Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"The London Train" by Tessa Hadley

"Writing makes me happy....All those years I couldn't do it...writing was a painful, awful absence in my life....I love paintings, but it's never hurt me that I can't paint for toffee.  Which bit of myself, and when, elected to need to write, in order to be me...?  I used to feel...that life itself wasn't quite real, unless I could write about it in fiction.  Now that I am writing..., that mild insanity has dropped out of sight.  I have a fear, of course, of its returning, if writing ever failed." -- Tessa Hadley

Tessa Hadley joins Alice Munro, William Trevor, and John McGahern in my pantheon of writers who write the way I wish I could.  When I was younger and had more ambition than talent, I was so jealous of successful women writers that I declined to go hear Margaret Atwood read from her work.  Of course, I regret that now.  I admire Atwood, though I wouldn't call her a favorite, and I subsequently fell in love with her critical study of Canadian literature, "Survival."  Thankfully, I have outgrown my youthful sensitivity and can now rejoice when reading a short story by Lorrie Moore or a novel by Kate Atkinson.  At least I have the satisfaction of believing I'm a good audience for these more accomplished writers.  I do, however, resonate with the Hadley quote above.  It follows in an epilogue to her latest novel "The London Train." 

Once upon a time I wrote fiction and was quite serious about it.  I even had a short story published in a Canadian ladies' magazine and was paid $400 for it.  That was the peak of my writing career, though I did follow it up with an MFA in creative writing and a PhD in English literature.  I'm no academic; in my bones I still feel like a writer, but writing about literature seems to come easier to me than creating fiction.  I wish it were otherwise, but there it is.  One thing I do know, I need to write, as well as read, to keep a grip on life.  Somehow, putting words on the page anchors me.  The shape of the English language contains the best of whatever thought I have and keeps it from leaking away.  I have loved to read my entire life.  As soon as I could read by myself, I climbed down off my mother's lap and lost myself in the mysteries of the written word.  I can remember the passion I felt for particular books when I was four or five years old.  I have it still. 

As a PhD student, I, of course, read a lot of literary criticism.  Some of it was very, very good.  There is a chapter by M.H. Abrams on "Moby Dick" that was life-changing for me, and Jonathan Bate's "The Song of the Earth" is a book I would hate to have missed.  But the pursuit of criticism, the effort to find something new to say that both provokes and rings true, the unending need to be somewhere near the cutting edge, the knowledge that few people will ever read you or care what you think are all too disheartening for me.  I'm glad to have climbed those mountains, but I cannot live in those climes.

In my twenties I struggled to find something to say.  Perhaps I had not yet lived enough or lacked the distance from experience that is necessary to see all its contours.  I was an empty vessel.  Now I contain a river of words and can release them almost at will.  Whether I actually have anything worth saying is another matter, but I'm beginning to think that really doesn't signify.  In the end, I am writing to get inside my own head, to hold a conversation with myself.  Solipsistic, I admit, but true.  I would love to be able to express in words the ways I feel about the people I love.  I believe nothing could mean more to me.  Of all the things I need to say, that is the most important--and the most daunting.  Much as I love language, I know I could never make it dance to the music in my heart.  Words are all-important, but at the end of the day the things that most need utterance are locked in fearful silence.

When I read a novel like "The Train to London," I fall in with the rhythm of the writer's mind and for a while can make it my own.  This illusion of release and connection paradoxically makes lived experience richer, just as Monet's waterlily paintings encourage the viewer to see nature more vividly, or the way a painting by Braque casts a landscape seen from an airplane in an entirely new light.  E.M. Forster said, "Only connect."  These words have been my mantra every since I first read "Howard's End."  Imagine two planets colliding or two amoeba dissolving into each other.  Watch an iron filing crawl toward a magnet or a mother cat surround her kitten, and you begin to realize that in everything, living or inert, connection is the constant.  The only way I've found to truly get inside another mind, or at least to feel that I have, is to read something--prose, poetry, fiction--that draws me into connection with it.  This is a need that goes beyond entertainment; it is not a desire for escape.  In fact, it is just the opposite.  For me, literature is the road to life itself.

