March 2010 Archives

Housekeeping: A Novel


I know it's not fair, that it goes against every rule of responsible writing on books and literature, to evaluate a novel based on the author's other works. How much less fair to evaluate a first novel on the merits of an author's subsequent works, when one has chosen to read them out of order? Totally, completely unfair. Nevertheless, I can't honestly talk about my reaction to Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping without getting this out of my system: gorgeous, limpidly written it may be, but it's no Gilead.

Nor is it supposed to be, after all. Whereas Robinson's second novel, published twenty-four years after her first, is an intimate, perfectly-pitched character study of a man at the end of his life, looking back with mellow pain and pleasure at the family legacy he is leaving to his young son, her earlier work features a pair of sisters who were given no such guiding light by their parents. What touched me so deeply about Gilead, what puts it on my top-twenty list of all time, is the tangible, rooted reality of the Reverend John Ames. But Housekeeping is not about age, and it's not about the tangible. Instead it's about the transient, and loss, and the brittle no-man's-land of an adolescence saturated in death. Although both novels are written in the first person, the voice of Housekeeping's protagonist Ruthie is distant, almost cold, functioning always at a remove from the reader, which is a stark contrast from Ames's intimate warmth. Ruthie's distance makes sense within the novel: abandoned by their suicidal mother at a young age, she and her sister Lucille are raised by a series of relatives, ending up finally in an uneasy guardian/ward relationship with their formerly-transient aunt Sylvie, who they expect, both because of their own history and her character, to abandon them at any moment. As the three women drift forward in time, Lucille makes a conscious decision to leave Sylvie and rejoin "normal" society, whereas Ruthie is more torn.

If I were to pick one adjective to describe this book, it might be "haunted." All three main characters seem beset: sometimes by fading memories, sometimes by nagging desires, sometimes by a nameless lack they can't place. This doesn't come across as teenage ennui, but rather as the result of an early life divorced from security, with no fixed "place" any character can call her own and no fixed path to which Ruthie, at least, feels dedicated. One of the most poignant questions I heard the book asking was whether one ought to seek aggressively for that missing sense of rooted place, or whether, on the contrary, it is better to become comfortable with the essential rootlessness of life. A recurring image, of being on either side of a lighted window in the night-time, was both one of the most charged and one of the most beautiful metaphors in this gorgeously-written book.

Sometimes we used to watch trains passing in the dark afternoon, creeping through the blue snow with their windows all alight, and full of people eating and arguing and reading newspapers. [...] [B]y crawling up, and sliding down, and steadying ourselves against the roofs and sheds and rabbit hutches, we managed to stay just abreast of a young woman with a small head and a small hat and a brightly painted face. She wore pearl-gray gloves that reached almost to her elbows, and hooped bracelets that fell down her arms when she reached up to push a loose wisp of hair underneath her hat. The woman looked at the window very often, clearly absorbed by what she saw, which was not but merely seemed to be Lucille and me scrambling to stay beside her, too breathless to shout. When we came to the shore, where the land fell down and the bridge began to rise, we stopped and watched her shadow sail slowly away, along the abstract arc of the bridge.

Again and again, Robinson presents the interior lighted spaces as those of the "haves" and belonging, and the dark exterior spaces as those of the "have-nots," the transients on the periphery of so-called respectable life. Sylvie, who loves to sit in the dusky interior of her mother's house without turning on the lights, relishes the blurring of boundaries, the melding of dark interior with dark exterior, the "even-ing" time when possession status is unclear and a house's interior can be "sunk in the very element is was meant to exclude." Lucille, on the other hand, seeks to build up more and ever more clarity of boundaries, wanting the lights to blaze against the darkness so that she will be reassured about which side of the divide she occupies. Sylvie's drifting, unmoored character is unnerving, even offensive to her.

I knew what the silence meant, and so did Lucille. It meant that on an evening so calm, so iridescently blue, so full of the chink and chafe of insects and fat old dogs dragging their chains and belling in the neighbors' dooryards—in such a boundless and luminous evening, we would feel our proximity with our finer senses. As, for example, one of two, lying still in a dark room, knows when the other is awake.
       We sat listening to the rasp of the knife as Sylvie buttered and stacked the toast, bumping our heels with a soft, slow rhythm against the legs of our chairs, staring through the warped and bubbled window at the brighter darkness. Then Lucille began to scratch fiercely at her arms and her knees. "I must have got into something," she said, and she stood up and pulled the chain of the overhead light. The window went black and the cluttered kitchen leaped, so it seemed, into being, as remote from what had gone before as this world from the primal darkness.

All of this is what is compelling about Housekeeping: its gorgeously-formed prose, its thoughtful metaphors, its tone which fits so well to the otherworldly characters of Sylvie and Ruthie. So why doesn't it live up to my expectations, brilliant as it often is?

For me, although Robinson had obviously already honed her writing chops on the level of the sentence and the paragraph, the larger narrative in Housekeeping seems a bit loose, a bit wandering. All that skilled craft seems like liquid without a container, running this way and that over any surface it encounters, in need of some kind of funnel or chute to concentrate it into a sustained narrative. Had it been more concentrated, more directed, the characters and town might have sprung more to life, and I would have believed more fully in their existence. It occurs to me that this could have been intentional: theoretically, a thinner, more wandering narrative style is a great fit for Robinson's themes of vagrancy, liminal spaces, and existential uncertainty. The book itself is waif-like, haunted, hard to pin down, like Sylvie in her rootless wanderings, like Ruthie in her attempts to see without being seen. It's a dweller in the dark exterior, not in the blazing interior. In practice, though, I didn't think the treatment lived up to its potential, and my whole time reading this I was torn between marveling at the beautiful prose and asking myself why I wasn't more caught up, more involved.

I know I've done a poor job at evaluating Housekeeping on its own merits, and I feel vaguely guilty about that. There were flashes of the grounded, wry, tightly yet seemingly effortlessly-controlled brilliance of Gilead: I caught a whiff, for example, of Ames's quiet, biblically-inflected sense of humor when Ruthie imagines her grandmother returning from the dead to "scan the shores to see how nearly the state of grace resembled the state of Idaho." Overall I was, perhaps unreasonably, disappointed, and now feel a little bit sad that I've read all three of Robinson's novels to date. To assuage those feelings of sadness, here is one last paragraph to speed me on my way.

Of course I knew that [the sheriff's] function was more than ceremonial. The people of Fingerbone and its environs were very much given to murder. And it seemed that for every pitiable crime there was an appalling accident. What with the lake and the railroads, and what with blizzards and floods and barn fires and forest fires and the general availability of shotguns and bear traps and homemade liquor and dynamite, what with the prevalence of loneliness and religion and the rages and ecstasies they induce, and the closeness of families, violence was inevitable.

Essay Mondays: Borges


(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.)

Jorge Luis Borges has a reputation for being a very reference-heavy writer, a member of the literati who gleaned his inspiration more from other books than from real life. It's interesting, therefore, that as I was enjoying my first taste of his work—in the form of his essay "Blindness"—my chief delights were not so much dependent on his ideas or craftsmanship, but on the connections I was able to find with my own reading life. Not that Borges's craftsmanship isn't lovely. But "Blindness" is a casual essay, a lightly reworked lecture on the subject of the author's own blindness and a more general overview of literary blindness through history. Its tone is conversational, slightly digressive, and it doesn't have the carefully controlled and shepherded form that I often admire in essays written to be read. It does have some interesting observations on the reality of being blind, as in this passage:

One of the colors that the blind—or at least this blind man—do not see is black; another is red. Le rouge et le noir are the colors denied us. I, who was accustomed to sleeping in total darkness, was bothered for a long time at having to sleep in this world of mist, in the greenish or bluish mist, vaguely luminous, which is the world of the blind. I wanted to lie down in darkness. The world of the blind is not the night that people imagine.

I can't help but wonder whether José Saramago read this essay before or during the composition of his own Blindness, the 1995 novel about an epidemic in which the sufferers can only see a glaring white at all times. Borges's description of being bothered by the lack of darkness when attempting to sleep, is closely mirrored by a number of scenes in Saramago's book, although Borges's luminous blue-green mist sounds more calming than Saramago's characters' intense white blaze. There is the same sense of surprise, however, at the loss of the darkness, and how disconcerting that can be, despite the common fear of the dark.

Borges goes on to discuss his reactions to the onset of his blindness; he argues that, as much as it seemed at the time to be a terrible loss, it allowed him to gain a number of things as well: he was motivated, for example, to learn the Anglo-Saxon language after losing his sight.

What always happens, when one studies a language, happened. Each of the words stood out as though it had been carved, as though it were a talisman. For that reason the poems of a foreign language have a prestige they do not enjoy in their own language, for one hears, one sees, each one of the words individually. We think of the beauty, of the power, or simply of the strangeness of them.

This is such a beautiful observation, and one to which I very strongly relate. I'm currently making my way through Emile Zola's Germinal in the original French, and am having exactly the reading experience Borges describes here: noticing the individual words, the mouth-feel and texture of them, their repetitions and significances, so much more clearly than I would in an English text. I love his description of each word standing out "as though it had been carved," because individual words in a language one is studying do have this very tactile quality—not that English words have lost their tactile quality; heaven forbid that should ever happen. But usually I am only aware of the individual words in English now and then, when a particular word choice seems apt, awkward, or intriguing. Much of the time, the language is a transparent medium through which the meaning is communicated. In French, though, each word still retains a solidity, a "thing-ness," as if, as Borges says, it were a talisman, as if one could run one's hands through the reservoir of all these tiny, textural word-objects like one would through a bag of marbles or a sack of dry beans. L'accrochage. Écraser. Les betteraves. And so on. One doesn't even need to understand their meaning to appreciate their slippery, rippling texture.

I think, more than his ostensible messages that every loss is also a gain and that being blind can actually be a benefit to artists of certain types (musicians and poets especially, since they are better able to focus their musical/poetic ear), what struck me about Borges is his deep love of language and of reading. And I wondered why I've been semi-avoiding Borges for so long. I've heard rumors that he can be overly erudite and bookish, but come on now (you must all be saying by now), I love bookish and erudite authors! I love books that dwell in the land of other books, and other art. I love Proust, and Bolaño, and Woolf, and although the jury's still somewhat out on Auster, his discussions of literature were definitely my favorite parts of his Manhattan Trilogy. So what am I waiting for?

A writer lives. The task of being a poet is not completed at a fixed schedule. No one is a poet from eight to twelve and from two to six. Whoever is a poet is one always, and continually assaulted by poetry. I suppose a painter feels that colors and shapes are besieging him. Or a musician feels that the strange world of sounds—the strangest world of art—is always seeking him out, that there are melodies and dissonances looking for him. For the task of an artist, blindness is not a total misfortune. It may be an instrument.

(As an aside, the above made me giggle as I thought of my own craft: the designer of clothing does indeed feel continually assaulted by cuts and colors, as the poet by poetry. I often find myself distracted in social settings as I try mentally to deconstruct a knitted cable in a sweater someone is wearing, or as my mind reconstructs the shapes of the sewn flat pieces that likely went into my friend's blouse. I suppose all art forms pursue their practitioners, don't they?)

Next week: A four-way fight between Herbert Butler, E.M. Cioran, Roland Barthes, and Natalia Ginzburg.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

The Night of the Iguana


John Huston's 1964 adaptation of Tennessee Wiliams's Night of the Iguana is one of my dad's favorite films of all time, so I grew up knowing the characters: Reverend Larry Shannon, battling his demons after being locked out of his Episcopal church for having sex with a young Sunday-school teacher; Maxine Faulk (my hands-down favorite at the time1), the crass, sexually omnivorous widow at whose hotel Shannon arrives, with twenty angry female Baptists in tow; the otherworldly spinster Hannah Jelkes and her 97-year-old grandfather, the oldest practicing poet in the world.

I grew up knowing them, but, as my dad said when I mentioned that I was reading the play along with my "Non-Structured" blog pals, how much of these characters and their interactions can you really understand at the age of fifteen? It is, as he pointed out, an "adult" story, and not just because it involves themes of sexual desperation and sexual contempt—Shannon with his teenage girls; Maxine with her cabana boys—that adults usually keep from children. I think the thing I most failed to identify as a teenager is how worn down all three main characters are, and how that desperate exhaustion imbues their small acts of basic human kindness toward one another with a significance bordering on the heroic. I understood ennui (what teenager doesn't?), but I didn't understand the way that living under emotionally taxing conditions stops being glamorous pretty shortly and starts wearing away at a person's reserves. Luckily, I still can't empathize with the choice between starvation and the kindness of strangers, but I do understand being engaged in a seemingly endless emotional struggle, and how exhausting and panic-inducing that can be.

I also had a much different perspective on the Charlotte/Shannon relationship than I do now. Watching the story unfold as a 15-year-old girl, Shannon's behavior doesn't read as predatory the way it can to an older viewer; my friends, after all, were all for dating "older men." But what I now think is interesting about Williams's portrayal of Shannon is that the Reverend's sexual exploits are not his real crime here—in the playwright's eyes, I think, it's Shannon's cold treatment of these young girls after sleeping with them that exposes the real ugliness in his character. I think, as Williams sees it, Shannon squanders the chance to connect with another human, and that's his sin.

HANNAH: [...] The episode in the cold, inhuman hotel room, Mr. Shannon, for which you despise the lady almost as much as you despise yourself. Afterward you are so polite to the lady that I'm sure it must chill her to the bone, the scrupulous little attentions that you pay her in return for your little enjoyment of her. The gentleman-of-Virginia act that you put on for her, your noblesse oblige treatment of her...Oh no, Mr. Shannon, don't kid yourself that you ever travel with someone. You have always traveled alone except for your spook, as you call it.

It's interesting that in the 1964 film, Huston chose to remove any discussion of this coldness on Shannon's part, which strikes me as so important in the original play. Perhaps the director felt that a habit of seducing underage women was enough of a barrier for Shannon, as a basically sympathetic character, to overcome.

Another interesting change to Shannon's character in the Huston film is that his theology is completely transformed. In both versions, he objects to the "petulant old man" worshiped by his Virginia congregation. But Huston's Shannon is a sort of nascent hippie environmentalist: as he chases his parishioners out of his church, he speaks of "the God of loving kindness"; and in the scene where he is describing his "researches" to Hannah, he defines "man's inhumanity to God" in terms of polluted rivers and exploited natural resources. These are tropes that a theater audience would immediately understand and relate to. The theology of the original Shannon, on the other hand, is much more complex, and I've always found it difficult to understand. Here, for example, is how he defines his God to Hannah:

SHANNON: It's going to storm tonight—a terrific electrical storm. Then you will see the Reverend T. Lawrence Shannon's conception of God Almighty paying a visit to the world he created. I want to go back to the Church and preach the gospel of God as Lightning and Thunder...and also stray dogs vivisected and...and...and...[He points out suddenly toward the sea.] That's him! There he is now! [He is pointing out at a blaze, a majestic apocalypse of gold light, shafting the sky as the sun drops into the Pacific.] His oblivious majesty—and here I am on this...dilapidated verandah of a cheap hotel, out of season, in a country caught and destroyed in its flesh and corrupted in its spirit by its gold-hungry conquistadors that bore the flag of the Inquisition along with the Cross of Christ.

Much weirder, no? I can understand why Huston decided to alter Shannon into the more easily-understandable "loving kindness" variety of Christian. But what is he actually saying here? The "stray dogs vivisected" line suggests the idea that God is everywhere, even in the ugly parts of life, and it's wrong of the complacent Virginian congregants not to recognize that. But really, Shannon's recognition of God is no more universal than theirs. If they are only willing to see the divine in anodyne respectability, he only seems willing to recognize it at the most extreme margins of human experience—not in a calm blue sky, but in a dramatic, stormy sunset; not in a pampered house pet, but in a vivisected stray dog. On the other hand, he sees God as "oblivious," unconcerned with the travails of humans. I have always had a hard time wrapping my head around this seeming contradiction: if we're dealing with an unconcerned, "clock-maker" type God, why would he be more manifest in some aspects of life than others? Perhaps Shannon feels that humans are most able to connect with God when they are, themselves, in extremity, and it takes Hannah's calm plea for compassion, for a recognition that all humans have their struggles and their shadows, to balance out his glamorization of the extreme:

HANNAH: I have a strong feeling you will go back to the Church with this evidence you've been collecting, but when you do and it's a black Sunday morning, look out over the congregation, over the smug, complacent faces for a few old, very old faces, looking up at you, as you begin your sermon, with eyes like a piercing cry for something to still look up to, something to still believe in. And then I think you'll not shout what you say you shouted that black Sunday in Pleasant Valley, Virginia. I think you will throw away the violent, furious sermon, you'll toss it into the chancel, and talk, maybe talk about...nothing...just...


HANNAH: Lead them beside still waters because you know how badly they need the still waters, Mr. Shannon.

Oddly, although I strongly relate to Hannah's philosophy of endurance and human compassion irrespective of God's existence, I find her the least compelling of the three in terms of her actual character, especially on the page. She seems at times just a pretext through which Williams can speak directly to the audience; whereas Shannon and Maxine both talk like real people, Hannah often sounds written to me. Deborah Kerr's performance does a lot to dispel that impression, but Richard Burton and Ava Gardner are still more human-seeming to watch.

There are things in both versions of Night of the Iguana that walk a thin line between bothering and intriguing me: are the depictions of "butch" Judy Fellowes, for example, anti-lesbian misogyny, or an examination of how remaining closeted can cause a person to become cruel and vindictive? (Interestingly, tough-guy Huston actually added material that would favor the second hypothesis. It definitely surprises me that John Huston would be easier on closeted lesbians than Tennessee Williams!) The depictions of Maxine's cabana boys reflect a ridiculous level of casual racism, but it's unusual, especially for 1961, to see a mostly-sympathetic female extract unapologetic sexual enjoyment from men in the way male characters often make sexual use of women. Williams doesn't exactly congratulate Maxine (nor am I arguing that he should), but her employment of Pedro and Pancho is viewed as another desperate attempt at human contact in an alienated world—and Williams, like Hannah Jelkes, respects any attempt at survival that isn't cruel or childish.

In any case, I'm glad to have revisited this old family favorite. I suspect my appreciation of it will continue to grow with time. Thanks to Frances for suggesting it, and to all my other non-structured buddies for reading along!


Other posts:


(I'm counting Night of the Iguana as my first book toward the Challenge That Dare Not Speak Its Name due to the sexual orientation of its author.)

1Seriously, one of my major challenges understanding the Shannon character was his lack of interest in Gardner's Maxine: she's just SO sexy! Who would go for bratty Sue Lyon next to her? Not me, that's for sure.

Essay Mondays: Tanizaki


(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.)

In a stroke of good timing, I had just been reading about the work of Junichiro Tanizaki over at The Reading Life, and thinking that I should really check out this early- to mid-twentieth-century Japanese novelist, when along came Phillip Lopate to give me a taste of Tanizaki's style in the form of his long essay "In Praise of Shadows." And if I was anxious to dive into Tanizaki's novels before, I'm doubly looking forward to it now.

"In Praise of Shadows" is immediately notable for its unusual structure: it consists of sixteen sections, separated by white space, each one of which is linked to that before and after it by some passing idea or comment, and all of which relate to the broad topic of Japanese versus Western aesthetics. He begins, for example, by discussing the difficulties of incorporating modern, Western-style amenities into a traditional Japanese house. This section features discussions of heaters and electric fans, and ends with a brief mention of choosing a toilet. The following section is a paean to the beauty and organic qualities of the traditional Japanese toilet, which is so ardent that it almost convinces me to seek one out in my next home. As you can tell, his writing style is clean yet evocative, never dry despite my native lack of interest in comparative architecture:

As I have said there are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito. I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain, especially if it is a toilet of the Kantō region, with its long, narrow windows at floor level; there one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the eaves and the trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones.

Tanizaki writes that, although he ends up installing a modern flush toilet in his house, he wishes that they could be designed with the Japanese aesthetic in mind. From here, he segues into another section, in which he speculates about how technology developed by Westerners would have been different if Japan had remained isolated long enough to develop analogous technology on its own. Specifically, he discusses a more Japanese approach to the fountain pen, and how it might have effected modern Japanese writing and literature. From here he transitions into the next section, which has to do with Japanese paper. And so on. The sections leapfrog into one another, each one giving the reader a glimpse into the next, like an unexpected view through a small garden window. Lopate suggests in the introduction that Tanizaki borrowed this structure from the traditional renga or poem-chains, in which each haiku or tanka is a response to the one before it. In any case, it's very effective, both for its own sake and as a formal reflection of Tanizaki's main point: that in Japanese aesthetics, objects are valued for their interactions with the shadows of space and time. Just as the relation of objects creates an atmosphere deeper than the sum of its parts, the relationship among the different sections of Tanizaki's essay creates a larger whole.

...we find beauty not in the thing itself but in the the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.
         A phosphorescent jewel gives off its glow and color in the dark and loses its beauty in the light of day. Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.

Whereas Westerners attempt to subject everything to the brightest possible light, and prize the qualities of newness and shininess, Tanizaki argues, the traditional Asian (he uses the word "Oriental") philosophy finds most beauty in shadowed rooms, in objects allowed to mellow and change over time, developing a rich patina. Objects that look merely gaudy or unremarkable when new, or when subjected to full electric light, take on a mesmerizing beauty in a surrounding of shadowed half-light:

Lacquerware decorated in gold is not something to be seen in a brilliant light, to be taken at a single glance; it should be left in the dark, a part here and a part there picked up by a faint light. Its florid patterns recede into the darkness, conjuring up in their stead an inexpressible aura of depth and mystery, of overtones but partly suggested. The sheen of the lacquer, set out in the night, reflects the wavering candlelight, announcing the drafts that find their way from time to time into the quiet room, luring one into a state of reverie.

This idea, that many objects we would now call "artifacts" are almost completely different, even irrelevant, if not imagined within their original context, is not a new one to me, but Tanizaki makes me feel it in a more visceral way than I have before. I strongly agree with his claim that many things ornamented with gold, for example—priests' surplices, lacquerware, gilt statues—look fairly tacky in broad daylight, and he reminds me to think back, as I look at them, to an era when that gold would just catch faint rays of light, and add a luminescence to the prevailing shadow. I love the precision of his language, and his ability to evoke the sensual reality of tiny details of life. His appreciation of subtlety and stillness is lovely, and his sense of humor disarming. Some of his racial and gender assertions are slightly alarming, but overall I can't wait to explore Tanizaki's work more thoroughly. I'm thinking of starting, as Mel U suggests, with The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, although with so much intriguing work to choose from, it's difficult to pick.

Next week: Walter Benjamin vs. Jorge Luis Borges!


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

The Confidence Man


First of all, the Partnership Celebration was amazing! Everything went smoothly, and it was even more meaningful and full of love than I could have imagined. Thanks to everyone for your good wishes, and I will link to pictures as soon as our photographer posts them. And now, on to books:

Well, my attempts to read realist fiction this month are so far zero for two, although I'm certainly taking in some interesting texts. After the unexpected magical elements of Tim Winton's Cloudstreet, I thought I might go in for some Melville. Nineteenth-century American maritime novels: what could be more straightforward? I didn't realize, though, that The Confidence Man, which was waiting on my to-be-read shelf, is late Melville. Published in 1857, it is in fact sometimes labeled his last "major" work. And as anyone who has read Bartleby the Scrivener or even Moby-Dick can attest, Melville got steadily more experimental and allegorical as his career progressed, to the point where he was way too weird for his contemporaries, and began prefiguring Modernist preoccupations with absurdism, nihilism, and all my other favorite literary modes from which I'm trying unsuccessfully to take a break this month. The Confidence Man extends this tendency to, perhaps, its logical conclusion: set on a Mississippi steamboat on April Fool's Day, it's an extended allegory that methodically questions our decisions about the people, ideas, and circumstances in which we repose confidence and trust. There is almost no plot as such: the narrative is composed primarily of dialogues between two or three passengers, one of whom is attempting to secure the confidence of the other.

The novel opens in the morning of April 1 (which was also its original publication date), and one of the first scenes features a crippled black man begging passers-by for change. Soon enough, a white man with a wooden leg happens along and aggressively accuses the beggar of being a fraud, a white man in black-face who is faking his injuries. When a sympathetic clergyman asks if anyone on board the steamer can vouch for the beggar's character, the black man gives the following references:

Oh yes, oh yes, dar is aboard here a werry nice, good ge'mman wid a weed, and a ge'mman in a grey coat and white tie, what knows all about me, and a ge'mman wid a big book, too; and a yarb-doctor; and a ge'mman in a yaller west; and a ge'mman wid a brass plate; and a ge'mman in a wiolet robe; and a ge'mman as is a sodjer; and ever so many good, kind, honest ge'mman more aboard what knows me and will speak for me, God bress 'em...

This paragraph goes on to form the backbone of the entire novel. The reader meets each of the men mentioned by the beggar in succession, and in the order he gives: first the man with the mourning weed, then the grey-coated charity collector; then the employee of a coal company, who carries a big stock-book with him; then an herb-doctor; and so on. In each case, the man mentioned by the cripple interacts with the other passengers and attempts to gain their confidence for one cause or another. The man with the weed, for example, has a hard-luck story and could do with a few dollars; the man with the grey coat is collecting for charities; the man with the book just happens to have a time-sensitive opportunity for financial investment; the herb-doctor is peddling a concoction that may or may not be a miracle cure. Some of these men push their wares on their fellow-passengers, but most do not: the other passengers hear about one of these men from another, and actively seek them out (for example, a merchant who ends up investing with the coal-company man, first hears about him from the man with the weed). In this way, the relationships among the different characters are interlinked, and form a kind of chain along which the narrative progresses.

There is one big "spoiler" in The Confidence Man, and even though I figured out what was going on within the first 50 pages, I don't want to give it away. However, it's also the main point of the book, so I'm going to write about it under a veil. Highlight and read at your discretion.

As you may have realized already due to the Clark Kent-ish "never seen in the same frame" characteristic of the black beggar, the man with the weed, the man with the book, the herb-doctor, etc., the big April Fool's joke is that all these people are the same man—the "confidence man" of the title. Throughout the day, he takes on different guises in order to test peoples' confidence in different aspects of society—in the honesty of a hard-up stranger; in the efficacy of a miracle cure, the basic goodness of children, and so on. His basic move, repeated in a variety of ways, is to pit peoples' desire to believe themselves and other humans "good," against the common sense which makes them wary of handing over their money to a complete stranger. In each particular instance, one's sympathy might be with the confidence man, and with the desire to believe that strangers are, overall, trustworthy and honorable. Knowing that the same man is enacting all of these personae, of course, makes each one a joke—a joke that gets steadily darker as the novel progresses and the "cons" strike ever closer to peoples' core beliefs.

The really interesting thing about the experience of reading The Confidence Man is that even though the reader is conscious, based on the title and the events, that some kind of con-job is in progress, she still goes through the process of questioning her own assumptions about confidence in humanity. At the beginning, when the old curmudgeon is accusing the crippled black man of being a counterfeit, my sympathy is all on the side of the beggar—who would be so cynical as to assume that a poor cripple is perpetrating an elaborate hoax on his fellow-passengers, all for the sake of a few coins? I agree, initially, with the man in mourning when he laments how suspicious people have become of their fellows. Yet, as the story goes on, one's sympathy gradually shifts away from the advocates of unadulterated confidence. One realizes that a militant insistence on confidence, one that refuses to recognize the darker impulses of human nature, paradoxically allows just those dark, cruel impulses to thrive. In one scene, two new-found friends are toasting to the innocent and confidence-inducing act of laughter, when one of the friends starts laughing at a poor club-footed boy dressed in rags on the bottom deck. The other friend cites this as an example of the laugher's good faith, but of course in reality it's just mean.

The prime example, though, and one I'm still not sure about vis-à-vis Melville's intentions, are the chapters on "Indian-hating." By any modern standard these chapters are very racist, and I'm betting they're one reason this book isn't more widely read. Basically, one character tells another the story of Colonel John Moredock, who is kindly to his family and to white people in general, but goes out killing Indians for sport. It includes passages like the following:

Moredock was an example of something apparently self-contradicting, certainly curious, but, at the same time, undeniable; namely, that nearly all Indian-haters have at bottom loving hearts; at any rate, hearts, if anything, more generous than the average.

Or this one, on why the Colonel refused to run for governor of Illinois, despite being begged to do so:

In his official capacity he might be called upon to enter into friendly treaties with Indian tribes, a thing not to be thought of. And even did no such contingency arise, yet he felt there would be an impropriety in the Governor of Illinois stealing out now and then, during a recess of the legislative bodies, for a few days' shooting at human beings, within the limits of his paternal chief-magistrancy. If the governorship offered large honors, from Moredock it demanded larger sacrifices.

Granted, this whole novel is a multi-layered and complex satire, but the above is fairly breathtaking in its sympathy for a person who goes out hunting other people for sport. Is it supposed to be striking in that way? The level of white sympathy for Indians in 1857 was not high, and yet Melville seems to know that his character is making a bold claim when he argues that Moredock should be admired. I think the point Melville is making here is that putting the most sympathetic, forgiving construction on peoples' actions is sometimes the wrong decision, and that there are some actions that simply deserve to be condemned—making the indiscriminate "confidence" peddled by the beggar's reference list suspect. However, the author's treatment of the subject still reads very oddly to modern ears, and displays the prejudices of the day regarding American history (for example, that native people, rather than government officials, were the primary treaty-breakers).

All in all, an unusual and thought-provoking read, if not precisely the sea-going adventure tale I was expecting. Although long-winded at times, it features a few scenes (including the last one) which are downright chilling (not to mention a satisfying send-up of two self-satisfied philosophers based on my old nemeses Emerson and Thoreau!). I'm not sure I would recommend The Confidence Man generally, but for those who like "novels of ideas," I'd say it's worthwhile.



Richard accused me the other day of being a little hard to pin down sometimes, regarding my straight-up opinion of a book. Did I like it? Did I not? Ah well. Such is the danger of the anti-review form practiced here at Evening All Afternoon. And sad to say, I'm afraid my thoughts on Tim Winton's Cloudstreet will not exactly help my reputation in this regard. There are so many things to love in this grittily atmospheric family saga of working-class life in Western Australia: gorgeous, chewy prose and rich dialogue; compelling characters (both male and female) that made me cringe more than they made me hope, but still made me hope enough to keep me reading; a refreshingly honest depiction of sex and its role in human relationships; and intriguing questions about the relationship between luck, religion, and chance. It also featured a few elements that took my opinion down a few pegs, including a distracting magical-realist streak that felt tacked on as a concession to the literary fads of the early 1990s.

Cloudstreet is the story of two working-class families in and around Perth, Western Australia, in the period from late World War II to the early 1960s. The Pickles clan, headed by the infuriating yet charismatic gambling addict Sam and the alcoholic sex kitten Dolly, also includes their daughter Rose and her two brothers. The once God-fearing Lamb family (hard-nosed Oriel, good-natured Lester and their seven kids) lose their religious faith after a calamity befalls their favorite son Fish: caught in a fishing net, he is dragged under the water and nearly drowned, to be brain-damaged upon resuscitation. Events bring the two families together into a single, ramshackle house on Cloud Street, where the Pickles cuss and brawl, the Lambs open a shop and supply fruit and veg to the neighborhood, and the two clans weather twenty years, mostly apart (despite their proximity) but occasionally together. Between the Lambs and the Pickleses, the reader is torn between a faith in God that has been lost but is still mourned; a faith in Lady Luck that is never abandoned despite ample reason; and a question in the minds of many characters about whether blind chance rules their lives. Meanwhile the house, a character in its own right, is vaguely sinister (in fact haunted) for most of the time they're living in it, yet it somehow manages to become "home."

I think the thing that succeeds in keeping Cloudstreet so grounded, despite the incidentally haunted house and other supernatural elements (on which more later), is the visceral quality of Winton's prose, which is flexible and earthy and which I unreservedly loved. I've been sitting here flipping through my copy, and there are so many beautiful passages that it's difficult to choose what to share with you. Sometimes it's rich and literary, with a great ear for rhythm:

Down at Crawley there were lights out on the river and through the boozing parties of prawners with their whingeing kids and boiling drums of water to where the grass ended and the peppermints gripped the bank above the sand and the thick stewy smell of the river was strong and plain in his face.

Other times, as in this fantastic chapter of dialogue, Winton gives us the verbal play of his characters (an adult Rose is working on a telephone exchange and gossiping with her coworkers in between answering calls):

Shove the jacks into the jills, says Alma at the switch. Rose blushes and laughs.
Good morning, Bairds, can I help you?
Bairds, good morning, sir, can I help you?
Can I help you?
Hello? Hello?
One moment.
I'm sorry, this is Bairds. Oh, you want beds!
Putting you through
Jack into Jill! yells Darleen, and they all crack up.
Gawd, love, why don't you feed yerself Good morning, Bairds.
Merle's in love with a dwarf Bairds, good morning.
Good morning. Bairds yer a liar, she's lyin.
Putting you through he's shorter than Mum's pastry!
Short ones've got fat thingies Good morning, Bairds.
Well she's hardly the eye of the needle One moment madam.
Youse sheilas are gettin fouler every year Can you hold?
He's never asked me, thank you, sir.
Disgustin Bairds.
Exhausted from not laughing, Rose ploughs through every day with a crazy happiness. She takes home pay and the pavement smell of the city. She puts on a bit of flesh. She eats. The world looks different.

A few Aussie reviewers have said that the working-class slang spoken by Winton's characters sounds very dated to them; I'm not sure if they mean realistically dated (this is mid-century, after all), or unconvincingly stereotypical. I can say that his tone manages to feel both consistent and versatile to me, which is an achievement. The language in the chapter above reminds me of Scorcese's working-class Italian-American characters in films like Raging Bull: "Youse sheilas are gettin fouler every year" cued up Vikki LaMotta in my head, declaring "I'm tired of havin' to turn around and havin' both of yuz up my ass all the time." True, I've never known anyone who actually talks like this, and I can't vouch that anyone ever has, but it feels consistent and believable—even roughly beautiful—within the work.

Some of my favorite moments were the believably unpredictable times when one family or the other shares a moment of hilarity, evoked by Winton with a loving authenticity. In this scene, for example, Oriel Lamb crushes her young son by whisking his birthday cake out from under his nose and selling it to a stranger.

          Birthday, Quick, said Fish.
          Yeah, said Quick.
          Suddenly, they all laughed—even Quick. It started as a titter, and went quickly to a giggle, then a wheeze, and then screaming and shrieking till they were daft with it, and when Oriel came back in they were pandemonious, gone for all money. But they paused like good soldiers when she solemnly raised her hand. She fished in her apron and pulled out a florin. Happy birthday, son.
          You want change from this? said Quick.
          That set them off again and there was no stopping them.

I love the way Quick goes from devastated to hilarious in a single moment here; it feels so true to those unexpected emotional switches that sometimes surprise a person. There are other scenes where everything should be fine with a character, and yet he is unaccountably plagued by melancholy; these moments are the counterpoint, when extreme disappointment suddenly flips over into uproarious laughter. Both scenarios ring emotionally true.

Nor is this scene an isolated incident. The characters in Cloudstreet are all so believable and flawed, and Winton portrays the strain in their relationships so well. I found the tension around Sam and Dolly's relationship especially heart-wrenching, gradually see-sawing as it does between his tendency to gamble away all their money and her efforts to drink herself to death—Winton's storytelling is never as melodramatic as that makes it sound, but he definitely does know how to build up some uncomfortable pressure. Cloudstreet sometimes struck me as a Western Australian version of Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina, minus that novel's central theme of childhood sexual abuse. They share excellently gritty atmosphere and characterization: the tough-as-nails women, old before their time, the charismatic but irresponsible fathers and the daughters who are torn between loving and resenting them, the constant existence on the margins, always just getting by. I thought Winton did a great job making the physical and emotional reality of that world real to the reader.

The number one thing keeping Cloudstreet off my Favorite Novels list, however, are certain magical-realist tendencies, which I found more distracting than effective. I don't dislike magical realism uniformly: I love much of Salman Rushdie's work, and Winton's countryman Peter Carey uses the technique well in Illywhacker, his paean to compulsive lying and its role in Australian history. And I'm not sure if my reaction to Winton's magical realist touches were down to my mood—after so much experimental lit in January and February, I'm in the mood for a few straight realist narratives—but whatever the case, I felt like most of them detracted from the rest of the novel's charms. The Lambs, for example, own a pig speaks in a language that may be tongues. At first I thought this was psychological: Fish is the first person who hears the pig speak, and his mind works differently than others'. But then Lester hears the pig talk as well. And I felt that the level of suspension of disbelief necessary to accept a talking pig detracted from my enjoyment of the tangible reality and groundedness of the rest of Winton's world.

Similar incidents occur often enough that this issue was a thorn in my side throughout the reading. Winton's style just doesn't mesh with the book's more outlandish events, and they distract from his strengths without adding much substance. Sometimes, like in the scene where hundreds of fish throw themselves into Quick Lamb's boat, I felt the magic played with the issues of faith and religion/luck/chance central to the novel, so I tried to overlook it. But at other times I felt Winton could have explored his themes more effectively in other ways. I imagine, though, that for some people this aspect of the novel will be a plus rather than a minus; if you love magical realism for its own sake, I'd say this is definitely a book you should check out. Personally, I heartily enjoyed the more realist sections of the book, and am interested to explore Winton's other work.

Essay Mondays: Woolf


(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 know, I know: just when we all thought we were done with her after Woolf in Winter, here I am with one more entry about my old friend Virginia. I could blame the timing on Lopate and his oddly relevant pacing in The Art of the Personal Essay, but the truth is that I'm glad to have an opportunity to discuss Woolf, the essayist. Frances, Claire, Sarah and I originally intended to include some essays in our wintertime Woolf-a-thon, but the suggestions began coming too thick and fast (diary selections, letters, and Leonard Woolf's The Wise Virgins were also considered), and we realized that we needed to rein it in if we wanted to avoid burn-out. Which I think was the right decision, but. There's always a but.

Woolf's essays - the best ones, anyway - are among my favorite parts of her work. Next to Mrs. Dalloway, which has become for me something less like a "favorite novel" and more like a "sacred text," they may just take the prize spot. Still incorporating her delicious, fluid voice, they tend also to possess a clarity and directness of speech which is sometimes missing from the novels. So too, those who experienced Woolf's third-person fiction narrator as cold and removed might like the glimpse of Woolf-the-person the essays provide. Take "Street Haunting," the essay I'll be writing about today. In it, Woolf constructs a tribute to her love of meandering across London on an evening in Winter, pursuing in a leisurely manner some perfunctory goal—in this case, buying a lead pencil. Making use of the first-person plural, she invites the reader along on her ramble, beginning in "one's own room" before plunging into the city streets:

As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one's own room. For there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience. That bowl on the mantelpiece, for instance, was bought at Mantua on a windy day. We were leaving the shop when the sinister old woman plucked at our skirts and said she would find herself starving one of these days, but, "Take it!" she cried, and thrust the blue and white china bowl into our hands as if she never wanted to be reminded of her quixotic generosity. So, guiltily, but suspecting nevertheless how badly we had been fleeced, we carried it back to the little hotel where, in the middle of the night, the innkeeper quarreled so violently with his wife that we all leant out into the courtyard to look, and saw the vines laced about among the pillars and the stars white in the sky. The moment was stabilized, stamped like a coin indelibly among a million that slipped by imperceptibly. There, too, was the melancholy Englishman, who rose among the coffee cups and the little iron tables and revealed the secrets of his soul—as travellers do. All this—Italy, the windy morning, the vines laced about the pillars, the Englishman and the secrets of his soul—rise up in a cloud from the china bowl on the mantelpiece.

I'm realizing it will be difficult to avoid the horrendously long block-quotes while discussing this essay, because Woolf's style twists and turns so delightfully. This paragraph is a beautiful example: she begins with emerging from the door into the street, and then moves backwards to establish what it is she's leaving behind—her room, her possessions—which somehow hold within themselves the impressions of other times, other places, transporting us to the shops and hotels of Italy before we return to the room we were leaving as the paragraph began. What a master she was, that Virginia Woolf.

Lopate points out that "Street Haunting" belongs to a long tradition of flaneur and proto-flaneur rambling-the-city-streets essays; I wrote about an earlier piece in this vein by Richard Steele. Woolf's version, though, as a reader of Mrs. Dalloway might expect, melds the external events and sights of the streets with the walker's internal reality in a delicate and gorgeous way. The thing that most struck me on this read-through of the essay, so close to our discussions of Orlando, is Woolf's focus on how an object—familiar, unfamiliar—can spark a whole different self into being in the observer's imagination, and how the amalgam we call "Virginia" or "Emily" is really a composite containing all of these different past and imagined selves, as Orlando calls to her different incarnations toward the end of that novel. In one passage, the speaker happens upon an antique jewelry stall and picks up a strand of pearls. Instantly, it becomes for her "between two and three in the morning" in June, on a deserted street in Mayfair, where the gatherings of peers and ladies are winding down and "love-making is going on sibiliantly, seductively in the darker places of the room behind thick green curtains." And yet, she thinks,

[W]hat could be more absurd? It is, in fact, on the stroke of six; it is a winter's evening; we are walking to the Strand to buy a pencil. How, then, are we also on a balcony, wearing pearls in June? What could be more absurd? Yet it is nature's folly, not ours. When she set about her chief masterpiece, the making of man, she should have thought of one thing only. Instead, turning her head, looking over her shoulder, into each one of us she let creep instincts and desires which are utterly at variance with his main being, so that we are streaked, variegated, all of a mixture; the colours have run. Is the true self this which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June? Am I here, or am I there? Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give the rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves? Circumstances compel unity; for convenience' sake a man must be a whole. The good citizen when he opens his door in the evening must be banker, golfer, husband, father; not a nomad wandering the desert, a mystic staring at the sky, a debauchee in the streets of San Francisco, a soldier heading a revolution, a pariah howling with skepticism and solitude. When he opens his door, he must run his fingers through his hair and put his umbrella in the stand like the rest.

This Woofian, Proustian idea of multiple selves, evoked suddenly and mysteriously by a thought or a sensation, is extremely compelling to me, and "Street Haunting" presents it in one of its most beautiful and direct forms. It's not alone, though, in being an excellent essay offering from Woolf: other favorites of mine include the famous "A Room of One's Own," "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," "Evening over Sussex: Reflections in a Motor Car," and much of her literary criticism.

Essay Mondays is taking next week off, because David and I will be hosting fifty of our closest friends and family this weekend at our Partnership Celebration! (I do have one more non-essay-related post I hope to write this week, but we'll see if that ends up happening.) The week after that, I'll be back with one piece by Ivan Turgenev, two by Lu Hsun, and one by Junichero Tanizaki.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

The Paris Review Interviews IV


A big thanks to Frances and Camille for turning me on to the Paris Review interviews! I received the third and fourth volumes of the selected interviews for Christmas, and have been making my slow but delighted way through the fourth ever since. Number Four contains interviews with two of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami and Marilynne Robinson (which is why I started here), but it's chock full of thoughts from other luminaries of the last 75 years, including but not limited to William Styron, Marianne Moore, Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth, P.G. Wodehouse, Maya Angelou, and Paul Auster.

It's always hard to write about collections of things - poems, short stories, interviews, essays. How to encompass what made the reading experience special, when a collection is composed of many diverse parts rather than a unified whole? But here's what I'd like to say about reading these interviews: truly, I got so much more out of them than I anticipated. I was expecting to page through, perhaps even skim, the interviews with authors I hadn't read, pausing for a more in-depth read only on the relatively few with whose work I was familiar. This is not what happened. Not even close. Instead, I found myself feeling more as if I were reading character-driven short stories than mundane "interviews." The distinctive voice of each author came through so clearly: Styron's crotchety, expansive good-old-boy-ism; Moore's careful precision; Kerouac's self-involved exuberance; Wodehouse's sunny, bumbling optimism; Naipul's jumpy reticience, eventually overcome. Sometimes, as with Kerouac, these personas were the ones I expected to find. Other times, probably more often than not, they held surprises. Paul Auster, for example: given the hard-polished, seemingly soulless cleverness of his New York Trilogy, I was expecting a self-congratulatory cynic. Instead, he struck me as shockingly sincere. Just listen to him gush about the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne:

But there's more to Hawthorne than just his stories and novels. I'm equally attached to his notebooks, which contain some of his strongest, most brilliant prose. The diary he kept about taking care of his five-year-old son for three weeks in 1851 is a self-contained work. It can stand on its own, and it's so charming, so funny in its deadpan way, that it gives an entirely new picture of Hawthorne. He wasn't the gloomy, tormented figure most people think he was. Or not only that. He was a loving father, and husband, a man who liked a good cigar and a glass or two of whiskey, and he was playful, generous, and warmhearted. Exceedingly shy, yes, but someone who enjoyed the simple pleasures of the world.

I relate so strongly to Auster's joy here at finding a multi-facetedness to Hawthorne—a deadpan humor and a liking for good cigars, when all most people see is a "gloomy, tormented figure." The humanizing influence is so charming, both in what Auster has to say about Hawthorne, and in what the interview reveals about Auster himself. Reading his interview made me reevaluate my relationship to his work, which I had regarded as a kind of clever joke on the reader, but which I now tend to think about in a more serious light. On one hand, I think this makes The New York Trilogy slightly less successful, due to its lack of soul...but on the other hand, knowing there's more substance to the author than I had realized makes me more excited to read his other work. I'm now inclined to judge him more stringently, but with more respect.

By the age of fifty, most of us are haunted by ghosts. They live inside us and we spend as much time talking to the dead as to the living. It's hard for a young person to understand this. It's not that a twenty year old doesn't know he's going to die, but it's the loss of others that so profoundly affects an older person—and you can't know what that accumulation of losses is going to do to you until you experience it yourself. Life is so short, so fragile, so mystifying. After all, how many people do we actually love in the course of a lifetime? Just a few, a tiny few. When most of them are gone, the map of your inner world changes. As my friend George Oppen once said to me about getting old: what a strange thing to happen to a little boy.

I mean, what a gorgeous observation! And really, the whole volume is full of this kind of gem. One of my most exciting discoveries is the poet John Ashbery, whom I admit I had never heard of before reading his interview. I connected with it so strongly, though, that I sought out Ashbery's work and am now in the midst of his gorgeous yet enigmatic Notes from the Air. I related to his account of gradually coming to the realization that the people who produced nineteenth-century poetry had their own vital reality:

I didn't really get a feeling for the poetry of the past until I had discovered modern poetry. Then I began to see how nineteenth-century poetry wasn't just something lifeless in an ancient museum but must have grown out of the lives of the people who wrote it.

I remember going through this same process of realization about pre-contemporary literature (say, anything published before 1900) early in college. It was a visceral, un-cerebral epiphany; I reached a point at which I had amassed enough life experience myself to be able to empathize with and relate to people whose worldviews were very different from my own—to recognize what was essentially similar through the veil of differences. Before it happened, I experienced Shakespeare as a kind of alien being, whose characters, I had to accept, acted in ways not understandable in terms of my own existence. Which offered me very limited options for interacting with his texts. Sometime early in college something clicked for me, and I recognize the motivations that make Hamlet dither over killing his uncle, or Edgar put off revealing his identity to Gloucester. They suddenly seemed like real people to me, just living in different circumstances. (Obviously Ashbery has benefited from his long career in poetry; look how much more concise his version of this process is than mine!)

So too, I shared Ashbery's thoughts on ambiguity in art:

The idea of relief from pain has something to do with ambiguity. Ambiguity supposes eventual resolution of itself, whereas certitude implies further ambiguity. I guess that is why so much "depressing" modern art makes me feel cheerful.

This idea seems very apropos to the recent Woolf in Winter discussions. Woolf is the poster girl of so-called "depressing" modern art, yet I find much of her work positively exhilarating, and I think a lot of it has to do with her ability to evoke and even celebrate ongoing ambiguity. Most of my favorite writers—Woolf, Ishiguro, Welty, Proust—are able to coexist peacefully with conflicting impulses and uncertainties, and resist tying anything up into a neat little package for the reader. Perhaps I wouldn't go so far as to say that their work makes me feel "cheerful," but it does match up with my lived experience, and so gives me the deeply-felt pleasure of discovering a kindred spirit. As Murakami says in his own interview, "I always hope to position myself away from so-called conclusions."

There's no way I can share all the satisfying moments and fascinating tidbits in these interviews. I loved learning about the process by which Murakami's novels get translated into English (some smaller countries actually translate from the English rather than the original Japanese!); was engrossed by David Grossman's reflections on control of language in the Israeli press; was impressed by Hermione Lee's insightful questions in her interview with Philip Roth; was gobsmacked to learn that Stephen Sondheim grew up in a surrogate-son relationship to Oscar Hammerstein, and learned song-writing from him (and was also intrigued by Sondheim's reflections on how much less suited the English language is to writing rhyming poetry than the French and Italian). My ear for gossipy details loved picking up little facts of the writer's life—that Maya Angelou rents hotel rooms and writes on the unmade beds, for example.

But what I loved most about reading these interviews was basking in the sense that what we all do, here in the book-blogging world—talking about literature; wrestling with how it works and why; pondering the mysteries of it—is work that's worthwhile, and even important, to do. I look forward to my slow but rewarding journey through the other three volumes and beyond.

Essay Mondays: Chesterton


(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.)

Interestingly, my four essay selections for this week all explored the lighter side of the form, which, considering the heaviness of The Waves and the fact that I'm in the midst of preparing for a big event, came as a welcome change. It's difficult to choose among the four frothy concoctions Lopate dished out; they're all delightful, from Max Beerbohm's lovable grump about why he never, of his own volition, chooses to go out for a walk, and the same author's meditation on that wonderful kind of laughter that gathers so much steam as to be self-sustaining; to G.K. Chesterton's gentler yet slightly more substantive pleas for cultivating a romantic appreciation of life's inconveniences ("On Running After One's Hat").

I think the one I'll write about, though, is Chesterton's "A Piece of Chalk," in which the author takes us on a light ramble in the undulating hills of English countryside, his coat pocket stuffed with colored chalks and brown paper with which he hopes to while away some time making drawings.

Do not, for heaven's sake, imagine I was going to sketch from Nature. I was going to draw devils and seraphim, and blind old gods that men worshipped before the dawn of right, and saints in robes of angry crimson, and seas of strange green, and all the sacred or monstrous symbols that look so well in bright colors on brown paper. They are much better worth drawing than Nature; also they are much easier to draw. When a cow came slouching by in the field next to me, a mere artist might have drawn it; but I always get wrong in the hind legs of quadrupeds. So I drew the soul of the cow; which I saw there plainly walking before me in the sunlight; and the soul was all purple and silver, and had seven horns and the mystery that belongs to all the beasts.

Lopate likens Chesterton's gentle, jovial tone to that of a "favorite uncle," and I think he's right on the money. I can understand why this essayist was so popular in his time: he is easy to spend time with; his prose is fluid and engaging; he is occasionally self-effacing (as in the "easier to draw" comment), but never annoyingly or compulsively so; he is quite religious, but with a broad, appreciationist type of religious morality that religious and non-religious readers alike could relate to. This last is particularly true of people reading Chesterton in his own time and context. To modern ears a few of his comments do seem a bit Christian-chauvinist, as above when he refers to pre-Christian times as "before the dawn of right." I found myself inclined to keep reading him despite this, however, because of the unexpected and appealing quality of his observations, and the way his light, conversational tone floats me along.

All this I said (in an off-hand way) to the old woman; and I put the brown paper in my pocket along with the chalks, and possibly other things. I suppose every one must have reflected how primeval and how poetical are the things that one carries in one's pocket; the pocket-knife, for instance, the type of all human tools, the infant of the sword. Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about the things in my pocket. But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.

I wouldn't say Chesterton blew my mind, but he was a highly enjoyable way to spend an hour or so, and I have to admire his technique: such lightness of touch is always surprisingly difficult to achieve.

Next week: Two great essays by (of all people) Virginia Woolf, and one long piece by George Orwell. After that we're leaving Britain, my friends.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography