Friday, February 25, 2011

Finally. America wakes up.

I guess it's true that you reap what you sow.  After the last elections, I kept asking, "What were they thinking?"  How could voters send so many Republicans and Tea Partiers to Congress and state legislatures, knowing what they were going to do?  So much misinformation is swirling around, and has been for quite some time, yet who, besides Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, has appeared in the popular media to try to set the record straight?  Many Americans have been scared to death by the words "deficit" and "debt", as though Godzilla were breathing down our necks.  Yes, we do have to get a grip on our economy, but fear-mongering is not the way to go about it.

"Why aren't people taking to the streets?" I asked myself.  I remember the 'sixties, and while I don't want to go back to the days of free love and acid trips, I do like to see people stand up for their rights, as we are seeing now across the country and the globe.  It has always been the rich against the poor.  Always.  Sometimes the rich are more-or-less responsible and make sure the middle class is large enough to keep things in order; too often they cling to their wealth and its perquisites as if they alone were the entitled of the earth.  From the ancient Persian kings to feudal lords, French aristocrats, African despots, and today's big corporation CEOs, the rich have never loosened their grip until forced to, often with disastrous consequences.  Of course there are some rich folks who use their wealth wisely and for the good of others, but these are generally individuals, not institutions.  Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Bill Gates turned from money-making to philanthropy once they had enough, but history is replete with men who rape and pillage their populations--or workers--with never a flicker of remorse or responsibility.  As Americans we are not immune to this kind of abuse--obviously.

In light of recent events in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and perhaps other states, I ask:

How many of those demonstrators who are vociferously objecting to budget cuts to education and an end to collective bargaining for government workers voted for Republicans in the last election?

If Republican policies were popular enough to get Republicans elected and Democrats thrown out of office, why aren't we seeing counter-protests defending these cuts and restrictions? 

If the Republican voice is truly "the voice of the American people", why is it we only hear that voice coming out of the mouths of politicians and the extremist fringe?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

"A Happy Marriage" by Rafael Yglesias

In "A Happy Marriage" we have another fictionalized memoir, though because of the rawness with which it is written it seems like the only things changed are the names of the people involved.  This has to be one of the saddest books I have ever read.  From the outset we know it is the story of Yglesias's marriage and his wife's protracted, painful death from bladder cancer.  It seems obvious to me that Yglesias wrote this book in order to try to exorcise ghosts (his father's death figures in the story as well), and I hope it did that for him.  I have to ask myself, though, what the reader is expected to take away from this account of profound misery.

I am reluctant to admit it, but I sort of feel that Yglesias gives us too much information.  "The Death of Ivan Illych " is Tolstoy's meditation on death.  It is philosophical and universal.  "A Happy Marriage" is so private as to make this reader feel like a voyeur.  I even had to skip parts because they were simply too intimate--not sexually intimate, even more private than that.  There is nothing left to imagine about his wife's illness, operations, chemo treatments, bowel function, her body pierced with drains carrying unspeakable fluids.  We see her fear, her pain, the complete exposure of her being.  I know that Yglesias, like his writer parents, believes in unmediated realism, but realism to what end?  There are many literary references throughout the text, as if the author were trying to borrow seriousness from Zola, Balzac, and other 19th c. realists, but while Yglesias's prose is serviceable, it hardly approaches the stature of the greater writers he admires.  I prefer realism too, but with a subject like this it is art that makes it bearable and, perhaps more importantly, meaningful.

I feel churlish criticizing this book; the pain with which it was written is all too obvious.  I do not find fault with his reaction to the events depicted, nor with his need to write them out of his system, to the extent he ever can.  But what I got from the book has less to do with Yglesias than with what I hope for myself.

When I was a young mother, I was terrified of death, even the merest mention of it.  "Terms of Endearment" is a movie I truly wish I had not seen.  I hated visiting the cemetery where my beloved grandmother is buried.  The few funerals I had been to had upset me for days.  Things look different now.  While I certainly hope the end is not imminent, I do realize it's a lot closer than it used to be, when time seemed to stretch to an invisible horizon.  That horizon is not quite so invisible anymore.

My grandmother died when I was twelve.  I remember asking my mother, when I was about six, if Grandmother was worried about dying.  She might have been 70, an age I no longer consider old, but to me she was as ancient as the hills.  Mother told me to ask Grandmother herself, and I did.  She told me--and I remember this clearly--that as you get older your ideas about things change.  When you are old death doesn't seem like such an enemy.  She said that when she was a girl people would say that pneumonia was the old people's friend.  She showed me that what you fear at six or twelve or thirty-six is not what you fear at 65.  The worry now is how it will all play out.  One thing I am more certain of than ever because of reading Yglesias's book is that I don't want to go through what his wife Margaret did.  I do not want to be destroyed by illness or treatments that rob me of my dignity and autonomy.  I do not want machines to take over what I can no longer do myself, and I don't want the last thing I see to be the blank wall of a hospital room.  I'd rather go outside on some clear winter night and look up at the stars, wait for the chill to reach my bones, and forgo the antibiotics.

My other grandmother died when I was about four; I barely remember her.  But I do remember my parents and my father's sisters discussing her last day.  If they'd known I was listening so intently, they might have changed the subject, but I'm so glad they didn't.  It seems my aunts and perhaps some other relatives were gathered in the living room where my grandmother lay on a bed.  Picture a tiny house with no indoor plumbing, save for a hand-cranked pump in the kitchen.  I don't know whether there was electricity or not, but there was a pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room for heat.  I can imagine the quiet conversation of the relatives as my grandmother dozed in her corner.  Near the end she stirred and said she believed it was getting dark.  Then she was gone.  She was old, as one hopes to be.  She was at home in her own bed, beneath her own quilts that she and her daughters had made.  The last things she heard were the quiet murmurings of her grown up children, the ticking of a clock, the flapping of a curtain at the open window.  Obviously I'm adding a few details here, but my point is that my grandmother's death was peaceful.  She was not interfered with by strangers, however well-meaning.  There seemed to be no fear.

In today's world of high-tech medicine, world-class hospitals, and advertisers' promises of eternal health if we just spend the money, death has become an alien invader we don't know how to meet.  Dylan Thomas wrote, "Do not go gentle into that good night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light."  He was a young man, with a young man's perspective, when he wrote that about his father.  For all of us there will come a time when raging against the dark will be as futile as Cyrano trying to beat back the waves of the sea.  Sometimes, Ulysses, it is time to yield.  I was so young when I lost my grandmothers, but I am grateful to both of them for showing me the way.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Half Broke Horses" by Jeannette Walls

There are two reasons why I love Jeannette Walls's fictionalized biography of her grandmother Lily Casey Smith.  One is for what it shows about a particular slice of American history, the other for what it says about courage and determination.

West Texas and the surrounding area is the setting; late 19th c. through the 50s is the time period.  The "novel" is told in the first person in a succession of short, vivid chapters.  Each chapter adds a layer to the picture of the hard-scrabble, unforgiving land that was Lily Casey's home--as a child she lived in a dugout whose walls sometimes caved in when it rained--and the girl, who even as a young child, knew how to get things done.  We see what the lives of ranchers were really like, the endless hard work and sweat, the sudden disasters that could ruin a family.  Justice was still an individual matter much of the time, with scores settled violently and sometimes for good.  I won't go into detail about the book; you can find out about it on Amazon, or better yet read it yourself.  Instead, I offer my own reaction.

I love to look at old photographs.  I have one of my great-grandmother (maybe great-great-; I'm not sure) that was taken before the Civil War when she was sixteen.  She stands in her ruffled dress with its stiff voluminous skirt, carefully reading a letter that she holds in front of her with both hands.  Her dress is short enough to show her ankles, so she must be on the very verge of leaving childhood behind.  I wonder if the letter she is reading is from the man she would later marry?

My mother's family came from Richmond, VA, where I'm told they owned a plantation and slaves.  I don't know if they were true gentry, but family lore gave them an aristocratic aura.  When the war broke out, this girl, Agnes Singleton, and her two sisters were sent to live with relatives in Indianapolis.  These relatives were, I believe, the genuine article when it comes to pedigree.  They lived in a grand house with over-sized Victorian furniture, some of which ended up in my grandmother's house.  I inherited a sofa stuffed with horse hair that must have been a wonder in its day.  General Grant preferred to sit on it when he visited, and in our family we always referred to it as the General Grant.  I don't know how many pieces of furniture have names, but this one does.  It's an amazing piece really, with lots of carved wood details from periods as diverse as ancient Egypt, Greece, and the baroque.  At the top of the back there is a lion's head the size of a fist that comes out, to the delight of small children grown big enough to climb up on the upholstered but rigid seat.

But back to Agnes.  Like all good girls of the day, she attended church regularly and sang in the choir. Sitting in the congregation Sunday after Sunday was John McRae, a widower with small children.  He took notice of Agnes, who was pretty and genteel, and after the war was over and the Singleton girls had returned to Virginia, he made up his mind to act.  One day, the girls were looking out a window when they saw a horseman riding up toward the house.  "Who's that?" asked one.  "Why, that's John McRae.  I wonder what he's doing here?" said another.  In fact, he had come to propose marriage to Agnes.  I always thought this story incredibly romantic, until I learned that Agnes was already in love with someone else.  But John was rich.  He could not only provide for Agnes but also for her family.  Through his connections in Indiana he arranged for Agnes's parents to move onto one of the farms they owned west of Indianapolis.  Losing everything, hiding in caves from the Yankees, suddenly becoming the poor relations must have been a trauma shared by lots of families in the South.  I'm sure my forebears weren't alone in their plight, but having company in misery is cold comfort.  I believe this loss was felt down the generations and contributed to my mother's insistence on refinement and being "from a good family."

From time to time I gaze at this old photograph of my great-grandmother, who looks amazingly like my mother and my aunts, and try to imagine her life.  She was a part of history as surely as Grant or Lincoln.  It is people like her who interest me, people whose stories can tell us so much more than the size of battles or the signers of treaties.  They show us the past as a living thing.  In "Half Broke Horses" Walls has created--or re-created--her grandmother's voice, and as readers we get as close to what it was like inside that dugout, how it felt to be so dirty your jeans became waterproof, and where an indomitable spirit can lead you as it is possible to be.

Lily's story is one of both success and failure, but no failure was ever complete, and she never lacked for a way out of her difficulties.  She was one strong lady.  She didn't care what other people thought; she did what was best for herself and her family--as she saw it; she never felt sorry for herself, and she never gave up.  Her story inspires me not because it is a triumph over difficult odds, though there is that.  She makes me want to (as Miss Brodie would say) brisk up, to get on with business, to shake the possibilities out of life before time defeats me.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

What Can I Do?

I fear my comments will sound like a rationalization, and perhaps they are, but I came across the following sentence in the latest "Harper's" and would like to share it.

"I shall always believe that our own humanity depends upon the accuracy with which we are able to perceive the suffering around us, and to be witness to it."--Richard Selzer, former surgeon and professor of surgery at the Yale School of Medicine.

How might this be a rationalization?  Because it makes simply standing by and feeling bad equivalent to taking action.  I have always wondered if that is enough.  The same issue of "Harper's" contains an essay by Wiliam T. Vollman in which he gives an account of his efforts to help the homeless in Sacramento, more specifically in his own backyard (actually a parking lot he owns).  Vollman, 51, "feels sorry" for the motley crew that camps out on his doorstep and, despite police efforts to run them off, allows them to stay and befriends some of them.  He even goes out from time to time to camp with the homeless himself at various campsites and church basements, sleeping sometimes on the bare earth.  He seems to me to be a man who is living his beliefs, in deed as well as thought.

We all know people who do what seems to us incredible things: doctors who eschew a lucrative practice to serve on Native American reservations, social workers who deal with families in crisis, a coach who donates a kidney to one of his players.  Should I feel guilty because I don't want to do any of these things?  I don't think so.

I've pondered this issue for a long time and am still not sure I have completely settled it in my own mind, but for now I am inclined to say that extraordinary sacrifice that brings you actual suffering is not required in order to be a moral person.  I'd better define what I mean by "actual suffering."  I don't necessarily mean physical pain.  Women in childbirth feel pain, but I don't consider this "suffering."  It is a condition of life to feel pain.  Not everyone who accepts it is a hero, nor is everyone who avoids it a coward.  I guess what I mean by suffering is anything that breaks your spirit, that makes you feel helpless or deeply depressed.  If I were a physician (fat chance), I could no more practice on a reservation than fly.  Living in relative isolation in what to me seems a desolate landscape would kill my soul.  I was a teacher, and I loved my job.  Some people say they could never be a teacher in a million years.  Does that make me morally neutral because I enjoyed teaching?  If I hated it but did it anyway, would that make me a better person.  No.

I'm not religious, but I'll borrow from the Bible anyway, as it contains much wisdom.  "The Lord loves a cheerful giver."   Recognizing your own limitations and needs is perhaps the first step toward living a moral life.  Doing those things you WANT to do, with a passion that comes from somewhere deep inside, is what you SHOULD do.  This is not to say that we should never do anything unless we want to.  Of course there are many times when we shouldn't put our own convenience first, as every parent well knows.  But the big heroic acts, the grand gestures of altruism, should not seem heroic to those who perform them.  We do the things we do--donate to charity, donate blood, give to the Goodwill--because it makes us happy to do them.  And that is right and proper.  For most of us that is enough.

There is still something more we can do, however, and I think it's more important than most people realize.  There are times when simply bearing witness is the only moral act possible.  I read a story once (by the writer who used to work with Merchant and Ivory; I've forgotten her name.  Ruth Something) about living in India, where streets teem with homeless, desperate people and suffering is visible everywhere.  The narrator was advised to imagine herself living atop an elephant, but she was never to look at it or acknowledge it was there.  The elephant was the starving hordes upon whose backs the privileged lived.  The only way for the rich to stay sane was to ignore the truth.   So many times I've heard people say, "Well, there's nothing I can do, so I just won't think about it."  I've felt that way myself plenty of times.  But my point is, there is something we can do; we can acknowledge the suffering of others, accept that it exists, and be sorry.  It may not be much, but I believe it is a moral obligation nonetheless.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

"The Mistress" a novel by Philippe Tapon

On the cover of "The Mistress" there is a 1940s photograph of a pretty young woman talking with a German soldier in front of the Eiffel Tower.  The soldier has his back to the camera, so his arrogance is revealed in his posture: one foot resting on a curb as he leans on his officer's riding crop.  The woman, her hat cocked at a jaunty angle, stares off into the distance, a sly smile playing around her lips.  It is the perfect cover for this novel of wartime and its effect upon one French family.

"The Mistress" is not a Holocaust novel; it does not drag us into the camps or force us to witness a formal execution, but because these things are so omnipresent in our minds what happens on the page has the chill of death hovering over it throughout.  As is often the case, the understated, seemingly simple style carries a heavy load.  The novel is short, with descriptions of place and characters that are factual and unadorned.  In fact, as you read you are struck by the contrast between the lucid prose and the horrible cruelty that consumes almost everyone.

I just read an essay in the New York Review of Books ("Who Did Not Collaborate?" by Ian Buruma, Feb. 24, 2011) in which Buruma discusses a new history of the war years, "And the Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris" by Alan Riding.  It often happens that just when I'm thinking about something I see it pop up in various places all around me.  So it is with this essay and novel, both about French collaboration with the Nazis.  Riding focuses on writers and intellectuals like Sartre, Cocteau, and Camus.  Tapon looks at a successful Parisian doctor with a special interest in stomach disorders, his mistress, his two children, his estranged wife, who is a peasant living in the country, a priest, and a German officer who comes to him for relief from excruciating stomach pain.  Emile, the doctor, is a cruel and avaricious man: he has a stash of gold hidden on his wife's farm which is a crucial element in the plot.  He is a reluctant father who misuses his daughter and beats his young son.
If he loves his mistress, it is hard to see it; it is also clear that she stays with him for security and a way out of her impoverished circumstances.  They are using each other, and sex is their medium of exchange.

There are no heroes in this novel, not really any sympathetic characters.  Everyone is out for himself, except perhaps the little boy, who longs for his mother.  The cruelty begins with him and spirals out to touch everyone else with its poison.  What I find remarkable about this novel is how Tapon manages to compress a whole range of historical, cultural, and moral issues into one slim volume.  You don't have to like the characters to find them fascinating as you watch their innate natures brought to the fore by extraordinary pressures.  Under other circumstances they would still be terribly flawed, but they would not do so much damage.  Emile, the doctor, is the focal point, and his final outcome is inevitable, the result of both his weaknesses and an evil system. 

What would you do in similar circumstances?  That is the question the novel raises, and I wonder if anyone who hasn't faced them knows the answer.  I have often thought that morality is a luxury we too often take for granted.  I think it was Primo Levi who said that all the good people died in the Holocaust.  Were the survivors heroic or the beneficiaries of others who died in their place?  This is a brutal and impossible question, but it shows how complicated moral action can be.  Sometimes guilt and innocence mingle in a way that makes it difficult to separate them.  Tapon is not kind to his characters, but he is honest about them.  Whether they deserve what they get is something he leaves for the reader to decide.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

"Here's Looking at Euclid:

A Surprising Excursion Through the Astonishing World of Math" by Alex Bellos is a book I would never in a million years have picked up, unless my husband had brought it home in hopes I might be tempted.  Let me explain.  You see, I suffer from a condition known as "dyscalculia", which neuroscientists have identified in the brain using MRIs.  Most of us are familiar with dyslexia, but until I read Bellos's book, I had never heard of dyscalculia.  I feel as if a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.  My entire life--at least since third grade, when my parents were summoned to a conference with my teacher for the first time--I have had math "issues."  Not to put too fine a point on it, I am lousy at math.  Embarrassingly so.  That's why I am delighted to learn that I am neither stupid nor lazy; I am simply wired differently, and I can't do anything about that.

"Here's Looking at Euclid" is a marvelous book, filled with fascinating facts and figures presented in a lively, engaging style.  Bellos brings the great mathematicians, known and not so well-known, to life on the page, leads the reader through a history of numbers, and provides explanations of math that show it to be exciting as well as challenging.  I couldn't follow all of it, but I certainly got the jist and I now have a much greater understanding and appreciation of what mathematicians do.  I didn't know, for example, that zero was invented in India and changed mathematics forever.  I learned that there are other ways to do multiplication than the way I was taught in school--easier ways at that.  I discovered that Fibonacci numbers occur everywhere in nature, from the chambered nautilus to the petals on a flower.

I am a literary person, and when I read something like "Anna Karenina" or the short stories of William Trevor, I am made aware of what is most profound in human life.  When I read "Euclid", I am struck my how magical the universe is. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

"By Nightfall" A Novel by Michael Cunningham

How many subjects are there really in fiction?  Love, death, sex, God, art.  "By Nightfall" by Michael Cunningham doesn't have much, if anything, to say about God, but it has plenty to say about the other four big topics. Love is the heart's home, death is the frightful separation, sex is the lightning strike that briefly connects heaven and earth, and art is the vessel for every human thing.

 "Isn't this part of what you keep looking for in art--rescue from solitude and subjectivity; the sense of company in history and the greater world; the human mystery simultaneously illuminated and deepened....The art of the past tried to give us something like what's happening to Peter right now--a look into the depths of the human other."  (p. 115)

The ancient Roman playwright Terence said, "Nothing human is alien to me."  Time, place, gender, race--nothing alters what is essentially human when art pierces with its eternal truth.  You don't need to be an ancient Greek to understand Andromache's fear when her husband goes out to meet Achilles in battle.   You don't need to be an insane Dutchman to apprehend the power of "Starry Night."  You don't need a college education to feel your skin prickle to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."  Great art works its magic and makes life, if not possible, bearable to a greater degree than life without it.  That is why is it more disturbing (this is hard to admit) to see the treasures in the Cairo museum destroyed or threatened, to lose the artifacts of the great civilization that was Iraq, to see the museums in Florence flooded into ruin than to hear on the news of the deaths of strangers in faraway lands.  Art can carry us beyond our own circumstances and show us ourselves at the same time.  It can challenge us or lead us into quiet places where we can be comforted.

"Maybe it's not, in the end, the virtues of others that so wrenches our hearts as it is the sense of almost unbearably poignant recognition when we see them at their most base, in their sorrow and gluttony and foolishness.  You need the virtues, too--some sort of virtues--but we don't care about Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina or Raskolnikov because they're good.  We care about them because they're not admirable, because they're US, and because great writers have forgiven them for it." (p. 119)

Tragedy is "available only to the's different entirely from the tragedies of age, even of middle age, when any hint of downfall is shaded by gravity, by wounds, by the simple, maddening failure to stay young.  Youth is the only sexy tragedy.  It's James Dean jumping into his Porsche Spyder, it's Marilyn heading off to bed." (p. 120)  I would say that Cunningham is a Romantic, and this quote surely demonstrates that.  First of all, I believe real tragedy almost requires a certain level of knowledge and understanding.  The death of a child is unbearably sad, and it may indeed be a tragedy for the grieving parents, but the self-destruction of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe is not the tragedy of youth.  These were old souls wrestling with demons that have been around forever.  The Romantics were wrong to believe that children are necessarily innocent, and Cunningham is surely wrong to think that leaving youth behind is tragic.  From the moment we are born, we are all in the process of getting ready to leave.  It is art that sustains us on this journey, transforms the solitary suffering of loss into a shared fate that is given meaning through beauty.  Of course, this is not the only way to think about art, and not all art is beautiful, but this is the definition, if that is the right word, of art that I embrace.  Reading Cunningham's novel, I felt that he embraces it too.

You can tell from these quotes that Michael Cunningham is a marvelous writer.  He does what all good writers do: puts common thoughts into uncommon words and makes them new.  In just these three selections, he encapsulates the scourge of loneliness, ubiquitous human frailty, and the inevitable tragedy that is life.  What makes all these bearable?  Family.  Friends.  Vocation.  Art.

"Nightfall"'s protagonist, Peter Harris, is a mid-western transplant in New York who owns a moderately successful art gallery.  He is in a settled marriage with Rebecca, who owns and manages an art magazine, not one of the big ones.  Their daughter is grown, a college drop-out, living in Boston in queasy circumstances.  The plot turns upon the arrival of Rebecca's much younger, drug-addicted brother at their SoHo loft.  Rebecca is solicitous but wary; Peter is supportive but not optimistic about Ethan's future.  Ethan (Mizzy) is a compelling and infuriating character: beautiful, sexually ambiguous, soulful, lost.  The novel's crisis is Peter's falling in love with him.

In many ways, "By Nightfall" is an old-fashioned novel that juxtaposes the comfortable happiness of "normal" life with the Romantic exhilaration of breaking out, overturning the status quo, and risking everything for the chance of a moment of transcendent joy.  The one abiding value is art, at least Peter's devotion to the beautiful, to "real genius."  Mizzy represents art, his older sister Rebecca reality.  "Mizzy, who might be cast in bronze, and Rebecca, his older girl-twin, who has with age taken on a human patina, a hint of mortal weariness that's never more apparent than it is in the morning light; a deep, heartbreaking humanness that's the source and the opposite of art." (p. 142)

Cunningham has written beautifully here about the amazing power of art to illuminate the quotidian: "Isn't it the task of art to acclaim these people [ordinary, decent folks], to ennoble them?  Consider [Manet's] Olympia.  A girl of the streets becomes a deity."  (p. 176)  The mistake would be to choose art over life, as Peter nearly does.  He desires the sickly surrender that forbidden love and great art demand, at least from the Romantic point of view.  His struggle is poignant, not least because both he and the reader realize that everything--love, beauty, life itself--is "evanescent."

I am reminded of a film that came out some years ago, starring Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche.  It's called, appropriately enough, "Damage."  Binoche is engaged to Irons' son, but the moment the father and the fiancee meet, their fate is sealed.  They descend into passionate, desperate sex, helpless to deny themselves or to consider others.  Their passion is convincing, in large part perhaps because both actors are so beautiful, and its destructiveness is perversely part of its power.  It all ends very badly, as anyone can tell it would.  The question "By Nightfall" asks is the relative value of different kinds of happiness: brief but intense vs. enduring and tranquil.  This question is left unresolved, and we are left at what is the beginning of another story, an even more significant one: what will happen now between Peter and Rebecca.