Monday, May 30, 2011

"We Think the World of You" by J. R. Ackerley

Now here is a curious little novel.  It is brief, and my remarks shall be brief.  Frank is a middle-aged, gay man who his besotted with a working-class amateur thief with a jealous wife and three, then four, children.  Johnny, Frank's beloved, also owns a German Shepherd named Evie.  It is sometimes difficult to tell whom Frank loves most, his unreliable boyfriend or this wild and undoubtedly dangerous dog.  Johnny goes to prison for a few months; the dog goes to stay with Johnny's mother and step-dad Tom.  Frank wants to rescue the dog from Tom's cruelty and neglect.  No one wants Frank to have the dog, out of spite.  Frank's money is the nexus connecting this disparate crew, and Frank wields it like a weapon, giving and withholding as circumstances dictate.

It's a sad little story really.  Frank's loneliness is a bottomless pit, and it is painful to see his slavish attachment to Johnny  received with such indifference.  The dog becomes the "child" they share, and it is a Solomon-like task to figure out who really owns her--or should.  In the end, Frank gets the dog but loses the boy.  At last Frank has an attachment that will not desert or disappoint him.  So what if he has to relinquish everyone else in his life because Evie won't tolerate anyone coming near?  So what if she devours his mail and will barely tolerate a leash?  She loves Frank, as Frank loves Johnny.  In one creepy scene, Frank describes Johnny's sexual arousal of the dog in the most positive terms.  There is obviously something sick going on, and one recoils from it.  It's not a bad novel though.  It does depict, very touchingly actually, the obsessions of a lonely man, whose dark mind is a place where he admits he doesn't want to go. 

"A Favorite of the Gods" by Sybille Bedford

Anna, Constanza, Flavia--Three generations of women whose lives weave in and out of Italy, England, and other parts of Europe, taking us from the late nineteenth century into the 1940s.  Money, marriage, and misunderstanding weave in and out of their lives like a tangled rope, sometimes tripping, sometimes choking.  Anna, a conventional, stiff-necked American marries an insouciant Italian prince and finds herself supporting his household with her considerable wealth, while he carries on a decades-long affair with a family friend in the European way.  Anna's reaction to her husband's infidelity (not the only one, incidentally) when she finally discovers it reflects her Protestant principles and her bruised rectitude.  She flees with their only daughter, Constanza, and takes all her money with her, leaving behind a small son, whose birth cost her much and who grows up to be a disappointment and a thief.

"They fell back, as people--and nations--in a crisis do, upon ready-made standards and emotions....she dealt with it [the "prince's conduct"] as once it might have been judged and felt about by her New England family."  For his part, he does the same, clinging to the sacrosanct idea of the family, puzzled by his wife's extravagant reaction.  Indeed, their entire Italian community is more than a little amazed that Anna didn't know what was going on and simply ignore it, as so many wives have done.  Or she might have taken a lover herself.  That would have balanced things out.  Discretion was much to be preferred to righteous indignation.  Anna is technically innocent, yet it is she who sets in train the events that shape and sometimes blight the lives of her daughter and granddaughter.  Constanza is led to believe her father didn't want her, which was not true, and Flavia trails around Europe after a mother whose metier is men.  She receives a strangely unsentimental education and has no settled home.

World events simmer in the background, erupting occasionally into these peripatetic lives to inconvenience or impede, but, as in a Henry James novel, the overriding theme is the collision of new- and old-world manners and mores.  Women live through their relations with men, while the men, though not peripheral to the action, are not the focus of Bedford's moral scrutiny.  The only note of hope is at the end when Constanza and Flavia take a villa in St. Jean, a small French village often visited by tourists.  Their neighbor is a Parisian, "un homme politique," who lives in a tower with a library of books.  Constanza and Flavia refer to him as "the man of principles."  After Anna dies, after the many men, Constanza moves yet again, this time with Michel, "the man of principles" who offers to drive her to Paris.  He gives Flavia the key to his tower, and Constanza assures her that she will find plenty of books there to read.  And so life goes on, not without hope.

What I love most about this novel has to be the way it is written.  I have come to believe that just about any plot can be made interesting if the style it is written in is compelling.  Bedford is highly intelligent, literate, and worldly, and it is a joy to be carried along by her well-crafted sentences.  There is something about being in the hands of a skilled writer that settles a restless place in me, that invites trust.  I can give myself over to the reading experience whole-heartedly and be rewarded with astute insights into the way things--and people--are.  If the author's judgment is discriminating and articulate, the novel resonates with life.  Without that magic (talent, deftness, call it what you will) the story lies flat upon the page.  I am so happy to have discovered Sybille Bedford and will certainly read more of her.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"The Love of My Youth" by Mary Gordon

"The Love of My Youth" is the kind of novel I refer to as a guilty pleasure.   It's not the greatest literature, but it has an addictive quality that pulls you along.  Perhaps the main reason I couldn't put it down is the depiction of the late 'sixties, its university life, the Viet Nam war, travel in Europe, and a youth that coincided with my own.  The novel is told from the vantage point of today, with the two teenage lovers finding themselves together again in Rome after 36 years.  Each has married and had a family.  Each is happy and settled into the life that could have been predicted for them years before.  They agree to meet everyday for the two weeks they'll both be in Rome, see the sights together, drink some wine, eat some pasta, and remember the good old days before he "betrayed" her by getting another girl pregnant during a one-night stand.  My guess is there are legions of sixty-somethings out there who will be able to identify with substantial parts of this story. 

I don't find the structure or the dialogue entirely convincing.  Do people really talk like that?  But there is enough withheld to make you want to read on, and Rome is always interesting.  It's summer now, and this would be a great beach read, which is not to denigrate it.  Let's just say that if it were a meal, it would be a simple pasta dish rather than a gourmet feast.

Friday, May 20, 2011

"Desperate Characters" by Paula Fox

What are the perfect American novels?  The first two-thirds of "Huckleberry Finn"?  "The Great Gatsby"?  "The Catcher in the Rye"?  Whatever your list, I suggest you add "Desperate Characters" to it.  Paula Fox is quite simply a wonderful writer.  This novel stands in marked contrast to the one I discussed previously, "Three Stages of Amazement."  Both are character driven and deal with marriage and a particular (upper middle) social class at a critical time in American history, the late 'sixties in the case of "Desperate Characters."  But "Characters" is so much the superior novel it's hard to believe that Fox was out-of-print and long-forgotten until Jonathan Franzen "rediscovered" her in 1999.  I'm not sure I'd say she's better than Updike, as Franzen does, but she certainly belongs in his company and is a near contemporary.

Sophie and Otto Bentwood are a forty-something, professional couple who are part of the wave of gentrification in Brooklyn when New York is at its lowest ebb.  A flasher lives across the street, drunks stagger around the neighborhood, and garbage is everywhere, but the Bentwoods have made a cozy nest in their old brownstone and filled it with a library of great books, a Tiffany lamp, and "risotto Milanese in a green ceramic bowl."  The first paragraph, which Franzen in his introduction finds slightly regrettable, is in fact a perfect listing of just the sort of things a successful, well-educated couple would have around them.  A few objects--a bowl, a lamp, "the old cedar planks of the floor," a stainless-steel sink--tell you everything you need to know to place them.  Even their names have weight: Sophie (wisdom) confronts Otto (Germanic control) over the course of a single weekend, and like one of those origami flowers that opens magically in water, a crisis slowly develops and a turning point is reached.  This is not to say that the ending provides "closure."  This is the first novel by Fox I've read, but I don't believe she ever provides her readers with closure.  The ending is exactly right and totally ambiguous.  The Bentwoods--and the reader--are left not with resolution but with an indeterminate future.

Franzen has read this novel many times and has taught it, and he says he finds new things every time he picks it up.  This is a novel I will want to read again (there aren't all that many).  Now that I have the simple plot firmly in place, I will be able to look more closely at the brushwork, as it were.  I cannot wait to read another Fox novel, and I haven't even mentioned how interesting Fox's own life has been.  She is Clement Greenberg's sister-in-law for one thing.  She taught at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in all sorts of places.  Best of all, she possesses a rare brand of wisdom, unflinching, realistic, enduring.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"Three Stages of Amazement" by Carol Edgarian

"Three Stages of Amazement" is a chick novel about, what else?, marriage.  And loss and pain and female friendship, a former Italian lover, a newly discovered paternal relationship, and a damaged child and...you get the idea.  It is about a high-flying surgeon, his ambition, and its effect on his marriage and children, to sum up the plot as quickly as I can.  What's curious is the name-dropping that occurs throughout.  Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Francis Ford Coppola, Sean Penn and more make cameo appearances or are at least referred to as party guests.  These mentions cause a certain frisson, but their only function is to point up just how rich and powerful the old guy with the bucks our surgeon needs to produce his revolutionary surgical invention really is. 

The heart of the novel belongs to Lena, the long-suffering wife who copes with grief at the loss of one of her twin babies, the constant health crises of the one who survived, a young son with sensitivities, and a mother and sister who try to help but mostly annoy, while her successful husband pursues a bi-coastal medical career.  Will he get the financing he needs before Lena walks out?  Will Lena succumb to a former lover who has influence over that funding?  Will baby Willa survive?  Will Lena and her newly-discovered father (the rich guy who holds her husband's fate in his hands) make peace with each other before it is too late?  I guess it would make a good movie. 

"Stages" has gotten a lot of press and enthusiastic reviews, which is why I wanted to read it.  Let me say that if I could write a book this good, I would.  That is not to say it is a great novel, or even a particularly good one.  It has a strong plot, recognizable characters, and an emotional kick, so it's not un-fun to read.  Lots of women will probably like it, but I doubt it will win any prizes.

How's that for snark?

Monday, May 9, 2011

"A Parisian From Kansas" by Phillipe Tapon

Back in February I read a novel, "The Mistress," by Phillipe Tapon.  I liked it a lot, which is why I picked up his first novel, "A Parisian From Kansas."  Let's just say, it's rather different from "The Mistress." (See my February blog for a fuller discussion.)

"Parisian" is what the author/narrator calls a self-referent novel, self-referent in that the author talks about writing the novel even as the plot progresses.  It is not an AIDS novel, we are assured, yet the main character, Darren, is dying of AIDS.  When "Phillipe Tapon" meets Darren at a party in Paris, he is entranced by this thin, unique, unrestrained young man.  When Darren discovers that Phillipe has ambitions to write a novel, Darren immediately seizes on him to write the story of his, Darren's, life--and death.  The two men begin a relationship that is sometimes a friendship, sometimes a collaboration, sometimes a searing conflict.  You could say it is about a philosophy of life, a meditation upon death, a story of friendships made and tested, but mostly you could say it is a novel about love.  And sex.

One reason I like fiction so much is that I am fascinated by human relationships.  If the relationship is interesting, I don't care if it's between a cab driver and a runaway teenager, an artist and his model, a couple falling in love, or a homosexual and his best friend.  I like knowing what makes people tick, how they find meaning, how they cope with loss and pain, what they do with whatever fortune deals them.  Sex is obviously part of the human experience, but in literature it's not usually the most interesting part, to me at least.  What is interesting about Othello and Desdemona is not just their sexual relationship, though that certainly plays a big part; what fascinates are the jealousy, the insecurity of a strong man, devotion in the face of fear, the machinations of a selfish schemer.  We don't need to know the secrets of the bedroom; we can infer that.  Most of "Parisian" is interesting, though it drags a bit and is repetitious.  For a novel that talks so much about editing, this one could have used a bit more red pencil.  Quite frankly, the infamous Chapter 11 is one I could have done without, not because I found it offensive.  I just found it irrelevant.  I would recommend this novel, with reservations.  In my view, "The Mistress" is a far better book.

We Are All Cowards

My good and dear friend L. asked me this morning what courage is.  The question has led me to think about not only a definition but also the presence or absence of courage in our daily lives.  Who is brave?  Does it matter?

We read about freedom fighters who willingly risk death for a cause or a country.  We watch as mountain climbers scale impossible heights.  We applaud a little girl who sacrifices her own life to save her sister from drowning.  These are all brave people.  We would all like to believe we could be like them should circumstances warrant, but I very much doubt that the vast majority of us are brave at all.  To me, courage is pursuing an action or course that is filled with danger beyond the normal risks we all take when we drive a car or fly across the country.  To me, bravery is not absence of fear; it is, as Hemingway put it, "grace under pressure." 

There are all kinds of fear, but the one I want to consider here is the fear of speaking one's mind, the fear of ruffling feathers.  Let me be specific.  I have spent over 30 years as a teacher, first in high schools, then in universities.  For most of that time I was quite happy with the way things were organized and managed.  When I taught high school back in the '70s, I was lucky enough to have a principal who had, well, principles.  He was fair and reliable.  He did not suffer fools gladly but he could listen to his faculty and change course if they wanted to try something new.  He thought for himself and allowed us to do the same.

Years later, when I was teaching at a state university, I began to hear rumblings from the public schools about increased paperwork, demands for more and more "assessment," teaching to the test, and being forced through a narrow curricular chute.  Thank goodness I'm not teaching in the public schools, I thought.  That could never happen in higher education.  Professors are too independent; the ethos is completely different.  By the time I retired higher education too was in the grip of a bureaucracy of micro-managers who thought education was best served by increasing the number of buzzwords associated with it--outcome-based,  goals and strategies,  uniform syllabi,  student-centered, critical thinking (as demonstrated by quantifiable data)--rather than by a recognition of and a reliance on the ability of a teacher to get her students thinking for themselves and, if not loving the subject at hand, at least deepening their appreciation of it.

There are two fields where personal relationships matter a great deal: education and medicine.  Students learn from teachers they love, and patients recover more calmly and quickly when they are comforted as well as cured by their physicians.  Both medicine and education have been highjacked by pencil-pushers intent on removing the human factor and replacing it with protocols, rubrics, data, and documentation.  "Oversight" is the watchword, as if good teachers and doctors couldn't be trusted to know what they are doing.  We have lost trust in those we should most revere, perhaps because we have lost trust period.  When reading my student evaluations at the end of each semester, it was the comments I looked at, not the circled numbers or checked boxes.  But when student responses were tallied, it was only the numbers that counted and were kept.  There is a proliferation of paperwork that drains time out of a teacher's or a doctor's day and creates so much redundancy that when you  provide your doctor with your address and phone number you have to put the same information on a dozen sheets of paper, and the nurse at check-out asks you for it again.

All of this bureaucratic glut and nit-picking is not the only thing that troubles me, however.  What amazes me is the alacrity with which otherwise intelligent, competent professionals cave in to the demands to follow all the rules, without deviation.  Standardization is meant to assure quality, but, I suggest, it too often flattens everything into the same pancake.  If there is a good reason for doing something, then I am all for doing it.  But does it really matter if every professor's syllabus looks exactly the same?  Isn't "what are your goals for your class" a terribly silly question?  Does relentless testing promote learning and make it more enjoyable, or is it just an obstacle to real growth?

My question is this:  why don't more people just say no?  Why can't a senior professor simply say, "I've been teaching this course for 20 years.  My classes are always full, and my former students come back to visit long after they have graduated.  Everyone knows who the good teachers are on this campus.  Give me one good reason why I should fill out this silly form and answer your silly questions?  Who benefits from my wasting time in this way?"

What I have noticed is that younger faculty go along with the system without question.  They shrug their shoulders and say, "Just do what the Office of Assessment wants and get it over with."  They have been brought up in this new world and don't know any other.  But I have watched the morale of older professors wither and die.  It is a fact that universities are becoming more and more top-heavy with administrators.  That's where the real money is, and the power too.  Because research has become the be-all and end-all of academia, professors whose research is less than stellar often opt for administration, where the research requirement disappears.  Those may be the best teachers on campus, but administration offers an attractive refuge.  In addition, many of the new administrators who proliferate like rabbits (layers and layers of vice-chancellors, vice-provosts, associate deans, directors of various services, such as student life, multicultural affairs, sustainability, etc. etc.) have never been inside a classroom as anything other than a student themselves.  Their take on the university is quite different from their faculties'.  Productivity, retention, cost-cutting, grant-winning--in short, a bottom-line mentality.  Education is becoming a business with customers rather than students.  Slick advertising entices students with spas, athletics, and luxury dorms, as though a university were a resort with an academic component. 

I am trying hard not to become an old curmudgeon, pining for the good old days when professors smoked pipes and had leather patches on their elbows, but it's not easy.  I know this will never happen; the current system is too entrenched, but I wish our higher education could be divided into teaching institutions and research institutes, each with a clear mandate.  Just as some doctors choose to work in a lab rather than a clinic, so too some academics would prefer to do research rather than teach undergraduates.  The way things are now, if a young faculty member wants to devote his life to teaching, if he feels a calling to teach and can't imagine doing anything else, he is pulled away from his primary passion by research requirements that sap his time and his energy.  It's a mistake too many people make when they think young professors have it easy.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Teaching--at any level--is one of the most demanding, exhausting professions going.  Let anyone who doubts it spend a week in front of a classroom.

Over the course of my career, I have watched students slide down the list of public universities' priorities.  Revenue, retention, growth--these are what come first.  Welcome to the university as corporation.  I'm not saying anything new in the ongoing debate over the future of our educational system, but I can at least encourage those who are still in the game to ask for a timeout.  We need to rethink where we are going and why; we need to re-read Cardinal Newman's "The Idea of the University."  We need to learn to say, No.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

"Finding Nouf" by Zoe Ferraris

I have not finished reading "Finding Nouf" but I feel compelled to comment not so much on the novel, which so far I am enjoying, as on the cultural milieu it presents.  Zoe Ferraris was at one time married to a Saudi-Palestinian-Bedouin and lived in Saudi Arabia with her husband's extended family.  I am relieved to read on the book jacket that she now lives in San Francisco, no longer with said husband.

What this book gives is a stark picture of how women in Saudi Arabia are forced to live.  This may be the 21st century, but so far as Saudi women are concerned it might as well be the fourteenth.  Here are just some of the things a good Muslim woman in Saudi Arabia may not do: leave her home unescorted by a male relative, show her face to men outside her family, vote, drive, enter a government building by the same entrance as the men, have sex outside marriage, leave the country without her father's or husband's written permission.  If a man has completed his ablutions before praying but sees a woman before he actually begins to pray, he must do his ablutions again, as he has seen something unclean.

Forcing women to follow these strict rules, often on pain of death, is more than just wrong; it is abominable.  The Arab world needs a women's liberation movement.  I am a student of the Victorian age, and part of its fascination for me lies in the roles played by women, from prostitutes in the Haymarket to pampered aristocrats without rights to property or their own children.  Girls today have, I believe, little notion what generations of women before them had to fight to overcome.  In my own girlhood I remember being told by my mother that I shouldn't necessarily make good grades, or if I did to keep quiet about it for fear of putting the boys off.  There were so many things girls couldn't do that boys could.  They may seem trivial, but to a young woman with an independent spirit the restrictions seemed arbitrary, unfair, and demeaning.  When I was in college, we had a dress code: no pants or shorts to be worn to class or in the library; a 10:30 curfew on weekdays, 12:00 on weekends; no leaving campus overnight without parental permission.  I was not allowed to phone a boy or visit him in his home, with rare exceptions.  In college, men were not allowed above the first floor of the dorm and its public rooms.  It amuses me to recall that because there was no privacy, couples kissed and groped each other in full view of whoever was around.  We were used to ignoring the semi-orgy that occurred each night on the porch before the doors were locked. 

Obviously, these restrictions were designed to prevent unsanctioned sex, and where very young girls are involved such restrictions are, of course, acceptable.  But when grown women are discouraged from getting a full education, have their husbands chosen for them, or are restricted in their movements, something is very wrong.  Cultural differences can be charming and should be celebrated.  The Japanese tea ceremony is lovely; Native American dancing can be exciting; French cuisine is rightly celebrated.  Customs, diet, dress, music and art--differences here make the world a more colorful place.  Making virtual slaves of half the population is not colorful; it is cruel.  When I was a child, my beloved grandmother explained to me that American slaves in the South were happy with their lot.  We are all aware of the cognitive dissonance of, say, Thomas Jefferson, who believed in individual freedom and owned slaves simultaneously.  My rather Victorian mother wanted to protect me and shelter me from possible unpleasantness.  She certainly meant me no harm, even when she goaded me about my support for the Equal Rights Amendment.  I have no doubt that many, if not most, Arab men love their wives and daughters.  Many things throughout the course of human history have been undertaken because they were deemed "for your own good."

I can understand that it is easier--and safer--to go along with family and societal demands if you live in a traditional culture.  Often it is women themselves who exercise vigilance when it comes to other women's behavior.  How much easier it is when slaves themselves guard other slaves.  It is no accident that it is educated women who make the most noise about rights.  The fact that some Arab women want to cover themselves from head to foot in voluminous black cloaks when the temperature is 100 degrees is no argument. 

I feel sorry for those women who are forbidden to have male friendships.  I have always enjoyed the company of men and not just physically.  One of the most significant friendships between a man and a woman occurs in George Eliot's "Middlemarch" when Dorothea and Lydgate join forces to help their community and each other.  Their relationship is not sexual but is based on mutual respect and shared interests.  Had they been denied each other's company, much would have been lost.  To assume that the overriding current between men and women is necessarily sexual is to pervert human possibility.  How can it be right for men to devise the rules for women to follow?  How infantilizing it is to render women impotent!

It is so hard to live in a state of constant anger.  I can understand how women in difficult circumstances are able to convince themselves that being submissive is being womanly, but it is certainly not natural, nor is it mandated by some supernatural power whose very nature is problematic.  Religion has always been used to trump dissenting argument.  When God himself declares something to be so, who are we flawed humans to quibble?  I realize that I will not convince religious people to abandon their beliefs, but I do wish people would recognize how equivocal those beliefs are.  Whatever gets you through the night, is my view, so long as you don't find your own comfort in another's loss of autonomy.

The Islamic, or indeed the Christian, fetish for virginity strikes me as more than a little creepy.  What is it they say, "Who thinks more about sex than a monk or a fourteen-year old boy?"  An entire culture that is preoccupied with the sexual behavior of its members strikes me as perverse, if not perverted.  Yes, I am a product of my own culture that values women (to a fair degree) and has come a long way toward granting them the freedom of action that any adult human being deserves, but I am still capable of making moral discriminations on my own.  I know that if any preacher, mullah, or shaman tried to tell me what to do, I would be mad as hell.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

"The Northern Clemency" by Philip Hensher

Henry James said that the novel is a loose, baggy monster.  His novels may be baggy, but they are not loose.  Like an infinitely intricate puzzle, all the pieces of his novels fit together precisely.  There are just so many pieces!  Philip Hensher's "The Northern Clemency" is indeed a loose, baggy monster; unfortunately not all the pieces fit, despite the first line reappearing in the last paragraph like a cinch around the neck of a sack.

I often choose novels that are short-listed for the Booker Prize, as this one was, because they are almost always a good read, as this one is.   While Hensher's style is not distinctive, it is accomplished and moves along without unnecessary flourishes yet is not simplistic.  His attention to physical detail is precise and abundant, without devolving into gratuitous description for its own sake.  Hensher is a good writer, and I have no doubt we shall see more of him, but I have one quibble.  As a method actor might ask, what's the motivation?  Morton Densher wants to marry the dying Millie Theale so he can inherit her fortune and marry the penniless woman he loves.  Isabel Archer marries the odious Gilbert Osmond because she wants to rescue his motherless daughter.  "Clemency" is filled with compelling set-pieces that rise and fall from the surface of the novel like a spotlight searching out one actor after another, but to my mind these stories within the story do not connect organically.  I fail to perceive any cause and effect in what the characters do.  It is possible to read this novel with interest yet finish it with no clear idea why it went where it did.  Why does Timothy keep snakes?  Why does Sandra/Alex move to Australia, never to return?  Is it only her stroke that makes Alice believe her husband Bernie made a suicide pact with her, or is there some deeper undercurrent in their relationship that remains unexplored?  Why does Malcolm leave Katherine?  Why does he return?  Why is Francis so gormless and disconnected?

I am  tempted to compare Hensher to Jonathan Franzen, who has been criticized for the shallowness of his characters and the banality of their lives.  Hensher's characters are certainly shallow, their lives indistinguishable from others like them in their Sheffield neighborhood.  It is a photograph without shadows, where Franzen's shadows contain ideas and observations that provoke thought and ring true.  James said there are two kinds of knowledge: discovery and recognition.  A novel has the potential to discover novelty, but it doesn't have to in order to have weight.  What I look for in a novel is recognition--of a truth newly brought to light, of a human motive that I share or can imagine sharing, of an idea worth contemplating.  The dark tides of a marriage, a father's love for an impossible son, the temptation to do good by committing a crime--these scenarios promise an examination of human nature, not just the surfaces of behavior but the causes that underlie them. 

Ultimately, a novel is not like real life; it is an artifact, a simulacrum, a composed observation of the things real life contains.  We read novels--at least I do--in order to have questions about personality as well as action answered.  It may be that by their acts you shall know characters, but it is by getting inside them that you will achieve enlightenment.