November 2010 Archives



Some straightforward observations about Anne Carson's elegy Nox: it comes in a large box, like a rectangular room. Inside the box is a free-floating accordion-style book, which though beautiful is difficult to hold comfortably in the hand; it bends and twists as one turns the pages. The book (the room) opens with an elegy by Catullus for his dead brother, in the original Latin, whose physical appearance is smudged and water-stained, and whose import is, of course, obscure to non-Latin-speaking readers. This entry-way then opens out in at least two directions: for the rest of the book, the left-hand pages contain lexicographical entries enumerating the shades of each word from the Catullus poem; while the right-hand pages gingerly prod the story of Carson's own brother—his haunted life and his sudden death. The non-Latin-speaking reader, attempting to allow the lexical entries to gradually elucidate Catullus's poem, performs a kind of reading gymnastics, holding the accordion-folded book open at the page she has reached, using one finger to mark the location of the Latin verse for easy reference, and balancing the whole outer box in either her palms or her lap.

I was drawn by the presentation of Nox, but I didn't realize at first how integral it is to the experience of meaning in the poem. Carson, like the reader, is handling an unwieldy object as she explores her brother's life and death: one she doesn't know quite how to approach, or hold together; one that threatens to slide out of her hands or unravel like the accordion-folded pages of Nox; one whose shadings and repercussions are difficult to tease out, reflecting one one another unexpectedly like a hall of mirrors. The necessity of supporting an unfamiliar shape makes one feel the full weight of the object in one's hands—this box or book, or the reality of a loved one's death. She writes, of the Catullus poem that begins and permeates her own work,

I never arrived at the translation I would have liked to do of poem 101. But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end.

Carson's poem, like her concept of translation and grief, is three-dimensional in content as well as form. The parallel threads of lexicographical entries and personal passages (interspersed with reproductions of personal mementos—actual letters, photographs, letterhead) play off each other in an almost endlessly resonant way. I was surprised to find myself especially intrigued by the dictionary entries, suggesting as they do the wealth of connotative possibility lying just beneath the skin of language, and also how little of language lies in the words themselves. Supplied only with each word's definition, in the absence of a grammar relating them to one another, any understanding of Catullus's poem 101 remained frustratingly elusive. Take Carson's definition of the word vectus, which occurs in Catullus's opening line "Multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus":


veho vehere vexi vectum

[cf. Skt vahati, Gk δχος, OHG wagan,
Eng wain] to convey from one place to
another by bodily effort, to carry (a
rider), to convey (of vehicles, ships,
etc.), to carry (of draught animals); (of
things, with diminished idea of motion)
to sustain a load; to cause to be
transported, bring; (of wind, water, etc.)
to carry along, bear along; in pericula
: driven into danger; (of time) to
carry with it, bring; to cause to extend
or stretch from one point to another; to
travel by some or other conveyance; to
travel by sea, sail; to ride, drive;
(poetical) to be carried on wings, fly;
vecta spolia: borne in triumph; per
noctem in nihilo vehi
: to vanish by
night into nothing; quod fugiens semel
hora vexit
: what the transient hour
brought once and only once.

Several things. The first, which struck me over and over with these entries, is that they are lovely. This reads as a poem in its own right, from the surface elements (bolded title at the top and narrow, verse-like formatting one the page), to its introduction and development of a theme, to the way it takes that theme to another level through juxtaposition of unexpected images and metaphors. The examples of usage, of course, speak to Carson's larger themes: "driven into danger"; "what the transient hour brought only once"; "to vanish by night into nothing"—all of these fragments swim into the realm of loss and death. Remarkably, the word "nox" (and also noctis, nocte, noctum, meaning "night"), never actually appears in poem 101, but is mentioned over and over in the definitions of the words Catullus does use: in the entry on multas we get "multa nox: late in the night, perhaps too late"; the entry on aequora gives us "inmensumne noctis aequor confecimus?: have we made it across the vast plain of night?"; and even an innocent conjunction like et (and) gives us "(et nocte): (you know it was night)." Gradually, then, "nox" becomes a kind of ghostly presence, suffusing the whole of poem 101 despite never being seen itself. Similarly, the narrator of Nox feels she never understood or even really saw her brother, but cannot escape the reality of his now-permanent absence.

These definitions also emphasize how many different shades of meaning a single word can have, and the difficulty in choosing a path on which to approach a piece of writing. If every one of the fifty-plus words in poem 101 has as many different senses as vectus, how is one to arrive at a single, "definitive" translation, or even a sense of the poem's meaning that will fit inside one's head? Is the word, in this instance, being used in a manner that contains its connotation of bodily effort, or in its poetic sense of being carried along by wings? Is it closer to connoting bearing a load, or being "driven into danger" oneself? Are we sailing, or driving? Is something being carried from one place to another, or caused to extend between the two points? All of these meanings inhere within the word itself; add to that the absence of a grammar specifying how these word-islands are linked together, and Carson's metaphorical room of meaning is dark indeed. Similarly island-like are the scraps of connection she manages to salvage from a lifetime of scant contact with her brother: the single letter he sent from Copenhagen; the two phone calls in five years; the body language of old photographs. How does it all connect? What is the grammar linking these disparate definitions and scattershot senses into a coherent picture?

Perhaps more germaine: if we can't fit it into a coherent picture, how do we make peace with the dead?

Mother is dead.
Yes I guess she is.
She had a lot of pain because of you.
Yes I guess she did.
Why didn't you write.
Well it was hard for me.
Are you sick.
Do you work.
Are you happy.
No. Oh no.

Nox is truly a beautiful, affecting piece, and I feel I've only started exploring its dark reaches.

A final note: I would be very interested to hear how a reader who knows or has studied Latin would interact with Carson's elegy, since so much of my own reading experience hinged on trying to make sense of an unknown yet oddly familiar language, and relating that to the speaker's attempts to make sense of death, which is also unknown yet familiar. I imagine, though, that even in the case of a poem in one's native language, the overwhelming number of interpretive possibilities represented by word-combinations would still hold true, as would Carson's own journey throughout these pages.


Nox is my second book for the Clover, Bee, and Reverie Challenge.

Vilnius Poker


Although I was engaged and rewarded almost constantly by Ričardas Gavelis's Vilnius Poker (translated by Elizabeth Novickas), I know the book is not for everyone. In particular Vytautas Vargalys, its delusional, pathologically misogynist labor-camp survivor protagonist whose PTSD-spurred paranoia presents him with a nameless group of nameless but italicized Them lurking around every corner, makes a challenging companion throughout the first 300 pages of the book. There is, undeniably, darkness and the grotesque around every corner, in a way genuinely challenging to witness; furthermore, if a reader doesn't connect with Vargalys's voice, those 300 pages will be a hard slog. And yet, the section narrated by Vargalys is the book's backbone, its primary strength; and while the following three narrators all add dimensions to Vargalys's demented, self-centered account of the events leading up to a murder in an overgrown Vilnius garden one autumn twilight, the soul of Vilnius Poker lies with Vargalys.

So too, the very things that make these first 300 pages trying are the things that make them unique, even exhilarating. Vargalys's section, for example, takes the idea of a "circular narration" to new heights: not only does it end in the same place and time it began, ranging far and wide in between (a fairly common narrative technique), but the interim takes the form less of a line and more of a kind of fugue, with a whole host of recurring themes that weave around each other, coming together in different combinations as Vargalys's mind roves over past, present and future. Birds, fog, dead leaves, human shit, disfigured genitalia, stray dogs, eyes and clandestine observation, cockroaches, the river and Them: all weave in and out of each other in Vargalys's mind, forming bridges from one experience to another and one theme to the next. At times one of these notes will sound alone, isolated from the rest; at other times, three or four of them will build on top of each other, marking a particular crescendo in the narrative: fog and stray dogs will come together in a scene of clandestine observation; or rotten leaves and cockroaches will announce Their presence; the birds will be mysteriously absent when the cockroaches conspicuously appear; or a series disfigured sexual organs will become conflated with sinister watching eyes. It is these combinations and recombinations that drive Vargalys's narrative, rather than a separation between "now" and "then" or "dream" and "reality."

I walk slowly through a dream called Vilnius, while the weird sensation that all of this has already been pierces my brain. Once I went down the street in exactly the same way, in exactly the same way I considered what the dream—the yellowish leaves, blown about by the wind, and the old house in the depths of a garden—could mean...The exact same pair of dazed pigeons have already perched by the announcement post. Lolita has already waited for me in the corridor, rocking her waist back and forth in exactly the same way...Everything has already been, everything, everything, has already been. I know it's just déja vu, but all the same a sense of fear stabs right through me. In exactly the same way Stefa's hips sway before my eyes, the hips of all the women in the world, Virgilishly leading me ever closer to the secret...The exact same shabby dog with a huge head and still larger sexual organs and a long body like a rat's sniffs the ground outside the window...The coffee break table seems just as unreal as it has seemed many times before.

As demonstrated in this passage, the free association of themes as an organizing principle means that Vargalys's narrative can flow easily from one time and/or place to another: in this instance, he begins the paragraph walking through the streets of Vilnius, and ends up sitting down to a coffee break with his co-workers. As a reader, I found this a very atmospheric and well-executed experience, and sometimes even darkly funny; as a human whose consciousness actually works this way, however, Vargalys is locked in a kind of nightmare, with little to grab hold of as his life careens by, out of his control.

This feeling of disjointed perception, in which the past is clearer than the present, other people are hazy phantoms, and time and space act unpredictably, goes a long way to fuel Vargalys's compulsion to amass "facts" about Them. It also explains Gavelis's decision to include other perspectives on the story. Vargalys is working so hard to just hold himself together that he barely notices the people around him, and when he does, they appear as sinisterly distorted caricatures. I particularly appreciated the deepening of Stefa's character: appearing in Vargalys's narrative as an annoying sexpot always underfoot, she is presented by the second narrator (their co-worker Martynas) as a devoted helpmeet who takes care of Vargalys's everyday wants and needs. The third narrator is Stefa herself, who discloses still more and greater connections with Vargalys's past, as well as becoming a fleshed-out human in her own right, with her own sets of fears, compulsions, and identity crises. (Although, I was slightly disappointed in Gavelis's decision to render the only female narration in a Molly Bloom-like stream-of-consciousness style; this struck me as crossing the line from "Joycean" to "derivative." Whence this idea that women are innately opposed to punctuation?)

And yet, the multiple narrators confuse each other's accounts as much as they enrich or clarify them. In multiple places, they directly contradict one another in ways that can't be explained by Vargalys's insanity or someone else's mistaken impression. Is Vargalys's ex-wife, for example, a lonely alcoholic caring for her dying mother, as Martynas claims, or remarried to a flashy nouveau-riche businessman, as Stefa says? Which woman was actually present the night that Vargalys and his friend Gediminas brought home the Circe of Old Town? And then there are the multiple, conflicting eyewitness reports from the scene of the crime in the garden: how many people actually were spying on Vargalys and Lolita that night, and what did they really see? These questions are never answered, and the novel seems to imply that in Vilnius, such conflicting reports can somehow coexist, despite being, to all "outside" logic, mutually exclusive. Similarly, the narrator Martynas writes of a seeming contradiction that is actually perfectly consistent:

Once I nearly choked with laughter listening to a Harvard professor on the radio defending this Muscovite psychiatrist. The world accused this psychiatrist of stuffing dissidents into secret nuthouses. That's not true, it can't be, the Harvard professor railed, that Muscovite is a true scholar; he's published serious work. I even fell out of my chair laughing. No Harvard professor would be able to understand that a perfectly serious scholar could, of his own free will, be a complete butcher. No American or Frenchman would understand that the manager of a gas chamber in Hitler's Germany could have played the piano like a virtuoso and worshipped Chopin. No, they won't understand it. Those American and French brains aren't constructed right.

Vilnius Poker consistently asks us to reexamine what constitutes a contradiction. We can probably all conceptualize conflicting value judgments or relative perceptions—one person thinks of an object as "large" whereas someone else finds it "small," for example—without too much mental strain, but there comes a point when differing reports are impossible to reconcile. Or does there? If two people witness the same incident and see a different woman in the lead role, can both, in some way, be correct? If two people witness a murder and see with their own eyes a different perpetrator, is one of them necessarily wrong?

One last note: throughout the novel I struggled with Vargalys's violently distorted view of women and sexuality, and judging from some of the reviews on LibraryThing, I'm not alone. He perceives sexual partners (of both genders, actually, but the majority are women) to be basically predatory; in his mind they are reduced to disembodied parts (eyes, mouths, vaginas) attempting to suck out his humanity. This is genuinely very disturbing to read. However, I do feel that within the greater context of the novel, it is treated as part of Vargalys's pathology, not as Gavelis's own worldview; and furthermore, it's presented as a byproduct of the sexual torture Vargalys himself endured in the Gulag's labor camps. Imprisoned away from women from age 17 to 28, he matures in this cruel and distorted environment. He is released with an intact desire to achieve closeness with other people, but with a severely warped perception of how to go about it and how to read others' signals. It's a sobering reminder that human rights abuses leave a long legacy of trauma on the societies they affect, and that when people are victimized long enough they tend inevitably to victimize others (and themselves) in their turn. A difficult yet haunting read.


Vilnius Poker was the November pick for The Wolves; please join us for Gabriel Garcia Marquez's shorter and potentially less bizarre nonfiction volume Clandestine in Chile on or around December 31!

Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen


Although this slim volume actually represents Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen's entire written output, for my money her 1929 novella Passing so far eclipses any of its other contents, that I might almost suggest starting the book on page 163, reading to the end, and only re-starting from the beginning if you fall in love with what you find. I'll therefore be focusing today on Passing, with only a brief note to explain my preference: in her 1928 Quicksand, and even more in the short stories that precede it, I was underwhelmed by Larsen's compulsion to "tell" rather than "show"; in fact she spends so much time over-explaining her main character's mental states that she has scarcely any opportunity to demonstrate them through actions or circumstances. While the result would probably still be of interest to a diaspora studies major (the protagonist of Quicksand, Helga Crane, is a chronically restless woman of mixed race attempting to find her place in the world), it struck me as basically a bundle of theoretical circumstances, with no real evocation of place or character. Add to that a "cold," not-particularly-supple prose style, and I was surprised to have read about Larsen's increasing prominence in the canon over the past few years—unless Quicksand is to be read purely as a logic-based essay on mixed-race socialization.

Passing, however, changed my opinion of Larsen's capabilities, and made me regret her 1930 abandonment of writing for nursing, since I would love to see where her trajectory would have taken her otherwise. While Larsen's preoccupation with her protagonist's psychology is still on display here, it is complemented by vivid depictions of late 1920s Harlem and its upper-middle-class black culture. Her prose is more limber, more versatile, and creates sinister undercurrents running among her characters. With this kind of backdrop, Larsen's trademark insights into the liminal spaces between white and black (and possibly between same-sex and opposite-sex attraction) are much more engaging, since they seem to pertain to actual humans rather than to bundles of explication only.

Plot-wise, Passing centers around the relationship between two old school friends, Irene Redfield and Clare Kindry, who meet again by chance on hot summer day after many years apart. Irene, from whose perspective we get our limited-third-person narration, is an upstanding member of the middle-class Negro set, the kind of woman who organizes luncheons and charity balls. As such she feels scandalized by the knowledge, picked up here and there via vague rumors, that blond, charismatic Clare has crossed the color line, married a white man, and is passing herself off as white. Indeed, it soon transpires that Clare's situation is both more privileged and more precarious than Irene's own, and both women have conflicted feelings about the choices they have made. Although Irene spends much of her time feeling offended by Clare, and repeatedly promises herself and her husband that she will cut all ties with her old friend, she allows an ongoing relationship to develop—this even after she has met Clare's shockingly racist husband, and despite her knowledge that by helping Clare to revisit Harlem she is putting them both in danger.

One of the interesting aspects of the novella is Irene's relationship with the idea of "passing." She herself is light-skinned, usually taken for someone of Italian or Spanish descent, and in the opening scene we actually see her passing for white herself by entering and allowing herself to be served at a segregated restaurant:

No, the woman sitting there staring at her couldn't possibly know. [...] Nevertheless, Irene felt, in turn, anger, scorn, and fear slide over her. It wasn't that she was ashamed of being a Negro, or even of having it declared. It was the idea of being ejected from any place, even in the polite and tactful way in which the Drayton would probably do it, that disturbed her.

Despite her own willingness to slip through the color boundary now and then, however, Irene's morality is outraged by Clare's decision to turn her back on "her own kind," to live permanently with white people who believe that she is also white. Interestingly, many of Irene's objections seem to be similar to those a middle-class white woman might make: Clare ought to know her place, but instead she is grasping. Irene says several times that Clare always had a "having" disposition, that she was greedy, unsatisfiable. When Clare asks Irene if she's ever thought of "passing," Irene answers contemptuously "No, why would I?" (despite the fact that she IS passing at the very moment this conversation is going on), and continues "I have everything I want." Passing, then, in Irene's mind and also Clare's, equates to a way of "getting more," of obtaining illicit goods and status that would be unavailable to a black person. Irene takes Clare's decision as an insult, since it implies that what Irene "has" isn't good enough, but she also, at some level, understands the allure. She also definitely understands the allure of Clare herself; there is a strong current of physical attraction that overtakes her more logical resolutions every time she meets Clare in person. During their initial meeting Irene thinks to herself that Clare had

always had that pale gold hair, which, unsheared still, was drawn loosely back from a broad brow, partly hidden by the small close hat. Her lips, painted a brilliant geranium red, were sweet and sensitive and a little obstinate. A tempting mouth. The face across the forehead and cheeks was a trifle too wide, but the ivory skin had a peculiar soft luster. And the eyes were magnificent! Dark, sometimes absolutely black, always luminous, and set in long, black lashes. Arresting eyes, slow and mesmeric, and with, for all their warmth, something withdrawn and secret about them.
       Ah! Surely! They were Negro eyes! Mysterious and concealing. and set in that ivory face under that bright hair, there was about them something exotic.

At first flush the above paragraph reads like so many pointless fawning descriptions of beautiful women, but in reality there's much more going on. As Irene contemplates Clare, she is more and more drawn in—that "tempting" mouth isn't just tempting in the abstract, but tempting to Irene specifically. It's worth noting, too, that as much as Clare's decision to pass for white legitimately offends Irene, it's the "exotic" mixture of white European and black African features in the other woman's face that she finds so irresistible. So too, Clare's "Negro" eyes are "mysterious and concealing"—mysterious even to Irene, who herself identifies as a Negro. In this association of Negro with mystery, we can see Irene's internalization of the dominant (i.e., white) messaging around racial identity. Even though she is herself black, and socializes primarily with black people, she still thinks of blacks as embodying "mystery" in a way whites do not. Later in the novel, she and a white novelist speculate about what draws white men and women to balls given by black people. Irene opines that it's merely "curiosity" about potential dancing partners of another race, but she herself is more curious about—and drawn to—the "mysterious" hidden blackness of Clare than about dancing with any white man.

In fact, if we consider Irene's association of exoticism, mystery and concealment with black people, and if we see her own bourgeois morality as inherited from white Christian society, Larsen could be read as implying that blond, passing Clare is somehow more of a Negro than black-haired, repressive Irene—or at least, that Irene is engaged in just as much artifice as her coveted friend.

I know that this review is almost over and I've hardly strayed outside the novella's opening scene, but this is a piece whose plot-based subtleties are best discovered for oneself. Suffice it to say that the anxieties and ambivalences on display in this scene continue to grind against each other in interesting and, ultimately, tragic ways as the novella progresses. A fascinating glimpse of the interactions of race and sexuality in early 20th century Harlem.


The Complete Fiction of Nella Larsen was my eighth and final book for the Women Unbound Challenge, and my sixth book for the Challenge that Dare Not Speak Its Name. I may actually finish a few challenges this year after all.



About 150 pages into Ričardas Gavelis's Vilnius Poker, I am overcome with the desire for visual images of the city of Vilnius itself—one of the strongest presences in this dark and gripping novel.

Gedimino Prospekt, Vilnius, Lithuania

"Gedimino Prospekt, Vilnius, Lithuania" by Nigel Burton

She improvises as she speaks, returning to the same place (in the story and in the city) a hundred times, or turning in circles, or wandering aimlessly. She starts to talk about her village, about her grandparents, and I know we'll shortly turn up in Gediminas Square. Mentioning her husband, we're surely cutting across Vokiečių Street (now it's Muziejaus). Her jazz of words and routes has become part of me; we're not just walking through Vilnius, but through my internal streets, too.

Vilnius nuo Geležinio Vilko tilto

"Vilnius nuo Geležinio Vilko tilto" by Vygintas Račinskas

The water of the Neris turns and turns in a circle, you can wade into the same stream many times. You can scoop up a handful of water that saw the founding of Vilnius, drink a gulp the Iron Wolf once drank. You fling a pebble into the murky current, it plops into the water, and its echo summons some ancient sound, words pronounced once upon a time—maybe even your own.

Romanov church, Vilnius

"Romanov church, Vilnius" by Kimbar

I remember the day and the place very well. The same place: across from the Russian Orthodox Church on Basanavičiaus Street. The day was sunny and clear—not just externally, but also on the inside.

Gediminas Castle

"Gediminas Castle" by Muz10

Now Vilnius itself is a dream city, a ghost city. [...] Only the ancient castle in the new city is unavoidably real: a lonely tower, emerging from the overgrown slopes of the hill—the phallic symbol of Vilnius. It betrays all secrets. The symbolic phallus of Vilnius: short, stumpy and powerless. An organ of pseudo-powers that hasn't been able to get aroused in a long time.


"I6" by sandalas

Vilnius is a giant cocktail, stirred together by the insane gods of fog. If a city could exist alone, without people, Vilnius would be the City of all cities. But it's people who express the spirit of a city, and if you attempt to understand what the figures in Vilnius's streets mean, what that atrophying spectacle in which you yourself play means, you'd immediately realize you're dreaming.
         I walk slowly through a dream called Vilnius, while the weird sensation that all of this has already been pierces my brain. Once I went down the street in exactly the same way, in exactly the same way I considered what the dream—the yellowish leaves, blown about by the wind, and the old house in the depths of a garden—could mean...


"Vilnius" by Peter Gutierrez

I got dressed and went out to wander the streets. Something inside of me forced me to take just exactly that route, pushed me along like a doll. Vilnius turned into an empty, meaningless labyrinth in which you could wander until you died without ever understanding there is no exit, that this is an absolute labyrinth. The kind where you'd never come across a dead end—that's how gigantic it is.

All excerpts from Vilnius Poker, by Ričardas Gavelis, translated from the Lithuanian by Elizabeth Novickas.

The Wolves: Reading for 2011


With the discussion of Ricardas Gavelis's Vilnius Poker at the end of this month, my group of "non-structured" friends and I will be nearing the end of a full year of shared reads, and speaking for myself, the experience has been fantastic. Sarah, Frances, EL Fay, Richard, and (not blogging right now but still dropping by the discussions) Claire: we've had a blast reading and writing together. I love the fact that we can all be honest about our enthusiasm for or frustration with the chosen books, without worrying about hurting each others' feelings or appearing ridiculous. I love that this is a group of people who also like to tackle the kind of weird, challenging books that get me excited, and who share my sometimes-cracked sense of humor. GROUP HUG, you guys!


So luckily, we're re-upping our bookish lease for 2011, with a brand-new button from the Hogarth Press (thanks, Frances!) and even a real name—because "non-structured reading group" is a bit of a mouthful, we thought it might be nice to revisit our Woolf in Winter project from last January and February, and call ourselves The Wolves.

Anyway, another great thing about this past year is all the lovely people who have dropped in to participate for a month or three when the book caught their eye, and because we'd love that to happen again this year, here's your official invitation: do any of these books appeal to you? If so, please consider joining us; discussions will begin during the last weekend of the stated month, and we'd love to have you along!

Looking forward to it, y'all.

Wish Her Safe at Home


Stephen Benatar's Wish Her Safe at Home is the most laugh-out-loud fun I've had with a book in a long time. Even if the laughs were accompanied by cringes; even if the fun was the kind that you can get peeking out from between the fingers you're holding up in front of your eyes; and even if I kept groaning and wincing as I compulsively turned the pages, the fact remains that I could hardly tear myself away from Benatar and his perilously deluded but always optimistic heroine, Rachel Waring.

Wish Her Safe at Home is the unreliable-narrator novel par excellence. We realize right away that Rachel is a bit off. It only takes a few more pages to realize that she is refashioning what we might call neutral reality into a universe that revolves around Rachel herself—a place where strangers in tea shops are fascinated to learn about her rocky relationship with her mother; a place where sermons are preached to her alone, and a chemist's banal chit-chat is a veiled promise of love and romance; a place of songs, dances, and encounters with new friends who are uniformly impressed with her singing voice, her fashion sense, and her elliptical, coded references to popular culture. Here she is, for example, at the christening of a friend's baby:

But then of course there were his friends, his and Celia's—I musn't lump them in with the rest—although surprisingly they weren't quite so easy to distinguish as I'd assumed that they were going to be.
       "Friend or foe?" I asked a tall and rather handsome young man whom I considered to be one of the likelier contenders. "In place of a Masonic handshake," I genially explained.
       "Excuse me?"
       "I mean, friend or...?" "Family," I had nearly said. Luckily at the eleventh hour I remembered my diplomacy. "Well, let me propound it to you in another way: if this were an invasion of the body snatchers would you be one of the bodies or one of the snatchers?" I laid my hand on his sleeve. At parties—well, especially at parties—it was always one's duty to be as entertaining as one could. "Of course, it does occur to me I'll have to examine your answer very carefully! For would a snatcher admit to being a snatcher? Wouldn't he try instead to palm himself off as a body?"

A lot of what distinguishes Rachel's voice can be seen here: her tendency to treat strangers she's just met as if they were in on some coded joke; Benatar's hilarious use of adjectives and adverbs ("I genially explained") to play up the difference between Rachel's perceptions and those of the people around her. In another great example of this, Rachel claims that she "executed a few unobtrusive dance steps" while waiting in line at the pharmacy. Do the people around her think her explanations genial or her dance steps unobtrusive? Does it matter?

Indeed, one of the most winning things about Benatar's book is that, despite careening ever more quickly along the slippery slope to utter mania, Rachel is hard not to like. Even though I am aware, while reading, that her version of events may not be "accurate," there is a part of me that prefers her sunny, magical version of the world to the one in which strangers in tea shops don't give a damn about one's mother, and banal shop chatter is just a way to fill the empty minutes. In her own mind, Rachel is some kind of mash-up of Scarlett O'Hara, Cinderella, and Gypsy Rose Lee, and spending time in her world is often a lot of fun, even if it's also intensely awkward when the reader is caught between his own perception (Rachel is acting radically inappropriate), and Rachel's perception (that she is acting like a gracious lady of the Georgian aristocracy/antebellum South/Broadway stage).

And in fact, Broadway musicals, along with Gone with the Wind, Pride and Prejudice, and occasionally a Tennessee Williams play, seem to make up the entirety of Rachel's cultural universe. When she trips through town with a song on her lips (which is often), and despite the book being set in 1981, that song is generally by Harry Warren, Jerome Kern, Noël Coward, Bing Crosby, or similar. As a childhood lover of Broadway musicals this was great fun for me personally, but it did give the novel a strange, unseated feeling: except for a mention of the royal wedding between Prince Charles and Diana, these events could have been taking place any time after the Second World War. This contributes to the feeling that Rachel is floating in her own mental stew, unmoored from any contact with the solidity of the present day.

It also made me wonder, at times, whether and to what extent Rachel should be read as a coded gay man. I certainly don't want to imply that gay men are the only lovers of the Broadway stage; far from it. But it is a genre often associated with the gay theater culture, and many of the great song- and book-writers have been gay or bisexual. Tennessee Williams, too, was a gay playwright who addressed themes of sexuality in many of his works, and Rachel identifies herself with his character Blanche DuBois. Blanche, like Rachel, descends into madness—in Blanche's case, after precipitating her husband's suicide by telling him that his homosexuality disgusts her. In telling her own story, is Rachel also trying to disguise male homosexuality by casting herself/himself as a straight woman? She does, throughout the novel, construct her own femininity in more and more outrageous ways, eventually reaching a point where she goes around perpetually clad in a wedding dress like a chipper, showtune-singing Miss Havisham. By this point she's definitely in drag, whether or not she is biologically female. So too, much of her lust for the young gardener and law student Roger, which on the surface is inappropriate because of their age difference and contractor/client relationship, mirrors the longing of a gay man for a straight man:

He was nicely tanned and muscular and worked without his shirt and though I kept being drawn towards the window of my bedroom I found him almost unbearable to watch; in particular the way he swung his pick when breaking up the concrete. And when I went to speak to him, to settle some fresh point or take him out a cooling drink, I was really afraid of what my hands might do. Fly up to feel the film of moisture on his chest? Fondle that coat of darkly golden hair? Dear Lord! The embarrassment! Whatever would one say? "Whoops! Please forgive me! I thought there was a fly." It was like experiencing a compulsion to punch a baby's stomach in the pram, or to use on someone standing next to you the carving knife you held.
       He was only twenty-one.
       But despite such unsettling irrelevancies I felt blest to have him there: somebody straight and vigorous and clean who might one day achieve eminence and who would certainly love widely and be widely loved, spin a web of mutual enrichment from the threads of many disparate existences: a beguiling web whose silken strands must soon make way for even me.

Is it coincidental that Rachel describes Roger, admiringly, as "straight" while thinking about how widely he will be loved? Would any of this have occurred to me had I not known that Benatar himself is gay?

I'm not sure if this reading is wildly off-base, but then again, Rachel herself is so out of touch with the divide between imagination and reality, that the reader is often unclear on which of the events she reports are actually true and which imagined. Given her obsession with the tropes of popular romance, it's especially hard not to look askance at events that might fit into those tropes. Even her inheritance of her great-aunt's Georgian mansion, which happens in the first few pages and precipitates the entire plot of the book, looks suspiciously novelistic—and yet, scenes that follow seem uncomfortably real. Similarly, Rachel tells a story of going to a party and wowing all the guests with her virtuosity at reciting Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott." It seems very unlikely that the party guests actually reacted as she reports, and yet a whole series of real-seeming events, some of them unflattering to Rachel, result from said reactions. Should we conclude that the entire string of events is imaginary? Or that the events happened, but the other people involved had different motivations from the ones Rachel assigns? Benatar does an excellent job of blurring the line between real and imagined, while at the same time making Rachel's descent into madness abundantly clear. And even as she disintegrates, I find myself hoping for the best for Rachel. I so enjoyed the time we spent together.


Wish Her Safe at Home was my fifth book for the Challenge that Dare Not Speak Its Name, and this review is my last-minute contribution to the NYRB Reading Week festivities. Thanks to Honey and Mrs. B for hosting!

Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues


I've gotta tell you, Paul and Beth Garon's Woman with Guitar is a genuinely odd little volume. It's also pretty great. This book-length study of seminal blues writer and performer Memphis Minnie makes many fascinating points, both about Minnie's life and work, and about the ways in which she managed to buck the system and bridge a number of gender- and class-based divisions. At the same time, the way in which the information is presented is, while not necessarily bad, very strange. If you likes 'em weird, and you like the early blues, this is the book for you.

Woman With Guitar is divided into two sections: the first 80 pages or so are devoted to a feminist-inflected recounting of Minnie's biography in the context of blues trends from the late 1920s through the early 1950s. To understand Minnie's importance, the Garons argue, you have to understand the trajectory of the blues: the first recorded blues artists, working in the early 1920s, tended to be female singers who performed in a theater, from a stage, and were backed by some minimal combination of instruments. This is now called the "Classic blues" or "vaudeville blues," and is represented by performers like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Alberta Hunter. Most Classic blues singers performed material written for them by Tin Pan Alley composers, although a few of them wrote their own songs. In the mid- to late-20s, a more grass-roots form of blues began to be recorded: called the "country," "lowdown" or "downhome blues," its musicians performed most often in parks, on street corners, and at casual community gatherings like backyard barbeques, while accompanying themselves on the guitar; as such, the country blues are often associated with class consciousness and individual expression. Early country blues musicians, though, were almost exclusively male, with Lead Belly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Lightnin' Hopkins being prominent examples. One of the reasons Minnie was such a striking figure is that she bridged these two forms: she was a woman who made a success as a country blues musician, playing the guitar "as good as any man" (she took the lead part in all her partnerships, specializing in complex multi-layered rhythms), acting as her own manager, and writing and performing her own material.

Another unusual aspect of Minnie's career is that it went on for an almost unheard-of length of time. While the recording careers of most Classic blues musicians were cut off by the advent of the Great Depression, which pretty much stopped the entire recording industry in its tracks from 1930 to 1934, Minnie was able to get through the lean years on live gigs, returning to the recording studio in the mid-30s and continuing to evolve her style through the 40s, helping to forge the "urban blues" of the post-war years and even the electrified Chicago Blues style of the 50s. The Garons do a good job of tracing this progress for the non-initiate of the blues scene, and they make some fascinating points along the way, acknowledging the complex and often contradictory forces at work in blues songs and blues culture. In one section, for example, they mention that the blues pseudonyms that have made the genre so recognizable (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Homesick James Williamson, Barbeque Bob) were often bestowed semi-arbitrarily by white record executives when the person first went in to record. When one stops to consider that many of these performers were born only thirty years or so after the abolition of slavery, which had its own conventions of whites re-naming black people, the practice takes on a particularly callous cast. At the same time, blues performers were able to transform these bestowed names into tools of subversion, as ways to avoid the systemic drawbacks of being named:

Everyday life where our names locate us firmly in the real is outmaneuvered by the refusal of the name. [...] Pseudonyms were often subversive economic tools used to facilitate recording for may companies while contracts with other companies were still in force. As Fats Waller said,

Don't give your right name, no, no, no!

On a number of records featuring two or more singers, one musician will often say to another, at the instrumental break, "Aw, play it, Mr. Man," one way of maintaining veiled identity on a record made under contract violation. It should also be heard as a note of direct opposition to the white habit of addressing adult black males as "Boy."

Whereas the first part of the Garons' book is fairly straightforward if politically aware biography, the latter two-thirds of the volume is devoted to a surrealist-influenced critical analysis of Minnie's work. I think both sections of the book are fascinating and feature valid approaches, but together they are a very odd combination. In particular, the first chapter of the second section, which sets out the Garons' methodological backgrounds, yanks the reader out of fact-based biography mode and into a jargon-filled crash course in French surrealists like André Breton and Alberto Giacometti. I have a fairly high tolerance for academic jargon, and I agree with the Garons' basic premise that any work of art exists at the nexus of artist and audience, but even I occasionally raised my eyebrows in the latter half of Woman with Guitar:

While these two phrases may be joined by conscious "sense," they are nonetheless arrayed in such a way before the listener that the images are, in fact, scattered. It is their gathering that is subjected to the whim of the listener's own actively occasioned passivity, i.e., to the whim of the listener's own obsessions.

Nevertheless, I want to emphasize that, despite the Garons' sometimes-humorous overkill on psychoanalytic and surrealist buzzwords (and despite the somewhat DIY nature of the volume, which could have done with more editing for typos and grammar mistakes), I ended up getting A LOT out of the latter part of this book. I would go so far as to say it made me a better blues listener, which is pretty much the highest praise I can think of for this kind of study. Among the intriguing points brought up which might be particularly useful to modern listeners:

  • The Garons stress that white middle-class critics are often made uncomfortable with just how lowdown the lowdown blues can be. They relate a history of critical attempts to erase evidence that Memphis Minnie probably worked as a prostitute, for example. They also examine the troubling reasons behind this critical bias: why do we want to believe that a performer like Minnie would never have engaged in sex for money, despite multiple unrelated first-hand accounts to the contrary, and despite what we know for sure about her hard drinking and gambling? And what does that say about our attitude toward prostitutes, and toward artists? The Garons point out that attempts to paint the lives of blues artists in colors more socially acceptable to white people, is one big reason for hostility toward white bourgeois listeners within the blues community. So too, they make the further point that Minnie's own songs about prostitution often cast the prostitute as, not merely a victim, but as a person with sexual desires: a further source of discomfort for many middle-class listeners.
  • When the blues were "rediscovered" (meaning, rediscovered by white people) in the 1960s, many folklorists tracked down country blues musicians, asking them to listen to their old records and decipher the lyrics of their songs, which were often inaudible due to poor sound quality. While this work was undoubtedly worthwhile for the blues historian, the Garons point out that its emphasis on "one definitive version," on the "correct" or "final" lyrics to a given song, is directly contrary to the attitude of most country blues musicians themselves. Instead, many performers saw their repertory as the object of constant change and evolution, with different artists building onto pieces previously performed by others so that a back-and-forth emerged within the community. No one version of a song, therefore, was ever "definitive," and a single performer would often alter a song considerably from one performance to the next. In the words of Son House,

    Just because those words were the ones that got to be on the record don't mean that it was the only ones that could fit there. We changed them songs around all the time. It don't matter what you want me to listen to right now. I probably never done it again that way anyhow!

Perhaps above all, I appreciated the Garons' emphasis on the way the subject and/or object of a song, or the connotations of a metaphor or image, can shift during the course of a blues, and how those same images and metaphors are often informed by Southern folk beliefs as well as the reality of urban life. The blues is a subtle and complex poetics, but because it uses common words and is, on a surface level, accessible, it's easy to miss that subtlety, those shifts in setting or perspective, or those triple meanings that bring added depth to the experience. I think this is especially true because the subject matter—love, sex, alcohol, gambling, crime—is often considered "coarse" and erroneously dismissed as lacking in complexity. Despite their oddities, the Garons helped me to a new level of appreciation for this art form in general and Minnie in particular—now to collect more of her records!


If you're curious what all the fuss is about, here's Minnie (vocals, lead guitar) and her second husband, Ernest "Little Son Joe" Lawlars (rhythm guitar), performing their hit "Me and My Chauffeur Blues."

For a little more fun, here's Minnie (lead guitar) and her first husband Kansas Joe McCoy (vocals, rhythm guitar) on their tune "When the Levee Breaks," which is more famous these days for the Led Zeppelin rendition:


Woman with Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues was my seventh book for the Women Unbound Challenge. One more to go!

Adeline Mowbray


I set out to read Amelia Opie's novel Adeline Mowbray more from sociological than literary interest: an 1804 treatment of voluntary cohabitation outside marriage couldn't fail to grab my interest, especially since this is a topic treated surprisingly seldom even by modern authors. Opie was, then, politically ahead of her time, but she surprised me by also writing an engaging book, if one at times infuriating to a contemporary sensibility. Despite some standard-issue melodrama and creaky plot devices of the type often found in eighteenth-century "novels of sensibility," the pages flew by whenever I picked up Adeline Mowbray, and the author's sneakily satirical wit kept me guessing to some extent about exactly who she was condemning and for what cause. (I also couldn't avoid a gossipy curiosity about how the novel's models, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, took to their friend Amelia's representations of them.) Of course, my level of engagement was increased by the fact that I was constantly arguing with Opie, which I believe to be exactly the reader response she intended. Even if she was not speaking to the gender politics of twenty-first century America, she was undoubtedly writing to provoke, and it's pretty remarkable that she still manages so well after two hundred years, albeit not exactly in the ways she might have foreseen.

The plot of Adeline Mowbray begins with its title character's unorthodox education. Raised by a self-declared genius of a mother who is fond of spouting off about leftist treatises in company, Adeline is encouraged to imbibe "dangerous" tomes of philosophy and political science, with no male oversight for her delicate female brain. The more practical aspects of her upbringing are neglected, and she would hardly have learned housewifery at all had not her grandmother taken her in hand. Unlike her mother, Adeline makes the scandalous mistake of actually wanting to live by the ideals she has come to believe in, including the abolition of the marriage institution. Upon meeting and falling in love with Glenmurray, one of the philosophers she so admires, she therefore enthusiastically declares that she will never subject him to that ignominious state, but will live with him outside wedlock in a free and voluntary relationship. Despite his protestations—the man has not the courage of his convictions, having lived in the world more than his lover—she will not budge, and refuses to become his wife. Throw in a sleazy would-be-rapist of a stepfather and the ill-health of her well-meaning philosopher-lover, and things quickly proceed to get very tragic for poor Adeline.

It so happened, also, that something was said by one of the party which led to the subject of marriage, and Adeline was resolved not to let so good an opportunity pass of proving to Glenmurray how sincerely she approved his doctrine on that subject. Immediately, with an unreserve which nothing but her ignorance of the world, and the strange education which she had received, could at all excuse, she began to declaim against marriage, as an institution at once absurd, unjust, and immoral, and to declare that she would never submit to so contemptible a form, or profane the sacred ties of love by so odious and unnecessary a ceremony.
        This extraordinary speech, though worded elegantly and delivered gracefully, was not received by any of her hearers, except sir Patrick, with any thing like admiration.

There is very definitely a political case at the heart of Opie's novel—an argument against what she saw as the pie-in-the-sky idealism of William Godwin and others like him who dared to preach against the "accumulated wisdom of ages." Disaster thus falls thick and fast onto Adeline from the moment she announces her anti-marriage stance: otherwise respectable men feel free to molest her; libertines assume she's one of them; even the men who acknowledge her intelligence and virtue refuse to introduce her to their wives and sisters, who, in any case, actively work for her downfall because they see her as a rival and a threat to their own security; she and Glenmurray live in isolation. Then there are the results she anticipates for her children: they will be ostracized as a bastard by their schoolfellows; they will hate and reject their parents because of this; they will grow up lonely because their mother will be shunned. So too, when Glenmurray dies Adeline will be left in poverty because she can't inherit (or at least, she doesn't inherit because her husband, despite ostensibly being tortured by the idea of leaving her destitute, doesn't change his will). And later on, even if Adeline manages to find a man who falls in love with her and "makes her an honest woman," her scandalous past will mean he is ashamed to admit to his friends and acquaintances that he is married at all, and even professionals like lawyers and merchants will fail to take her seriously, thinking she is still a kept woman. Meanwhile, female acquaintances she has made along the way may be led into vice by her example, and she will have to live with the guilt of having ruined others as well as herself.

To contrast with all these dire circumstances, Opie refuses to present the original objections that motivate her character Glenmurray (or motivated her friend William Godwin) to write against the marriage institution in the first place1. I found this a bit frustrating, as if I were listening to one side of a violent telephone conversation. But the reason for Opie's omission is built right into her text: ideas like those of Glenmurray were believed dangerous, irresponsible even to discuss lest some idealistic young woman like Adeline pick up one's novel and be led astray.

I mention "the wisdom of the ages" above, and indeed the idea is a real touchstone for Opie; the phrase is repeated some eight or nine times throughout the novel as different characters, and eventually Adeline herself, bemoan her foolishness in attempting to fly in the face of convention. Which brings up the whole question of progressiveness versus conservatism in different eras. To this modern reader, Opie's reluctance to even consider the possibility of challenging the status quo, merely on the argument that many previous generations have accepted it, seems strikingly conservative. Still, as Nymeth pointed out in a recent post on Wilkie Collins, a more nuanced view is necessary: in 1804, the mere act of writing a novel in which a sympathetic heroine decided to live with a lover outside marriage was a radical act. Although Adeline is punished (and punished, and punished some more) for her non-conformity, Opie never makes her the villain, and she more or less respects Adeline's ability to make a rational decision herself, rather than making her the victim of a scheming rake. What's more, although she chides Adeline for giving in to her youthful exuberance rather than respecting the wisdom of her elders, such an attitude is not gender-based; she takes the same line with Glenmurray, who published his offensive tract at the young age of nineteen. In some ways, then, Opie is quite subversive: she presents an intelligent, sympathetic woman who makes a hasty decision for all the right reasons, with a minimum of condemnation.

So too, she points out the ways in which it is possible to stray from virtue even when married: one character uses marriage as a cover to maintain her respectability while still carrying on affairs; another is so jealous of her husband's attentions that she intrigues against any female under the age of eighty. The back-cover material of my copy of Adeline Mowbray claims that the novel contrasts "the world as it is" with "the world as it should be," and that's a tempting way to reconcile Opie's seemingly conflicting messages: in an ideal world, she could be saying, there would be less vicious prejudice; but in the world as it is, we need the marriage institution to guard women against its cruelty. I think, on one level, Opie is saying that, although it fails to sort her text very neatly. Her own depiction of women who have decided to live outside wedlock for reasons other than virtuous philosophy, for example, is fairly vicious. Adeline, Opie says approvingly, would be the first to shun some acquaintances of Glenmurray's if she knew their true character (their primary faults are those of promiscuity)—implying that she herself is invested in the shame-based social structure, even if she wishes it would not shame Adeline. Still, Opie's work is a fascinating glimpse at the mindset of a former era's progressive fringe.


1Out of curiosity, I looked up the portion of Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice that concerns the abolition of marriage. His position is one of extreme individualism, and he objects to anything that irrevocably binds one human to another and prevents him from pursuing his own individual development. That, combined with the very small degree to which the typical 18th-century couple were allowed to know each other before marriage, persuaded him against the institution. Whereas my own reservations about state-sponsored marriage are explicitly feminist—its long history as a means of legally reducing women to the status of property, including revoking their own property rights and failing to penalize rape within marriage; its equally long history of being used as a tool to deny civil rights to groups of people who diverge from the status quo, such as same-sex, mixed-race, mixed-religion, or slave couples; its attempts to codify in secular law a vision of morality with which I disagree, i.e., that any child could lack "legitimacy" or that sexuality not sanctioned by a priest/rabbi/shaman/justice of the peace is debased or destructive—Godwin's, as presented in Enquiry, were not. He was more concerned that every person got enough autonomy, enough time away from the crowd and from pressing familial obligations, to develop and pursue their own thoughts. Which is neither here nor there; I was just curious about the half of the conversation that Opie left out.


Adeline Mowbray was my sixth book for the Women Unbound Challenge, which ends this month. Eep!

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography