May 2010 Archives

Tender Morsels


More than any book I've read lately, Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels (a re-telling of the Germanic fairy tale "Snow White and Rose Red," and also an examination of the powers and limits of coping mechanisms after a severe trauma) took me outside my reading comfort zone. For one thing, it is marketed as a "young adult" novel here in the States, a classification I don't normally read. For another, it involves elements—parallel dimensions, witches and sorceresses, people transforming into bears and back into people—that mark it as fantastical, and not in a wacky Japanese dream-world way or a surreal David Lynch-type way, but in an undeniably—well—Fantasy type way.

And that, I'm ashamed to say, kinda freaked me out. I'm not claiming it's good or it's right, but there you have it. I am prejudiced enough to have cringed over the more involved magical scenes. Moon-creatures hovering over abysses, witches conjuring portals between two parallel worlds; sorceresses explaining to rooms full of people how this and that magical mechanism functioned—I must admit it gave me pause. I was reliably more engaged whenever Lanagan veered toward the classic "fairy tale" format—iconic rather than developed characters, magic that seems more about allegory than magic-for-magic's-sake, schematic events that move quickly and use a certain, specific kind of heavily simplified language ("Once upon a time, in a cottage at the edge of a forest, there lived a young girl and her brother..."). Certain scenes in Tender Morsels really tapped into that rich, allegorical power that fairytales can have. I got chills during the scene when Liga realizes, after being incestually abused and then gang-raped, that her town has mysteriously been transformed into something that will not hurt or threaten her anymore:

Lucky indeed Liga felt, walking home that day with figs and sugar and good smoke-meat in her basket, and her first lesson with Mistress Taylor set for next afternoon. It was all very different from the noise and bustle and nastiness she had expected to weather in the town; it was very odd to have conjured a headful of terrors and carried them into St. Olafred's, only to discover them all to be unfounded.
          She held her baby close against her breast as she walked along. "How lovely, Branza! Such a different place! How long can it last, do you think? Is it to be ours forever?"

This scene reminded me of the final pages of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, in which Pecola reacts to her father's rape by retreating into a fantasy world where she has achieved her life-long dream of being blue-eyed and having a friend. From the outside, however, it merely looks as though she's walking around talking to the air, flailing her arms like a broken bird. There is a disconnect between perception and reality: suddenly Liga's world is much safer and kinder, her emotions calmer; to her, this is a sign that the harm against her has been magically alleviated, whereas to the reader it's an indication of just how extreme that harm really was.

What I'm getting at by beginning my post with the ways in which my snobbishness sometimes got in the way of my enjoyment of Tender Morsels, is that the novel deserves so much better. Although I wasn't completely riveted at every moment (for a fairy tale, the book is quite long), although it's not up my normal alley, Lanagan's story gave me so much to unpack. It speaks eloquently about the ways in which the richness of life is inextricably bound up with the tragedy and hurt of it, and about how people can reach a point of hurt where their only feasible survival strategy is to cut themselves off from that richness, retreat into a flat safety. So too, it raises fascinating questions about the process of emerging from places of safety—both for the person (in this case Liga) who created the retreat in the first place, and for those (her daughters) who have never known any other reality. On the one hand, Lanagan seems more optimistic than Morrison: we get the sense that Pecola will never emerge from her shattered madness, whereas Liga is pulled from her retreat after twenty-five years, and learns to live in the world and even appreciate what it has to offer. On the other hand, we are also left with a sense that, in certain ways, she has waited too long: by savoring her retreat for so many years, she has permanently missed some of the fullness of real-world existence. She emerges at age 40 with only an adolescent's understanding of certain aspects of life, and it's too late to recoup her losses completely. This seems to me an accurate, if tragic, comment on the experiences of many people with severe trauma early in life: they simply never get the chance to catch up.

Lanagan makes several decisions in Tender Morsels that seem ripe for discussion, and which I didn't completely understand. For example, the narration in the novel switches between third-person (in sections dealing with Liga and her daughters, Branza and Urdda) and a variety of first-person narrators—the rascally but charismatic dwarf Collaby Dought; earnest Davit Ramstrong, who spends three months with Liga as a bear; young Bullock Oxman, who becomes a bear in his own world, against his will. Although Lanagan is plainly interested in the female experience in this novel, it's hard not to notice that all of the characters who actually get a voice here are men. Not even the cackling widow Annie Bywell speaks for herself directly out of the page. Lanagan herself says, in the book's appendix, that she

wanted to make a subtle point about how the men are comfortable imagining themselves as the heroes of their own story, whereas the women always feel themselves to be part of a bigger story that is more significant than their own lives.

I find this explanation unsatisfying. Yes, it is part of male privilege to feel one is the hero of one's own story. But the particular female characters Lanagan creates—in particular Annie, who is selfish and strong-willed enough, certainly more so than Davit Ramstrong, and also Urdda, who has a child's self-centered curiosity until very late in the novel, and who has been raised in a dream-world with her mother at the center, away from patriarchal power structures—I don't believe they think of themselves as more acted-upon than acting, nor that they necessarily see themselves as parts of a larger whole.

I felt the division of narratives works better as an indication of Liga's alienation: how she is, for much of the story, so cut off from her own self and the world around her. The first-person narrators achieve a level of visceral reality that's absent from the third-person sections, which makes sense given that Liga and her daughters are living in a flattened, passionless world. This, for example, is one of my favorite passages from Dought:

There was a certain type of rich feller liked to use me much as a doll is used, to dress me up in tiny clothes and have me pop up around his house, spreading scandal and scampery. And many a year passed in this merry type of employment.
          But I put all of my eggs in one basket with one lord, and off he went and died, didn't he? And what I thought I had coming to me through him, his family felt I ought not to gain—for certainly I had done as he said very well, and their names were all muddied about the place most satisfactory. I got barely a worm-squidge out of them. By dint of being inscrutable, though, I built and built that squidge up, to the point where it all exploded around me in a mess of thieves and cheaters—myself included, I don't deny that—and bills for liquors I and my fellows had drunk but not paid for, meals unremunerated that we had long since shat out.

Liga and Branza, and even Urdda, never get to be quite as vivid as Collaby is here; I kept waiting for the point, after their reentry into the real world, when one of the female characters would assume the first-person voice, but it never happened. I'm torn between thinking this is a fitting statement about the alienating effects of their experiences, individually and as women, and being disappointed because it seems at odds with the more optimistic futures that await Branza and Urdda, not to mention the entire lived reality of Annie.

Another interesting portrayal, I thought, was Urdda's reaction when she learns the truth about her conception. She's utterly devastated, in a way that's made even worse by her earlier sheltered life: she hadn't ever considered that such cruelty and ugliness could exist in the world, much less that it would have engendered her own body. I thought about Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, and how the society in that novel is insidious in exposing the children very gradually to the knowledge of their eventual fates. Kathy says that they are always told just slightly more than they can fully understand, so that no revelation ever comes as a shock. Urdda's situation is the exact opposite: most people, I think, learn about the theoretical possibility of violence and rape gradually, and come to accept (for better or worse) living in a world that includes those things, whereas Urdda has been completely sheltered from anything resembling such knowledge, so that when it bursts upon her in a single torrent she is completely overwhelmed with rage and lust for revenge. It's such an understandable and inevitable reaction that I found myself trying to remember when I myself had felt like that: surely, there must have been a time? My own initiations were closer to those in Ishiguro's novel, however, than those in Lanagan's.

But when Urdda finally gets her revenge, almost without meaning to...I'll just say that I felt Lanagan was inserting a bit more fairy-tale quality into the "real world" of her story. Urdda is consumed with rage, and causes her revenge; after the revenge, she wakes up "with no particular feelings at all" about the knowledge she gained the day before. Her inadvertent act of revenge seems to have slated her anger in a way I found allegorically unconvincing. Is it supposed to be part of the magic of the situation that Urdda has come to complete apathy or acceptance (which is it?) of humanity's violence to humanity, and her own subjugated state as a woman, in the space of a single night? Is this change of feeling engendered by violence? I find it hard to believe that any simple act of retribution could really slake such a deep hurt. Is there some kind of key in the fact that the violence Urdda causes is unintentional, or righteous? Either idea strikes an uncomfortable chord in an otherwise beautifully resonant book.


Tender Morsels was our May read for the Non-Structured Group; June's pick is Gabriel Josipovici's Moo Pak. Discussion on the 25th; feel free to join in!

I'm also counting Tender Morsels as my third book toward the Women Unbound Challenge.

Every Eye


I find that many novellas sneak up on me: I spend the first 50 or even 75 pages feeling underwhelmed, struggling against the compression of the form, and just when I've got into the rhythm of the language and begun to be truly invested in the characters...the thing is over. Such was certainly the case with Isobel English's 1956 novella Every Eye. English writes with a careful precision that at first struck me as cold and unapproachable, but later came to seem like a perfect, unassuming vessel for the voice of her main character. She portrays an almost unbridgeable distance between humans, which at first appeared to be a lack of character development, but gradually revealed itself as a conscious philosophical—or at least psychological—stance, a portrait of the protagonist Hatty's lived reality. As I turned the final page, I ended up feeling that somehow, while I wasn't paying close enough attention, English's narrative had grown and ripened into itself, filling completely the space it had made.

The 37-year-old Hatty, as English's story opens, is torn between two impulses. She has just gotten word that her uncle's wife Cynthia has died: this brings back complicated feelings of events long past, memories of the ambivalent relationship with Cynthia she had as a young woman. At the same time, she is about to embark on delayed honeymoon through France to Ibiza with her younger husband Stephen, which forces her into the present and all the awkwardness and imperfection of traveling. As she and Stephen make their way south, strings of thought about what happened between her and Cynthia—and, by extension, between her and her uncle, and her mother, and a male friend of her uncle and aunt— occur and recur in Hatty's mind, as she tries to sort out her feelings upon learning that this family member who was once important to her has died. Hatty's memories of her past—from an awkward girl of fourteen, convinced that her skill at the piano marks her out as different from those around her, to a disillusioned twenty-five-year-old teaching piano between the wars, to a post-war emotional convalescent returning to the site of her childhood—intermingle fluidly with the pleasures and obstacles of her and Stephen's journey to Spain.

One of the things that kept striking me about Every Eye up until the last thirty or so pages, was a sense of coldness and unbridgeable distance between people, specifically between Hatty and Stephen (who, one gets the sense, the reader is supposed to feel glad are together). Compared to Hatty's visceral push-pull relationship with Cynthia, Stephen seems like a shadowy presence, asleep in a train car across from her or conversing with their tour guide while she lets her attention wander. While she suffers from shipboard insomnia, he is fast asleep on deck; when she hovers on the doorstep of a dodgy-looking hotel, he dismisses her fears and drags her inside. But although Stephen does comes to life a bit more in the last 30-50 pages of the novella, I came to realize that this distance is part of Hatty's experience of life with everyone—even, it turns out, Cynthia herself. There are moments of connection, of sympathy, and relief, but for the most part humans are set on tracks unknown to one another, which can only be understood much later, if at all. "I was over twenty-five," Hatty writes,

and I had come within the core of myself to know that I could never successfully make a real contact with another human being.

The one relationship she has in her twenties becomes unhappy and ridiculous precisely because she tries to overcome this, tries to make her dealings with her uncle's friend conform to the narrative she has learned about romance, love, proposals, and marriage.

I thought, he is a perfectionist and it is his way of saying that he wishes his possessions to be flawless. I read into the gentle coaxing subtleties that went far beyond the limited feelings that one human being can have for another.

This at first struck me as an overly bleak view, but now I think differently. I think it's less about condemning the whole of humanity to an isolated existence free of meaningful connection, and more about admitting that even between people who imagine themselves quite close, or who society expects to be close, there are still times of great emotional distance. Hatty, by the end of this novella, doesn't reach the romantic ideal of having all her demons exorcised, but she starts to gain the ability to take her interactions with other people for what they are—awkward or relieving, revealing or monotonous—without expecting them to be something different.

How far apart we were, sitting together side by side. I know that it is not enough simply to coordinate two lives by the trick of words and vows; rarely spaced are the moments that two people can settle together on a pinnacle of illumination or understanding and count it as unity. I thought always before the operation on my eye that the source of discordancy between myself and other people lay in the distortion of my own vision. I did not know then as I do now that this outward sign was only the visible proof of an inward impediment.

When we finally see, toward the end of the book, the scenes of courtship between Hatty and Stephen, we understand better what a relief and accomplishment it can be simply to accept events as they happen, genuinely, without freighting them with expectation or fear. In the same way, Hatty is filled with happiness when she finally meets a villager in her old childhood home who will compliment her on having fixed her formerly lazy eye: she, and by this point the reader, crave a simple, honest interaction that acknowledges the past and exists in the present.

I've seen a few people describe Every Eye as "romantic," but I don't really think that fits, not in the traditional sense of "romantic," anyway. There is no whirlwind passion for Hatty and Stephen, or even, most of the time, a companionable understanding. (After all, they have only known each other two years.) Neither is there, thankfully in my opinion, any notion of "meant to be": Hatty frankly acknowledges that she and Stephen happened to meet at the right time in both their lives, and that if they had met in different circumstances, she would never have connected with him. In English's world, people are icebergs to one another, with only a tiny portion of their vast internal continents perceptible at any given time. Understanding does not come easily to these characters; it's not intuitive. But that doesn't mean they don't try, and that they don't sometimes achieve a moment of true sincerity and connection with one another—and, possibly more importantly, with themselves. In the end, having seen the importance of the time Hatty spends alone in her old childhood town, away from the controlling influences of her early life, I couldn't feel too sorry that she sometimes feels alone even when Stephen is present. If "alone" is separated from "lonely," after all, it becomes more about peace than about pain.

Essay Mondays: Lopate


(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 can't resist the symmetry of closing out my Essay Mondays series (for a while at least) with an essay by the editor of the entire collection, Phillip Lopate. Jenny mentioned in the comments on last Monday's post that his was the only one of the four final essays in this book that she disliked, and I can understand why: I think it walks that delicate line between funny and obnoxious, observant and misanthropic. For me it came up on the positive side of these equations—largely, I think, because Lopate himself gets the chance to introduce the essay, and concedes that it was more a stylistic exercise than a straight statement of philosophy:

Of course the central proposition is nonsensical—no one can be against the joy of life, really—and I knew that at the time, but I wanted to push a prejudice, or dark impulse, or mine as far as it would go, and see where it would take me.

Read in this spirit, I must admit to strongly relating to "Against Joie de Vivre," in addition to admiring the Montaigne-like pacing and structure of the essay. Lopate's quasi-serious narrator is certainly cranky, venting his spleen against everything from open-air picnicking, to spry, bohemian octogenarians, to dinner parties, to the insistence of a certain class of people that we should all learn to "live in the moment." Such curmudgeonliness could easily come off as pointlessly mean-spirited, but for me it didn't—mostly, I think, because Lopate doesn't shy away from making himself the butt of his wry observations. He seems to find himself just as ridiculous as he finds everyone else, and if he finds himself less annoying than he finds other people, he readily admits that it's only because of his own subjectivity. Take his section on dinner parties. It's a favorite of mine, since I also dislike the type of party he's describing: not a casual dinner shared among friends, but an orchestrated group gathered by the host and hostess, most of whom have not met before, but who are expected to make clever chit-chat about a certain set of pre-approved subjects.

Although an after-work "leisure activity," the dinner party is in fact a celebration of professional identity. Each of the guests has been preselected as in a floral bouquet; and in certain developed forms of this ritual there is usually a cunning mix of professions. Yet the point is finally not so much diversity as commonality; what remarkably shared attitudes and interests these people from different vocations demonstrate by conversing intelligently, or at least glibly, on the topics that arise.

That first sentence about celebrating professional identity had me cheering, I must admit: it's a total pet peeve of mine that the first question everyone must answer in a social setting in this country is "What do you do?" by which the questioner means "What do you get paid to do?" not "What do you do for fun?" or "What have you done today?"—yet the answer to that question generates a handy label with which the questioner can pidgeonhole the respondent. From here Lopate gets steadily grouchier (and, in my opinion, more brilliant). "Dinner-party chatter," he writes, "is the communicative equivalent of roaming around shopping malls":

Much thought has gone into the ideal size for a dinner party—usually with the hostess arriving at the figure eight. Six would give each personality too much weight; ten would lead to splintering side discussions; eight is the largest number still able to force everyone into the same compulsively congenial conversation. My own strength as a conversationalist comes out less in groups of eight than one-to-one, which may explain my resistance to dinner parties. At the table, unfortunately, any engrossing tête-à-tête is frowned upon as antisocial.

Despite the seeming perversity of his position, there is something real that Lopate's criticizing here: the shallowness that goes with pursuing joie de vivre as a lifestyle, rather than expressing it spontaneously when one actually feels the impulse, and the self-satisfied evangelism of those who have devoted themselves to such rigorous joyfulness. The compulsory nature of the glib, surface-y chit-chat at this type of dinner party; the way in which having a different kind of conversation is seen as antisocial: it points out the odd bullying cheerfulness that sometimes exists at group functions, and which one only notices if one prefers a different kind of activity to the one backed by the group. The "outsider" in these settings is in a tough position: say, for example, that she would prefer to lounge in the lodge reading rather than hitting the slopes with the rest of the gang, or take a walk in the evening air rather than make strained conversation at the party. If she simply DOES what she wants, she is perceived as unhappy or depressed (because who WOULDN'T want to be constantly around other people, engaged in active pursuits?), and if she expresses her preference ("No thanks, I don't really like skiing"), she is perceived as rude or uninitiated. In the mind of the joie de vivre bully, the oddball is plainly claiming to dislike Activity X simply as a screen for shyness, or moodiness, or because she's stuck up—or perhaps she thinks she doesn't like said activity, but that's only because she hasn't done it right. So they continue to push for conformity, never considering that their victim may simply be choosing a different activity because she genuinely prefers it.

Of course this is a simplification, an exaggeration of the facts. Lots of people, once they get to know an oddball like Lopate or me, stop taking offense when we don't want to join the group for every activity, or when we try to steer our social interactions into smaller groups, more intimate settings. Nevertheless, I think the "joie de vivre bully" is enough of a reality to merit an essay. Yet it's a difficult task to criticize this kind of behavior without seeming like a disaffected teenager—these people mean the best, after all. They are only trying to assure that everyone has a good time, and if their definition of "having a good time" is rather narrow, that's no reason to get all misanthropic on them. I think Lopate does a great job of expressing clearly what bothers him, and allowing himself a level of grumpiness and irrationality that means he (and readers who relate) can chuckle and blow off steam, while also acknowledging that he's being somewhat ridiculous, and that much of what he's saying is down to his own prejudices. It was a good mix, I thought, and a good way to wrap up the Essay Monday experience.

I have lived in the present from time to time, and I can tell you that it is much overrated. Occasionally, as a holiday from stroking one's memories or brooding about future worries, I grant you, it can be a nice change of pace. But to "be here now," hour after hour, would never work. I don't even approve of stories written in the present tense. As for poets who never use a past participle, they deserve the eternity they are striving for.

A few notes on The Art of the Personal Essay as a whole: I loved making my way through this book, and as much as I'm qualified to judge, I think it's a good overview of the personal essay tradition. It certainly expanded my list of essayists to search out and read in the future, and Lopate's introductory pages were a good length, giving both an idea of the essayist's background and a hint of Lopate's personal opinion on him or her, all in a concise format. There's a wide diversity of long and short pieces, serious and funny, past and present—I think Lopate did a good job of showing the scope of what the personal essay form can do.

My only reservation about it is that it's extremely England- and America-heavy. A quick look at the chapter divisions will make my point: after Montaigne ("Fountainhead"), the three section headings are "The Rise of the English Essay," "Other Cultures, Other Continents," and "The American Scene." These three sections are all roughly the same length, which means that not only is Lopate dividing the world into American, English, and "Other," but he's compressing the entire rest of the world into the same amount of space given to each America and England. I would have appreciated a more balanced, less "other-ing" presentation of world essay traditions.

Despite that reservation, though, this is an excellent collection. Lots of good stuff; I should think that almost any reader will discover new essayists to love.

Let the Great World Spin


I was intrigued by the premise of Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin as soon as I heard about it—there is so much appeal, to me, in the idea of a series of strangers in New York whose lives all intertwine with the daring performance of Philippe Petit, who strung a high wire between the under-construction World Trade Center towers and walked, hopped, and danced across it one morning in 1974. The notion that an act of "art for art's sake" could affect so many disparate people, their stories spreading out in different directions from the moment, is so compelling, reminiscent of the effortless-feeling connection among a diverse group of Londoners in the aeroplane scene of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. I also liked the idea of exploring how the World Trade Center towers, which were built as utilitarian places of business and later came to be associated with a horrifying terrorist attack, could also be a site of creativity and élan, a Situationalist act of joy that jolted people out of their everyday concerns, even if just for a moment.

Unfortunately, as enthusiastic as I was about the concept of Let the Great World Spin, the execution left me underwhelmed. McCann's prose, though easy to read, strikes me as thin and heavyhanded, with little nuance left to the reader's intelligence (a lot of telling, not enough showing). Its sections shift among various first- and third-person points of view, but while the speakers showed a few surface differences from one another (the narrator of the first section, a fan of Allen Ginsberg, busts out phrases like "their mad, impossible angel" and "the nightlands of America," while the black prostitute Tillie says "shoulda," "musta" and "prop'rties"), McCann never fully commits to crafting an individual voice for each narrator, let alone one that transcends commonplaces about their national, ethnic, and class backgrounds. At the same time, his own authorial voice, often choppy and expositionally awkward, didn't strike me as distinctive enough to make the book stand out, or convince me of the reality of the people depicted. To wit (a passage selected almost at random):

He has his back to me. My heart shudders every time he sits near the portrait of my dead husband. He has never asked me to move the photo. He never will. He knows the reason it is there. No matter that my husband was a brute who died in the war in the mountains near Quezaltenango—it makes no difference—all children need a father. Besides, it is just a photo. It takes no precedence. It does not threaten Corrigan. He knows my story.

It would have taken some convincing in any case, because the novel's large cast of characters seldom move beyond the stereotypical. The Irish Catholic "holy fool" character is wracked by religious guilt; the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold lets her daughter shoot up in her arms, then feels guilty; the bohemian artists get addicted to cocaine, lose touch with their art, then hit rock bottom; the wealthy white Park Avenue housewife is neurotic and self-conscious. One gets the feeling one has met all these people before, and not in a "resonant archetypes" way. McCann structures his book cleverly, with overlapping narratives which gradually reveal themselves to be interconnected, but his characterization suffers from this technique, since he doesn't spend enough time with any one character to move beyond the standard tropes. In his defense, I often felt he was moving in the right direction by the time a section ended, but he never quite had the time to arrive at his destination. One of my favorite parts, for example, is narrated by an overweight, middle-class black woman whom we have seen, earlier in the book, uttering phrases like "Mercy!" and "Say gospel" in normal conversation (and, as if Gloria as bosomy gospel matron was not coming off clearly enough, McCann takes this opportunity to tell us that her voice sounded "as if she's at a church service." GOTCHA. My head, it has been pummeled with this description). In her own chapter, to McCann's credit, Gloria adds quite a bit of complexity to this churchy perception: she turns out to be college-educated; a religious agnostic who hides behind the expected Southern exclamations as a self-defense technique:

Years ago, when I was at university in Syracuse, I developed a manner of saying things that made people happy, kept them talking so I didn't have to say much myself, I guess now I'd say that I was building a wall to keep myself safe. In the rooms of wealthy folk, I had perfected my hard southern habit of Mercy and Lord and Landsakes. They were the words I fell back on for another form of silence, the words I've always fallen back on, my reliables, they've been my last resort for I don't know how long.

Gloria, however, is one of the only characters whose glaring stereotypical-ness I felt was problematized by the end of the novel. Tillie the prostitute is particularly galling in this respect, as are Lara and Blaine, the bohemian modern art clichés. Tellingly, I thought McCann's most successful chapters were the ones that did little or nothing to advance his central plot: the hacker section features some natural-seeming humor and characterization, and the short chapter about a young boy documenting graffiti on the New York subway system suggested a story I'd be interested to read in expanded form (what WAS the role of this chapter in the larger narrative, though? Was he supposed to be a young Charlie Ahearn or something? Are we just supposed to stop and realize that some people in 1974 were starting to appreciate the artistic merits of tagging?) The chapters devoted to the high-wire artist were also enjoyable, and much more crisp and detailed than most of the action, making me wish the author had written a straight novel on Petit, rather than sidelining the performance artist's story. Whenever he returned to the main action, however, cliché was quick to follow. I was reminded of Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter, which I started enjoying only when Kristin herself would disappear from the scene.

And Let the Great World Spin shares another downfall with the works of Undset, namely the compulsion to include EVERY SINGLE noteworthy place or event possible, in a grand orgy of name-dropping. The coked-up bohemians stay at the Chelsea Hotel and hang out at Max's Kansas City, while faux-churchy Gloria tells us she took place in the freedom rides during the Civil Rights struggle. Multiple characters have lost sons in Vietnam (although I felt this was better integrated into the plot than many other topical references). McCann makes sure to have a few characters comment on Nixon's resignation two days after the high-wire stunt, and sets an enjoyable yet pointless chapter in Palo Alto, where early computer hackers reference internet-precursor ARPANET. It's characteristic of the book that the final chapter, which jumps forward in time to 2006, finds a way to incorporate not only the September 11 attacks and the subsequent US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but also Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. The narrator of the first section, Ciaran Corrigan, leaves Ireland for New York when he is injured in an IRA attack. The disillusioned judge was friends with Wallace Stevens and owns a painting by Miró. And so on. I'm the first to appreciate a well-evoked time and place, but in my opinion this kind of thing comes off as a lazy shorthand that stops short of communicating much tangible reality to the reader.

To tell the truth, although I don't normally shy away from expressing negativity, I feel awkward about publishing this post because of ALL the glowing reviews I've read of this book. For some people it is apparently life-changing, and I hesitate to warn anyone else off a book that might be such a special read. I must say, though, that for me it was a distinctly mediocre experience. Thanks, nonetheless, to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy; check out the rest of these fine blogs for other perspectives (most of them vastly different from mine):

Essay Mondays: Didion


(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.)

How have I waited this long to start reading Joan Didion? Chalk it up to my oft-misguided tendency to avoid things that everyone is raving about, perhaps. In this case, I can safely say that I've stayed away too long; the Lopate's Didion selections more than live up to the hype.

In particular "Goodbye to All That," her tribute and farewell to the eight youthful years she spent in New York City, struck a balance I really admired between nostalgic and cynical. I should say straight off that I've never particularly fallen in love with the romance of New York City myself, although I know it holds potent allure for so many. I'm certainly not immune to falling in love with the idea of a city: it's happened to me with London, with Paris, even, to some extent, with the seedy bygone Los Angeles I found in Raymond Chandler novels. New York and I were never particularly meant to be, though; in fact I often find myself annoyed by the assumption on the part of New Yorkers that their city is the acknowledged center of the universe and everyone would live there if they could. All of which is just to say that "Goodbye to All That" holds appeal beyond the romance of the New York scene. I have, of course, heard it quoted by people who do share young Didion's infatuation, who feel it expresses their own youthful love affairs with New York, and reminisce over passages like the following:

I remember walking across Sixty-second Street one twilight that first spring, or the second spring, they were all alike for a while. I was late to meet someone but I stopped at Lexington Avenue and bought a peach and stood on the corner eating it and knew that I had come out of the West and reached the mirage. I could taste the peach and feel the soft air blowing from a subway grating on my legs and I could smell lilac and garbage and expensive perfume and I knew that it would cost something sooner or later—because I did not belong there, did not come from there—but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs.

But although I have never sighed with longing to eat a peach on Lexington Avenue, I think Didion is actually describing something much more universal here: the giddiness of being young, living on one's own for the first time, when everything is new and exciting and you're not sure how or if things will work out. Being pretty certain that the way you're living your life is not sustainable, and casting caution to the winds because this is the way you glory in living right now. Those years, for Didion, took place in New York, but I can't help thinking they could happen anywhere: friends of mine spent theirs in Denver, or Philadelphia, or Olympia, or Ashevile, or Montreal, or Portland. That first giddy foray into adulthood, when earning enough money to keep yourself going feels like a tightrope act, and you have the frequent impulse to call out, like a kid riding her first bike without training wheels, "Hey, look at me! I'm doing it!" And the world feels so full of so many different kinds of people and experiences; everything comes as a novelty.

I never felt poor; I had the feeling that if I needed money I could always get it. I could write a syndicated column for teenagers under the name "Debbi Lynn" or I could smuggle gold into India or I could become a $100 call girl, and none of it would matter.
        Nothing was irrevocable; everything was just within reach. Just around every corner lay something curious and interesting, something I had never before seen or done or known about.

Inevitably, the giddiness doesn't last forever: the novelty wears off, the regular gambit of experiences come to seem like a chore instead of a delight; the thrill of living provisionally (Didion relates that she came to New York for six months and stayed for eight years, always expecting to take the next train back to California, which seems to me such a fitting metaphor for my own mental space in my late teens and early twenties) wears off and a person starts wishing for a more stable existence, one they can feel at home in for the long term. Again, Didion relates this process to New York itself: for her, it's a city in which to be young, and her implication is that she might not have had such a crash or identity crisis at twenty-eight if she had been living somewhere else. I find this hard to believe; in my experience, twenty-eight to thirty is often a difficult time of transition, and if a person isn't moving from New York to California, they're going back to school, or having a baby, or starting their own business, or taking some other similarly large life step (I know a few 28-year-olds, in fact, who moved TO New York City last year as part of their big life changes, as well as one who moved to Gainesville and another to Louisville). Nevertheless, despite her nostalgic New York-centrism, Didion does a fantastic job at evoking this process of gradual disillusionment and realization—eventual realization, because it comes on painfully slowly—that a change is desperately needed.

I remember one day when someone who did have the West Village number came to pick me up for lunch there, and we both had hangovers, and i cut my finger opening him a beer and burst into tears, and we walked to a Spanish restaurant and drank Bloody Marys and gazpacho until we felt better. I was not then guilt-ridden about spending afternoons that way, because I still had all the afternoons in the world.

This essay is a joy to read; I loved Didion's balance between nostalgia and wry self-criticism. More than that, it brought up questions about which aspects of one's identity are provisional and which are lasting, whether the core facets of a person change over time, and how huge life changes, the things we look back on as most meaningful in the long run, are sometimes initiated by happenstance, or a casual whim. As I mentioned a few days ago, I picked up Didon's collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem as part of my birthday trip to the bookstore, and am eager to sample more of her work.

Up next week: The final Essay Monday (at least for now): Richard Rodriguez, Gayle Pemberton, Scott Russel Sanders, or Lopate himself.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

La biblioteca de Babel


As I started reading Borges's "La biblioteca de Babel," I realized that I've been running across references to this short story for years, although now, typically, I can't put my finger on any specific text to prove my point. It's not surprising, though, that writers would find the central conceit of "La biblioteca" compelling: the narrator of the story, now an old man, describes the historical, political, and religious trajectory of the universe in which he lives: an interminable, possibly infinite library (one of the key philosophical debates in this universe, as in ours, is whether or not the Library has any outer edge) composed of endless identical hexagonal rooms, all full of books. The books are also identical from the outside, but inside contain all possible permutations of all possible ideas and non-ideas, in all possible languages:

De esas premisas incontrovertibles dedujo que la Biblioteca es total y que sus anaqueles registran todas las posibles combinaciones de los veintitantos símbolos ortográficos (número, aunque vastísimo, no infinito) o sea todo lo que es dable expresar: en todos los idiomas. Todo: la historia minuciosa del porvenir, las autobiografías de los arcángelos, el catálogo fiel de la Biblioteca, miles y miles de catálogos falsos, la demostración de la falacia de esos catálogos, la demonstración de la falacia del catálogo verdadero...

[From these incontrovertible premises he deduced that the Library is all-encompassing, and that its shelves contain all possible combinations of the twenty-some orthographic symbols (a number which, although vast, is not infinite), in other words everything it is possible to express, in all languages. Everything: the meticulous history of the future, autobiographies of the archangels, the catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of these catalogs, the proof of the falsity of the true catalog...]

Yet again I am in love with Borges's incredible clever playfulness here. He's excellent at taking an idea (say, the meta notion that the library would contain its own catalog) and running with it to delightful heights: not only that it would also contain huge numbers of wrong catalogs, or that one could also find the proof of the wrongness of those catalogs, but that there would also exist the false proof of the falsity of the true catalog. Brilliant stuff. I hope he had as much fun writing this stuff as I have reading it; it seems as though the exercise of such a brain would be a never-ending delight.

Not that the story itself depicts unmitigated joy. On the contrary, the supposed completeness of the Library becomes a tremendous burden for its inhabitants. The knowledge that all possible thoughts have already been expressed, all possible combinations of ideas already extant, lead many people into despondency; the narrator relates that the suicide rate rises every year. Not only is it impossible to write anything new, to add to the body of writing already ensconced in the Library, but since the books in the Library are either not organized in any particular order, or organized in an order that the inhabitants don't understand, there's no way to locate a particular book one might be searching for. To know simultaneously that every possible book exists, and yet that it's extremely unlikely to happen upon any particular one, drives many Library inhabitants mad:

En aquel tiempo se habló mucho de las Vindicaciones: libros de apología y de profecía, que para siempre vindicaban los actos de cada hombre del universo y guardaban arcanos prodigiosos para su porvenir. Miles de codiciosos abandonaron el dulce hexágono natal y se lanzaron escaleras arriba, urgidos por el vano propósito de encontrar su Vindicación. Esos peregrinos disputaban en los corredores estrechos, proferían oscuras maldiciones, se estrangulaban en las escaleras divinas, arrojaban los libros engañosos al fondo de los túneles, morían despeñados por los hombres de regiones remotas.

[At that time there was much talk of the Vindications: books of of apology and prophecy that vindicated for all time the acts of each man in the universe, and harbored profound secrets for his future. Thousands of covetous people abandoned the sweet hexagons of their birth and launched themselves up stairs, urged on by the vain prospect of finding their Vindication. These pilgrims fought in the narrow corridors, hurled dark curses, strangled each other on the divine staircases, threw deceitful books to the bottoms of the shafts, were killed by men in remote areas.

Surely some of the violence and desperation these wanderers display comes from the knowledge that, although their true Vindications may exist (however unlikely they are to actually find them in a library of essentially identical volumes), they are equally likely to come across a FALSE version of their own Vindication, or a version that is partially true and partially false, or a book that does the opposite of the one they're looking for, condemning all the actions they've ever taken instead of excusing them. In an atmosphere in which any possible combination of ideas, words and letters is available, Borges seems to argue, actual meaning is reduced to almost nothing: in order to perceive meaning, our options must be limited. The presence of something in a book in the Library means nothing about whether it's true or false—if, indeed, "true" and "false" even retain any meaning in such an environment. The blind quest of the Vindication seekers tries to overlook the impossibility of recognizing the truth of their actual Vindications, even if they were so lucky as to find them, in the midst of so many proofs and counter-proofs. There is even, Borges goes on, the difficulty of never being sure we are speaking the same language, with all permutations of possible languages represented:

Un número n de languajes posibles usa el mismo vocabulario; en algunos, el símbolo biblioteca admite la correcta definición ubiquo y perdurable sistema de galerías hexagonales, pero biblioteca es pan o pirámide o cualquier otra cosa, y las siete palabras que la definen tienen otro valor. Tú, que me lees, ¿estás seguro de entender mi lenguaje?

[A number n of possible languages use the same vocaulary; in some, the signifier library corresponds to the correct definition ubiquitous and everlasting network of hexagonal galleries, but library is bread or pyramid or some other thing, and the seven words of the definition have another meaning. You, reader, are you sure of understanding my language?]

I continue to have a rollicking good time with Borges, despite finding this story a bit more challenging than "Pierre Menard." More than anything, I'm in awe of the man's mental agility and delight in ideas—the two things that prevented the darkness of this story from getting to me in the slightest.



I found it useful to think about José Saramago's Seeing as, not so much a sequel to his earlier novel Blindness (though it takes place in the same unnamed European city, four years later), but as, fittingly enough, its photographic negative. Whereas Blindness is a brutally dark story with a glimmer of hope toward the end, Seeing is a wickedly funny satire—a much lighter tone overall—but with a crushing bit of darkness at its close. Whereas Blindness does not hesitate to explore the vilest brutalities that humans perpetrate on each other, Seeing is oddly civilized—but while Blindness shows the reader the deep compassion and humaneness that can come out of hardship, Seeing implies that our more noble instincts might be beside the fact, an irrelevance in the face of the huge, facilely idiotic machine of national government. Having just finished Seeing, I'm left pondering which is the more pessimistic book: certainly Blindness spends more of its pages being viscerally difficult to read, but I can't help privileging their respective endings: in the one case, hope for a small band of individuals; in the other, the casual destruction of those individuals to suit the petty whims of clueless officials.

Seeing is a kind of political fable: the night after the election, an unnamed European government finds that 77 percent of the population of the capital city has cast blank votes. Alarmed, they declare a mistake and organize a second election (complete with reconnaissance agents stationed casually in line at voting booths to intercept any information about the supposed blank-vote conspiracy), and everything seems perfectly normal except for the now 83 percent of capital-city voters who cast blank ballots into the box. The government interprets this action as an "attack on democracy" and reacts with a steady stream of increasingly restrictive measures, none of which seem to do a bit of good or extract a modicum of information. Beginning by declaring a state of emergency and suspending all constitutional rights in the city (a change none of the citizens seem to notice), they progress to sending intelligence agents into the populace (no one is interested in talking about the blank votes), and detaining a random sampling of citizens whom they hold indefinitely for interrogation (everyone refuses to say who they voted for). As the citizens' dignified non-participation holds steady, the government gets more and more ruffled, eventually choosing to abscond absurdly in the dead of night with all its officials, police, paperwork, assistants, computers and assorted detritus and declaring a state of seige on the capital city, forbidding anyone to enter or leave before the government has received a tearful apology from the city at large.

Saramago's satirical ear is delightful fun to read, particularly the scenes in which the ministers of the various national departments squabble pointlessly while trying to decide on a course of action:

Sounds a bit odd to me, said the minister of culture, to my knowledge, anarchists have never, even in the realm of theory, proposed committing acts of this nature and of this magnitude, That, said the minister of defense sarcastically, may be because my dear colleague's knowledge dates back to the idyllic world of his grandparents, and, strange though it may seem things have changed quite a lot since then, there was a time when nihilism took a rather lyrical and not too bloody form, but what we are facing today is terrorism, pure and unadulterated, it may wear different faces and expressions, but it is, essentially, the same thing, You should be careful about making such wild claims and such facile extrapolations, commented the justice minister, it seems risky to me, not to say, outrageous, to label as terrorism, especially pure and unadulterated terrorism, the appearance in the ballot boxes of a few blank votes, A few votes, a few votes, spluttered the minister of defense, rendered almost speechless, how, I'd like to know, can you possibly call eighty-three out of every hundred votes a few votes, what we have to grasp, what we have to take on board, is that each one of those votes was like a torpedo striking below the water line, My knowledge of anarchism may be out of date, I don't deny it, said the minister of culture, but as far as I'm aware, although I certainly don't consider myself an expert on naval battles either, torpedoes always strike below the water line, they don't have much option, that is what they were made to do.

The above is a good example of Saramago's style in both of these books: phrases strung together with commas into long uber-sentences, characters designated by function rather than name, and dialogue marked by simple capitalization. Personally, I like reading him regardless of the content, but I think his narrative oddities work especially well to tell this particular story: Seeing, after all, is all about the mechanized aspect of human society, about how the slot we fill defines our relationships to other slots and therefore, but only tangentially, to other people. Only if we are very conscientious or very lucky can we manage to connect with another human AS another human, rather than as a function of her and our respective slots. Saramago's decision to mingle the dialogue into a single flowing stream of words seems to me to fit with this idea: the conversation above, for example, could be taking place among any ministers of culture, defense, and justice—petty squabbling and a greater or lesser respect for such concepts as hawkishness, the rule of law, wit, and individual prerogative, is likely to exist in any cabinet meeting. The event (the conversation) transcends, in some way, the individuals taking part in it, just as the reader's eye sees first the undifferentiated block of text, just as the epidemic of blank votes seems to transcend any individual voter or, indeed, any individual conspirator.

Saramago plays with these ideas incessantly: it is interesting to watch the characters who change throughout the book, and to note whether their designators change as well. In one case, the city council leader becomes disillusioned with the absent government and quits his post, becoming "the former council leader." His crisis of conscience results in a change of designator, although only in a negative sense: he doesn't become "the head of the resistance" or "the activist," but continues to be defined by the job he has chosen not to do. Later on, the police superintendent and his two assistants argue over whether to call a given suspect "the prostitute," "the wife of the man with the eye patch," or "the girl with the dark glasses." Readers of Blindness, who are familiar with this character as "the girl with the dark glasses," may feel like they "recognize" this appellation as her true identity: it is, in any case, more judgment-neutral than referring to her as a prostitute, and more respectful of her self-hood than designating her only by who her husband might be. I was rooting for "the girl with the dark glasses" to win out as title—which is funny, since in the novel Seeing she never appears with dark glasses at all. All this brings up interesting questions about identity: does someone who has known a person longer, necessarily know them better? When does a name, title, or designation no longer apply? What makes one mode of reference preferable to another? Are some experiences, such as the events of Blindness, so formative that, even though this woman no longer wears dark glasses, there is still some innate "rightness" to referring to her by that title?

As much as Seeing is preoccupied with the mechanistic, it does also acknowledge the soulful aspects of human existence, and I felt that Saramago interwove just enough moments of desperate honesty between individuals, so that his book gained depth and weight. I particularly loved his passage toward the beginning, in which a female interrogation subject has just proved to her interrogator the worthlessness of the government's lie detectors. "It's all your fault," he says, "you made me nervous,"

Of course it was my fault, it was the temptress eve's fault, but no one came to ask us if we were feeling nervous when they hooked us up to that contraption, It's guilt that makes you feel nervous, Possibly, but go and ask your boss why it is that you, who are innocent of all our evils, behaved like a guilty man, There's nothing more to be said, replied the agent, it's as if what happened just now never happened at all. Then, addressing the technician, Give me that strip of paper, and remember, say nothing, if you do, you'll regret you were ever born, Yes, sir, don't worry, I'll keep my mouth shut, So will I, said the woman, but at least tell the minister that no amount of cunning will do any good, we will all continue to lie when we tell the truth, and to tell the truth when we lie, just like him, just like you, now imagine if I had asked if you wanted to go to bed with me, what would you have said then, what would the machine have said.

Instead of Essay Monday...


So, I hate to say it, but my essays this week were all rather...preachy. And it's not that I disagree with, or find uninteresting, the particular gospels being preached (feminism, environmentalism, kindness towards animals), but you know what? Today is my birthday, and I am not in the mood to be preached to. I am in the mood to celebrate. So instead of writing about one of the preachy essays, I'm sharing this stack of books:


Yay! Much more fun. My folks took David and I out to dinner last night, after which we all made a glorious trip to Powell's. I'm so excited with my haul:

  • The Sewing Machine Attachment Handbook was actually a gift from David: tells you what all those mysterious gadgets are that came with your used sewing machine! Turns out I have a "stitch in the ditch" presser foot, a hemming foot, and lord knows what else. I am excited to dive into this and start getting the most out of my Bernina.
  • The Makioka Sisters, by Junichero Tanizaki: I loved Tanizaki's essay "In Praise of Shadows, and have heard fantastic things about his novels.
  • A Personal Matter, by Kenzaburo Oe: The June pick for our non-structured book group, I'm looking forward to revisiting Oe after falling in love with the understated beauty of his novel A Quiet Life.
  • The Berlin Stories, by Christopher Isherwood: I've been hunting this attractive edition of The Berlin Stories for months, and finally ran across it. I've never read Isherwood, but I like the musical Cabaret, and am intrigued about the source material.
  • Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor: Impressed almost against my will by the incredibly dark religiosity of A Good Man is Hard to Find, I thought I'd try one of O'Connor's novels.
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion: I read ahead in the Lopate book, and let me just say that based on the selections there, I can't believe I've waited this long to read Didion. Picked this up cheap and can't wait to dive in.
  • The Lantern Bearers, by Robert Louis Stevenson: "The Lantern Bearers" was one of my favorite essays from the Essay Mondays experience, and I found this volume of his selected essays going for a song.
  • The Anatomy of Disgust, by William Ian Miller: My recent post on the disgusting in literature sparked a real interest for me in this emotion/reflex, and Miller's book promises to be an intriguing, readable introduction.
  • Every Eye, by Isobel English: I was introduced to this title through the Persephone catalog, but the edition I tracked down (for significantly less than 16 pounds sterling) is actually published by Black Sparrow Press, an American small press known for publishing Charles Bukowski's stuff, and now owned by David R. Godine Publishers. In any case, it sounds like an intriguing novella by a British novelist from the 1950s.
  • Adeline Mowbray, by Amelia Opie: Recommended by Dorothy over at Of Books and Bicycles due to my interest in literary treatments of life outside marriage, this is an eighteenth-century novel based on the William Godwin/Mary Wollestonecraft relationship. I've been in the mood for the eighteenth century lately, as evidenced by...
  • Les liaisons dangereuses, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos: Pure, unadulterated, eighteenth-century French trash. Can't WAIT. I have, of course, seen the film adaptation with John Malkovitch and Glenn Close, so I'll be interested in the original material.
  • Tender Morsels, by Margo Lanagan: The May pick for our non-structured group. I read the first chapter and am quite intrigued...
  • Nox, by Anne Carson: The treat of the bunch. Anne Carson's replicated art book epitaph for her dead brother. This is a beautiful object, my friends, and I can't wait to explore the content housed so beautifully in the box.

And now, biking to the grocery store in the unexpectedly beautiful weather, making a pasta salad, opening a special bottle of local pinot noir, and relaxing with my new books!

Pierre Menard: autor del Quijote


In the grand tradition of Emily forgetting to announce things ahead of time, I've forgotten to announce that my non-structured book group is doing a little extra project this month: based on posts by me and Frances, interest from Claire and Sarah, and organizational go-to-it-iveness of Richard, for the next three weeks we'll be reading short stories by Jorge Luis Borges and posting about them on Fridays. (I apologize for being so godawful at posting these announcements—I guess I'm just busy reading!) Our schedule is as follows:

  • Friday, May 7: "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quijote"
  • Friday, May 14: "The Library of Babel"
  • Friday, May 21: "The South"

Richard and I will be reading these in Spanish (oh, my creaky Spanish! but I've been surprised how good my comprehension remains), everyone else in English. They can all be found in Ficciones and in Penguin's Collected Stories. On the 28th we'll be posting on Sarah's monthly pick, Margo Lanagan's novel Tender Morsels. All of which is to say: it's already time for our first story! Please do join us for any or all of the above dates.


As soon as I re-acclimatized to Spanish and got into the swing of "Pierre Menard," I knew that I've waited far too long to start reading Borges; this story is absolutely delightful. Told from the perspective of a petty, possibly-unreliable academic (the voice strongly reminded me of Nabokov's Charles Kinbote from Pale Fire; I'm assuming Borges was a strong influence), it takes the form of a faux journal article singing the praises of fellow academic Pierre Menard, an early twentieth-century Frenchman whose "visible" work consists of a few sonnets and articles on French Symbolist poets. The narrator argues that Menard's real contribution to literature, however, is that he has produced several chapters of Don Quijote, line-by-line identical with the original work, yet not copied—originating with Menard despite coinciding exactly with the analogous chapters of Cervantes.

The conceit is hilarious and, of course, ridiculous, but Borges uses it to bring up so many interesting questions of context and perspective, especially considering the story's brevity. The narrator argues, for example, that Menard's Quijote fragments are richer, more nuanced than Cervantes', despite being identical to them: Cervantes, he says, was simply writing in the style of his own time, whereas Menard makes a conscious decision to compose in an archaic Spanish which is even more alien to him because of his French origin. Not only that, but Menard's passages take on new meanings in light of the myriad advances in psychological and historical thought in the intervening centuries. (Please forgive my rough translation abilities.)

"Atribuer a Louis Ferdinand Céline o a James Joyce la Imitación de Cristo ¿no es una suficiente renovación de esos tenues avisos espirituales?"

[Isn't the act of attributing the Imitation of Christ to Louis Ferdinand Céline or James Joyce, a sufficient renewal of those faded spiritual warnings?]

One must admit he has a point. I now wish I had thought to consider Céline as a possible author when I was reading fragments of The Imitation of Christ last year. It would definitely have made things more interesting.

"Pierre Menard" is full of clever riffs Borges plays on his main theme. I loved the moment when the narrator admits that Menard's supposed aesthetic and "voice," so different from those of Cervantes, now influences the way he reads the ENTIRETY of Cervantes's novel, even the chapters that Menard never re-wrote.

¿Confesaré que suelo imaginar que la terminó y que leo el Quijote—todo el Quijote—como si lo hubiera pensado Menard? Noches pasadas, al hojear el capítulo XXVI—no ensayado nunca por él—reconocí el estilo de nuestro amigo y como su voz en esta frase exceptional: las ninfas de las ríos, la dolorosa y húmida Eco.

[Shall I admit I am in the habit of imagining that he finished it? And that I read Quijote—all of Quijote—as if Menard had thought of it? In nights past, leafing through Chapter XXVI—not attempted by him at all—I recognized our friend's style and his voice in this exceptional phrase: the nymphs of the rivers, the melancholy and humid (?) Eco.]

The idea that one could detect Menard's authorial voice in a text word-by-word identical to Cervantes's: how ridiculous is it? Certainly something of the man is detectable simply in his decision to re-write Quijote word for word, not to mention his inexplicable ABILITY to do so. But in the words themselves? Why not, if he did not copy from Cervantes's text but worked toward a replication of it through his own efforts? Another of my favorite moments was when the narrator claims to find in Menard's Quijote a palimpsest through which he sees, not Cervantes's work as one might expect, but the PREVIOUS works of Menard himself!

He reflexionado que es lícito ver en el Quijote «final» una especie de palimpsesto, en el que deben traslucirse los rastros—tenues pero no indescifrables—de la «previa» escritura de nuestro amigo. Desgraciadamente, sólo un segundo Pierre Menard, invirtiendo el trabajo del anterior, podría exhumar y resucitar esas Troyas...

[I have reflected that it is possible to see in the "final" Quijote a type of palimpsest, in which the traces of our friend's earlier writings—faint but not indecipherable—still show through. Unfortunately, only a second Pierre Menard, reversing the work of the former, could exhume and resuscitate these Troys...]

Aaaand, my brain just broke. But in a way I really like. I'm very much looking forward to "The Library of Babel" a week from today; thanks, friends!

Essay Mondays: Baldwin


(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.)

Wow. Well, I have no hesitation at all about this week's Essay Mondays choice: James Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son" is one of the most masterful essays I've ever read. In every way I found it inspiring: its well-crafted prose and controlled yet flowing structure; its skilled evocation of atmosphere; and, most importantly, the subtle and honest analysis of the psychological effects of institutionalized bigotry.

Baldwin structures "Notes of a Native Son" around a specific moment in time, one that turned out to be a crucible for him, his family, and for the entire black American community. On July 29, 1943, Baldwin's father died; on the same day, Baldwin's mother was delivered of her last child. This took place in Harlem, where Baldwin grew up, and where the resentment and unrest around the mistreatment of black soldiers training to fight in WWII (all black soldiers were trained in the American South) was building to a boiling point in the summer heat. Race riots were breaking out in Detroit and Harlem, and, as the family drove the body of its patriarch to the graveyard "through a wilderness of smashed plate glass," Baldwin himself, who had returned to Harlem to await his father's death after a year away from home, turned nineteen years old.

Like Woolf's "A Room of One's Own," "Notes on a Native Son" is equally compelling from the point of view of pure structure and style, and from one of philosophy and subject matter. Baldwin organizes the essay so that the many strands coming together in this one fraught Harlem month—his conflicted relationship with his father, which he now must resolve; the end of a life and the beginning of another; his experiences living on his own in New Jersey, including his first personal encounters with Jim Crow laws, and the ways in which those experiences affected him; the tense and menacing climate in Harlem, which turned the normal social order upside down in unnerving ways; his attempts, in a ridiculous yet so human fashion, to celebrate his birthday despite everything else going on—all interweave and build off each other, each one adding depth and import to every other. Baldwin's hatred of his father, for example, was partly due to his father's life-long bitterness, a bitterness that poisoned his relationships with his children and his congregants. The son had forsworn his father's outlook, but his recent experiences in New Jersey, where he had to grapple with being reduced from person-hood to a color of skin, have thrown his own world-view into heartbreaking disarray:

He had lived and died in an intolerable bitterness of spirit and it frightened me, as we drove him to the graveyard through those unquiet, ruined streets, to see how powerful and overflowing this bitterness could be and to realize that this bitterness was now mine.
        When he died I had been away from home a little over a year. In that year I had had time to become aware of the meaning of all my father's bitter warnings, had discovered the secret of his proudly pursed lips and rigid carriage: I had discovered the weight of white people in the world. I saw that this had been for my ancestors and now would be for me an awful thing to live with and that the bitterness which had helped to kill my father could also kill me.

Nineteen, that age of working out our inheritances and realizing who we are in the wider world, is doubly intensified here by Baldwin's almost simultaneous loss, both of his father, and of his illusions about his father in the world. Having defined himself in opposition to his father, he suddenly finds both that the source of that definition is gone, and that he is (horrifyingly) in real danger of ending up losing his life to the same kind of bitter alienation. Elsewhere in the essay, he describes an incident in New Jersey: after being refused service over and over again on account of his skin color, his feeling of frustration and powerlessness causes him to "snap"—he walks into a fancy restaurant and starts hurling pitchers of water at the white waitress who tells him "We don't serve Negroes here." "I felt," he writes, "that if she found a black man so frightening I would make her fright worthwhile." Later, after his white friend distracts the angry white restaurant-goers long enough for Baldwin to escape, he describes his horror at analyzing his own feelings:

I lived it over and over again, the way one relives an automobile accident after it has happened and one finds oneself alone and safe. I could not get over two facts, both equally difficult for the imagination to grasp, and one was that I could have been murdered. But the other was that I had been ready to commit murder. I saw nothing very clearly but I did see this: that my life, my real life, was in danger, and not from anything other people might do but from the hatred I carried in my own heart.

I am white. I have never encountered anything even remotely comparable to a society-wide refusal of my common rights based on the color of my skin, and I feel very uncomfortable comparing myself to Baldwin. And yet, this paragraph resonated so deeply with me. I have an inkling of that horrifying, unwelcome bitterness that Baldwin is describing, but I feel it as a woman, in relation to men: in relation to the men who see my body as permission to cat-call me, to joke about sexual positions I might enjoy, to yell words like "slut" and "whore" at me as they drive by, to condescend to me, to assume that I don't understand them when they talk about computers or math. As in Baldwin's description of wanting to justify the waitress's bigoted fear of his skin color, since he couldn't do anything to change it, the hardest part of these situations is often the feeling of impotence: the message that the best way to deal with these people is "just to ignore them," that a victim who reacts to their aggressor is "just making things worse" or confirming the dominant stereotypes (violent black man, humorless feminist, "playing the race card," and so on). This means that it often feels like there's no way to get rid of one's feelings of anger and violation—one is told not to react, so one must simply carry those feelings inside, becoming ever more bitter with time, or, like Hughes's famous "dream deferred," exploding. Baldwin writes elsewhere:

That year in New Jersey lives in my mind as though it were the year during which, having an unsuspected predilection for it, I first contracted some dread, chronic disease, the unfailing symptom of which is a kind of blind fever, a pounding in the skull and fire in the bowels. Once this disease is contracted, one can never really be carefree again, for the fever, without an instant's warning, can recur at any moment. It can wreck more important things than race relations. There is not a Negro alive who does not have this rage in his blood—one has the choice, merely, of living with it consciously or surrendering to it. As for me, this fever has recurred in me, and does, and will until the day I die.

And yet, one is responsible for finding some way to live in which one's heart is not overcome by bitterness; each one of us is, after all, the only person who can see to the state of our hearts. Baldwin vividly evokes his struggles to deal with all of this at nineteen, hinting at the path he was later able to find, but also letting the reader feel the moment-by-moment discomfort of the author's situation. It's a powerful, well-observed, and thought-provoking read, and I'll definitely be checking out the full volume of essays (also entitled Notes of a Native Son) in which this one appears.

Up next week: Adrienne Rich, Edward Hoagland, or Wendell Berry. And on another note: only three more weeks' worth of essays left in the Lopate book! I think I'll take a break from Essay Mondays for a while when I finish the book; I've really enjoyed it but I'm starting to feel overly structured in my reading.


Badge photo courtesy of Liz West:

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography