February 2010 Archives

Commenting Conundrum


Oh, technology.

Guys, I really did try my level best to take away the comments captcha (that little box where you type in letters and numbers). I hear you that it sucks. However, when I take it off and put my spam filtering threshold at "4," I get deluged with 100+ spam messages a day - which, as I'm sure you understand, makes me want to leave the internet, never to return. When I put the threshold at "5," it thinks even I am spam when I try to comment on my own blog. Solutions? Do you find the ReCaptcha boxes less annoying than the standard ones? They seem less "Blair Witch Project" and more "The Prisoner" to me, although I'm not totally sure that's preferable. They also harness the powers of commenting for the good of humanity, by helping to digitize books and newspapers. Which is pretty cool, I think.

For now, we are putting ReCaptcha on in lieu of the old one, and I sincerely apologize to those of you who find it frustrating. Of the options I'm familiar with, I think it's the best compromise for now, but I'm open to suggestions! Although not to the idea of requiring sign-in with OpenID, which I hate with a fiery passion. Nor to the idea of converting to WordPress. So, I guess I'm somewhat open to suggestions. :-)


Photo "frustration" courtesy of:

The Waves


The Waves is one of the only Woolf novels for which I feel more detached appreciation than visceral enjoyment. This experiment in abstract character study, tracing the inner lives of six friends from childhood to death through the use of extended inner monologues intercut with third-person descriptions of the sun rising and setting over an ocean vista, is certainly fascinating, but it doesn't set my heart soaring like Mrs. Dalloway, nor does it tickle me like Orlando. It's a dense, quiet read, a sort of book-length expansion of the "Time Passes" section in To the Lighthouse, which implies through its narrative technique that people, along with sun and sea, are part of the continual ebb and flow of the natural world, however much they may tell themselves otherwise.

And whereas my favorite Woolf books often celebrate the transcendent moments of communion between people—difficult, fleeting, imperfect as they often are—it always strikes me that The Waves dwells instead on the ways in which we are all separate, remote. For despite the author's chosen narrative method—long inner soliloquies that begin "'.....,' said Bernard," or "'.....,' said Rhoda"—the characters almost never reply or react to one another. They are "saying" these things in some semi- or sub-conscious level of their beings, a level to which none of their friends have access, and couldn't, perhaps, understand, even if they did. They are "saying" them into the void. A far cry, this, from the ease with which Clarissa and Peter move in and out of each others' thoughts in Mrs. Dalloway. With Bernard (the phrase-making extrovert), Susan (the solitary naturalist), Rhoda (the depressive fantasist), Neville (the intellectual purist), Louis (the snobbish mogul), and Jinny (the sensualist) we have six tracks of thought and sensation moving parallel, seeing at times the same events from different angles, observing the exteriors of the speaker's friends, but almost never coming into actual contact with one of the other trains of thought. Even the extroverted Bernard, who needs the company of other people in order to come fully into his own, is only using others in the service of his own self-realization; he's not actually connecting with the cores of their beings, and his story-telling is an attempt to impose order on the world around him, more than to empathize with others.

I wish then after this somnolence to sparkle, many-faceted under the light of my friends' faces. I have been traversing the sunless territory of non-identity. A strange land. I have heard in my moment of appeasement, in my moment of obliterating satisfaction, the sigh, as it goes in, comes out, of the tide that draws beyond this circle of bright light, this drumming of insensate fury. I have had one moment of enormous peace. This is perhaps happiness. Now I am drawn back by pricking sensations; by curiosity, greed (I am hungry) and the irresistible desire to be myself. I think of people to whom I could say things: Louis; Neville; Susan; Jinny and Rhoda. With them I am many-sided. They retrieve me from darkness. We shall meet tonight, thank Heaven. Thank Heaven, I need not be alone.

It's a lonely vision, I must say. Because despite Bernard's thanks to Heaven that he need not be alone, these characters are profoundly isolated from one another. And although I relate to its "We perished, each alone" ethos to some degree (I believe there are things we must all face alone), I miss the flashes of soul-deep connection that happen in other Woolf novels. Even those characters who crave solitude over company have a certain manic insecurity about their existences. Neville, the serial monogamist, lives in constant fear of abandonment by his lover du jour (openly portrayed as men, by the by). Louis must prove himself better than the Brits who may or may not be sneering at his Australian accent. Rhoda lives in terror and awe of the worlds conjured by her imagination. Only Susan, who finds a soulful connection with the natural world and in the process of childbearing and mothering, seems in any sense at peace to me.

I go then to the cupboard, and take the damp bags of rich sultanas; I lift the heavy flour on to the clean scrubbed kitchen table. I knead; I stretch; I pull, plunging my hands in the warm inwards of the dough. I let the cold water stream fanwise through my fingers. The fire roars; the flies buzz in a circle. All my currants and rices, the silver bags and the blue bags, are locked again in the cupboard. The meat is stood in the oven; the bread rises in a soft dome under the clean towel. I walk in the afternoon down to the river. All the world is breeding. The flies are going from grass to grass. The flowers are thick with pollen. The swans ride the stream in order. The clouds warm now, sun-spotted, sweep over the hills, leaving gold in the water, and gold on the necks of the swans.

This intrigues me, because, from what I know of her biography, Susan and Louis are probably the characters who overlap the least with Woolf's own experience. Susan lives the kind of traditional, pastoral life that her author, who lived amongst bohemians, never had children, and got intensely restless for London whenever her husband attempted to spirit her away to the countryside, did her best to escape. Perhaps, in Susan's contentment, Woolf is romanticizing the path not taken? Perhaps that romanticization is also behind the role of Percival, the bluff, popular, unintelligent Son of Britain who inspires the love of all six friends before sailing off to India in service of the Empire, and dying suddenly when thrown from his horse? Percival (named in the heroic tradition of Perceval/Parzival) is perceived by all four friends as a hero, and inspires disquieting imperialist dreams in them despite their simultaneous contempt for his lack of intelligence:

I see India [...] Over all broods a sense of the uselessness of human exertion. There are strange sour smells. An old man in a ditch continues to chew betel and to contemplate his navel. But now, behold, Percival advances; Percival rides a flea-bitten mare, and wears a sun-helmet. By applying the standards of the West, by using the violent language that is natural to him, the bullock-cart is righted in less than five minutes. The Oriental problem is solved. He rides on; the multitude cluster around him, regarding him as if he were—what indeed he is—a God.

Woolf does sometimes display the casual racism of her time, but I don't think she goes so far as endorsing Bernard in this little white-supremacist fantasy of his. I think she's portraying Percival as the morally questionable glue that holds the friends together, the traditional lunk whose presence lulls those benefiting by the British Empire into comfort and security. The characters make him into a conquering hero in their minds, but after his pointless death (as after the First World War, caused in part by imperialist in-fighting, destroyed Woolf's generation's confidence in pre-War institutions), they are cast adrift on their own reconnaissance. As Neville says, "without Percival there is no solidity. We are silhouettes, hollow phantoms moving mistily without a background."

Which goes a long way toward describing The Waves in general. Beautifully realized, eloquent as Woolf's prose is, it illuminates the psychology of an unmoored and anxious time, in which one set of standards had been proved false, and another set had yet to be found. And a time in which, nevertheless, people continued living much as before - either because they clung to the old dreams (Susan fantasizes about her own sons going to India) or because, as the pounding waves would seem to indicate, human ways of life are dictated by natural rhythms, leaving very little to individual choice. It's not that I necessarily disagree with this observation (although I don't go as far as Woolf with it), but that, unmitigated by moments of genuine human connection, it no longer feels true to my reality. Needless to say, were I recovering from a brutal World War only to witness the rise of Fascist and Communist totalitarianism across Europe, accompanied by a global economic meltdown, I might feel differently.


This is the final installment of Woolf in Winter, hosted by the lovely Claire of kiss a cloud. Be sure to stop by everyone else's posts for more takes on The Waves. And a big thanks to Claire and my other co-hosts Sarah and Frances, as well as to everyone who read along with us! It's been very special to me to share a reading of Woolf with such a large and varied group of people.

Essay Mondays: Stevenson


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

A week or so ago, Amateur Reader ventured the bold opinion that Robert Louis Stevenson was "the best writer of familiar essays in English since Lamb and Hazlitt." Having sampled some of Stevenson's essays via Lopate's collection, and based on admittedly small samples of all three writers, I think that I personally like him substantially better than Hazlitt, and as well as Lamb.

I can see more of a connection between Lamb and Stevenson than mere quality, actually: both men seem particularly to shine when they are showcasing their tender, nostalgic sides; both are excellent story-tellers; and both write a prose that is deliciously rich and textured, almost chewy in the mouth when read aloud:

There are mingled some dismal memories with so many that were joyous. Of the fisher-wife, for instance, who had cut her throat at Canty Bay; and of how I ran with the other children to the top of the Quadrant, and beheld a posse of silent people escorting a cart, and on the cart, bound in a chair, her throat bandaged, and the bandage all bloody—horror!—the fisher-wife herself, who continued henceforth to hag-ride my thoughts, and even today (as I recall the scene) darkens daylight. She was lodged in the little old jail in the chief street; but whether or no she died there, with a wise terror of the worst, I never inquired. She had been tippling; it was but a dingy tragedy; and it seems strange and hard that, after all these years, the poor crazy sinner should be still pilloried on her cart in the scrap-book of my memory.

Stevenson makes such infectious use of rhythm and alliteration ("henceforth to hag-ride my thoughts"; "cut her throat at Canty Bay"; with a wise terror of the worst") that at times his prose seems song-like—particularly apropos given the content of this scene, which strikes me as ripe for adaptation into a popular ballad.

The passage above is from "The Lantern-Bearers," to which I'm indebted for more than an enjoyable reminiscence of tragedies witnessed in childhood. Stevenson opens by conjuring an extended account of boyhood summers spent in a village by the sea, including certain childish rituals steeped, at the time, in romance and illicit excitement, however silly and pedestrian they may have seemed from an adult perspective. He then goes on to use this anecdote as a metaphor for truth in storytelling, arguing that so-called realist literature gets things wrong when it tries to portray "regular people" as devoid of any poetry or joie de vivre. We cannot tell from external appearances, he argues, what store of inner passion and joy a person holds at their heart; and yet, this hidden, invisible store of "personal poetry" is often the most crucial core of their psychology. He argues that to portray as utterly commonplace the most mundane-seeming person, even in the name of "realism," is actually to descend into the deepest UNreality, since it is to miss that spark of poetry that characterizes human existence.

Whitman knew very well, and showed very nobly, that the average man was full of joys and full of poetry of his own. And this harping on life's dulness and man's meanness is a loud profession of incompetence; it is one of two things: the cry of the blind eye, I cannot see, or the complaint of the dumb tongue, I cannot utter. To draw a life without delights is to prove I have not realised it. To picture a man without some sort of poetry—well, it goes near to prove my case, for it shows an author may have little enough.


For, to repeat, the ground of a man's joy is often hard to hit. It may hinge at times upon a mere accessory, like the lantern, it may reside, like Dancer's, in the mysterious inwards of psychology. It may consist with perpetual failure, and find exercise in the continued chase. It has so little bond with externals (such as the observer scribbles in his note-book) that it may even touch them not; and the man's true life, for which he consents to live, lie altogether in the field of fancy.

"THANK you, Mr. Stevenson!" I was thinking, as I read these passages. For "The Lantern-Bearers" gets at something I've been trying to articulate over the course of the past year, in particular about Sister Carrie and The Good Earth, but which Stevenson realizes much more elegantly. I agree with him: it is condescending and yes, even anti-realistic, for an author to portray a human who seems to have no imagination or remarkable inner life at all, and claim that this character is painted in this way because they are an "average person." The author, presumably, has both imagination and individual psychology, but argues that this is because she is of the "artistic temperament," and either more intelligent or otherwise different than the "average" person, who exists on a purely materialist plain. Stevenson, along with many of my favorite writers, argues that this is nonsense: that everyone has an inner life, everyone bathes some aspect of their existence in poetry, and we certainly should not dismiss that reality just because we can't tell by looking at a given person what their passion might be. Not only that, but a truly realistic portrayal of a human will shed light on her "personal poetry," along with the external realities of her existence.

This is why, I think, despite the very materially "realist" tendencies of Buck and Dreiser, I found all the characters in The Good Earth and Sister Carrie unconvincing: they are there to demonstrate facets of their environment, ways of life, external comings and goings. They are there to react to external stimuli. But, to quote Gertrude Stein, there is no there there - the characters' inner lives, if portrayed at all, are completely predictable, materialistic, and devoid of any idiosyncrasy. I have never known a human being like this except in novels of a specific kind, and would therefore contest the idea that they are "average" in any reasonable sense of the word. I don't know that I go quite so far as Stevenson: I don't think the inner spark must necessarily be one of delight, and I certainly wouldn't accuse all realist novels of falling prey to this problem of characterization. I would tend to agree, however, that attempting to access a character's personal source of poetry, however skewed or sick that source might be, is key in achieving "realism" in their development.

Up next week: We arrive at the fin de siècle and early twentieth century, with Max Beerbohm and G.K. Chesterton.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

Hopscotch: The Wacky Structure


In case you're just joining in, I'm spending this week writing about Julio Cortázar's experimental 1963 novel Hopscotch. For an idea of what I loved and hated in the book, please visit my posts from Tuesday and Thursday. On Tuesday I also summarized the novel's unique structure (I think this is the first time I've ever quoted myself on my own blog!):

Cortázar offers his readers two choices of how to read his book: you can start at Chapter 1 and progress as normal to Chapter 56, stopping there and discarding the final 200 pages of the book (which contain Chapters 57-155, the "expendable" chapters). Or, you can follow a leap-frogging list that begins with Chapter 73, progresses to Chapter 1, and continues vaulting back and forth between the necessary and expendable sections until you've eventually read the entire book...or have you?

Which leads us to today's topic:

3. Effects of the Narrative Structure

I didn't want to write a Hopscotch review that ignored the psychological effects of zig-zagging through a text according to an unpredictable, non-linear program. The first thing I noticed was that flipping through the book after every chapter (and many chapters are quite short) obviously disrupts the reading experience. It's more difficult to get into the swing of things if one is constantly paging around, which makes Cortázar's occasional longer chapters, with their concentrated bursts of narrative brilliance, that much more striking. On the flip side, finding a new location after almost every chapter also forces the reader to pause for a few seconds and think about the chapter she's just read. As I spent more time with Hopscotch, I came to an appreciation of this built-in period of contemplation. I found myself thinking about connections I might not have considered without the break, which made me a more female—excuse me, I mean ACTIVE—reader.

After I'd been reading a while, two more things hit me: constantly paging back and forth means both that the reader has no idea how far along she is in the novel, and that, insofar as normal "book time" still exists within the first 56 chapters, it moves incredibly slowly. For every ten pages one moves forward in Chapters 1-56, after all, one actually reads twenty. The end effect combines a feeling of frenetic back-and-forth with the sensation of impossibly slow-motion movement, like in those dreams where you're attempting to run against a tremendous, invisible resistance. Not only that, but the reader has little concept of event sequences. In most books, I can read a scene that reminds me of another passage earlier in the novel, think to myself "Oh, that was about 50 pages ago," or "Oh, that was before X event and before Y," and locate it successfully. In Hopscotch I found myself taking copious notes in the back of the book, cataloging all the passages I loved and hated, out of the fear that if I didn't note them down I would likely never be able to find them again. It strikes me that this effect also mirrors the world of dreams, in which locations and events switch places or fail to turn up where they ought to be, and time plays tricks on the dreamer.

So too, the book messes with our sense of completeness: usually, one reads every page in a book, starting with the first and ending with the last--after which, one has read the whole thing. According to Cortázar's schema, though, there could easily be a chapter adrift in the text, unconnected with the overarching order of chapters, and the reader wouldn't necessarily realize she'd missed anything. In fact, that chapter is #55. If you're not paying attention (or insufficiently compulsive), and you're reading the "hopscotching" version of the book, you will miss Chapter 55 completely. Given the novel's preoccupation with Oliveira's and La Maga's compulsions, it's undeniably clever, if arguably obnoxious, of Cortázar to replicate the same behaviors in his readers.

Cortázar also uses his non-linearity to mimic psychological states in his characters and readers. Take Horacio's reaction to the disaster that befalls La Maga: leading up to the event, the chapters alternate fairly regularly, with one or two "expendable" chapters for every one "regular" chapter. There is then a long (and extremely uncomfortable) "regular" chapter (#28), followed by a barrage of 22 "expendable" chapters that send the reader flying back and forth between #154 and #63 before finally returning to #29. Similarly, within the narrative at that point, Horacio himself abandons La Maga to go on a week-long bender, and our "return" to Chapter 29 coincides with Horacio's return to their erstwhile apartment.

Similarly, Cortázar uses the structure to deprive the reader of any definitive "ending" to the novel. Normally, one can't help but privilege the final line of a book: it's the last, strongest impression, the one we remember as we walk away. But in the case of Hopscotch, where should that privilege settle? On the final page of the physical book, which one reads when one is only about halfway done? With the final page of Chapter 56, which ends the standard chapters? Or with the infinite recursive loop between Chapters 58 and 131, which ends the hopscotching version of the book? I admire Cortázar's commitment to exploring all the possibilities of this new format he invented, even if I wouldn't want to adopt it as the new default.

Some people (frustrated by the stoned high-school student sections I wrote about on Thursday) recommend taking Cortázar's first recommendation on reading this book over his second: to read only the standard chapters, skipping the expendable chapters and the more experimental hopscotching chronology. I disagree. They're often irritating, but in the end I found that Cortázar's odd structural choices really did enforce and deepen my experience of his novel's themes. The "adrift" Chapter 55 alone, when compared with the more fleshed-out version of the same events one gets in the expanded version, convinced me that I made the right choice, at least for myself.

And in the end...

After all that, I really have no summation to offer. The disappointing things in this novel did not cancel out the inspiring things, nor did the fascinating things make up for the offensive things. Obviously, I needed to spend an entire week of blogging to fully appreciate, exorcise, and process the reading of this book, and I will say this: it was unforgettable.

Hopscotch: Bores and Offenses


On Tuesday I talked about the things that delighted and inspired me in Julio Cortázar's experimental novel Hopscotch. Today we're moving on to the second, less savory portion of the program:

2. Things that Bored and Offended Me

I know we're dealing with South American Lit from the 1960s here, but Cortázar's level of animosity toward women in this novel really got to me. Not only is La Maga the stereotype of the ignorant/uneducated yet "intuitive" female (dear lord, if I never read another example of "I swim in the river / she IS the river," bullshit, I will die happy). Not only does the most interesting woman in the book gain her author's approval by ridiculing other, "normal" females for her husband's voyeuristic pleasure as he hides in the closet. Not only that, but through Morelli we are introduced to the concept of the undesirable "female-reader," the lazy person who doesn't want to do any work while reading:

...the type that doesn't want any problems, but rather solutions, or false and alien problems that will allow him to suffer comfortably seated in his chair, without compromising himself in the drama that should also be his.

Okay! Fuck you too, Julio.

It's only fair to remark that the hypothetical "female-reader" seems actually to be male, but a male who is inappropriately effeminate (by which Cortázar seems to mean passive, rather than active) in his approach to reading and literature. I'm not sure if that makes it better or worse. The idea that women are all right as long as they act like one of the boys is mirrored elsewhere in Hopscotch, so it makes a perverse kind of sense that men would only be acceptable as long as they don't act like women. I might go so far as to point out that using a word like "female" when what you really mean is "lazy" or "passive" is a pretty lazy lingual trick in itself, although I'm not sure how Spanish-to-English translation may have affected the "female-reader" term. I assume, however, that the "female" portion of it was not invented by the translator out of whole cloth.

Even more disturbing, there are a number of passages that seem either to make light of, or to actually praise, rape and sexual abuse. In one scene, Club member Ossip badgers La Maga into telling him about her early life in Montevideo, including a grisly rape. She doesn't want to talk about it, but eventually acquiesces - after which, club members make fun of how she "always" tells the story, belittle the seriousness of the experience, and offer joking compliments to the rapist ("That Negro was quite a guy."). (And yes, the depiction of the rape also struck me as fairly racist, incorporating the tired stereotype of the drooling, animalistic black man living in squalor and attacking an innocent, pubescent white girl.) Later on, the narrator speaks of La Maga's rapist having "dirtied and exalted" her body. Let's be clear, people: rape does not "exalt" anybody or anything. And that's not even to mention the scene in which Oliveira feels all proud of himself for "mistreating" and objectifying La Maga while having sex with her, and worries that as a result she will feel for him "that most subtle form of gratitude which turns to doglike love." This scene also features the cringe-worthy phrase "that ultimate work of knowledge which only a man can give to a woman" - which refers, nonsensically enough, to cunnilingus. Um. Dude is bohemian, but apparently not quite bohemian enough.

The narrator's/author's relationship to the characters is uneasy, and he definitely doesn't condone all their actions or attitudes. Oliveira is firmly an antihero, not a hero. However, even if half the misogyny in the novel can be passed off as thoughtful commentary on Horacio's machismo, what remains still goes beyond the normal range of casual sexism I'm ready to overlook on the basis of cultural differences. Although I hardly ever stop reading a book partway through, it grossed me out enough that I considered not reading any further. Overall I'm glad I continued; toward the end, the Talita character even began to recoup some of the respect I lost for Cortázar during the first three quarters of the book. Still, these attitudes severely tarnished my enjoyment of the novel as a whole, and Talita's assertions that she's "nobody's zombie" were, in my opinion, too little, too late.


My other main complaint is that, while much of Cortázar's narration is riveting, he does sometimes cross a line into sophomoric pseudo-intellectualism reminiscent of a stoned high-school student. To wit:

And Time? Everything begins again, there is no absolute. Then there must be feed or feces, everything becomes critical again. Desire every so often, never too different and always something else: a trick of time to create illusions. 'A love like a fire which burns eternally in the contemplation of Totality.'"

Duuuude...turn up the Zappa and pass that j!

Sometimes this kind of thing is present intentionally, to demonstrate Oliveira's pretension or intoxication, but at other times it seems sincere - and goes on, I might add, for pages and pages at a time. I think the problem is that there's a lot of Cortázar in Oliveira and Morelli. So while Cortázar is sometimes showing Oliveira/Morelli as a sophomoric windbag, at other times Cortázar himself is a sophomoric windbag. It's that much more painful because there's tangible evidence, sometimes on the previous PAGE, that the guy is a creative genius when he wants to be. Does he include all the faux philosophizing as the dreck that will make his gem-like narrative chapters shine all the brighter? If so, I hardly think it was necessary.

Up on Saturday: my thoughts on just what Cortázar's strange structural experiments do for his book as a whole (in which I return, in some degree, to being complimentary).

Hopscotch: Delights and Inspirations


Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch has only the most skeletal of plots: Argentine writer and pretentious blowhard Horacio Oliveira lives in Paris with his lover La Maga, drinking and listening to old jazz records with a group of bohemian friends who call themselves The Club, and who are collectively fascinated with the obscure and pedantic Italian writer Morelli. Something disastrous happens to La Maga; she disappears; Oliveira returns to Argentina and has further adventures with his frenemy Traveler and Traveler's wife Talita. That's it, really, but Hopscotch's real claim to fame is its unusual structure. Cortázar offers his readers two choices of how to read his book: you can start at Chapter 1 and progress as normal to Chapter 56, stopping there and discarding the final 200 pages of the book (which contain Chapters 57-155, the "expendable" chapters). Or, you can follow a leap-frogging list that begins with Chapter 73, progresses to Chapter 1, and continues vaulting back and forth between the necessary and expendable sections until you've eventually read the entire book...or have you? (I read it according to the second, "hopscotching" method.)

Hopscotch was an extremely complex and contradictory reading experience for me. So much so, actually, that my so-called "review" grew to an unacceptably epic length, and I decided to split it into three separate posts. Thus, this week at Evening All Afternoon will be all Cortázar, all the time. I thought about pruning, but I really do feel the genuine need to write about all three of these topics, if only to get them out of my system. Hopefully at least Sarah, my one blog friend I know for sure has read this book, will find such an extended bout of Cortázar interesting, and hopefully the rest of you won't give me up in disgust. So here we go. I'm starting with the good, progressing to the bad, and ending up with the wacky.

1. Things that Inspired and Delighted Me

By far, the highlights of Hopscotch for me were the scenes in which Cortázar deals with music, compulsiveness, and the absurd. The Club's late-night blues-listening sessions were a special treat for me personally, as early blues (Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith) are one of my own favorite musical genres, and I hardly ever get to read such lively prose involving them. Cortázar's descriptions of the smoky, boozy Paris apartment where the Club talks and listens to scratchy records into the wee hours reminded me a bit of Kerouac's late-night bop passages, except that I liked Cortázar's much better.

But it was Cortázar's depiction of the absurd avant-garde piano concert Oliveira stumbles into that really impressed me. Only in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled have I come across such a lusty portrayal of modern "art" music--one that may revel in the absurdity of a particular performance, but still holds the concept of experimental classical/art music to have power. I love how Oliveira's irony and odd sincerity are woven together, in this passage, with the exodus of the other concert-goers and the manic desperation of pianist Berthe Trépat; it's masterfully done. [Alix Alix is the ostensible composer of the piece.]

In the two or three minutes that followed, Oliveira had some trouble in dividing his attention between the extraordinary stew that Berthe Trépat was boiling up at full steam and the furtive or forthright way in which young and old were leaving the concert. A mixture of Liszt and Rachmaninoff, the Pavan was the tiresome repetition of two or three themes which then got lost in innumerable variations, bits of bravura (rather poorly played, with holes and stitching everywhere) and the solemnities of a catafalque upon a caisson, broken by the sudden fireworks which seemed to delight the mysterious Alix Alix. Once or twice Oliveira was worried that the towering Salammbô hairdo of Berthe Trépat would suddenly collapse, but who knows how many hairpins were reinforcing it, amidst the rumble and tumble of the Pavan. The orgiastic arpeggios which announced the end came on, and three themes were successively repeated (one of which had been lifted bodily from Strauss's Don Juan), and Berthe Trépat let the chords rain down with growing intensity, modified by the hysterical repetition of the first theme and two chords composed of the gravest notes, the last of which came out markedly false for the right hand, but it was something that could happen to anyone and Oliveira applauded warmly; he had really enjoyed it.

When Cortázar gets into full story-telling mode, his prose is crisp and his sense of humor wicked. His longer chapters tended to be my favorites for this reason: given time to build up the absurdity of his situations and the strength of his narrative voice, he invariably left me in stitches. I have so many favorite scenes in this regard: the extended piano recital and subsequent walk home in the rain; the scene in which Horacio and Traveler build a plank "bridge" across the alley separating their apartment buildings; the several "expendable" chapters in which Traveler and Talita get hysterical over a book of crackpot political science; the early OCD-esque scene in which Oliveira tells us that he always feels compelled to personally pick up anything he drops or "something terrible will happen" to a person he loves whose name begins with the same letter as the dropped object (followed by a gut-busting account of dropping a sugar cube in a restaurant). Only occasionally did I feel like Cortázar was overdoing the absurdism; in his narrative chapters he generally strikes just that hard-to-achieve balance of hilarity and cohesion. In this passage, for example, Horacio, back in Argentina, has become unaccountably obsessed with the idea of straightening out a bunch of bent nails in the sweltering afternoon sun.

"God, it's cold," Oliveira said to himself, because he was a great believer in autosuggestion. Sweat was pouring over his eyes out of his hair and it was impossible to hold a nail with the hump up because the lightest blow of the hammer would make it slip out of his fingers which were all wet (from the cold) and the nail would pinch him again and he would mash his fingers (from the cold). To make things worse, the sun had begun to shine with full force into the room (it was the moon on snow-covered steppes, and he whistled to goad the horses pulling against their harnesses), by three o'clock the whole place was covered with snow, he would let himself freeze until he got to that sleepy state described so well and maybe even brought about in Slavic stories, and his body would be entombed in the man-killing whiteness of the livid flowers of space. That was pretty good: the livid flowers of space. Right then he hit himself full on the thumb with the hammer. The coldness that had got into him was so intense that he had to roll around on the ground in an attempt to fight off the stiffness that was coming on him from the fact that he was freezing up. When he managed to sit upright waving his hand around, he was wet from head to toe, probably from the melting snow or from that light drizzle that was mingling with the livid flowers of space and refreshed the wolves as it fell on their fur.

I mean, brilliant, right? The way his mind plays with itself and revises its jokes and those revisions are intermingled with and affected by his physical environment. Delicious.

And, of course, I loved Cortázar's unremitting experimentalism. He really is a stylistic master; in addition to the obvious structural oddness of Hopscotch there is a chapter which gives us interposed lines of text as Horacio tries to read a book while his mind is on other things; an "erotic" chapter told in a nonsense language invented by La Maga; exuberant alternation among various first- and third-person points of view; and much more. Of all these things, I could not get enough.

Up on Thursday: My thoughts on those aspects of Hopscotch I would have gladly done without, and which in fact almost stopped me from finishing the book.

Essay Mondays: Lamb


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

I tend to have a hard time with the poets of the era, so I was delighted to discover that I like Romantic essayist Charles Lamb quite a lot. From my brief introduction at the hands of Lopate, it seems like the personal essay form provides a quotidian counterpoint to the Romantic Sturm und Drang, and the inclusion of personal experience adds believability to the sentimentality I find so cloying in pieces like Wordsworth's "The Ruined Cottage." Maybe, in the essay, I've finally found a form in which I can enjoy Romanticism!

Lamb writes in a deliberately anachronistic style, and at first I found his "thee"s and "thou"s a bit affected. In remarkably short order, though, I stopped being bothered by his quirks, and started noticing the richness and satisfying texture of his prose. It's a style that lends itself to reading aloud, and I can understand why so many 19th and early 20th century writers reported circling the family around the roaring fire of an evening and reading from Lamb's collected works.

Then I told what a tall, upright, graceful person their great-grandmother Field once was; and how in her youth she was esteemed the best dancer—here Alice's little right foot played an involuntary movement, till upon my looking grave, it desisted—the best dancer, I was saying, in the country, till a cruel disease, called a cancer, came, and bowed her down with pain; but it could never bend her good spirits, or make them stoop, but they were still upright, because she was so good and religious. Then I told how she was used to sleep by herself in a lone chamber of the great lone house; and how she believed that an apparition of two infants was to be seen at midnight gliding up and down the great staircase near where she slept, but she said "those innocents would do her no harm;" and how frightened I used to be, though in those days I had my maid to sleep with me, because I was never half so good or religious as she—and yet I never saw the infants. Here John expanded all his eye-brows and tried to look courageous.

The above passage is from Lamb's "Dream Children: A Reverie," which is the only Lamb essay I'd read before, and such a striking and poignant piece. I would almost call it more of a "story" than an "essay," because of a certain narrative trick toward the end and the dramatic irony that creates throughout the whole essay, but whatever it is, I loved it. Lamb captures the rhythm of the fond yet melancholy father reminiscing to his eager children, and the vivid, everyday quality of their little gestures—the tapping foot, the attempt at a brave face—as they listen to his tale. His repetition of long sentences beginning with "Then I told..." create a rhythm that's almost like an incantation, mirroring the trance that good storytelling can create.

Reading these essays on the heels of so much Virginia Woolf, I'm reminded that Woolf was a big fan of Lamb's, and indeed I can see his influence even in this short selection. In particular, the long, astute sentences, carefully controlled with dashes and semicolons, look forward to her style. And the structure of "Dream Children: A Reverie" anticipates the Modernists' experimentation with point-of-view and the psychological novel. Lamb's remembered reactions to the death of a beloved uncle actually remind me a lot of Proust: how the emotions after a death never come when and how one expects them, but ambush one in odd and devastating ways.

...and how when he died, though he had not been dead an hour, it seemed as if he had died a great while ago, such a distance there is betwixt life and death; and how I bore his death as I thought pretty well at first, but afterwards it haunted and haunted me; and though I did not cry or take it to heart as some do, and I think he would have done if I had died, yet I missed him all day long, and knew not till then how much I had loved him.

I'm glad to have finally sampled the work of an essayist about whom I've heard so much, and I might just seek out a fuller picture of Lamb in the future.

Up next week: we're rocketing toward the Victorian Age, with two essays by William Hazlitt and two by Robert Louis Stevenson.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:



Forgive me, my Woolf in Winter friends: I must admit that I did not actually re-read Orlando with you over the course of the past two weeks. I am currently fighting hip-deep through the wilds of Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch; as delightful as I knew Woolf would be, I feared that if I once turned away from Cortázar he would blindside me with a cleverly-aimed exhalation from his ever-present Gauloise and I would be turned to stone. Or at least to a stylishly pretentious 1960s hipster. You can understand why I would want to avoid that risk at any cost. HOWEVER. Never fear, because the day I am no longer able to write about Orlando is the day you should all break into my house and cart me off to the old folks' home.

Woolf wrote this novel as a break from more serious endeavors, and as a kind of love-letter to or mock biography of her sometime-lover Vita Sackville-West, whose family, like Orlando's, could date their genteel pedigree back to the days of Shakespeare, and who, like Orlando, had a passionate attachment to her family home (which she, being female, could not inherit). One of my favorite, favorite things about this novel is the way in which it transformed a passing infatuation, waning even as Woolf worked on this manuscript, into a vibrant, funny creative project. The end result is a sort-of-novel that doesn't offer up easy answers to the problem of loving another person or that of making art, but which manages to be delightful and playfully satirical while also, this being Woolf, incorporating a good deal of depth, and playing on themes of artistic androgyny that she develops more seriously in A Room of One's Own. Were I to receive such a love letter? I would be putty in the sender's hands. (In fact, Orlando was pretty central to my courtship with my own partner, and a model for our own humble attempts at cooperative art projects.)

She was certainly feeling more herself. Her finger had not tingled once, or nothing to count, since that night on the moor. Yet, she could not deny that she had her doubts. She was married, true; but if one's husband was always sailing round Cape Horn, was it marriage? if one liked him, was it marriage? If one liked other people, was it marriage? And finally, if one still wished, more than anything in the whole world, to write poetry, was it marriage? She had her doubts.

One of the things that strikes me, thinking about Orlando on the heels of the Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse readalongs, is Woolf's relative patriotism in this novel. Throughout her works she is critical of the British Empire for its cost in human life abroad (Septimus Smith) and of English society in general for its repressiveness ("women can't write, women can't paint"; William Bradshaw's goddess of Conversion). And yet, as Peter Walsh notes, even in people who actively dislike Empire, "there were moments...of pride in England." While she continues to poke fun at the ridiculousness of Britishness in Orlando, Woolf's lighter tone and farcical approach allow her to portray her country more as one would the foibles of an exasperating yet beloved great-aunt, and less in a mood of white-hot rage or tragedy. The character Orlando, after all, is an embodiment of the "spirit of the age" in Britain, and Woolf can't be in enamored of Orlando without feeling some tenderness toward the country - even in its most Victorian stages.

Once there, she followed what had now become the most imperious need of her nature and wrapped herself as well as she could in a damask quilt which she snatched from her bed. She explained to the Widow Bartholomew (who had succeeded good old Grimsditch as housekeeper) that she felt chilly.

        "So do we all, m'lady," said the Widow, heaving a profound sigh. "The walls is sweating," she said, with a curious, lugubrious complacency, and sure enough, she had only to lay her hand on the oak panels for the fingerprints to be marked there. The ivy had grown so profusely that many windows were now sealed up. The kitchen was so dark that they could scarcely tell a kettle from a cullender. A poor black cat had been mistaken for coals and shovelled on the fire. Most of the maids were already wearing three or four red-flannel petticoats, though the month was August.

I love the fantastical and hilarious way in which Woolf has even Orlando's physical surroundings mirror the "spirit of the age" (whatever age s/he might be living through at the moment). In the Great Freeze of Elizabethan England we get carnivalesque scenes of apple-sellers completely frozen in the ice; the diplomatic seventeenth century brings tent-labyrinths with endless cups of strong coffee; the Romantic era sets the reader adrift in lightning storms and wind-wracked forests; the nineteenth century is ushered in with an monumental, over-decorated monstrosity and an oddly pervasive foggy chill. Orlando and the other characters are swept along irresistibly with the changing zeitgeist, and I laugh out loud every time I read the distressingly fast-forwarded transition from the freewheeling eighteenth century to the damp, dark nineteenth. All representations are caricatures, of course, but they're lovingly crafted and well-realized to a fault.

And then there's the brilliant character of Nick Greene, who spends eternity lamenting the fall of "modern literature" from its glory days--usually located a few centuries before his current diatribe, whenever that might happen to be. From a penniless Elizabethan playwright complaining of pains in his back, running down Shakespeare for a money-grubbing hack, and mocking Orlando's poetry in print in order to make a quick pound, he evolves into "the most influential critic of the Victorian age." Orlando, however, somehow prefers his earlier, less respectable incarnation, gossiping about poets and pressing Orlando for a pension, paid quarterly:

There was one knob about the third from the top which burnt like fire; another about the second from the bottom which was cold as ice. Sometimes he woke with a brain like lead; at others it was as if a thousand wax tapers were alight and people were throwing fireworks inside him. He could feel a rose leaf through his mattress, he said; and knew his way almost about London by the feel of the cobbles. Altogether he was a piece of machinery so finely made and so curiously put together (here he raised his hand as if unconsciously and indeed, it was of the finest shape imaginable) that it confounded him to think that he had only sold five hundred copies of his poem, but that of course was largely due to the conspiracy against him. All he could say, he concluded, banging his fist upon the table, was that the art of poetry was dead in England.

I must admit that the semi-personal nature of Orlando does lead to some flaws as well as delights. At times it feels in-jokey, too self-consciously clever, and the overwhelming Britishness of it can get to seem like a bit much for those who aren't, like me, firm Anglophiles. It also has that awkward trait in which white authors attempt to depict non-white people sympathetically and end up othering them in a somewhat cringe-worthy way (although, I do like the moment when the gypsy leader tells Orlando that he won't hold her father's Dukedom against her). Despite these drawbacks, though, this novel has a warm place in my heart, and I look forward to many re-reads, even if I must now plough on with Cortázar. Onward!

(If you loved the atmospheric lyricism of Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, consider joining us for the final Woolf in Winter discussion. Claire will be hosting The Waves two weeks from now, on Friday, February 26.)

Essay Mondays: Edgeworth


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

I remarked at the end of last week that I've been meaning to check out the novels of eighteenth-century writer Maria Edgeworth. Well, after getting a taste of her sparking wit from Lopate's collection, that desire is redoubled. Dorothy of Of Books and Bicycles remarked that Edgeworth is "a really good writer who gets overshadowed by Austen who lived around the same time," and there were definitely things about Edgeworth's piece (entitled "An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification") that reminded me of Austen, in all the best ways: the crackling satire, the arch repartee, the keen eye for domestic details and all the ways in which marriages can go horribly wrong. Being an essay, though, it's both more direct and more devious than eighteenth-century novels usually are, and I quite enjoyed the multi-level satire Edgeworth conjured up.

"An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification" purports to be an instructional piece addressed to young married ladies (or ladies about to be married) on the best ways in which to confound, manipulate, and triumph over their husbands. Edgeworth's basic conceit is that all women take for granted the principle "A woman can do no wrong," and because men will sometimes use underhanded tricks like "logic" and "reason" to disprove that principle, women have to be constantly on the offensive to protect it. Edgeworth deftly conjures up every trick in the shrewish book for getting your own way at the expense of another person:

Begin by preventing, if possible, the specific statement of any position, or if reduced to it, use the most general terms, and take advantage of the ambiguity which all languages and which most philosophers allow. Above all things, shun definitions; they will prove fatal to you; for two persons of sense and candor, who define their terms, cannot argue long without either convincing, or being convinced, or parting in equal good-humor; to prevent which, go over and over the same ground, wander as wide as possible from the point, but always with a view to return at last precisely to the same spot from which you set out. I should remark to you, that the choice of your weapons is a circumstance much to be attended to: choose always those which your adversary cannot use. If your husband is a man of wit, you will of course undervalue a talent which is never connected with judgment: "for your part, you do not presume to contend with him in wit."

Or again:

Nothing provokes an irascible man, interested in debate, and possessed of an opinion of his own eloquence, so much as to see the attention of his hearers go from him: you will then, when he flatters himself that he has just fixed your eye with his very best argument, suddenly grow absent--your house affairs must call you hence--or you have directions to give to your children--or the room is too hot, or too cold--the window must be opened--or door shut--or the candle wants snuffing.

Obviously, the first level of Edgeworth's satire deals with how ridiculous can be that behavior most often presented as feminine, and how the only explanation for much of the emotional blackmail practiced in relationships is base self-interest. As might be suggested by Edgeworth's note about "two people of sense and candor, who define their terms," her underlying argument is for both parties in a marriage to relate honestly and candidly with one another, and relate to one another reasonably, as proper citizens of the Age of Reason.

And as Lopate points out in his introduction, although her criticisms appear at first to be all directed towards women (the satirical criticism of female illogic was a popular genre at the time), there is a subtler strain that suggests she's not letting husbands off the hook, either. Much of her "advice" involves taking advantage of the leeway given to women as the "weaker" sex: preying on husbands' beliefs that you, as a wife, are delicate, illogical, overly emotional, etc. By writing in such a deliberate way as a woman, Edgeworth makes a convincing argument that marriages would be more equable if this leeway were abolished--that women would act more adult if they were not viewed socially as children. All in all, a super-smart, amusing essay! I will definitely be checking out Edgeworth's Belinda one of these days.

Up next week: I'm plunging head-first into Romanticism, with three essays by Charles Lamb versus one by William Hazlitt.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

This and that


Between Woolf, essays, and the Classics Circuit, I'm having trouble grabbing a few minutes to write a meta post about Evening All Afternoon news! But here are a few exciting things:

  • The other day Marieke at The Lady Fern suggested that I might like to add a way to browse Evening All Afternoon by author. Marieke, your wish is my command! I am very particular about keeping my layout uncluttered, but David and I rigged up a cool system using Categories, and I'm unreasonably excited about it. There's now a link down there to the right (under "About Emily") that links to a page where you can browse alphabetically by author. Even better, it updates automatically whenever I add a new review! No fuss, no muss. I really like it.

    Although, I have to admit that it makes me feel a little naked because my short, ill-considered reviews from 2006 (from my old, non-book-specific blog) are listed right alongside the new ones of which I feel prouder. But that's okay. I can deal.

  • Have you guys seen the gorgeous buttons for Jason and Lu's Clover, Bee, and Reverie Poetry Challenge? Hot dog, are they ever lovely.


    And not that I would join a challenge just because of the pretty buttons, or because I love the people who started it, but I'm totally in. I'm going to commit to the "Limerick" level: five books of poetry, two of which must share some significant characteristic. I'm making my slow way through Petrarch at the moment, and am due for a re-read of H.D.'s Helen in Egypt. I don't know what else I'll read, but I'm sure it will be delightful. Thanks, Jason and Lu!

  • I mentioned it in my post on Cane, but I think the new Diversify Your Reading blog is an awesome idea: a gathering of posts on books from around the world, with a focus on groups traditionally under-represented in the Western publishing world. What a fantastic resource, and what a positive DIY step toward helping ourselves read a wider diversity of authors. I've added a number of posts from my backlog, so maybe I'll see you over there.

  • And last but not least: I'm published! No, not a novel or even a short story...only a humble knitting pattern, I'm afraid. But still: there's my name, in a real, printed book with an ISBN number and everything! The pattern is a tribute to George Lucas's wisecracking archaeologist action hero:


    I've had things published in online periodicals before (and if you want to know the truth online publishing means I get more useful publicity), but there's something special about a print book, isn't there? I know you guys understand. The book in question is edited by Charlene Schurch and Beth Parrott, and entitled Sock Club: Join the Knitting Adventure. Available wherever knitting books are sold.



Welcome to the Harlem Renaissance Classics Circuit! If you're not familiar with the Circuit, hop on over to that link and check it out - I think it's a fantastic idea, sort of a cross between a readalong and regular book blogging. Major props to Rebecca and all of the great folks who help to organize it.


Jean Toomer's Cane is a work of in-betweens, of liminal spaces that resist categorization. And based on its author's biography, it's easy to see why. Toomer, the light-skinned grandson of the first person of African descent to become Governor of a US State, grew up in an upper-crust Washington DC society; he went on to attend first all-black, then all-white, then all-black area schools. In a city halfway between historical North and South, Toomer had the experience of being of mixed racial descent in a segregated country. In later life, he refused to identify with any race other than the new "American" one he saw forming out of the intermingled ethnicities across the United States:

In my body were many bloods, some dark blood, all blended in the fire of six or more generations. I was, then, either a new type of man or the very oldest. In any case I was inescapably myself...If I achieved greatness of human stature, then just to the degree that I did I would justify all the blood in me. If I proved worthless, then I would betray all. In my own mind I could not see the dark blood as something quite different and apart. But if people wanted to say this dark blood was Negro blood and if they then wanted to call me a Negro - this was up to them. Fourteen years of my life I had lived in the white group, four years I had lived in the colored group. In my experience there had been no main difference between the two.

This attitude, in turn, meant that although Cane is regarded as one of the masterpieces of the Harlem Renaissance, Toomer was a bit of an outsider even within that bohemian group; his attempt at a post-racial philosophy didn't jive with the goals of writers and artists who were celebrating Pan-Africanism and making more visible the "New Negro" way of life.

All of these influences are visible in Cane, which is neither a novel, nor a poem, nor a book of short stories, but something more unique altogether. It's divided into three sections: the first two, set in rural Georgia and DC/Chicago respectively, are collections of lyrical character sketches interspersed with poems in a wide variety of forms (sonnet, traditional and modified "In Memoriam" stanzas, rhyming couplets, etc.). The third section is, as Toomer said, a "long, semi-dramatic closing-piece." If this description makes Cane sound like a motley assortment of ingredients thrown together to make up something long enough for a book, that is basically what happened; Toomer wrote the entire middle (Northern) section in order to pad his Southern material. And yet, the whole of the book has an undeniable unity and great beauty. Anyone who has watched and appreciated such Jim Jarmusch films as Mystery Train and Coffee and Cigarettes will understand what Toomer is up to: as we weave in and out of characters' lives, in and out of verse and prose, we recognize repeating motifs that tie it all together: smouldering sawdust piles wreathing Georgia valleys in blue smoke; carriages jolting down the Dixie Pike; sexuality smothered under religion or society; tableaux glimpsed from the windows of speeding trains. In the first section, especially, I felt as though every bit of prose and verse is necessary to, and couldn't belong anywhere other than, Cane as a whole. Toomer creates a blistering love-song to a fading way of life.

November Cotton Flower

Boll-weevil's coming, and the winter's cold,
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,
And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take
All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground--
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
Significance. Superstition saw
Something it had never seen before:
Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
Beauty so sudden for that time of year.

Toomer's style strikes me as more "High Modernist" than that of other Harlem Renaissance luminaries like Zora Neale Hurston or Langston Hughes: edgy, experimental, sometimes obscure, with more emphasis on atmosphere and character than action. (I wouldn't recommend Cane to those Woolf in Winter readers who felt Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse lacked plot.) Although he is obviously deeply moved by visiting and observing rural Georgia life, Toomer remains an outsider; he never takes on, as Hurston does, the country or city dialect as his own. Instead he writes in a skittish in-between voice: lightly inflected with the cadences of Georgia spirituals and back-fence gossip sessions, but never escaping an erudite, Northern (even British-sounding) tone. When he does depict characters speaking in Southern dialect, he inserts a Northern outsider character, a stand-in for himself. One gets the sense he wishes to approach closer, but he can never quite manage it: his awkwardness, what he would probably term his Northern over-civilization, gets in the way. I think, though, that it's this yearning of an outsider to find belonging, that gives Cane its energy and beauty, as well as its melancholy tone. It's audible even from the opening lines:

                               Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon,
                               O cant you see it, O cant you see it,
                               Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon,
                               . . .When the sun goes down.

Men had always wanted her, this Karintha, even as a child, Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down. Old men rode her hobby-horse upon their knees. Young men danced with her at frolics when they should have been dancing with their grown-up girls. God grant us youth, secretly prayed the old men. The young fellows counted the time to pass before she would be old enough to mate with them. This interest of the male, who wishes to ripen a growing thing too soon, could mean no good to her.

I love Toomer's skill at shading poetry into prose and prose back out into poetry; it might be my favorite manifestation of the way Cane balances on border-lines and leaps across spectrums. So too, he blurs racial lines: the people of Cane are every color imaginable, from Karintha's eastern-horizon blue-black, to Fern's "cream-colored" and Dorris's "lemon-colored" complexions, to Muriel's "flushed ginger," Esther's "chalk-white," and young Louisa, "the color of oak leaves on young trees in fall." Are all these women "black"? Such an idea, we can hear Toomer argue, is ridiculous: and yet, as the lynching, estrangement, and heartbreak of this book attest, it still has a terrible power.

(I understand the irony of adding Jean Toomer to the list of "Black Authors in North America" over at Diversify Your Reading, but I'm doing it anyway. Mostly because I think more people should read this gorgeous book.)

Essay Mondays: Steele


(Each week I read four essays from Philip Lopate's anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, and write about the one I find the most compelling.)

Things are racing right along here at Essay Mondays: we've already arrived at the 18th-century British essay boom! It's easy to spot, even if you skip Lopate's helpful author introductions, because the italicizing and capitalization habits of 18th-century Brits are not to be mistaken for those of any other group:

When we first put off from Shoar, we soon fell in with a Fleet of Gardiners bound for the several Market-Ports of London; and it was the most pleasing Scene imaginable to see the Chearfulness with which those industrious People ply'd their Way to a certain Sale of their Goods. The Banks on each Side are as well Peopled, and beautified with as agreeable Plantations, as any on the Earth; but the Thames it self, loaded with the Product of each Shoar, added very much to the Landskip.

The passage above is by Richard Steele, who penned three of the short pieces I read this week. As compared with Montaigne and the earlier authors Lopate includes in this collection, Steele's writing struck me for its journalistic quality. One can tell that the rise of the newspaper had happened in the interim, because Steele's style is much closer to what we think of as modern "media" writing: it's topical, conversational, and moves along at a brisk pace. He's working to keep the attention of someone who may have picked up his paper (he co-founded the Spectator with Joseph Addison) by happenstance, but who has the potential to become a repeat customer. As such, he walks a fine line between the desire to entertain and the urge, in true Enlightenment style, to educate. I found him most enjoyable when, as in the flaneur-ish piece "Twenty-four Hours in London," he lets the education portion of the proceedings slip his mind until the last few lines, and just gives me a peek of his peregrinations around the city - eyeing pretty girls, stopping in at pubs, and getting hit up for spare change in the street:

It happened so immediately, for at the corner of Warwick-Street, as I was listning to a new Ballad, a ragged Rascal, a Beggar who knew me, came up to me, and began to turn the Eyes of the good Company upon me, by telling me he was extream Poor, and should die in the Streets for want of Drink, except I immediately would have the Charity to give him a Six-pence to go into the next Ale-House and save his Life. He urged, with a melancholy Face, that all his Family had died of Thirst. All the Mob have Humour, and two or three began to take the Jest; by which Mr. Sturdy carried his Point, and let me sneak off to a Coach.

Clever schtick! (But seriously, why capitalize "Poor" in that story?)

I enjoy "roaming the city streets" type essays (Woolf's "Street Haunting" is, unsurprisingly, one of my favorites), so it was fun to read such an early example of this genre, and to see 1710s London through Steele's hearty, observant gaze.

Up next week: two essays by Dr. Johnson, one by Maria Edgeworth, and one by Charles Lamb. I've been meaning to check out Edgeworth's novels and Lamb's essays for ages, so I'm eager to get a taste of them here.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography