be Sei Shonagon's "Hateful Things," a short but representative excerpt from her famous tenth-century Pillow Book. As far as I'm concerned, it's hard to top Shonagon. The Pillow Book is a masterpiece that I thoroughly enjoyed when I read it many years ago, and this brief taste provided by Lopate reminded me that I really should go back for a thorough re-read. Shonagon has a genius eye for detail, and her tone is conversational, opinionated, even blunt. She is not afraid to air her grievances and opinions, even if they conflict with the expected, and she is refreshingly frank about sexual themes.

The trademark of the Pillow Book is Shonagon's lists of things or situations grouped into specific categories: Depressing Things; Elegant Things; Things that Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past; Things that Make One's Heart Beat Faster; Things that Give a Hot Feeling; Unsuitable Things; Splendid Things; and so on. It also includes delightful vignettes of places she went and happenings at court (she was a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Teishi), as well as disconnected thoughts and opinions that strike her ("Oxen Should Have Very Small Foreheads"), but it's in list-making that Shonagon really shines. The entries in each one tend to be tiny, evocative gems, that have me alternating between laughing out loud, nodding my head, and dwelling in the moment of quiet feeling she creates. Some of my favorites from "Hateful Things":

A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses all sorts of subjects at random as though he knew everything.


A gentleman has visited one secretly. Though is he wearing a tall, lacquered hat, he nevertheless wants no one to see him. He is so flurried, in fact, that upon leaving he bangs into something with his hat. Most hateful!


One is telling a story about old times when someone breaks in with a little detail that he happens to know, implying that one's own version is inaccurate - disgusting behavior!
Very hateful is a mouse that scurries all over the place.


A man with whom one is having an affair keeps singing the praises of some woman he used to know. Even if it is a thing of the past, this can be very annoying. How much more so if he is still seeing the woman! (Yet sometimes I find that it is not as unpleasant as all that.)
A person who recites a spell himself after sneezing. In fact, I detest anyone who sneezes, except the master of the house.


A gentleman who travels alone in his carriage to see a procession or some other spectacle. What sort of a man is he? Even though he may not be a person of the greatest quality, surely he should have taken along a few of the many young men who are anxious to see the sights. But no, there he sits by himself (one can see his silhouette through the blinds) with a proud look on his face, keeping all his impressions to himself.

I love Shonagon's willingness to be unreasonable - detesting everyone who sneezes! - and her ability to double back on herself and admit that she sometimes doesn't really mind her lovers talking about old flames, although she still includes such behavior on her Hateful list. Lopate's decision to include "Hateful Things" rather than some other list plays up Shonagon's irritable, picky side, but in pieces like "Splendid Things" and "Things that Give a Clean Feeling" she displays her gift of finding beauty in life's details as well. Overall, thanks to Lopate for reminding me about this gem of early Japanese literature!

Up next week: three essays by Montaigne ("Of books," "Of a monstrous child," and the classic "On some verses of Virgil"), and one essay by Abraham Cowley ("Of Greatness"). I already love Montaigne, and have also arrived at his On friendship in the Great Ideas series, so if I end up reacting strongly to Cowley I might write about him in order to shake things up a bit. On the other hand, "On some verses of Virgil" is always good for a bawdy laugh. We shall see!


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

Mrs. Dalloway


The first time I read Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf's prose sprang upon me as an revelation, and also a profound recognition. Here, I felt (sophomorically perhaps), was someone portraying a truth about how I experience the world - about how "people" experience the world. It seemed amazing to me, back then, that nobody had written like this before, because in a way it was so common-sense. Woolf's interweaving of action and thought, for example: it's only reasonable to acknowledge that when a person walks down the street, thinking thoughts, her manner of walking, of glancing around, of holding herself, are all affected by the thoughts she is having, the way she feels about them, the memories that are present to her - and that, conversely, her interactions with those around her, and the things and people she observes in the here and now, set off other trains of thought within her, so that she may be suddenly distracted and diverted to a completely new mental tangent, or a subtle change in the light may just modify her train of thought ever so slightly, without her even realizing a change has taken place. That's only everyday life; I can't imagine that any modern person has failed to experience it.

But that a writer could so fully realize that experience in prose, that her very sentence structure would reflect this interwoven reality...well, my mind was blown. I was intoxicated by the depiction of how people simply walking down the street are all constantly re-inventing, re-imagining themselves, conceptualizing the person they are at the given moment, telling themselves the stories of their lives as they walk along - so Peter Walsh sees himself one moment as a failure and the next as a bold adventurer. I was captivated by Woolf's evocation of the liminal space between subjective and objective reality - how Septimus says, for example, "the sun became extraordinarily hot because the car had stopped outside Mulberry's shop window," which is logically false and yet completely true to the reality of subjective experience. We all experience as causality things that may "really" be only correlations, and yet that perceived cause and effect is vital enough to us, influencing us as we go through our days, so that it is true in some meaningful way, despite logic. So I stayed up all night in college, reading Mrs. Dalloway, absorbed in Mrs. Dalloway and all its inhabitants - Septimus and Rezia and Peter and Elizabeth, and even Lady Bruton and Richard and Miss Kilman, and Sally Seton with her five enormous sons, and Clarissa Dalloway, with her profound superficiality and her atheist's religion of human connection, and her perverse satisfaction in giving parties. I tried to write about all this, and failed miserably.

And it was an offering; to combine, to create; but to whom?
      An offering for the sake of an offering, perhaps. Anyhow, it was her gift. Nothing else had she of the slightest importance; could not think, write, even play the piano. She muddled Armenians and Turks; loved success; hated discomfort; must be liked; talked oceans of nonsense; and to this day, ask her what the Equator was, and she did not know.
      All the same, that one day should follow another, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that how unbelievable death was! - that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all, how, every instant . . .

I was overpowered by the tangible, physical presence of human connection - Clarissa and Peter's "queer power of communicating without words," and the conceit that "one's friends were attached to one's body, after lunching with them, by a thin thread," and the way in which a simple hat, laughed over by a husband and wife, can become a gem of everyday beauty in the midst of tragedy - and I had to go and read it again, immediately, out loud, with someone I love. So David and I read Mrs. Dalloway together, and that second reading more or less swept me along in my initial flush of infatuation. How there are anger and cynicism and hard truths - from the arrogant domination the medical profession shows Septimus, to Richard Dalloway's pathetic failure to tell his wife he loves her, to the pointless class-bound animosity between Mrs. Dalloway and Miss Kilman - and yet, unlike some Modernists, Woolf also portrays exquisite moments of true human connection. Never perfect, often fleeting, but, crucially present, nonetheless, which seems to me to make all the difference. I tried to write about this, too, and failed.

But there was nothing terrible about it, he assured himself, looking a second time, a third time at her face, her hands, for what was frightening or disgusting in her as she sat there in broad daylight, sewing? Mrs. Peters had a spiteful tongue. Mr. Peters was in Hull. Why then rage and prophesy? Why fly scourged and outcast? Why be made to tremble and sob by the clouds? Why seek truths and discover messages when Rezia sat sticking pins into the front of her dress, and Mr. Peters was in Hull? Miracles, revelations, agonies, loneliness, falling through the sea, down, down into the flames, all were burnt out, for he had a sense, as he watched Rezia trimming the straw hat for Mrs. Peters, of a coverlet of flowers.
      "It's too small for Mrs. Peters," said Septimus.
      For the first time for days he was speaking as he used to do! Of course it was - absurdly small, she said. But Mrs. Peters had chosen it.
      He took it out of her hands. He said it was an organ grinder's monkey's hat.
      How it rejoiced her that! Not for weeks had they laughed like this together, poking fun privately like married people. What she meant was that if Mrs. Filmer had come in, or Mrs. Peters or anybody they would not have understood what she and Septimus were laughing at.

My third and fourth readings, in second and third college courses, brought more nuance to my appreciation of the novel, and maybe smoothed it out a trifle. I learned little tidbits, interesting in themselves although not, in the final analysis, all that important. I learned about Woolf's struggles with mental illness, and her discomfort, so unlike Clarissa Dalloway, with managing servants. I read her phrase about dining with Lytton Strachey - "It is an exquisite symphony his nature when all the violins get playing" - and found that it described perfectly my own feeling about reading her books. I read and argued passionately with literary critics who made claims I disagreed with - that Woolf is glamorizing death, for example, when I still feel that Mrs. Dalloway is an argument for the beauty and vitality of life in all its imperfection. I wrote about this, although not very satisfactorily.

And now, after my fifth reading of Mrs. Dalloway, the novel has been transformed from a passionate new lover to an old, dear friend. I found, reading it through this time, that it was sometimes difficult even to experience the language as something external: it has become so familiar to me that my mind begins to race ahead, looking forward to favorite passages, anticipating lovely transitions. Peter says of Clarissa:

There was a mystery about it. You were given a sharp, acute, uncomfortable grain - the actual meeting; horribly painful as often as not; yet in absence, in the most unlikely places, it would flower out, open, shed its scent, let you touch, taste, look about you, get the whole feel of it and understanding; after years of lying lost. [...] She had influenced him more than any person he had ever known.

And this is how I feel about Mrs. Dalloway: it has influenced me more than any book I have ever known. Reading it again, after a passage of time, I find that so many moments from it have become absorbed into my brain and my way of life, and I carry them with me always, referring to them at odd, unexpected times. Miss Kilman's assertion that "when people are happy, they have a reserve"; Clarissa's exquisite theories about her spirit being held aloft, stretched wide like a mist over trees among all the people and places she has known; Septimus and Rezia's one last moment of communion with one another (the hat); the way that Peter and Clarissa can inadvertently summon the moonlit terrace at Bourton back into existence forty years later; even the simple image of Clarissa plunging like a knife into a busy London intersection - it is literally hard to imagine my life without these passages, they strike such a deep chord. Mrs. Dalloway is no longer, perhaps, the electrifying novelty it was during my college years, but it's now something more meaningful. My relationship with this book has become an integral part of who I am.

So, maybe it's gotten to the point where I can only really write about it like this - in a form closer to a personal essay than a book review. I haven't given any notion of plot or even intention, I realize. It's still unsatisfying; I'm sitting here tinkering with it when I should be in bed. It does though, at least, start to express what Woolf's novel has meant to me so far. However much more time I have, I'll have it with Mrs. Dalloway.


Thanks to Sarah for hosting this first installment of Woolf in Winter! Join us right here at Evening All Afternoon on January 29 for the second segment. It will feature Woolf's To the Lighthouse, about which I am likely to be more coherent.

And be sure to visit others' posts!

  • Our lovely host Sarah at what we have here is a failure to communicate
  • Amy at New Century Reading
  • Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed
  • Becca at Bookstack
  • Belleza at Dolce Belleza
  • Care at Care's Online Book Club
  • Christy at Lil Bit Brit Lit
  • Claire at Kiss a Cloud
  • Eva at A Striped Armchair
  • DS at Third-Storey Window
  • EL Fay at This Book and I Could Be Friends
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  • Jason at Moored at Sea
  • JoAnn at Lakeside Musings
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  • Lena at Save Ophelia
  • Lindsey at Sparks' Notes
  • Lu at Regular Rumination
  • Nicole at Bibliographing
  • Rebecca at Rebecca Reads
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  • Victoria at Views from the Page and the Oven
  • Violet at Still Life with Books

The Prince


Given that Machiavelli's classic how-to course in duplicitous pragmatism is a re-read of something I've studied fairly recently, I was surprised how much new food for thought I gleaned from this last tête à tête with The Prince. It just goes to show how sometimes reading for pleasure can bring out a whole different set of impressions than reading for edification. When I tackled this as part of a college seminar (the same one I keep banging on about, for those keeping track at home), we viewed it primarily through the lens of Renaissance constructions of identity and the self-made man - an interesting, but narrow, focus. It certainly is a work rife with claims about self - about which groups people belong to, and in fact about how the world is divided into groups in the first place. Machiavelli is able to refer, for example, to "the ruin of Italy," implying that Italy can be understood as a unified concept, capable of being ruined - and yet his political analysis of current events is still dominated by the formation and breakdown of piecemeal alliances among all the individual nation-states that would not be unified into modern "Italy" until the nineteenth century. He captures a moment when the nation is just beginning to coalesce, when people are just beginning to believe that someone from Venice might have something in common with a Florentine that she didn't share with a Parisian, though all three cities were erstwhile outposts of the Roman Empire.

Likewise, Machiavelli is way ahead of his time in the proto-scientific application of "method." While the Renaissance was characterized by a huge influx previously unknown biological, lingual, human and animal specimens into Europe, botanists and entomologists were just beginning to get the idea of classifying these specimens, of grouping them by type. (For more on this fascinating process, and the difficulties in deciding which characteristics to group by, see Steven Asma's Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums.) People had cabinets of wonders, but not organized, methodical collections of specimens. While Machiavelli was writing The Prince, only the very earliest so-called "methodists" were beginning to work on the problem of classification in plants and bugs. And yet, listen to Machiavelli trace the branching of possibilities, for all the world like the Linneus of practical politics:

All the states, all the dominions under whose authority men have lived in the past and live now have been and are either republics or principalities. Principalities are hereditary, with their prince's family long established as rulers, or they are new. The new are completely new, as was Milan to Francesco Sforza, or they are like limbs joined to the hereditary state of the prince who acquires them, as is the kingdom of Naples in relation to the king of Spain. Dominions so acquired are accustomed to be under a prince, or they are used to freedom; a prince wins them either with the arms of others or with his own; either by fortune or prowess.

He goes on like this: appended territories either share a language/culture with the conquerors, or they don't; ministers are either appointed, or hereditary; new principalities can be ruled by devastation, relocation, or oligarchy; and so on. One could actually draw a diagram of the bifurcating either/or choices Machiavelli gives new princes, much like a modern plant-classification guide will have you answer a series of questions (leaves or needles? opposite- or alternate-branching?) to identify a botanical specimen. All this has fascinating implications for a culture in turmoil, in which citizens sought for new ways to define themselves and each other faced with the breakdown of relatively stable Medieval ways of life.

None of this, though, addresses the real reason The Prince is famous: not for its proto-scientific methodology or nascent nationalism, but because it earned Machiavelli the reputation of not being a very nice guy. You know, because he says things like

Settlements do not cost much, and the prince can found them and maintain them at little or no personal expense. He injures only those from whom he takes land and houses to give to the new inhabitants, and these victims form a tiny minority, and can never do any harm since they remain poor and scattered. All the others are left undisturbed, and so should stay quiet and as well as this they are frightened to do wrong lest what happened to the dispossessed should happen to them.

Not too troubled by conventional morality. And the first time through I took all this at face value, but since then I've heard some interesting murmurings: it seems some scholars argue that Machiavelli intended The Prince as SATIRE. Think about it: Machiavelli himself spent almost his entire life as a devoted civil servant in the Florentine REPUBLIC. In 1512 the Medicis reconquered Florence, arrested and tortured Machiavelli, and exiled him to his country estate. He then wrote a book ostensibly dedicated to Lorenzo de Medici, all about how difficult and treacherous it is to be a prince in a principality one just conquered - especially a principality in which the citizens are accustomed to freedom. Sound familiar? This time through, then, I decided to read with an ear for satire - and doing so not only convinced me that of Machiavelli's satirical intent, but increased my enjoyment of his achievement many times over. Take, for example, this passage, which actually seems to break through the wall of satire and enter into a straight-up impassioned threat on behalf of the downtrodden Florentine republicans:

Indeed, there is no surer way of keeping possession than by devastation. Whoever becomes the master of a city accustomed to freedom, and does not destroy it, may expect to be destroyed himself; because, when there is a rebellion, such a city justifies itself by calling on the name of liberty and its ancient institutions, never forgotten despite the passing of time and the benefits received from the new ruler. Whatever the conqueror's actions or foresight, if the inhabitants are not dispersed and scattered, they will forget neither that name nor those institutions, and at the first opportunity they will at once have recourse to them, as did Pisa after having been kept in servitude for a hundred years by the Florentines.

If you were Lorenzo de Medici, how would you feel reading this passage? Would you feel like the author were dispassionately encouraging you to sack and pillage Florence? Or would you read here an assurance that the republican citizens would never forget, and would rise up against their oppressor no matter what he did or said? Yeah, I'm inclined to the latter view.

One of my favorite such double-edged pieces of advice comes later in the essay, when Machiavelli is discussing how princes should cultivate an appearance of many virtues (generosity, compassion, etc.), while all the time preparing to act in the opposite way should the need arise. He says

You must realize this: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things which give men a reputation for virtue, because in order to maintain his state he is often forced to act in defiance of good faith, of charity, of kindness, of religion. And so he should have a flexible disposition, varying as fortune and circumstances dictate. [...] A certain contemporary ruler, whom it is better not to name, never preaches anything except peace and good faith; and he is an enemy of both one and the other, and if he had ever honored either of them he would have lost either his standing or his state many times over.

This is such a brilliant double-bind into which Machiavelli puts Medici. Since Medici is indisputably a new prince, he must either be cultivating a false appearance of virtue (and be incapable of holding onto his territory without resorting to hypocrisy), or else he's NOT a hypocrite, in which case he's setting himself up to lose his kingdom.

Obviously, The Prince is not limited to satire: Machiavelli genuinely is fascinated by the art and science of political conquest, and the reasons one ruler is able to hold on while another is overcome. It speaks to his subtlety, and the razor-sharpness of his classifying mind, that he is able to craft simultaneously a serious political study and a scathing send-up. I thoroughly enjoyed both aspects of The Prince this time around, and am looking forward to spending some time, next, with my old friend Michel de Montaigne.

Essay Mondays: Seneca


Slightly late to the party, but with a badge and everything (look at me go!), welcome to the first Essay Mondays post. Over the next I-don't-know-how-many weeks, I'll be making my way through Phillip Lopate's The Art of the Personal Essay by pitting between two and four essays/essayists against each other, and writing about whichever I find most compelling. (I decided that longer essays call for two per week rather than four.)

This first week was always a fix: since the first four essays (or proto-essays) in Lopate's collection are by Seneca, he's guaranteed a spot. I devoted a full-length review to Seneca's On the Shortness of Life back in October, but Lopate's selections focus on a much different side of the Roman philosopher-statesman. In particular, he chooses pieces that highlight quotidian details of Roman life rather than timeless aphorisms on mortality - which makes sense, given that he's tracing the development of the personal essay. In one piece, Seneca catalogs all the noises of town life that assail his ears from the window where he writes (my favorite being the squeals of the itinerant hair-remover's clients as he tweezes their armpits). In another piece, he compares the old-fashioned bath in Scipio's villa with the luxuriance of contemporary Roman baths, an exercise that made me incredibly jealous of the Romans of Seneca's day.

The "most compelling" award, though, has to go to the essay "Slaves," in which Seneca outlines all the dire consequences that can result from mistreating one's slaves, and urges his reader to behave toward slaves with kindness, and with an awareness that, but for a turn of blind fortune, the roles could be reversed. "When they cannot speak in the master's presence," opines Seneca, "they speak about him."

Remember, if you please, that the man you call slave sprang from the same seed, enjoys the same daylight, breathes like you, lives like you, dies like you. You can as easily conceive him a free man as he can conceive you a slave. In the Marian disasters many men of noble birth who had entered military service as the preliminary to a senatorial career were declassed by Fortune and reduced to being shepherds or cottagers; now despise a man for his condition when you may find yourself in the same even as you despise it!

In fact, argues Seneca, given that masters depend so entirely on their slaves, one could really argue that the master is more of a slave to the slave than is the slave to the master. He urges his reader always to keep this in mind when tempted to be dismissive or cruel toward those in his service.

What I find so interesting about this essay is that Seneca never makes the argument that one shouldn't have slaves, despite rhetoric like the above. He seems to feel that the slave/master relationship is sanctioned by Fortune; while it's good to keep in mind that one could, with a different roll of the dice, just has easily have ended up a slave as a master, one should also accept the ordained world order and not do anything crazy like adopting a slave-free lifestyle. Not that Seneca comes right out and says all this about the sanction of Fortune; he implies it, but the idea of living without slaves seems never even to occur to him. This is doubly striking since Seneca belonged to the Stoic school of thought; Spartan simplicity and indifference to physical and mental discomfort did NOT, apparently, imply renunciation of slave labor. It's a fascinating snapshot of a moment in time and the logic that sustained Roman society.

Up next week: Plutarch ("Consolation to his Wife"); Sei Shonagon ("Hateful Things"); Kenko (Selections from "Essays in Idleness"); and/or Ou-Yang Hsiu ("Pleasure Boat Studio"). I'll say right now that it will take quite a feat of writing to top Shonagon; I adore her stuff. But we shall see.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

Sea of Poppies


I was skeptical, initially, about Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies. I've read so many novels in which a building, character, or geographical feature becomes a metaphor for the entire country/culture of India (or, in the case of Shalimar the Clown, Kashmir). Here, it seemed to me, was the same conceit, being recycled in the form of a ship: the Ibis, a former slaver now refitted to carry opium, progresses from the harbors of the sacred Ganges beyond the Black Water one season in 1838, transporting an unlikely group of convicts, coolies, lascars and officers toward the island of Mauritius. I was wary of another facile equation of a concept like "diversity" or "journey" or "flowing river" with the whole of India. I needn't have been concerned, though. Ghosh's novel may work along a familiar pattern, but it's executed in a convincing and original way, which quickly won me over and kept me fascinated throughout.

To me, the most exciting thing about Sea of Poppies is the use of language. Unlike many books involving "dialect," Ghosh's novel doesn't pit nonstandard against standard English, creating a simple, easily-evaluated contrast (for example, "backwoods" dialect used to betoken a character's lack of education, or "urban" dialect used to signal that a character is hard-boiled). Instead, Ghosh pays close attention to the subtleties of MANY separate lingual groups, and lets them all mingle with one another in a rich mélange of well-realized, consistent but flexible voices. Take this passage, in which we get the seagoing pidgin of Serang Ali (the commander of the native Indian or lascar crew), the Indie-fied Irish brogue of the ship's captain, and the lightly inflected cadence of Ghosh's narrator, which blends subtly into the voices of the different characters:

       'No,' Zachary laughed. 'N'how bout you? Serang Ali catchi wife?'
       'Serang Ali wife-o hab makee die,' came the answer. 'Go top-side, to hebbin. By'mby, Serang Ali catchi nother piece wife...'
       A week later, Serang Ali accosted Zachary again: 'Malum Zikri! Captin-bugger blongi poo-shoo-foo. He hab got plenty sick! Need one piece dokto. No can chow-chow tiffin. Allo tim do chhee-chhee, pee-pee. Plenty smelly in Captin cabin.'
       Zachary took himself off to the Captain's stateroom and was told that there was nothing wrong: just a touch of the back-door trots - not the flux, for there was no sign of blood, no spotting in the mustard. 'I know how to take care o' meself: not the first time I've had a run of the squitters and collywobbles.'

I loved reading Serang Ali's dialogue; my mother and her brothers grew up on Oahu, and I grew up hearing Hawaiian pidgin bandied about whenever my uncles were visiting (my mom never picked it up, for some reason). The lascar pidgin bears certain similarities to Hawaiian pidgin, and I wonder how much contact there was between the two regions while both languages were developing. In particular, the use of "plenty" as an intensifier is common to both ("He hab got plenty sick"), and something about "Go top-side, to hebbin" is very familiar. I don't know much at all about Indian and sea-faring languages and pidgins, but I got the impression that Ghosh has a very careful ear and a thorough understanding of how language functions in society, which was a joy to read. For example, certain people in the novel "code switch" - that is, speak differently according to the company in which they find themselves. Zachary, the light-skinned American son of a freed female slave and her former owner, comes to feel at his ease with Serang Ali, and they speak to each other in a way that shows they trust each other - a way that doesn't try to hide their respective backgrounds.

       Three days later, exactly as promised, the twisted hills of Mauritius appeared on the jamma bow, with Port Louis nestled in the bay below.
       'I'll be dickswiggered!' said Zachary, in grudging admiration. 'Don't that just beat the Dutch? You sure that the right place?'
       'What I tell you no? Serang Ali Number One sabbi ship-pijjin.'

Yet in different company, such as the ship's white captain and belligerent lower-class first mate, Zachary speaks in standard English even when the other officers are speaking non-standard English - a subtle acknowledgment of his own inferior social position and/or respect for the other men. In the scene below, Zachary has a different motive for putting a high-class spin on his speech: he's conversing with Paulette Lambert, the daughter of a French botanist, who grew up speaking French and Bhojpuri, and whose English is at least as unorthodox as Zachary's own:

       'Is something the matter?' Zachary said, alarmed by her pallor. 'Are you all right, Miss Lambert?'
       'An idee came to my mind,' said Paulette, trying to make light of her sudden turn of thought. 'It struck me that I too would love to go to the Mauritius on the Ibis. Just like Jodu, working on a ship.'
       Zachary laughed. 'Believe me, Miss Lambert, a schooner's no place for a woman - lady, I mean, begging your pardon. Especially not someone who is accustomed to living like this...' He made a gesture in the direction of the loaded table.
       'Is that indeed so, Mr. Reid?' said Paulette, raising her eyebrows. 'So it is not possible, according to you, for a woman to be a marin?'
'Marine?' he said in surprise. 'No, Miss Lambert, there sure aren't any woman marines that I ever heard of.'

The plot of Sea of Poppies mixes a couple of standard plots - the "diverse people thrown together unexpectedly" with the "seagoing adventure" and a hefty pinch of the "political commentary" - but it's the manner of telling that I found particularly unique and engaging in this novel. Much like gender criticism that points out the ways in which every presentation of gender is performative and therefore involves aspects of drag, Ghosh emphasizes to his reader that there is no un-accented language, no manner of speaking that does not make claims, whether true or false, about the speaker. The range of lingual contexts Ghosh evokes here is staggering, and he is able to deal in subtle lingual differences as well as broad ones. In a smoking-room scene involving four white, middle-class Englishmen, for example, he expertly adjusts each man's level of good-old-boy bluster to indicate his position in the pecking order. (This same scene also features brain-boiling pieces of logic such as the British assertion that war with China is morally mandated: "We need only think of the poor Indian peasant - what will become of him if his opium can't be sold in China?") Not only that, but Ghosh has a similar sensitivity about quicksand nature of racial, religious, and sexual dynamics: Zachary's biracial background, for example, is something about which he's constantly on his guard. Much of the time, it's rendered surprisingly irrelevant and he comes off as a bit paranoid, but given the wrong set of circumstances it can erupt into unforeseen danger in a matter of moments.

Sea of Poppies is not a perfect novel - the exposition is sometimes fairly awkward, with one character leading a second into an information-dump about the back-story of a third. And there is a touch of so-called "Rushdie-itis" here and there - every time the narrative featured a flash-forward about different people who would, one day, end up in the character Deeti's shrine, I winced a little bit as I remembered Midnight's Children. Nevertheless, there was so much here that was unique and intriguing that I'm eager to pick up the next two books in this projected trilogy as soon as they become available. The originality of the language, the social insight, and the crafting of compelling characters make me eager to spend more time in Ghosh's world.

(Full disclosure: I received Sea of Poppies free through LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program.)

Looking forward to...Mrs. Dalloway


A week from now Sarah will be kicking off the Woolf in Winter conversation with Mrs. Dalloway, and I can't wait! I whetted my own appetite by dipping into Woolf's diaries from the period when she was writing and publishing this breakthrough novel, and I thought I would share some of the entries I found most relevant. Does that sound interesting to anyone besides me? I hope so! Woolf isn't primarily famous as a diarist, but I think her more casual, less polished language in the diaries and letters create a lovely conversational tone, and give insight into her creative process and relationships.

Some useful things to know: an early working title for Mrs. Dalloway was The Hours (hence the Michael Cunningham novel of the same name); Jacob's Room was the novel she wrote previous to Mrs. Dalloway; "In the Orchard" is a short story by Woolf; Duncan Grant and Lytton Strachey were friends and fellow Bloomsbury Group members. Thoby Stephen was Woolf's idolized older brother, who died at 26, and Leonard Woolf was Virginia's husband.

Wednesday, 16 August 1922
(You get a sense from this entry how much literary criticism Woolf was writing simultaneously with her novels.)

For my own part I am laboriously dredging my mind for Mrs Dalloway & bringing up light buckets. I don't like the feeling I'm writing too quickly. I must press it together. I wrote 4 thousand words of reading in record time, 10 days; but then it was merely a quick sketch of Pastons, supplied by books. Now I break off, according to my quick change theory, to write Mrs D. (who ushers in a host of others, I begin to perceive), then I do Chaucer, & finish the first chapter early in September.

Tuesday 19 June 1923
(There's so much to stimulate conversation in this entry. I personally feel there's no shortage of deep emotion or "reality" in Mrs. Dalloway, but I'll be curious about others' impressions. I love "and still there remains this excitement.")

But now what do I feel about my writing? - this book, that is, The Hours, if thats its name? One must write from deep feeling, said Dostoevsky. And do I? Or do I fabricate with words, loving them as I do? No, I think not. In this book I have almost too many ideas. I want to give life & death, sanity & insanity; I want to criticise the social system, & to show it at work, at its most intense - But here I may be posing. I heard from Ka this morning that she doesn't like In the Orchard. At once I feel refreshed. I became anonymous, a person who writes for the love of it. She takes away the motive of praise, & lets me feel that without any praise, I should be content to go on. This is what Duncan said of his painting the other night. I feel as if I slipped off all my ball dresses & stood naked - which as I remember was a very pleasant thing to do. But to go on. Am I writing The Hours from deep emotion? Of course the mad part tries me so much, makes my mind squint so badly that I can hardly face spending the next weeks at it. Its a question though of these characters. People like Arnold Bennett, say I cant create, or didn't in J[acob]'s R[oom], characters that survive. My answer is - but I leave that to the Nation: its only the old argument that character is dissipated into shreds now: the old post-Dostoevsky argument. I daresay its true, however, that I haven't got that 'reality' gift. I insubstantise, wilfully to some extent, distrusting reality - its cheapness. But to get further. Have I the power of conveying the true reality? Or do I write essays about myself? Answer these questions as I may, in the uncomplimentary sense, & still there remains this excitement.

Monday, 15 October 1923
(One of the things I most love about Mrs. Dalloway is the way in which the past seems tangibly present in the current moment - the way time, along with human connection, has a sort of fluidity.)

I wrote the 100th page today. Of course, I've only been feeling my way into it - up till last August anyhow. It took me a year's groping to discover what I call my tunneling process, by which I tell the past by instalments, as I have need of it. This is my prime discovery so far; & the fact that I've been so long finding it, proves, I think, how false Percy Lubbock's doctrine is - that you can do this sort of thing consciously. One feels about in a state of misery - indeed I made up my mind one night to abandon the book - & then one touches the hidden spring. But lor' love me! I've not re-read my great discovery, & it may be nothing important whatsoever. Never mind. I own I have my hopes for this book.

Sunday, 5 August 1924
(This passage makes me think of Clarissa's complaints about not understanding what Richard gets up to in his job. Although Woolf has a direction to her life - "it is a question of work" - which Clarissa may be missing.)

Now its already going, my silver mist, & I don't quite recognise myself of yesterday. L[eonard] has been telling me about Germany, & reparations, how money is paid. Lord what a weak brain I have - like an unused muscle. He talks, & the facts come in, & I can't deal with them. But by dint of very painful brain exercises, perhaps I understand a little more than Nelly of the International situation. And L. understands it all - picks up all these points out of the daily paper absolutely instantly, has them connected, ready to produce. Sometimes I think my brain & his are of different orders. Were it not for my flash of imagination, & this turn for books, I should be a very ordinary woman. No faculty of mine is really very strong. But it is a question of work.

Friday, 15 August 1924
(Basically, I just love the image of a tipsy sailor demanding poetry in front of a pub.)

For I see that Mrs. Dalloway is going to stretch beyond October. In my forecasts I always forgot some most important intervening scenes. I think I can go straight at the grand party & so end; forgetting Septimus, which is a very intense & ticklish business, & jumping Peter Walsh eating his dinner, which may be some obstacle too. But I like going from one lighted room to another, such is my brain to me; lighted rooms; & the walks in the fields are corridors; & now to day I'm lying & thinking. By the way, why is poetry wholly an elderly taste? When I was 20, in spite of Thoby who used to be so pressing & exacting, I could not for the life of me read Shakespeare for pleasure; now it lights me as I walk to think I have 2 acts of King John tonight, & shall next read Richard the 2nd. It is poetry that I want now - long poems...Now its poetry I want, so I repeat like a tipsy sailor in front of a public house.

Friday, 17 October 1924
(This passage reminds me forcibly of the encounter between Clarissa and Peter Walsh when she's mending the dress - "We rambled easily.")

Lytton dined here the other night - a successful evening. Oh I was right to be in love with him 12 or 15 years ago. It is an exquisite symphony his nature when all the violins get playing as they did the other night; so deep, so fantastic. We rambled easily.

See you all back here in a week for Woolf in Winter!


PS - I just realized that I planned so poorly about my essay project - the Woolf posts will all be on Fridays, so I'll try to post about essays on Mondays instead. What a busy reading life!

Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America


The life of turn-of-the-century labor organizer and hell-raiser Mary Harris "Mother" Jones makes for an unusual biography. For one thing, there's almost no documentation on Jones's life until after her sixtieth birthday - an age when many biographies are beginning to wind down, and those on rock stars and Romantic poets have already ended. Jones herself, in her autobiography, devoted only four pages to the first forty years of her life; she continuously sought to downplay the period before she jettisoned her role as a teacher and dressmaker to become "Mother" Jones. For another thing, in the documentation that does exist, fact needs to be teased apart from fiction - and fiction, in turn, must be analyzed to extract the larger metaphorical truth it contains. Mary Jones was a consummate storyteller and a skilled propagandist, and her self-made "Mother Jones" persona was one of her primary tools in her own political campaigns. As Elliott Gorn explains in the introduction to his biography Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America, she crafted her public image carefully and completely, often using embellished or fabricated anecdotes to communicate a larger point:

Her fame began when, toward the end of the nineteenth century, she transformed herself from Mary Jones into Mother Jones. Her new persona was a complex one, infused with overtones of Christian martyrdom and with the suffering of Mother Mary. Perhaps it is best to think of Mother Jones as a character performed by Mary Jones. She exaggerated her age, wore old-fashioned black dresses, and alluded often to her impending demise. By 1900, she had stopped referring to herself as Mary altogether and signed all of her letters "Mother." Soon laborers, union officials, even Presidents of the United States addressed her that way, and they became her "boys."

The persona of Mother Jones freed Mary Jones. Most American women in the early twentieth century were expected to lead quiet, homebound lives for their families; few women found their way onto the public stage. Ironically, by making herself into the symbolic mother of the downtrodden, Mary Jones was able to go where she pleased and speak out on any issue that moved her. She defied social conventions and shattered the limits that confined her by embracing the very role that restricted most women.

This is a fantastic biography. Gorn does a thoughtful, thorough job of addressing Jones's doubleness, and analyzing many of the questions she never wanted to address. How was her political work affected by the heart-wrenching death of her husband and four young children from yellow fever in 1867? What were the atmospheres of famine-era Cork and mid-19th-century Toronto like, and what might Jones have observed there to influence her later outlook? What factors may have caused her militantly anti-middle-class stance, or her tendency to pick fights with her colleagues? On top of these, though, Gorn paints a vivid portrait of the character of Mother Jones - the foul-mouthed, white-haired Irish-American matron who braved armed mine guards, Presidents of the United States, jail cells, hundred-mile marches, and decades of nomadic existence in order to help working-class Americans win such innovations as the weekend, the ten-hour day, and the right to negotiate with owners of capital.

Gorn's tone throughout is respectful, even admiring, but he never seeks to make his subject into a saint. He explores Jones's flaws along with her strengths, details her failures as well as her successes, and calls out her bull whenever he sees it. In the process, he gives a fascinating glimpse into an important period of American labor history, in which unionism was becoming steadily more mainstream. Within Mother Jones's lifetime the labor movement moved away from a radical critique of the capitalist system, and toward a model in which the laborers were merely guaranteed a certain piece of the capitalist pie. Jones's herself believed that workers had a moral right to the products of their own hands; she was a revolutionary, which made the country's trajectory frustrating to her, and caused her to become alienated late in life from many of her former allies. But she was also pragmatic. Never one to hold out for the perfect revolutionary outcome, she understood the value of compromises and took them whenever she felt they would improve quality of life for striking workers.

For a revolutionary and a self-described female hell-raiser, Jones also had some surprisingly conservative philosophies. To me, the most fascinating analysis in Gorn's book has to do with her opposition to female suffrage and other feminist causes such as access to birth control and, amazingly, even the right of women to join unions. At first glance contradictory - how could a woman living such an unusual life be for limiting other womens' options? - her stance makes some sense once Gorn has contextualized it. The entire "Mother Jones" persona was heavily invested in the family model; Jones's idea of an equitable society was one in which women didn't have to work, because their husbands would earn enough to support them and enable them to stay home and raise children. While it ignores the "exceptions to the rule" - those women who don't marry, for example, who are widowed like Jones herself, or who find personal satisfaction in joining the workforce but who would prefer to join it on equal terms with men - Jones's position has a certain logic. The vast majority of examples she saw of women and children working for money, were cases of dire financial necessity. Most working-class women in turn-of-the-century US cities, Jones argued, would have preferred to devote themselves to their "natural" role as full-time caregivers, but couldn't afford to do so because of a system that cheated working-class men out of a living wage.

Likewise, the birth control campaigns of people like Margaret Sanger seemed to Jones dangerous machinations of the capitalist class: convincing women that they should have fewer children would take the onus off the employers and put it instead on the shoulders of working-class women, who would in turn be blamed for struggling to feed large families they had "chosen" to have. Women were naturally maternal, according to Jones, and far from being suppressed, this motherliness should be celebrated. Enacting legislation that encouraged women to be "more like men": voting, joining unions, having fewer children, and so on - would undermine the family model that was a strength of the working class and the source of Mother Jones's own moral authority, and ultimately create a justification for lower pay (since a two-income household has twice as much money coming in, and capitalists would use this to argue that each worker should earn less). Jones also felt that voting was largely meaningless, and that female suffrage would pacify the workers without actually improving their lives or according them more agency.

Reading about Jones's take on the early feminist movement really brought home to me my own middle-class origins. Jones wouldn't have liked me, and despite my admiration for her courage, sharp tongue, and organizing genius, I probably wouldn't have liked her much in person either. Her dismissal of women outside the married-with-children mold is hard for me to stomach (especially as spinsters and widows have traditionally been among the most marginalized groups). On the other hand, Gorn enabled me to grasp Jones's perspective in a truly valuable way. In reading about her initial opposition to child-labor restrictions, for example, I was reminded that sending a son or daughter out to work at thirteen or fourteen was widely accepted at the time, and often made the difference between sufficiency and hunger for working-class families. The push for child-labor restrictions began in the middle class, and the arguments for them were often purely sentimental. Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "The Cry of the Children" and other maudlin poems, for example, circulated in drawing rooms and galvanized committee ladies. Although Mother Jones was certainly not above an assault on the heartstrings herself, she was fundamentally a big-picture pragmatist; I can understand how she would find the well-meaning dilettantism of wealthy women offensive. And it's a sobering fact that this divisiveness still plagues the feminist movement today, with the perspectives of working-class women and women of color often getting excluded from the feminist agenda (leading, in turn, to the rise of Womanism and similar movements). As a middle-class white woman, that's something I could stand to be reminded of more often.

There are so many fascinating angles explored in this book; I couldn't begin to touch on all of them. But I do recommend Mother Jones for an excellent foray into turn-of-the-century labor history and a portrait of one flawed but astounding person within that movement.

(Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America was my first book for the Women Unbound Challenge.)

First Lines


I'm a little late on the "looking back" meme; everyone else has already moved on to looking forward. But I stole this idea from Dorothy over at Of Books and Bicycles, and couldn't bear to let it go: the concept is to post the first lines of one's first posts from every month in the year, as a representation of one's reading year. Mine are:

  • January: I don't read a lot of war literature, so it's noticeable when I'm suddenly experiencing two stories of war back-to-back.
  • February: Michael Newton's Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children was not all I had hoped it would be, which is actually quite fitting.
  • March: In James Wilson's prologue to his excellent history of Native America, The Earth Shall Weep, he discusses the idea of the "Vanishing American," still disturbingly prevalent in white American culture.
  • April: I am strangely and strongly drawn to stories of quarantine.
  • May: Although I have almost zero interest in military strategy, I do believe I would read a biography of Vice Admiral Nelson if Hermione Lee wrote one.
  • June: You know what I realized the other day?
  • July: If I have ever read a book that struck such an elegant balance between philosophical inquiry and sordid fascination with the grotesque as Stephen Asma's Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, I certainly don't remember it.
  • August: I am no foodie.
  • September: We've just returned home from an epic family-reunion-slash-business-trip-slash-cross-country drive, and while it was amazing and encouraging and all things good, I'm SO GLAD to be home.
  • October: 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.
  • November: Believe it or not, I started this little history over a month ago: while I was wading through the viscera of Blood Meridian, I occasionally needed something with which to decompress, to take my mind off the gore and scalpings and other grotesqueries that make up McCarthy's novel.
  • December: By rights, I should have been head over heels for Kobo Abe's The Ark Sakura.

I think my top impression here is that obviously Blood Meridian made a huge impression on me: two different months begin with books I read as counterpoints to McCarthy!

Also, I kind of love my April line.

Also, and not necessarily obvious here, I think my posts have generally become stronger over the course of the year, which is heartening to see. I'm very much looking forward to another year of reading and writing about books!

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography