September 2010 Archives

Santa Evita


As intrigued as I was by the idea of a novel whose main character is a corpse, the parts of Tomás Eloy Martínez's Santa Evita that ended up interesting me most had almost nothing to do with its so-called plot. Because as much as Santa Evita is a novel "about" the late wife of a deposed politician (in which an ensemble cast of characters transport, steal, curse, duplicate, switch, covet, and defile the embalmed body of Eva Perón, in a non-chronological seesaw back and forth over the pivot-point of her death), it's also a playful, extended essay that meditates on the nature of storytelling itself: what makes a story "true"; when are sources "reliable"; exactly how real is "reality," and what is its relationship to text? Late in the novel, two characters have this exchange:

     "As you said, it's a novel," I explained. "In novels, what is true is also false. Authors rebuild at night the same myths they've destroyed in the morning."
     "Those are just words," Corominas said emphatically. "They don't convince me. The only thing that means anything are facts, and a novel, after all, is a fact."

Throughout Santa Evita, Martínez is grappling with just this question: to what extent is a novel an amorphous web of myths and legends, capable of telling "truth" only metaphorically, through a recreated web of lies? And on the contrary, to what extent is a novel a tangible, solid fact, capable of being argued with, contradicted, analyzed? To what extent can these two states coexist? At first, I assumed Martínez to be making a case for the lack of connection between reality and fiction, a case that, since a novel cannot recreate reality exactly, any wild fiction will say as much about reality as the most careful reportage. I saw him portraying the role of the author, as stated above by the character "Tomás Eloy Martínez," as someone destroying and rebuilding the same mythos over and over—a kind of impotent yet all-powerful Lady of Shalott, interacting with reality only at a vast remove. I heard him telling me not to look in his pages for a literal truth about Evita Perón, because written language can't transmit literal truth, but to seek instead for salient metaphors.

That, I thought, is where written language falls short. It can bring back to life feelings, lost time, chance circumstances that link one fact to another, but it can't bring reality back to life. I didn't yet know—and it would take longer still for me to feel it—that reality doesn't come back to life: it is born in a different way, it is transfigured, it reinvents itself in novels. I didn't know that the syntax or the tones of voice of the characters return with a different air about them and that, as they pass through the sieves of written language, they become something else.

They become "something else"—but what relation does this "something else" hold to its original model? Is it "only" the stuff of myths, reflecting what the audience needs or believes rather than the experience of the original human? Is there, indeed, any "reality" inherent in the subjective experience of an individual, or any reality that should be privileged above the transfigured reality of history and myth? If I felt frightened in a given situation, and a storyteller tells a convincing version of my story in which I feel instead angry or tender, are those two versions of my story different but equal? Or is one more "real" than the other?

With the response of Corominas above, I realized that Martínez's stance is more complicated than I had at first assumed. True, the "real people" who feature as characters in this novel are different than their actual real-life counterparts, but different in a way not easy to articulate. They are "transfigured," but only incompletely, problematically. Their transfiguration doesn't replace one thing (the dead reality) with another (a new reality), but layers new perspectives on top of old until "reality" becomes a palimpsest of texts and real-life events inscribing themselves on top one another ad infinitum. About the Peróns' marriage certificate, for example, the narrator writes:

The marriage is not false, but almost everything the document says is, from beginning to end. At the most solemn and historical moment of their lives, the contracting parties, as the phrase was in those days, decided to perpetrate an Olympian hoax on history. Perón lied about the place where the ceremony was performed and about his civil status; Evita lied about her age, her place of residence, the city she had been born in. Their statements were obviously false, but twenty years went by before anyone questioned them. In 1974, in his book Perón, the Man of Destiny, the biographer Enrique Pavón Pereyra nonetheless declared that they were true. [...] They lied because they had decided that, from that moment on, reality would be what they wanted it to be. They did the same thing novelists do.

In Martínez's analysis, the marriage certificate is a figurative "novel": it represents something true (the marriage between Juan and Eva Perón), which is nonetheless made up entirely of lies. And yet, Martínez's own narrative goes on to demonstrate that the Peróns' power to dictate their own reality by fiat was limited: "deciding reality would be what they wanted it to be" could not stop the rumors of illegitimacy that plagued Evita's public image, could not elide the age difference between them or erase the existence of Juan's first wife. These issues could not be declared away; on the other hand, as Martínez points out, the marriage itself was incontrovertibly real.

In other words, I believe Martínez is arguing for a middle ground between the collective and the individual, between "what's-true-is-also-false" and "novel-as-fact." The Peróns exercise real power in dictating their identities via their marriage certificate, but that power also has real limits. Text is an interactive part of reality, although it cannot replace reality or even, necessarily, represent it directly. A novelist cannot repeat reality, so he invents it again; but he cannot reinvent it in a way unconnected from the reality that came before. And once he reinvents it, the new reality exists somewhere between his invention and the state that preceded it; neither can exist without the other.

One of my favorite intersections of reality and text (or actually, text and meta-text) happens throughout the first half of the novel, when the narrator is repeatedly struck by the resemblance between real-life events and the Jorge Luis Borges story "Death and the Compass." Initially, the narrator only mentions the story as a passing reference to the way in which Peronism influenced Borges himself:

Without Perón's terror, Borges's labyrinths and mirrors would lose a substantial part of their meaning. Without Perón, Borges's writing would lack provocations, refined techniques of indirection, perverse metaphors.

But the similarities between Santa Evita and "Death and the Compass" become stronger as the character of Colonel Moori Koenig is fleshed out. A little background: in Borges's story, a detective becomes obsessed with the murder of a rabbi who died surrounded by kabbalistic books, and with two subsequent murders that seem to be connected to the first. In a Poirot-style exercise, he confounds his action-based colleagues by "solving" the murders using only textual analysis of the late rabbi's books, and the application of a geometrical cypher based on equilateral triangles and rhombi to a map of the city. All this only to find, when he arrives at the murderer's lair, that the whole series of crimes has been a setup, engineered to trick him to his own death; the entire narrative leading him into the villain's obsessively symmetrical labyrinth lair has been false.

Similarly, the narrator in Martínez's novel initially notes that Colonel Koenig becomes obsessed with an assignment that leads to his own destruction. But the similarities don't stop there: it turns out that the Colonel, like Borges's villian, is preoccupied with symmetry, even going so far as to excuse a freakish swarm of bees with the comment, "the bees were not disrupting the symmetrical order of life." He superstitiously avoids saying Evita's name, even in his own mind, an aversion that mirrors the Orthodox Jewish prohibition on uttering the Name of God. Later on, when trying to dispose of Evita's body and its copies, the Colonel actually employs almost the exact same geometrical cypher to a map of Buenos Aires that Borges's detective does in "Death and the Compass." At this point, as readers, we are reacting not only to the likelihood of such symmetry between a fictional Colonel and a fictional detective, but remembering that Martínez's narrative is to some extent based on FACT—did this scene from Borges actually come to life? The narrator himself interrupts his informant, Cifuentes, to remark on the surreal similarity between the Colonel's real-life actions and Borges's short story—doesn't Cifentes think it incredible that both men overlaid equilateral triangles/rhombi on a map of the city?

He refused to concede the fact. Although I have read little Borges, he said [or rather lied], I have some memory of that story. I know that it is influenced by the Kabbala and by Hasidic traditions. To the Colonel, the slightest allusion to anything Jewish would have been unacceptable. His plan was inspired by Paracelsus, who is Luther's counterpart, and at the same time the most Aryan of Germans. The other difference, he said to me, is more important. Detective Lönnrott's ingenious game in "Death and the Compass" is a deadly one, but it takes place only within a text. What the Colonel was plotting was to happen, however, outside of literature, in a real city through which an overwhelmingly real body was to be transported.

The layers of irony are almost overwhelming here, but let me try to unpack them. First of all, Cifuentes's response highlights a huge difficulty with transfiguring any set of events into story-hood: who can agree on which elements are "key"? To me, it's a pretty incredible coincidence that a real-life Colonel would happen across the same bizarre, geometric method of corpse-disposal as one used in a particular short story; the equilateral triangles/rhombi, the obsession with symmetry, the aversion to saying a given name, all line up quite eerily. But to Cifuentes, these points are irrelevant because the Colonel was anti-Semitic and the details of Borges's story concerned Judaism. Not only is this ironic because the Jewish backdrop of the story seems (to me) a petty detail, but also because, within Borges's own context, it turns out to be totally faked—the murders actually involve no kabbalistic attempt to know the name of God; they are just a ploy to murder the main character.

What's more, Cifuentes's second objection takes on a layer of irony given that, as he and his narrative are transfigured into parts of Martínez's novel, the events he describes ARE taking place within literature, and for all the reader knows, they may be just as fictional as those evoked by Borges! And can we really claim that Eva Péron's body is "overwhelmingly real" when it has been artificially preserved to the point when nobody can tell the difference between it and a wax copy? To top it all off, Cifuentes's entire denial of the "Death and the Compass" similarities is rendered suspect by Martínez's own parenthetical claim that Cifuentes is lying about how much Borges he has read.

In short, the Argentine mantle of meta cast off by Borges and Cortázar has obviously not been abandoned. A big thanks to Richard for introducing me to the next generation of South American literary mind-games in the shape of Tomás Eloy Martínez and Santa Evita.


Santa Evita was the September pick for the Non-Structured/Wolves in Winter reading group. Please join us in October for Tobias Wolff's Old School!

OT film mini-challenge post


I normally don't blog about the movies I watch—between my reading and knitting blogs I feel I need one part of my life that's not being documented—but when I saw Richard's Orbis Terrarum Film Mini-Challenge I thought it would be fun to spread a little foreign film love. And at this point I've been "thinking" about writing a post for the mini-challenge for so long that I've accumulated quite the little list! Let's get started.

Le million


First up is an extremely silly but nonetheless enjoyable early French talkie: René Clair's 1931 Le million. The ridiculous plot (a starving artist type, beset by creditors, suddenly finds that his lottery ticket has won a million francs, only to realize he's lost said ticket, spurring hijinks galore including run-ins with the police, organized crime, a sulky society miss and a famous tenor) is accented by spontaneous song-and-dance numbers in which random citizens of Paris bewail the loss of such inspiring sums. As an aside: this film is a surprisingly effective tool for those trying to learn beginning French; there's even one scene where all of the main character's creditors file up a stairway, with another character labeling them by profession: "Le boucher! L'épicier!" Silliness aside, the real interest here for film buffs comes in seeing some of the experimental uses filmmakers were finding for this new addition of "sound"; in one fight scene, for example, the actual noises made by the characters are replaced by the cacophany of a football match. A goofy romp from another era, which was charming and old-timey enough to get away with being over-the-top.

Wild Strawberries


Next up is a very different film: Ingmar Bergman's 1957 Wild Strawberries. This dark, quiet day-in-the-life tale follows an octogenarian professor who wakes up from a troubling dream on the morning he is supposed to receive an important award; he spends the next eighteen hours coming to the realization, not only that he is on the verge of death, but that he has spent his life being awful to everyone around him, having ruined, in particular, his own marriage and the life of his son. Bergman's storytelling, in dreamy black-and-white, is undeniably compelling—even the techniques that have since become filmmaking clichés, like the main character's dream sequence involving getting pulled into a coffin by his own dead body, read as surprisingly vital. I was impressed by the film, but I must admit that the really compelling thing about this disk (the Criterion Collection edition) is a special feature: an interview with Bergman conducted sometime in the 1970s. I was surprised to find that I deeply identify with what this Swedish director had to say. One remark that I remember in particular had to do with his identity as a craftsman: he wanted to make solid objects that were concretely useful to the people who knew them. As a craftsperson myself, I love this outlook on art: it's not some enervated "extra" of no real value to life, but a solid, utilitarian object, like a chair or a toilet. It's not that people "can't live without" art; people can live without chairs and toilets, too. But the presence of art has a concrete benefit; I appreciated Bergman's reminder of that.



My next selection is still playing in theaters: Thomas Balmès's 2009 documentary Babies is French, but you wouldn't know it until the very end, because it's almost completely non-lingual. Balmès and his crew simply follow the lives of four babies—growing up respectively in ultra-urban Tokyo, brownstone-y San Francisco, a village in Namibia and the plains of Mongolia—from birth to about eighteen months. I will state for the record that I'm not really a "baby person," but I nevertheless found this film totally engaging: the cultural differences are interesting, as are the developmental similarities, but I felt the film's real accomplishment is in capturing small moments of struggle or triumph. An extended scene in a playroom, in which Mari (the Japanese baby) teeters between wonder and abject meltdown while trying to operate her toy, for example, or the tragic moment when Hattie (the American baby) takes a bite out of the wrong side of a banana. There is so much comedic storytelling in these small moments, and it's quite an accomplishment to pack it all in while using essentially no words. Not to mention, the cinematography is absolutely stunning: the footage of the Mongolian plains had me checking visa requirements and weather conditions. Seriously, see the still above. Gorgeous.

Man on Wire


Lastly, Richard reminded me that I'd been meaning to take in Man on Wire, a BBC documentary about Frenchman Philippe Petit, the high-wire artist who covertly strung a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City in 1979, and danced across it and back for 45 minutes. (If this sounds familiar, it's the factual basis on which Colm Toibin's Let the Great World Spin is built.) This documentary is, indeed, wildly entertaining, and even as I remarked to myself how impossibly intense and sometimes unpleasant Petit seemed from a human point of view, I was incredibly inspired by his story from an artistic perspective. Glimpsing a photograph of the planned World Trade Center towers, he felt an all-consuming calling to wire-walk between them—and by all accounts, from that moment until he accomplished his mission he never wavered in his dedication to this goal. Yes, this makes him seem a little crazy, but it also very much reinforces the value of art—none of the people involved, even those who had subsequently broken with Petit or been spurned by him, ever questioned how beautiful and moving it was to watch him dance on air that morning in 1979. Americans often ask him why he did it, but he seems puzzled trying to answer this question; he does what he does because his art is simply his mode of existence. A great, entertaining and thought-provoking two hours.

Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée


The short of it: From the opening pages I fell head over heels for Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée (translated into English as Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter but more literally "Memoirs of a well-behaved girl"), the first of four volumes in de Beauvoir's autobiography. It's been a long time since I connected with a book at such a level of visceral sympathy—since I had the feeling "Yes! That's what it's like for me too!," since I felt such a sense of loss upon turning a final page. So there may be a certain lack of critical distance in this post: I'm declaring myself right up front to be a newly-converted de Beauvoir fangirl, and my only dilemma now is whether to break my book-buying ban and order the second volume (La force de l'age) right this second, or whether to hold out for a gift-giving holiday or upcoming trip to France.

And the long: For me, one of the greatest pleasures of Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée is simply watching de Beauvoir's brain apply its lifelong training in philosophy and semiotics to the examination of her own early life. Beginning with birth and ending with the completion of her secondary schooling, some of the most interesting passages in this book map to what are often the "boring bits" of biography and autobiography: de Beauvoir's early childhood. She is such a keen observer, and obviously so well-accustomed to dissecting the way humans perceive and process the world, that hers becomes an early-childhood story unlike any I've ever read before—and it's especially exciting to read about her development in this regard if the reader has some slight familiarity with her existentialist feminism later in life, since she does a complete about-face on many issues. She writes, for example, about her early assumption (age five or so) that language and other signs sprang organically—necessarily and without human intervention—from the things they signify, so that the word "vache" (cow) was somehow a necessary and organic component of the animal itself. In this mindset she could understand letters as objects (an "a," for example) but not as building blocks representing sounds that make up words. In this passage, she recalls the "click" in her brain when she finally, although in a limited way, grasped the concept of a sign:

[J]e contemplais l'image d'une vache, et les deux lettres, c, h, qui se prononçaient ch. J'ai compris soudain qu'elles ne possedaient pas un nom à la manière des objets, mais qu'elles représentaient un son: j'ai compris ce que c'est un signe. J'eus vite fait d'apprendre à lire. Cependant ma pensée s'arrêta en chemin. Je voyais dans l'image graphique l'exacte doublure du son qui lui correspondait: ils émanaient ensemble de la chose qu'ils exprimaient si bien que leur relation ne comportait aucun arbitraire.
[I was looking at a picture of a cow [vache], and the two letters, c and h, that together were pronounced "ch." I understood suddenly that they had no name in the sense that objects do, but that they represented a sound: I understood what a sign is. It then took me very little time to learn to read. However, my ideas stopped there. I saw in the picture the exact double of the sound corresponding to it: they emanated together from the thing they expressed, so well that the relation between them involved nothing arbitrary.

One of the many threads running through the book traces de Beauvoir's evolving understanding of signs: where they come from, how they work, and the inescapable gap (despite her early naïvete) between the thing itself and the sign humans have invented to indicate it. There comes a period in her teenage years when language, the necessity of interpreting language, becomes her enemy for just this reason: when we express our thoughts, feelings, and intentions, there is always a chasm between the thing itself—our interior landscape—and our expression of it; often this chasm is only widened when our words are interpreted by another person.

Despite this semiotic difficulty, however, de Beauvoir herself does an impeccable job of articulating her own interior landscapes at different times in her life, not only as personal experiences, but as ontological states capable of dissection by her as an adult. Another thread that is first woven into the narrative very early is the dread inherent in the realization that we change with time, that our present incarnation is different than the person we will be in the future, and in ways currently dismaying or frightening to us. That these changes may cease to dismay or frighten us in the future, before or after they happen to us, doesn't change the dread our current selves feel at being left behind, replaced:

Je regardais le fauteuil de maman et je pensais: "Je ne pourrai plus m'asseoir sur ses genoux." Soudain l'avenir existait: il me changerait en une autre qui dirait moi et ne serait plus moi. J'ai pressenti tous les sevrages, les reniements, les abandons et la succession de mes morts.
[I looked at maman's chair and I thought: "I won't be able to sit on her lap anymore." Suddnely the future existed: it would change me into someone else who would say "me" and would no longer be me. I sensed all the weanings, the renunciations, the abandonments and the whole progression of my deaths.

This was one of those jolts of recognition for me: I have a memory very like this, of being at the zoo with my mother and grandmother when I was three or four years old, and overhearing them talk about how unpleasant "teenagers" were. Mom and Grandma probably didn't actually say this, but I got the impression from their conversation that teenagers hate their parents. And it suddenly dawned on me that one day I would be a teenager: would I hate my parents as well? But I didn't want to hate them; I loved and depended upon my parents. Where would this monstrous teenage-me come from, and how would it eat away at the love I currently felt toward my family? I remember an awful feeling of dread, and of impotence: I didn't want to become this future self I foresaw, but presumably I could do nothing to stop it: "I"—the "me" looking at the polar bears—would be consumed in teenage-ness and no longer care about "my" (toddler-age) preferences. Of course the truth was more complicated—I never stopped loving my parents, needless to say—but in a way, my three-year-old self was right: by the time I was a teenager I DID act snotty and unpleasant to them a lot of the time, and I no longer wished (luckily) to regress into the trusting dependence of toddler-hood. I had become a stranger, and no longer wanted to go back; the only way was forward.

De Beauvoir's delineation of this process is fascinating, and she returns to it several times throughout this volume: the dread that precedes a change, and the ontological break that enables us to be in a completely different emotional space after the change, so that our former dread is no longer relevant. Raised devoutly Catholic, for example, she realizes sometime in her early teens that she no longer believes in God. At some point before this realization, she thinks to herself that to lose one's faith would be the most horrible thing she can imagine happening to a person; yet when she herself realizes that it has happened to her, it makes no immediate change in her life; she feels little distress. She had thought that her morality and assumptions about the universe would immediately and drastically be torn asunder, but in fact she retains the tenants of her bourgeois Christian upbringing long after she has stopped believing in God, and only very gradually (years, decades later) comes to reexamine the aspects of that upbringing that no longer make sense to her. By the time she is questioning these assumptions, other things (literature, philosophy, human relationships) have taken the spiritually fulfilling place that religion once held in her life:

La littérature prit dans mon existence la place qu'y avait occupée la religion: elle l'envahit tout entière, et la transfigura. Les livres que j'aimais devinrent une Bible où je puisais des conseils et des secours; j'en copiai de longs extraits; j'appris par coeur de nouveaux cantiques et de nouvelles litanies, des psaumes, des proverbes, des prophéties et je sanctifiai toutes les cironstances de ma vie en me recitant ces textes sacrés. [...] entre moi et les âmes soeurs qui existaient quelque part, hors d'atteinte, ils créaient une sorte de communion; au lieu de vivre ma petite histoire particulière, je participais à une grande épopée spirituelle.
[Literature took, in my life, the place that had formerly been occupied by religion: it overran everything, and transfigured it. The books I loved became a Bible from which I took advice and comfort; I copied long extracts from them; I learned by heart new hymns and new litanies, psalms, proverbs, prophecies, and I sanctified all the circumstances of my life by reciting these sacred texts. [...] Between me and these sister souls there existed something, out of reach; they created a sort of communion; instead of living my trivial individual story, I was participating in a grand spiritual saga.]

Although I want to discuss so much more—young Simone's feeling of tragedy at the unconsciousness of inanimate objects; her attribution of her own negative capability to the difference in her parents' belief systems; her relationships with her sister and her best friend; her first meetings with Sartre—I'm already running long. I can't close this post, however, without mentioning the insight that Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée gives into de Beauvoir's feminism. Her father looms large in this history, as both the object of her childhood and adolescent idolatry, and as a conservative blow-hard who says things like "a wife is what her husband makes her; it's up to him to shape her personality," and bitterly regrets the fact that his loss of money means that his daughters will be earning their own livings, rather than marrying well into good society (never mind that they PREFER to earn their own livings; that's not the point). Her father's betrayal of her—he tells her she will have to educate herself and earn her living, then hates her for being a reminder of his own financial failure—was a formative event in de Beauvoir's life, and a source of real bitterness for her; I was impressed, however, at how impartial she manages to be toward her father himself, while coming to reject the set of values he held.

As with all other aspects of the book, her observations on gender relations are detailed and perceptive, and the roots of her feminism run through this volume, from her examination of the sexual double-standard that allowed her parents to entertain men who kept mistresses but not the mistresses themselves; to the assertion of her otherwise avant-garde philospher friends that they "can't respect an unmarried woman"; to the effects of having her reading censored (it was considered dangerous for unmarried women to read about sex). I can't resist including this passage, in which a ten-year-old Simone is reacting to her priest's story about a young female parishioner who reads "bad books," loses her faith in God, and subsequently commits suicide:

Ce que je comprenais le moins, c'est que la connaissance conduisît au désespoir. Le prédicateur n'avait pas dit que les mauvais livres peignaient la vie sous des couleurs fausses: en ce cas, il eût facilement balayé leurs mensonges; le drame de l'enfant qu'il avait échoué à sauver, c'est qu'elle avait découvert prématurément l'authentique visage de la réalité. De toute façon, me disais-je, un jour je la verrai moi aussi, face à face, et je n'en mourrai pas.
[What I understood least, was the idea that knowledge led to despair. The priest hadn't said that the bad books painted life in false colors: in that case, it would have been easy to brush aside their lies; the tragedy of the girl he had failed to save was that she had prematurely discovered the true face of reality. In any case, I said to myself, one day I'll see it too, face to face, and I won't die.]

This passage makes me feel like cheering. And de Beauvoir does not neglect to notice that men and boys were not considered so delicate as to kill themselves over premature exposure to a tawdry potboiler. Still, Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée puts de Beauvoir's feminism in perspective: she may be most famous for The Second Sex, but she's primarily a humanist, interested in the modes of existence experienced by all humans, and by specific humans, regardless of gender.

I'll be honest: this is not the memoir for everyone. If you're not interested in philosophy and like a lot to "happen" in your books, it will probably seem hopelessly dry. De Beauvoir's adolescence involves all the arrogance and angst one might expect from a recently-secularized teen who went on to become a preeminent existentialist (hint: a lot). But even when she is recalling her most turbulent periods, the adult de Beauvoir maintains her incisive, perceptive, ever-so-faintly-amused voice. She doesn't take herself too seriously, but neither does she dismiss her experiences or manifest a false modesty. This balanced tone, combined with her stunning intelligence and existentialist insights, makes this volume easily one of my favorite reads of the year, if not of all time.


Please excuse my creaky translations from the original French; I am no Lydia Davis, and have no copy of this book in translation.

Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée is my fifth book for the Women Unbound Challenge, and my fourth book for the Challenge that Dare Not Speak its Name (GLBT connection: de Beauvoir was bisexual, and although she takes no lovers of any gender during the course of this first volume, she does have a passionate, near-obsessive relationship with her best friend, Zaza.)

Slouching Towards Bethlehem


Back in May, in an Essay Mondays post, I kicked myself for waiting so long acquaint myself with the wonders of Joan Didion's writing. After that post I lost no time in acquiring Slouching Towards Bethlehem, a classic collection of her early investigative reporting and personal examinations published in magazines from the early to late 1960s; and having now read it, my admiration for Didion has only increased.

The bulk of the collection consists of mood pieces featuring the California and Nevada landscapes of the mid-1960s, along with a few of their famous and infamous inhabitants: a suburban housewife who murders her depressed dentist husband one dark night in 1964; a paranoid Communist bookstore owner obsessed with security; the distressed residents of the Carmel Valley who objected to Joan Baez's Institute for the Study of Nonviolence. Although I think of Didion as much more contemporary than the classic LA noir authors, her portraits of California's seedy suburban underbelly and the sad glitz of Vegas made me feel I was next door to a Raymond Chandler landscape. She captures the dirty mythos of place, so pronounced in the American West, and combines it with a wry, reserved wit, quiet with a hint of steel underneath, and an extremely keen eye for a memorable line or an odd juxtaposition. I love this passage on Vegas, not only for its evocation of the Rat Pack-era Strip, but for how accurate it remains as an explanation of the bizarre fascination of the American Babylon:

Las Vegas is the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies' room attendants with amyl nitrate poppers in their uniform pockets. Almost everyone notes that there is no "time" in Las Vegas, no night and no day and no past and no future (no Las Vegas casino, however, has taken the obliteration of the ordinary time sense quite so far as Harold' Club in Reno, which for a while issued, at odd intervals in the day and night, mimeographed "bulletins" carrying news from the world outside); neither is there any logical sense of where one is. One is standing on a highway in the middle of a vast hostile desert looking at an eighty-foot sign which blinks "STARDUST" or "CAESAR'S PALACE." Yes, but what does that explain? This geographical implausibility reinforces the sense that what happens there has no connection with "real" life; Nevada cities like Reno and Carson are ranch towns, Western towns, places behind which there is some historical imperative. But Las Vegas seems to exist only in the eye of the beholder. All of which makes it an extraordinarily stimulating and interesting place, but an odd one in which to want to wear a candlelight satin Priscilla of Boston wedding dress with Chantilly lace insets, tapered sleeves and a detachable modified train.

One gets the impression that, whenever Didion observes a tableau, she immediately starts to tell a story about it, and that the story has both the weight of accumulated legend and allegory behind it, and a bubble-pricking sharpness of detailed observation. This potent mix is applied to people as well as places (John Wayne, Howard Hughes, Joan Baez) although the people she discusses are always rooted in the place where she encounters them: a dusty, latter-day film shoot outside Mexico City, a locked, hunkering compound in the L.A. suburbs; a ranch in the Carmel Valley. The soul of these essays is in the places where they occur, just as Didion's own soul, as she explores in "Notes from a Native Daughter," is rooted in a vanishing Sacramento. Indeed, writing about the land and its inhabitants is, for Didion, frequently a way of looking at herself, and of examining American culture more generally: how (and why) do we choose our living legends? Why are we obsessed by certain stories? What does it say about us?

Toward the end of the book's first section is the long essay "Slouching Towards Bethlehem": simultaneously a portrait of the hippie scene on Haight-Ashbury in 1967, and a heartfelt cry out against a perceived lack of meaning in the world. Didion writes in the Preface that she was crushed to find, upon publication, that readers perceived only the first mode and not the second: she had written a piece on coming to terms with disorder in the universe, and her readers encountered simple documentary on street drugs and teenage runaways. Personally, I think the essay works on both levels: I am glad to have such an evocative portrait of a now-vanished "scene," and I also recognize the all-too-universal darkness and chaos of the human condition in these stories of children who feed acid to their own babies. I was particularly impressed, in this piece, Didion's understated take on New Journalism: she is definitely a "presence" in this essay, and reading between the lines one can tell that she, the speaker, may be going through a pretty rough time herself, but she never plays up her own role. She acknowledges it, and lets it go.

Norris and I are standing around the Panhandle and Norris is telling me how it is all set up for a friend to take me to Big Sur. I say what I really want to do is spend a few days with Norris and his wife and the rest of the people in their house. Norris says it would be a lot easier if I'd take some acid. I say I'm unstable. Norris says all right, anyway, grass, and he squeezes my hand.
      One day Norris asks me how old I am. I tell him I am thirty-two. It takes a few minutes, but Norris rises to it. "Don't worry," he says at last. "There's old hippies too."

I loved Didion's portraits of the shiny new California and the vanishing California of old, on self-important think tanks, dusty Valley towns, and suburban misfits who bought into the dream, but the real high point of the collection for me was "On Keeping a Notebook," one of the only pieces in this collection without explicit ties to place (although of course it gets worked in there somehow). In it, Didion relates her practice of recording seemingly "useless" tidbits in her notebook—disconnected scraps of overheard conversation, details of a scene that strike her, for whatever reason, as evocative. One might assume, she writes (in fact even she has sometimes assumed), that she does this in order to have a factual record of what she has been doing or thinking, or that she is accumulating bits of dialogue that may come in useful for other writing projects down the road. But when she interrogates herself about the real function of her notebook, she acknowledges that it accomplishes neither of these goals, nor is it intended to; the real reason for Didion's notebook scraps is, in an almost Proustian way, to evoke the visceral past, to remain in touch with the person she once was and feel what that person felt upon hearing, for example, a cashier remark that her ex-boyfriend "left her no choice," or upon seeing a woman in a dirty Crepe-de-chine wrapper in a train station. The shock of recognition is the point: "to remember what it was to be me." Given that object, the literal "truth" of the notebook's contents is irrelevant:

[N]ot only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters. The cracked crab that I recall having for lunch the day my father came home from Detroit in 1945 must certainly be embroidery, worked into the day's pattern to lend verisimilitude; I was ten years old and would not now remember the cracked crab. The day's events did not turn on cracked crab. And yet it is precisely that fictitious crab that makes me see the afternoon all over again, a home movie run all too often, the father bearing gifts, the child weeping, an exercise in family love and guilt. Or that is what it was to me. Similarly, perhaps it never did snow that August in Vermont; perhaps there never were flurries in the night wind, and maybe no one else felt the ground hardening and summer already dead even as we pretended to bask in it, but that was how it felt to me, and it might as well have snowed, could have snowed, did snow.

I don't know whether I'm imagining the echoes of James Joyce's The Dead here, but either way that's a stunning paragraph.

Reading these essays now, in 2010, I processed some of them as period pieces, others as still-relevant, still others as timeless: all of them, though, were a joy.

Possession: A Romance


A.S. Byatt's Possession was my last attempt to rouse myself out of my current fiction funk with ever-more-appealing....well, fiction. Based on the glowing reviews and candy-like (for me) subject matter, I knew that if any novel could rouse me from my late-summer malaise, it would be this one: a literary mystery centering around two modern scholars of Victorian literature researching a newly-unearthed connection between the two poets in whose work they respectively specialize. Appealingly larded with real-world literary references and metafictional artifacts-within-stories-within-novels, Possession is the kind of novel that inspires me to put everything on hold in order to devour great chunks of it while sipping tea under a blanket. Sadly for me, in this particular instance what I really needed was a good dose of nonfiction, and it turns out that not even metafictional Victoriana was an acceptable substitute. The first 350 pages of Possession were therefore a bit of a slog for me, even as I could tell I would normally be falling head-over-heels for everything Byatt was up to. When I returned to polish off the final 150 pages (after an investigative book-length essay and half a memoir) I fell fully in love with Byatt's tome at last, laughing, crying, underlining and generally carrying on. I come away from this first foray convinced that I must re-read Possession, not only in order to extend my newfound love to the entire volume, but because this is the kind of novel that begs to be re-read, to identify all the carefully-plotted details and previously-unknown implications right from the beginning.

Because if there's one thing to appreciate in Possession, it's what a dazzling architecture of plot and meta-artifacts Byatt has constructed here. The base of the novel is a close third-person narration that gives us the viewpoints of 1980s scholars Roland Michell and Maud Bailey, as well as glimpses of their colleagues and academic rivals. There are also similar, less frequent chapters narrating the experiences of these scholars' Victorian subjects: Randolph Henry Ash (whose psychological, character-driven blank verse and ardent love-letter-writing abilities recall Robert Browning) and Christabel LaMotte (a bisexual mystic with Elizabeth Barrett's reclusiveness and Emily Dickinson's fondness for em-dashes). Layered on top of this, we have conversations with and about other Ash and LaMotte scholars; letters between Ash and LaMotte, among others; drafts of yet more letters that were never sent; several journal fragments, one of them quite long; written first-hand accounts by third parties of incidents involving one or both of the poets; excerpts from a fictional and self-important Ash biography (complete with quoted material from real-life Victorians); a long passage from an equally self-important piece of feminist criticism on LaMotte; contemporary newspaper cuttings relevant to the poets' lives; and, of course, a generous helping of both poets' actual work, both prose and verse.

All of which is crafted by Byatt with a pitch-perfect ear for a wide variety of both Victorian and late-twentieth-century styles of expression. Neither period is monolithic for Byatt; her American feminist critics write differently than her good-old-boy British critics, and her Victorian characters are writing in different modes from one another, and in different modes from their younger selves as they age. I particularly like how carefully Byatt develops Ash's and LaMotte's different poetic styles, and the way, as the secrets of their lives are revealed, she allows the reader to see how those two styles influenced one another. From the Browning-like Ash (although this passage is more Miltonic, but it's one of my favorites):

Then Ask stepped forward on the printless shore;
And touched the woman's hand, who clasped fast his.
Speechless they walked away along the line
Of the sea's roaring, in their listening ears.
Behind them, first upon the level sand
A line of darkening prints, filling with salt,
First traces in the world, of life and time
And love, and mortal hope, and vanishing.

And from the Dickensian LaMotte:

All day snow fell
Snow fell all night
My silent lintel
Silted white
Inside a Creature—
With snowy Feature
Eyes of Light

What's even more to Byatt's credit is that she is able to use these imitative powers to evoke so many different effects: sometimes she elicits snickers and guffaws with her spot-on parody of academic puffery, and other times her characters' distinct voices evoke pathos, respect, or anger on the part of the reader. Possession is far from a heartless book, as some metafiction can be—if its cleverness is always present, it adds in a satisfying amount of emotional insight and compassion. I ended up caring about all four protagonists very much, and even feeling a sense of amused attachment to the bevy of more ridiculous academics surrounding Maud and Roland. Ash's wife Ellen, late in the novel, became one of the most affecting characters, and someone with a surprising amount of depth.

So too, Byatt's intellectualism isn't just a clever display: she has important things to say about personal and social influence, and the way societies affect individuals. I thought the dynamics of oppression were particularly interesting in Possession: we so often think of Victorians, particularly Victorian women, as living in a sexually repressive atmosphere, and Byatt's novel certainly doesn't deny this. For one character in particular, the lack of what we now call "sex education" has tragic results, and another must choose between artistic autonomy and sexual fulfillment. But Byatt spends perhaps more time examining the ways in which late-twentieth-century Brits are also sexually oppressed—not by the Victorian injunction never to talk about sex, but by the modern, Freudian idea that we should ALWAYS be talking about it, that nothing else so merits our attention.

Roland laid aside Leonora Stern['s book on LaMotte] with a small sigh. He had a vision of the land they were to explore, covered with sucking human orifices and knotted human body-hair. He did not like this vision, and yet, a child of his time, found it compelling, somehow guaranteed to be significant, as a geological survey of the oolite would not be. Sexuality was like thick smoked glass; everything took on the same blurred tint through it. He could not imagine a pool with stones and water.

And Maud, a few pages earlier:

"I agree, Dr. Nest. In fact I do agree. The whole of our scholarship—the whole of our thought—we question everything except the centrality of sexuality—Unfortunately feminism can hardly avoid privileging such matters. I sometimes wish I had embarked on geology myself."

It's Roland's and Maud's inescapable self-consciousness, with regard to sexuality and also with regard to narrative tropes, that oppresses them. In one passage, they marvel together at their subjects' ability to take themselves seriously—the educated postmodernist has been trained to such a suspicion of ideas like "romantic love" and "the autonomous self" that the result is sometimes a kind of paralysis, an inability to feel or express anything sincere or admit that anything is meaningful. In another passage, toward the end of the book, Roland speculates that the narrative encapsulating him is changing from a "quest"/"romance" to a "chase," which are all equally valid traditions and all of which he remains unable to take quite seriously. What's needed, Byatt seems to argue, is some middle ground between the earnest double-standard of Victorianism and Romanticism, and the facetious over-analysis of Postmodernism. Given that Roland's and Maud's very NAMES recall Shakespeare/Browning and Tennyson, the reader will perhaps realize this before they do. Nevertheless, their journey is satisfying both on a superficial, "find out what happens in the mystery" level, and on a more lasting, thought-provoking plane. I look forward to revisiting it in the future, when I'm in a truly novelistic mood.


Possession was my fourth book for the Women Unbound Challenge.

(Sort of) RIP Challenge Post


Here's the deal: I am doing abysmally at challenges this year; for one thing, I can't believe it's already September; for another, I seem to have lost my challenge mojo somewhere around January 15; and for yet another, I am in the middle of a 500-page French language book that I'll probably be finishing around the beginning of October, when I'm scheduled to read Madame Bovary for Frances's readalong. So, I won't actually be joining Carl's RIP Challenge.

BUT, seeing everyone's lists going up around the blogosphere has whetted my appetite for some mysterious, Gothic reading. And although I'm currently on a book-buying ban, I looked over my to-be-read shelves and found some unusual, but I think still relevant, choices. (OK, some of them are a big stretch. Bear with me.) Maybe I'll even find time to squeeze one in. And if not, since lots of these are a bit off the beaten path, maybe some other RIP participants will find the list useful? In any case, here's what I've got that might qualify as spooky, scary, mysterious, or otherwise Halloween-appropriate:

  • That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana, by Carlo Emilio Gadda. A Joycean meta-crime novel in which the central "mystery" may end up being the depths of human folly, this Italian novel was pointed out to me by Richard and I picked it up shortly afterward.

  • The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and/or Invitation to a Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov. After Frances pointed out the delicious new cover redesigns on Nabokov's catalog, I fell in love and bought myself these two lesser-known items from his back-list: a literary mystery of identity, and a Kafka-esque (VERY Kafka-esque, given Nabokov's defensive denial of having read The Trial before writing it) examination of a man put on trial for an unspecified crime.

  • The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker. OK, I know this is a quiet realist novel about a Dutch farmer coming to terms with the death of his twin and the decay of his aging father, but I would argue it could still be considered "Gothic" in that a) it takes place in a secluded rural setting, and b) the main character is forced into an unwanted stagnation by a kind of familial curse, continually haunted by past events. Also, in the opening scene he "moves his father upstairs" against the father's will. That's creepy, right? It's a stretch but I think it could count.

  • The Anatomy of Disgust, by William Ian Miller. Given that I am currently in a nonfiction phase, this might be a good option: a psychological/sociological examination of the role of disgust across cultures. A good gross-out is key at Halloween.

  • Wise Blood, by Flannery O'Connor. I'm not sure to what extent O'Connor intends her darkly poetic, religious tales to come off as intensely creepy, but I certainly think they are. There's a reason it's called "Southern Gothic."

  • Desperate Remedies and/or Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy. Probably anything by Hardy would qualify here, but these two are waiting on my shelf and seem particularly apropos. Desperate Remedies was his first novel, and by all accounts more of a pot-boiler than his later stuff. Highlights include possibly-faked murders, blackmail/extortion, and questionable suicide. Return of the Native is (I've heard) classic Hardy, and in my opinion would qualify solely on the basis of featuring a HEATH as (arguably) the primary character.

So there you go! Thanks for indulging my little fake-challenge-sign-up, and maybe my list will come in useful if anyone's beating themselves up because they desperately want to join but have already read the entire Wilkie Collins/Bram Stoker/Sarah Waters/Mary Shelley back-list.

Oh also: A.S. Byatt's Possession would probably count, as it's a literary mystery that features crumbling country homes and Victorian séances. I swear I'll finish it up soon and write about it here. Then I will have already completed the first level of the challenge, anyway!

June 2012

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
          1 2
3 4 5 6 7 8 9
10 11 12 13 14 15 16
17 18 19 20 21 22 23
24 25 26 27 28 29 30


link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography