October 2010 Archives

Old School


After the intensity and vasty deeps of Madame Bovary, I quite enjoyed relaxing into a more comfortable, quick-moving novel, one that takes place in the familiar environment of an American boarding school at mid-century. What is it that's so comforting about boarding-school narratives, I wonder? I myself went to public day school, so it can hardly be a personal familiarity with the subject matter. Nor, based on my experiences sharing a dorm room in college, do I believe I would have done well at or enjoyed the boarding school life. Perhaps it's the predictability of the school year's progress: the crisp scholasticism of fall, the holidays, the depths of winter giving way to the restlessness of spring, then breaking up as summer arrives. School stories often take place over the course of a single year, or multiple whole years, and the combination of steady progress and a clear end-point is undeniably reassuring, in a way that high school never felt when I was actually attending it. For readers above a certain age, I suppose, school stories are reassuring simply because we know we'll never have to revisit them ourselves.

Tobias Wolff's Old School follows this familiar pattern: beginning in the fall of 1960, the narrator's senior year at a self-consciously literary all-male prep school, it tracks his progress through three rounds of the school's tri-annual writing contest. Pitting boy against boy, this contest awards the author of the best story or poem a one-on-one audience with a prestigious visiting author. Wolff's narrator, who like many of his schoolfellows aspires to professional authorship, recalls that at seventeen winning one of these contests seemed absolutely crucial to him:

I'm not exaggerating the importance to us of those trophy meetings. We cared. And I cared as much as anyone, because I not only read writers, I read about writers. I knew that Maupassant, whose stories I loved, had been taken up when young by Flaubert and Turgenev; Faulkner by Sherwood Anderson; Hemingway by Pound and Gertrude Stein. All these writers were welcomed by other writers. It seemed to follow that you needed such a welcome, yet before this could happen you somehow, anyhow, had to meet the writer who was to welcome you. My idea of how this worked wasn't low or even practical. My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hand that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be anointed.

For the first two-thirds of the novel, we are in the midst of these competitions: first for the attentions of the old guard Robert Frost, then for the facile self-assurance of Ayn Rand, and lastly for the approval of the boys' collective idol, Ernest Hemingway. After the disastrous results of the final competition, we get versions of the story from a couple of other, unexpected angles; these final chapters were probably my favorites for the depth and variety they add to the narrative, and the way they gently take the mickey out of the narrator's hushed reverence for all things scholastic and literary.

One of the things that tickled me about Old School was the way in which the three visiting authors are not particularly good readers. The narrator, and presumably his class-mates, see them as practically omniscient, almost gods—or at least, as the word "anointed" implies, priests. The perceptive reader expects that this illusion will be shattered, that the writers will be exposed as flawed humans just like everyone—what we might not expect is that these writers are not even particularly insightful critics. Being able to make a living with their pens and typewriters doesn't necessarily give them a leg up on understanding others' writing; their mis-readings, in fact, are one of the most consistent features of the book. Frost awards his prize to the author of a slavish, imitative ode because he misinterprets it as a satire; Rand misreads an outlandish science fiction story as a metaphor for the dangers of collectivism, when it's actually an impassioned plea for vegetarianism. And, as the Susan Friedman character points out late in the novel, Hemingway's misreading is perhaps the most ironic of all.

In fact, the irony surrounding perceptions of Hemingway in Wolff's novel is thick and multi-faceted, and we keep learning more about it as the book progresses. The boys all idolize "Papa" for his great work of the 1920s and 30s, and lionize him as the Greatest Living American Author without any notion of the changes that thirty years can make in a man. They expect Hemingway, in 1960, to be more or less a character from one of his own novels: Santiago, or even Nick Adams: strong, stoic, obeying, to the best of his ability, the dictates of his own internal compass. Hemingway's actual condition at the time is never explicitly illuminated in the novel, but I think it adds poignancy to contrast the boys' hero worship with this portrait (from Hemingway's Wikipedia page):

Although Hemingway's mental deterioration was noticeable in the summer of 1960 [just before Wolff's novel begins], he again traveled to Spain to obtain photographs for the manuscript. Without Mary, he was lonely and took to his bed for days, retreating into silence. [...] When he left Spain, he went straight to Idaho, but was worried about money and his safety. As his paranoia increased, he believed the FBI was actively monitoring his movements. Hemingway suffered from physical problems as well: his health declined and his eyesight was failing. In November he was admitted to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he may have believed he was to be treated for hypertension. Meyers writes that "an aura of secrecy surrounds Hemingway's treatment at the Mayo", but confirms that in December 1960 he received electroconvulsive therapy as many as 15 times, then in January 1961 he was "released in ruins".

In the spring of 1961, Wolff's narrator has an argument with his English professor, Mr. Ramsey, about Ramsey's censorship of the interview with Hemingway that had appeared in the school paper. Given the ruined mind and body of the soon-to-be-suicidal writer, it's easy and somewhat heartbreaking to imagine the back-story to the exchange:

          Why did you censor what he said to you? That wasn't right. You don't censor Ernest Hemingway.
          Mind you, he said, the stuff I left out wouldn't have made it past the vigilance committee, but that's not why I left it out. Let me say that I do not consider Hemingway the greatest writer of this century, but he is a very great writer indeed, and some of what he said to me was unworthy. At his best, he would never have said it—I'm sure of that. It seemed unfair, even mean-spirited, to make such remarks public. In fact, we probably shouldn't have run the interview at all.
          You had no right to touch a word of his. It was wrong.

The boy's stubborn insistence that any word from the mouth of Hemingway is sacred, that it was wrong of his teacher to cut anything, even to save Hemingway himself from public humiliation, illustrates his own willful mis-reading of the situation; like Ayn Rand misinterpreting Big Jeff Purcell's vegetarian space odyssey, he is reading into the situation a narrative that makes him, and his assumptions and priorities, the center of events. It's a typically teenage mistake to make, but, as Wolff reminds us, one to which adults can fall victim as well.

A note in closing: although I enjoyed the whole book and thought the final chapters in particular took it to a higher level, I took a different kind of enjoyment—more of a wicked glee—in the depiction of the narrator's brief infatuation and rapid disillusionment with Ayn Rand, including the hilarious "audience" scene in which she casts him a withering stare for the crime of having a cold, and declares that Atlas Shrugged is the "single greatest work by an American author," with The Fountainhead as runner-up. The description of Big Jeff's winning story, and the description of our narrator's superficial identification with Howard Roarke from The Fountainhead, were also extremely funny. I spent the Rand section giggling, and the rest of the novel lost in enjoyable thought.


Old School was the October pick for the Non-Structured/Wolves in Winter reading group. Please consider joining us in November for Ricardas Gavelis's Vilnius Poker!

Madame Bovary, partie 3

bovary.jpg bovary2.jpg

Well, the Bovarys have met their end. I was quite surprised, after spending most of Parts 1 and 2 chuckling over Flaubert's catty jibes and underlining intellectually intriguing passages, at how emotionally invested I felt over Emma's and Charles's eventual demise. Lydia Davis, in her introduction to the new translation, discusses how Flaubert manages to keeping the irony which saturates his novel from undermining its emotional impact, and I certainly agree with her there. It's amazing that he manages to be such a bitter pill and simultaneously make me care about the fickle, petty philistines he has chosen for characters. And although I finished this novel feeling Flaubert to be a much angrier, less hopeful man, his ability to dissect psychological states and mix pathos with humor continued to remind me of Marcel Proust:

Une chose étrange, c'est que Bovary, tout en pensant à Emma continuellement, l'oubliait; et il se désespérait à sentir cette image lui échapper de la mémoire au milieu des efforts qu'il faisait pour la retenir. Chaque nuit pourtant, il la rêvait; c'était toujours le même rêve: il s'approchait d'elle; mais quand il venait à l'étreindre, elle tombait en pourriture dans ses bras.
One strange thing was that Bovary, though he thought about Emma continually, was forgetting her; and he despaired as he felt her image slip from his memory even in the midst of his efforts to hold on to it. Every night, however, he would dream about her; it was always the same dream: he would go up to her, but just when he was about to clasp her to him, she would rot away in his arms.

I feel presumptuous critiquing Lydia Davis, but I almost prefer to translate this "even in thinking about Emma continually." The French seems to imply, again in a very Proustian way, that the act of thinking about her is part of what causes Charles to forget his late wife—he wears thin his ability to access her memory voluntarily, and can only do so inadvertently, through nightmares. Indeed, Charles's dreams of Emma rotting away in his arms seem a potent encapsulation of Madame Bovary as a whole: so many characters here are chasing phantoms, whether of romance, respectability, change, or excitement, which either vanish or putrefy upon inspection. In tracking Flaubert's use of the word "entrevoir" (to glimpse), which I noticed in my first post, one ends up with a veritable laundry list of these delusions: we have Emma luxuriating in her short-lived religious visions:

Elle entrevit, parmi les illusions de son espoir, un état de pureté flottant au-dessus de la terre, se confondant avec le ciel... / She could glimpse, among the illusions born of her hopes, a state of purity floating above the earth, merging with heaven...

There is Rodolphe, spewing Romantic clichés in order to win her over:

"C'est comme une voix qui crie: "Le voilà!" Vous sentez le besoin de faire à cette personne la confidence de votre vie, de lui donner tout, de lui sacrificier tout! On ne s'explique pas, on se devine. On s'est entrevu dans ses rêves." / It's like a voice crying, "Here it is!" You feel the need to confide your whole life to this person, to give her everything, to sacrifice everything for her! You don't have to explain anything; you sense each others' thoughts. You've seen each other in your dreams.

And the lovers' mutual delusions about the intensity of their connection:

Le froid de la nuit les faisait s'étreindre davantage; les soupirs de leaurs lèvres leau semblaient plus forts; leurs yeux, qu'ils entrevoyaient à peine, leur paraissaient plus grands... / The cold of the night made them clasp each other all the more tightly; the sighs on their lips seemed to them deeper; their eyes, which they could barely glimpse, seemed larger...

More generally, "le vulgaire" believe themselves to glimpse something unique and eccentric when in reality it's just another cliché:

Elle avait cette incohérence de choses communes et recherchées, où le vulgaire, d'habitude, croit entrevoir la révélation d'une existence excentrique, les désordres du sentiment, les tyrannies de l'art, et toujours un certain mépris des conventions sociales, ce qui le séduit ou l'exaspère. / It was that incoherent mix of the ordinary and the elegant that common people generally take for evidence of an eccentric lifestyle, chaotic passions, the tyrannical dictates of art, and always a certain contempt for social conventions, which either charms or exasperates them.

while the bourgeoisie are always a hair's-breadth away from imaginary confrontation with the horrific monsters of indecency:

En effet, quelqu'un avait envoyé à sa mère une longue lettre anonyme, pour la prévenir qu'il se perdait avec une femme mariée; et aussitôt la bonne dame, entrevoyant l'éternel épouvantail des families, c'est-à-dire la vague créature pernicieuse, la sirène, le monstre, qui habite fantastiquement les profondeurs de l'amour, écrivit à maître Dubocage... / Indeed, someone had sent his mother a long anonymous letter, warning her that he was ruining himself with a married woman, and right away the good lady, having visions of that eternal bogey of family life, that ill-defined, pernicious creature, that siren, that fantastic monster inhabiting the depths of love, wrote to Maître Dubocage...

The characters who don't suffer disaster, like Homais with his croix d'honneur, Léon with his new wife and Rodolphe with his château and his good night's sleep, are those who have either stopped imagining anything, or have yet to be disillusioned in their imaginings. Nowhere in the novel do we see a person who is able to create something original, or (with the possible exception of Emma's father) to craft a fulfilling life out of material that doesn't prove delusory.

To be honest, Madame Bovary left me wondering what, exactly, Flaubert saw as the role of art and imagination in human lives. His distaste for the vulgarity and philistinism of the bourgeoisie comes through very clearly, and it is undeniably amusing to watch him lampoon the middle-class self-importance that believes itself respectable and open-minded while being, in actuality, devoid of originality or (often) basic kindness. Yet what's the alternative? Within the novel there seems no way to avoid the ignominious fate of mediocrity and self-importance, but what does Madame Bovary imply about the world in general? Surely, given his famed obsessiveness over his craftsmanship, Flaubert did not regard his own attempts at novel-writing to be as ridiculous and deluded as Homais's propaganda journalism, or Rodolphe's manipulative "Dear Joan" letter?

Perhaps Madame Bovary, like T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, is a work that contains its antidote within its own form. The claim that modern people are all mediocre and unable to transcend tired clichés, or appreciate art from a perspective deeper than simple identification with a romantic lead, is pretty thoroughly undermined by the Flaubert's own revolutionary narrative style and painstaking craftsmanship. In a similar way, I have a hard time feeling too concerned about the mediocrity of the typist and her "young man carbuncular" while Eliot is evoking them in such memorable verse. Yet where The Waste Land leaves me feeling exhilarated (if maybe slightly disappointed by the turn to Eastern spirituality in its final lines), I leave Flaubert's novel feeling exhausted, and a little angry. Yes, his prose is fantastic, and yes, the Modern Novel owes much to this work. But for a book that seems to be arguing so vitriolically against clichés, conventionality and kitsch, where is the evidence of a preferable alternative? I'm not looking for "good" characters and "bad" characters, or any kind of moral judgment—merely some gesture toward the possibility of creating something original, of combining imagination with a fulfilling life.

Don't get me wrong: I do not require sunshine and lollipops to love a novel. Among my favorite books of all time are Mrs. Dalloway, The Unnamable, and Journey to the End of the Night. But somehow, Madame Bovary strikes me as more alienating than anything I've lately read. I think it's because of the universality of bourgeois mediocrity in the world Flaubert evokes: despite his touted realism, and despite the psychological insight into the individual characters, it strikes me a UNrealistic to suppose that an entire life intersects with not one original soul, or that every moment of human happiness hinges on some pathetic delusion. At the same time, Flaubert avoids a dip into complete nihilism—which, if dark, would at least be bracing, would at least give the reader permission to discover her own source of meaning in the world—by seeming to argue that an objectively preferable mode of life could exist, even if no one in his world is living it.

Last night David and I watched the film Brokeback Mountain. There is a scene in which the archetypal American shut-down loner Ennis Del Mar affixes mass-produced metal street numbers to the mailbox outside his trailer, then steps back to contemplate the effect. And in that instant, despite the tragedy of the film, I felt such relief. There is value in human creativity, even if many would judge the results to be unoriginal, or kitsch, or beneath our notice. Yes, there is the possibility of using romantic delusions to lower ourselves into isolation, like Emma Bovary; and yes, there is also the option of using our creativity to manipulate others out of convenience or pettiness, like Rodolphe or Homais. There is even the option of living, like Charles, convinced that one's invented notion of other peoples' characters is true. But there is also the fact that small moments of artfulness can reach out to connect with other imperfect yet valuable people, like Ennis making sure his mailbox numbers are straight because his daughter is about to pay him a visit. Such moments are present, if rare, in Madame Bovary—Homais watering Charles's plants leaps to mind—but Flaubert never stops scoffing at his characters even as he occasionally recognizes their humanity. By the end, no amount of insightful psychology and lovely language could stop me from craving something a bit more open-hearted.

Madame Bovary, partie 2

bovary.jpg bovary2.jpg

Throughout the middle section of Madame Bovary, I've been thinking a lot about Flaubert's influence on one of my favorite writers, Marcel Proust. Apparently whole books have been written on the subject, so I'm not exactly breaking new ground here, but, it's always interesting to discover paths of influence for myself—to reflect on how an author made use of his or her sources, reinforcing or subverting them along the way. I noticed a few passages in Part One that struck me as "Proustian," but they started to pile on in Part 2: in Flaubert there is the same preoccupation with the twisting and turning inner workings of peoples' minds, with poking fun at petty snobbishness and self-importance (Binet posing with his saber at the Comices while his visor totally obscures his vision is a particularly comic moment), and with the general perversities of human nature, which prizes what it doesn't have and tires of what it does. One of my favorite passages from this section, for the reasons above and for the sheer quality of its writing, comes when our narrator is detailing the thoughts and feelings of Emma's lover Rodolphe upon hearing her protestations of undying love:

Il était tant de fois entendu dire ces choses, qu'elles n'avaient pour lui rien d'original. Emma ressemblait à toutes les maîtresses; et le charme de la nouveauté, peu à peu tombant comme un vêtement, laissait voir à nu l'éternelle monotonie de la passion, qui a toujours les mêmes formes et le même langage. Il ne distinguait pas, cet homme si plein de pratique, la dissemblance des sentiments sous la parité des expressions. Parce que des lèvres libertines ou vénales lui avaient murmuré des phrases pareilles, il ne croyait que faiblement à la candeur de celles-là; on en devait rabattre, pensait-il, les discours exagérés cachant les affections médiocres; comme si la plénitude de l'âme ne débordait pas quelquefois par les métaphores les plus vides, puisque personne, jamais, ne peut donner l'exacte mesure de ses besoins, ni de ses conceptions, ni de ses doleurs, et que la parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.
He had heard these things said to him so often that to him there was nothing original about them. Emma was like all other mistresses; and the charm of novelty, slipping off gradually like a piece of clothing, revealed in its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always assumes the same forms and uses the same language. He could not perceive—this man of such broad experience—the difference in feelings that might underlie similarities of expression. Because licentious or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he had little faith in their truthfulness; one had to discount, he thought, exaggerated speeches that concealed mediocre affections; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity.

I love (predictably) the comparison here of novelty to a garment, gradually slipping away to reveal naked the "eternal monotony of passion" (fantastic phrase!). The narrator's claims about the gulf between human language and the meaning it attempts to represent remind me of both Proust and Simone de Beauvoir. Similar, too, is the context of the passage: as one lover becomes more attached and dependent, the other withdraws. The perversity of the situation, of Rodolphe's mistaken assumptions that a) all women are as callous and practiced in "love" as he is, and that b) all people invest a given set of words with identical feelings and meanings, strikes me as a relevant model for À la recherche de temps perdu. (As far as Proustian models, the next passage is also interesting: although Rodolphe is becoming bored with Emma and is unable to believe in her romanticism, he enjoys a kind of abandoned, voluptuous luxuriance, basking in her worshipful submissiveness in a way that anticipates the sadomasochistic relationships of Charlus and other characters from À la recherche....)

But there are also differences here: while Proust presents such perversity as simply part of human nature (I can't think of anyone in his novel who is free from this type of fickleness, except maybe Marcel's idealized grandmother; so that the servant Françoise and the Princesse de Guermantes are equally petty and perverse), Flaubert seems to be championing the idea that such thought patterns are a uniquely bourgeois disorder. The club-footed stable boy Hippolyte, for example, is portrayed as a simple-hearted victim of Emma's and Homais's vicarious aspirations to fame and fortune and Charles's cluelessness, being seemingly too busy with actual work to have developed any of his own. Ancient farm woman Catherine-Nicaise-Elisabeth Leroux, who is awarded a cash prize at the Comices, seems indeed almost non-lingual, she has worked so hard over fifty-four years at the same farm. The elder Madame Bovary is a snobbish harridan herself, and one suspects that her proposed cure-all—preventing her daughter-in-law from reading any more novels—would fail to transform Emma into a reasonable person, but one can't help feeling a bit of sympathy with her when she declares

Si elle était comme tant d'autres contrainte à gagner son pain, elle n'aurait pas ces vapeurs-là.
If she was obliged to earn her living, like so many others, she wouldn't be having these vapors...

In this sense, I don't completely agree with Lydia Davis's statement, in her introduction, that Flaubert found stupidity in "all of humanity"—or, at least, it seems to be exclusively the middle classes that are fickle philistine blowhards.

In the end I'm still unsure exactly where Flaubert locates the source of his characters' petty mediocrities. He does seem concerned with the effects of socialization; we see details of both Emma's and Charles's early training and education (in a convent and provincial schools/medical school respectively), and Emma at least seems to be, to some degree, a victim of the headily Romantic combination of her religious studies and the novels she reads. But it strikes me as inaccurate to claim that Madame Bovary is a criticism of "the danger of reading novels"; Emma's problem is less the novels themselves, and more that she has no training in creativity or critical thought. (By contrast, for a person capable of subjecting them to analysis, like, oh, FLAUBERT, reading novels is presumably no problem1.) Her imagination is (over)active but ploddingly unoriginal, and she has never learned to question the overblown Romantic notions she has consumed. Taking away Sir Walter Scott would, it seems to me, only invite her obsessive covetousness to fasten on some other idea or object, which she would "read" in an equally un-critical way. Because she has no analytic ability, she expects that attaining the surface signifiers of "happiness" or "love" that she has read about will result in the kind of ecstatic delirium of Romantic novels. Obviously, this assumption is wrong.

This lack of critical thinking, though, is certainly not limited to the novel-reading characters of Madame Bovary. In this passage, Charles fondly imagines the future of his daughter Berthe:

...la clientèle augmenterait; il y comptait, car il voulait que Berthe fût bien élevée, qu'elle eût des talents, qu'elle appris le piano. Ah! qu'elle serait jolie, plus tard, à quinze ans, quand, ressemblant à sa mère, elle porterait comme elle, dans l'été, de grand chapeaux de paille! on les prendrait de loin pour les deux soeurs. Il se la figurait travaillant le soir auprès d'eux, sous la lumière de la lampe; elle lui broderait des pantoufles; elle s'occuperait du ménage; elle emplirait toute la maison de sa gentillesse et de sa gaieté. Enfin, ils songeraient à son établissement: on lui trouverait quelque brave garçon ayant un état solide; il la rendrait heureuse; cela durerait toujours.
...his clientele would increase—he was counting on that, because he wanted Berthe to be well brought up, accomplished, learn to play the piano. Ah, how pretty she would be, later, when she was fifteen, when resembling her mother, she would, like her, wear large straw hats in summer! From a distance, people would take them for two sisters. He pictured her working in the evening near them, in the lamplight; she would embroider some slippers for him; she would look after the household; she would fill teh whole house with her sweetness and gaiety. Eventually, they would think of getting her settled: they would find her some decent boy with a solid profession; he would make her happy; it would last forever.

My theory about the novel's long introduction, in which Charles appears to be the main character, is that allowing the readers to spend more time with Charles's unremitting mediocrity gives us sympathy with Emma's frustrations later on, and in passages like this one Flaubert continues to remind us how limited and conventional Charles's imagination is. On the one hand, the reader pities him for his delusional devotion to his fickle wife, but on the other hand: this is the best he can imagine for his daughter? Wearing straw hats in the summer, learning the piano, and embroidering slippers for her father until she settles down with a nice young man forever and ever? He obviously cares for her deeply, and yet his dearest wish for her amounts basically to servitude. He is simply incapable of creating something new or better out of his own imagination, just as Emma is incapable of imagining a way of life not based on her convoitoises, and just as Rodolphe is incapable of imagining a love affair that transcends manipulative head games. The bourgeois class, Flaubert seems to say, is dangerous because their imaginations can absorb material from without, but not generate anything from within. One assumes, from their minimal presence in the book, that the working class have no time for any imagination at all.

I tend to side with Proust rather than Flaubert: I don't think this kind of perverse and petty un-originality is uniquely bourgeois, but spread across all layers of the social hierarchy, occurring to a greater or lesser extent in individuals. (Madame Bovary also seems to be missing the spate of artists (Elstir, Bergotte, Vinteuil) who pepper the pages of À la recherche... and, though not necessarily happier or less perverse than anyone else, do represent a true creative class making true art.) I do admire, though, both authors' skill at portraying (and lampooning) the inner workings of human perversity.

1On second (or fifth) thought, thought, as Flaubert did famously say that "Madame Bovary, c'est moi," maybe he didn't feel capable of reading novels himself; maybe he felt just as contaminated by faux-literary romanticism as his protagonist. I have a hard time wrapping my brain around this possibility: why would someone who recognizes his own inability to read novels cope with the problem by writing a novel? Nevertheless, it's something to think about.


Another big thanks to Frances for hosting this lovely Madame Bovary readalong. Hop on over to her post for a round-up of other entries, and join us next week for the third and final installment.

Wolf Hall


Expectations can be tricky things: sometimes the actual experience of reading a novel, while perfectly fine, doesn't live up to one's preconceptions in some way, while on the other hand, negative buzz around a title can delay a wonderful read for years. So it's a kind of a cool change of pace to find, for once, pretty much exactly the reading experience I had envisioned in cracking open Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. I was bargaining on a lush, character-driven treatment of Thomas Cromwell and the beginning of the English Reformation, and that's exactly what I got: a complex, rousing story whose nuanced characterization provided plenty of narrative tension, despite the fact that I already knew from history class how the basic plot points must play out.

Indeed, the rise and fall of Henry VIII's love for Anne Boleyn, his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and the separation of the Church of England from Church of Rome exercises a powerful hold over the popular imagination; I am aware of fictional retellings from the point of view of Anne herself in the film Anne of a Thousand Days; as an ensemble piece in the contemporary Showtime drama The Tudors; with an eye to Mary Boleyn (I assume?) in The Other Boleyn Girl; and from the Thomas More angle in A Man for All Seasons. I'll admit up front that I've never totally understood the lasting appeal of the Anne/Henry story, which is often presented in broad strokes: "Henry boldly breaks up the Church for love," goes one plotline, or "Thomas More is a man of principle who will not compromise and sticks to the Way of Right."

To her credit, Mantel's portrait of the times is much more nuanced, and, to me at least, infinitely more appealing and satisfying as a result. The English Reformation did not come out of left field as an isolated response to Henry's lust for a woman other than his wife or even his desire for a male heir. Mantel evokes convincingly the feeling of theological unrest—even chaos—during these years: the way that excitement and wonder at the influx of new ideas (a heliocentric universe, an English Bible, a host which is nothing more than bread) battled with fear at the torture and death that awaited heretics. With the theological ground shifting radically over the course of just a few years, avoiding a heretic's death was not a simple matter.

Ashes, dry bread. England was always, the cardinal says, a miserable country, home to an outcast and abandoned people, who are working slowly toward their deliverance, and who are visited by God with special tribulations. If England lies under God's curse, or some evil spell, it has seemed for a time that the spell has been broken, by the golden king and his golden cardinal. But those golden years are over, and this winter the sea will freeze; the people who see it will remember it all their lives.

Accustomed to the Man for All Seasons view of events (e.g., Saint Thomas More as Man of Principle, beloved of commoners and bravely defiant in the face of the King's self-interested heresy), Mantel's focus on the rivalry between More and Thomas Cromwell, her protagonist, was intriguing to me. As I've mentioned before, I'm fascinated by More's Utopia and his biography, but I've always felt uncomfortable with such a wholly congratulatory portrait of him, for exactly the reasons Mantel spotlights: he was a religious extremist who believed he was morally and theologically justified in torturing confessions out of suspected heretics, a learned humanist who was also a cruelly condescending snob, a lover of worldly comforts who also scourged himself with a cat-o-nine-tails. Mantel doesn't slight any of these varied aspects of More's character, and she sets his medievalism against her depiction of the more opportunistic, modern-feeling, but equally complicated, Thomas Cromwell. She paints neither man as wholly admirable—both are bullies, both are self-interested, both can be cruel—but the interplay between their world-views is fascinating, as are the shifting power dynamics between them as Cromwell's star rises and More's sets.

He never sees More--a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod--without wanting to ask him, what's wrong with you? Or what's wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you've learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, 'Purgatory.' Show me where it says relics, monks, nuns. Show me where it says 'Pope.'

Or again:

Thomas More says that the imperial troops, for their enjoyment, are roasting live babies on spits. Oh, he would! says Thomas Cromwell. Listen, soldiers don't do that. They're too busy carrying away everything they can turn into ready money.

Mantel's Cromwell is, despite his obvious self-interest, despite his status as more or less a tough and a usurer, undeniably compelling, and I think a large part of this appeal is how "modern" the character feels. This is dangerous territory for a work of historical fiction: so easily, a character intended to appeal to the reader's modern sympathies can turn into an anachronistic mess. The reason it works with Cromwell, I think, in addition to Mantel's wealth of detail and solid writing style, is that the Renaissance actually WAS, in many ways, the beginning of what we now call "modernity." Many of the qualities exemplified by Mantel's Cromwell really WERE beginning to be rewarded in Renaissance times more than they had been previously: his pragmatism; his flexibility; his wide worldly experience and ability to extrapolate from it; his openness to new ideas and the way he is able to combine some degree of faith with confidence in the efficacy of his own mind. He believes he is able to read the Bible and draw conclusions from it himself; he is hungry for knowledge from whatever source he can find. Possibly most significantly, he understands the workings of portable currency and international trade, which in the 1530s was an area of exponentially expanding importance, in the process of overtaking the old feudal, land-based systems of wealth.

How can he explain to him [Harry Percy]? The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page or the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and the shot.

Cromwell is an outsider, a man of low birth who has served as a soldier and a merchant in foreign lands, and Mantel gives a nuanced view of the interplay between him and the established court order in all its incestuous complexity. Incest is, in fact, a recurring theme in the novel: Henry claims that his marriage to Catherine was void because incestuous (her first husband was his brother), while Cromwell himself has an affair with the sister of his beloved late wife. Even the book's title gestures toward the family seat of the Seymours, where Sir John Seymour is caught in an adulterous affair with his daughter-in-law. It is also, of course, the home of the King's next, future wife, Jane Seymour, who remarks late in the novel, "Incest is so popular these days!" On a less literal note, of course, the sense of claustrophobia at court is almost palpable, with burned bridges or long-ago alliances looming around corners unexpectedly.

There is so much more to say about this novel—I particularly liked Mantel's use of houses (Wolsey's place in Westminster, Cromwell's Austin Friars, Thomas More's Chelsea establishment, Hatfield where the young princesses are kept) as embodiments of the waxing or waning influence of different players, and as gestures to the past or future—Anne's contemptuous statement that "They don't know what continence means, down at Wolf Hall" is counter-balanced by the final line of the book: "To Wolf Hall," as the streams of influence alter their courses. Just one of the many details lovely to watch in the unfolding.


Thanks to LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program for sending me a copy of Wolf Hall!

Madame Bovary, partie 1

bovary.jpg bovary2.jpg

Regular readers may be unsurprised to learn that, barely a hundred pages into Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, it is the clothes that have struck me most forcibly thus far. I wrote a few months ago about the attention paid to clothing by Honoré de Balzac in his Père Goriot, but Flaubert elevates the humble vêtements almost to characters in their own right. Take this delightfully revolting description, early in the novel, of a hat worn by young Charles Bovary at school (all translations courtesy of Lydia Davis):

C'était une de ces coiffures d'ordre composite, où l'on retrouve les éléments du bonnet à poil, du chapska, du chapeau rond, de la casquette de loutre et du bonnet de coton, une de ces pauvres choses, enfin, dont la laideur muette a des profondeurs d'expression comme le visage d'un imbécile. Ovoïde et renflée de baleines, elle commençait par trois boudins circulaires; puis s'alternaient, separés par une bande rouge, des losanges de velours et de poils de lapin; venait ensuite une façon de sac qui terminait par un polygone cartonné, couvert d'une broderie en soutache compliquée, et d'où pendait, au bout d'un long cordon trop mince, un petit croisillon de fils d'or, en manière de gland. Elle était neuve; la visière brillait.
It was one of those head coverings of a composite order, in which one can recognize components of a busby, a lancer's cap, a bowler, an otter-skin cap, and a cotton nightcap, one of those sorry objects, indeed, whose mute ugliness has depths of expression, like the face of an imbecile. Ovoid and stiffened with whalebones, it began with three circular sausages; then followed alternately, separated by a red band, lozenges of velvet and rabbit fur; next came a kind of bag terminating in a cardboard-lined polygon, covered with an embroidery in complicated braid, from which hung, at the end of a long, excessively slender cord, a little crosspiece of gold threads, by by of a tassel. It was new; the visor shone.

This does indeed sound like a hideous hat. The line comparing the depths of expression in its mute ugliness to the face of an imbecile, comes closer than anything else I can think of to expressing a character inherent in a piece of clothing itself. But this passage is doing so much work besides. It demonstrates, of course, young Charles Bovary's status as a country yokel without much sense of how things are done; not only that, but he (or his mother) apparently chose this godawful hat in particular—it's brand new, not a hand-me-down, indicating that not only is Charles uneducated, but he's also lacking in any native aesthetic taste. Is there also some significance in the hat's hodge-podge nature? That in trying to be everything to everybody—a nightcap AND a bowler AND a busby—it fails spectacularly at all its aims? I'm not sure yet, but it's something to keep in mind.

In addition to that, however, this passage is also part of the strange, perfunctory-seeming frame narrative that begins Madame Bovary, a device that intrigues me almost as much as Flaubert's take on clothing. As the novel opens, we have a first-person narrator telling us about his first sight of Charles Bovary: he (the narrator) was in school, and Bovary was led in as a new boy, painfully awkward and countrified, and was made fun of by the narrator and his schoolmates, and even by their teacher. The narrator then tells us a bit about Charles's parents, and returns a page or so later to claim that

Il serait maintenant impossible à aucun de nous de se rien rappeler de lui. C'était un garçon de tempérament modéré, qui jouait aux récréations, travaillait à l'étude, écoutant en classe, dormant bien au dortoir, mangeant bien au réféctoire.
It would be impossible by now for any of us to recall a thing about him. He was a boy of even temperament, who played at recess, worked in study hall, listening in class, sleeping well in the dormitory, eating well in the dining hall.

And then the first-person narrator disappears from the text, not to return in Part 1; the rest of this section becomes, in essence, a third-person narration of Charles Bovary's life after leaving school, and of Emma Bovary's free-floating angst.

Isn't this a strange introduction? For one thing, the narrator obviously can remember things about Bovary—not just a few generalizations about how dull he was, but every single detail of the hat he wore on his first day of school all those years ago. The narrator also, apparently, knows details of Charles's actions and feelings during his years in medical school, during his oppressive first marriage, and surrounding his courtship of, and early marriage to, Emma Rouault. Charles's old school acquaintance is also privy to the inner workings of Emma Bovary's romantic daydreams and crushing boredom with country life. How does he know these things? Will he re-enter the story later on? And why does Flaubert have him claim that "it would be impossible...for any of us to recall a thing about" Bovary, when he obviously recalls a great deal?

One of my working theories (I have never read this before and am setting myself up to be wrong) is that Flaubert wants ALL his characters to be unreliable, either in how they perceive reality or in how they recount it, or both—he's writing about the misdirection and petty tragedy of society at large, not just about some crazy woman who wants more than she has. From that angle it makes sense to introduce an unreliable first-person narrator who, at least as a boy, showed himself to be cruel and snobbish, concerned with petty appearances just like Emma Bovary. His obsessive attention to the gaucheness of Charles's hat, followed by his hasty assertion that "it would be impossible" to remember anything about the boy, points to just these attributes. (It seems significant to me that he doesn't say "I can't remember," but "it would be impossible" to remember: an indirect construction that allows him to keep remembering, as long as he hypocritically agrees that, more generally it "isn't done.")

So: is Flaubert giving us a glimpse of an unreliable narrator, just in time to forget that we ever had a narrator in the first place? It would fit with the obsession, throughout the rest of this section, with glimpses, seductively incomplete entrevoirs, and their connection with disappointed hopes. Charles "avait entrevu dans le mariage l'avènement d'une condition meilleure" ["had foreseen in marriage the advent of a better situation"], but was disappointed in his first wife; Emma glimpses in her music-class ballads "the enticing phantasmagoria of real feelings," but can never quite reach them. In a Proustian moment, a newly besotted Charles reconstructs the phrases Emma has uttered,

tâchant de se les rappeler, d'en compléter le sense, afin de se faire la portion d'existence qu'elle avait vécue dans le temps où il ne la connaissait pas encore.
trying to recall them, to complete their meaning, in order to re-create for himself the portion of her life that she had lived during the time when he did not yet know her.

But the Emma he can almost glimpse through this imaginative exercise always fails to appear. (This attempt also seems uncharacteristically poetic and imaginative of old Charles, but perhaps love stimulates his latent creativity.) Similarly, Emma is taunted by a glimpse into the shadowy portrait galleries and lavish waltzes of the marquis before being whisked back to her mundane country existence.

So, going forward I'll be on the lookout for things glimpsed, evidence of the phantom first-person narrator, and, of course, clothing deployed in interesting ways. And whatever else strikes my fancy.


Thanks to the lovely Frances for hosting this Madame Bovary readalong. Her post will be updated to feature a round-up of other entries, and she'll be hosting two more weeks of thoughts on Flaubert's classic novel.

A hurry-word through the glass

The dead fed you
Amid the slant stones of graveyards.
Pale ghosts who planted you
Came in the nighttime
And let their thin hair blow through your clustered stems.
You are of the green sea,
And of the stone hills which reach a long distance.
You are of elm-shaded streets with little shops where they sell kites and marbles,
You are of great parks where every one walks and nobody is at home.
You cover the blind sides of greenhouses
And lean over the top to say a hurry-word through the glass
To your friends, the grapes, inside.
—from "Lilacs," by Amy Lowell

David and I just got back from our annual trip to Squam Lake in rural New Hampshire, a vacation full of good times with family and friends we haven't seen since last year this time. October showed us no lilacs, of course, but there were old colonial graveyards, and little shops selling kites and marbles, and the green sea and the stone hills which reach a long distance. Unlike Lowell and her lilacs, though, I am not "of" New England, so it's always equally nice to be back home in the gray and evergreen of the Pacific Northwest.

We took an overnight trip up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and spent a pleasant hour at local indie bookshop River Run Books, where the staff was all abuzz about an upcoming Stephen King book-signing. I imagine it will be VERY much abuzz when the event actually takes place, as the shop is charmingly small and King is hugely famous. It will probably be like the time I and every other Portlander under the age of 25 all showed up to watch Elliott Smith perform at the 900-square-foot Music Millennium record store. Best of luck to them!

I did not pick up anything by King, but my mother-in-law did very sweetly treat me to a couple of new finds:


Amusingly, there is one Oxford World Classic and one NYRB reissue, so I could dip into either end of Sasha's 2011 project.

  • The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne. Which I've been meaning to read for years on the assumption I will love its rambling, pre-postmodern trajectory. A novel in which the hero doesn't manage to get born until Volume Three is my kind of book.
  • Wish Her Safe at Home, by Stephen Benatar, which promises to be an intriguing trip along the thin line separating "happiness" from "mania," with bubbly yet unreliable narrator Rachel Waring.

And then, as if to prove that coming home is just as lovely as starting out, when I arrived back in Portland last night these three goodies were waiting for me:


  • La force de l'age, by Simone de Beauvoir. I bravely resisted for several weeks, but yes I did eventually break down and order the second volume of de Beauvoir's memoirs after falling in love with the first one a month ago.
  • Palace Walk and Palace of Desire, by Naguib Mahfouz. For Richard's readalong of Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, scheduled (I believe) to take place during December, January and February. I adore these covers, and plan to order the matching Sugar Street barring any unforeseen disasters like hating the first two books or getting struck by lightning.

So, all in all a productive trip! I also managed to get some actual reading done, but no books finished: I'm chipping away simultaneously at Madame Bovary (in French) and Wolf Hall (in English), which was plenty to keep me occupied over the last week. So far I'm delighted and intrigued by both reads, which made the screaming toddlers across the aisle on both flights that much more bearable.

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