Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

From the minute the dragon of our fertility came on the scene, we learned to chain it up and forget about it. Fertility meant nothing to us in our twenties; it was something to be secured in the dungeon and left there to molder. In our early thirties, we remembered it existed and wondered if we should check on it, and then--abruptly, horrifyingly--it became urgent: Somebody find that dragon! It was time to rouse it, get it ready for action. But the beast had not grown stronger during the decades of hibernation. By the time we tried to wake it, the dragon was weakened, wizened. Old. 
Ariel Levy's memoir is not for the faint of heart. After building a an elaborate dream life for herself, she guides us through its brutal dismantling. She tells us "When I got on the plane to Mongolia, I was pregnant, living with my spouse, moving to a lovely apartment, and financially insulated by a wealthy man. A month later, none of that was true." The memoir centers around the twinned tragedies of Levy's loss of her baby in her second trimester and the disintegrating of her relationship with her wife.

A few paragraphs in to the chapter, late in the memoir, where Levy describes her miscarriage, I remembered that I had read the New Yorker article the entire book is based off of (which went on to win her an award). The article (and the chapter) describe in vivid detail her miscarriage in a hotel bathroom in Mongolia, a loss so awful and graphic that I had trouble revisiting it again. As if that weren't enough, her alcoholic wife Lucy spirals away from her, and Levy ends up cutting herself off soon after her return. The grief she describes is so deep and sharp and gut wrenching that it can be hard to read, and it's made worse by the unintentional cruelty of others: the suggestion that if only she hadn't flown to Mongolia, the baby would have been fine (something every doctor seems to refute) or, my least favorite, the refrain that "Everything happens for a reason." Levy is careful not to come to this conclusion, and it was refreshing to read a memoir filled with real, visceral pain that didn't try to pair it with too much saccharine reflection on the broader meaning of suffering.

The notion of privilege came up again and again for me in this book. My own heteronormative privilege guided my assumptions throughout the opening chapters; Levy refers to her "spouse" who I just assumed was a man. I could have sworn that I remembered reading the word "husband" and re-read the first few pages only to find that I had gendered her partner myself. Despite being a woman in a male-centric journalism world, Levy does exhibit her own massive privilege before her fall--she is hugely successful almost by accident, and builds a career and a life seemingly effortlessly. Her success, however, doesn't shield her from the terrifying lack of control that comes with pregnancy, and it means she falls from that much higher a height. After the fall, the ease with which practical strangers comment on her reproductive decisions is shocking but also familiar: pregnancy and motherhood seem to give anyone license to share their expertise and opinion, and tragedy during pregnancy doesn't shield Levy from that rule.

This was a rough one to read as a woman in her thirties who has already entered a (hopefully permanent) partnership and is considering motherhood. The degree to which none of any of this is within our control is just terrifying, and I'm not sure I needed to read that miscarriage scene again, but Levy is funny and honest and makes a sympathetic guide.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Don't Look Now by Daphne du Maurier

As he jumped the stile he heard the whirr of wings.  A black-backed gull dived down at him from the sky, missed, swerved in flight, and rose to dive again.  In a moment it was joined by others, six, seven, a dozen, black-backed and herring mixed.  Nat dropped his hoe.  The hoe was useless.  Covering his head with his arms he ran towards the cottage.  They kept coming at him from the air, silent save for the beating wings.  The terrible, fluttering wings.  He could feel the blood on his hands, his wrists, his neck.  Each stab of a swooping beak tore his flesh.  If only he could keep them from his eyes.  They had not learnt yet how to cling to a shoulder, how to strip clothing, how to dive in mass upon the head, upon the body.  But with each dive, with each attack, they became bolder.  And they had no thought for themselves.  When they dived low and missed, they crashed, bruised and broken, on the ground.  As Nat ran he stumbled, kicking their spent bodies in front of him.

I picked up the new NYRB collection of Daphne du Maurier's stories, Don't Look Now, because Brent had enjoyed it so much when he read it.  As it turns out, except for the title story, the collections are almost completely different.  Oh well.  That story, at least, is pretty good: a man and a woman vacationing in Italy after the loss of their daughter are approached by a set of older female twins, one of which claims to be able to see their dead daughter alongside them.  The woman is grateful and the man is skeptical.  And yet--while in the back alleys of Venice he sees a mysterious young girl hopping between the boats on the canal.  It's the kind of story where the details, like that one, suggest to you one ending, but the actual direction the story heads is completely unexpected.

Not so with "The Birds," which is far and away the best story here, and du Maurier's most famous, thanks to Hitchcock.  The premise is simple: one day, all the world's birds seem to declare war on the world's humans, and begin to attack.  There's no twists here, because it's a fight in which we're hopelessly outmatched--there's only one possible outcome, really.  The protagonist is a hardscrabble farmhand named Nat who is dedicated to protecting his family, boarding up the windows, scavenging his employers' house for good.  He's meant to contrast his gleeful boss, who heads out, foolhardy, with a gun, to see how many birds he can bag.

But he also contrasts the institutions of human society, which prove unable to meet the challenge of the birds.  In a modern film (one without Hitchcock's deftness, though even that is hardly the same as du Maurier's story) you'd have an obligatory scene in the president's war room, where they shout at each other about how their efforts are failing, but here, there's only the uncomfortable silence of the BBC Home channel on the radio in Nat's house.  Nat's wife asks why the planes they hear outside are dropping bombs, but Nat knows that what they're really hearing is the crashing of the planes.  It's chilling because it's not a personal or a private horror, but one that encompasses the whole world--yet it's deftly imagined through the lens of a single family.

Not all the stories are so successful.  I was underwhelmed by "Escort," which is like a hastily sketched version of the X-Files episode "Triangle."  "La Saint-Vierge" is essentially a dirty joke dressed up as a horror story.  I did like "Blue Lenses," in which a woman recovers from eye surgery to find that everyone's heads have been replaced by those of the animals that match their personality.  That story, which sounds so much like an episode of The Twilight Zone, has some of the same chilling absurdity of "The Birds."  I also liked the long final story, "Monte Verita," in which a mountain climbing-enthusiast loses his wife to a monastic community of women living in seclusion on a remote mountaintop, who are rumored to have discovered immortality.  Like "Don't Look Now," "Monte Verita" takes a good premise and adds a final, unexpected screw-turn that elevates the story and turns our expectations on their heads.  Du Maurier was an expert at that--just think about Rebecca--because the twists always seem to recontextualize the story and make it more awful, rather than a kind of cheap curtain-pulling.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Pitch Dark by Renata Adler

What's new? the biography of the opera star says she used to ask in every phone call, and What else?  I'm not sure the biographer understand another thing about the opera star, but I do believe that What's new.  What else.  They may be the first question of the story, of the morning, of consciousness.  What's new.  What else.  What next.  What's happened here, says the inspector, or the family man looking at the rubble of his house.  What's it to you, says the street tough or the bystander.  What's it worth to you, says the paid informer or the extortionist.  What is it now, says the executive or the husband, disturbed by the fifteenth knock at the door, or phone call, or sigh in the small hours of the night.  What does it mean, says the cryptographer.  What does it all mean, says the student or the philosopher on his barstool.  What do I care.  What's the use.  What's the matter.  What's the action.  What kind of fun is that.  Let me say that everyone's story in the end is the old whore's, or the Ancient Mariner's: I was not always as you see me now.  And the sentient man, the sentient person says in his heart, from time to time, What have I done.

I loved Renata Adler's Speedboat.  It seemed hardly like a novel; it was an effusion of anecdotes and impression that nevertheless told a story, because real stories--as they're lived--are like that.  They're not particularly linear, and they don't have the ancient unities of time and place.  Adler, a lifelong journalist, knew from observation the fitful and scattered nature of human life.

Pitch Dark, another of Adler's novels (the only other one?  I'm not sure) has much in common with Speedboat.  The frenetic pace and style is instantly recognizable; it cares no more about situating the reader in time, place, or narrative than that other novel.  Stories are told that seem to have little, perhaps nothing, to do with the main plot.  And it can, like Speedboat, be tremendously funny:

He mentioned the Ku Klux Klan.  He alluded to it several times, the Klan.  And each time, he referred to its membership, the members of the Klan, he called them.  Clamsmen.  No question about it, that's how he pronounced it.  Clamsmen.  It was no reflection on the Attorney General.  True, the judge's wife had never thought much of his diction.  True, in the court's most important decisions, he had been so often in dissent.  But the years had passed.  He had come to speak well and to do honor.  And this business of the Clamsmen, well, it may have had to do with molluscs, bivalves.  Even crustaceans.  I remember a young radical, in the sixties, denouncing her roommates as prawns of imperialism.

But at its heart, Pitch Dark is much more troubling, and troubled.  It simultaneously boasts a more coherent main narrative and is more disorienting.  It tells the story of Kate Ennis, a journalist who has ended a long-term affair with a married man.  And if you figured that out, good on you, because Adler is stingy with context.  In fact, the man's only presence is in a repeated motif of short dialogues and recurrent statements that are devoid of any context at all.  Adler repeats them, obsessively, many pages before she gives them context or explanation: "The truth was, there was something in the ice cube.""Not here, Diana said, to her lasting regret, to her own daughter, who approached her crying, in front of all those people."  "Did I throw the most important thing, perhaps, by accident away?"

All this contributes to an image of a woman who is not well; who has unraveled along with her love affair.  If Speedboat rejoices in the fragmentary and ad hoc nature of the world, Pitch Dark is a frightening warning about the dissolution of the mind and the soul.  The main narrative, such as it is, sees Kate taking up residence in a friend's Irish castle, where she suspects the staff and is tortured by the possibility that a local cop is planning to extort her after a fender bender.  She abandons her rental car, leaving it in Ireland in the dead of night--but the abandonment, in this book, comes far before the fender bender.  Kate's paranoia, we are meant to understand, is not exactly the consequence of the fender bender.

Living in a cabin, Kate feeds a raccoon who visits her daily:

He left through his crawl space as soon as he saw me.  But because, on every subsequent evening, he stayed longer and left less abruptly; because he returned most nights, and slouched, on the stove, leaning against the stove pipe, all night, until morning; because he sometimes touched, though rarely, the water I left in a dish beside the stove for him; because he was, after all, a wild thing, growing ever more docile; we arrived at our misunderstanding.  I thought he was growing to trust me, when in fact he was dying.  So are we all, of course.  But we do not normally mistake progressions of weakness, the loss of the simple capacity to escape, for the onset of love.

Ultimately, that's what Pitch Dark is about: mistakes, and love, and abandonment, and whether one of the last two, or both, are the same as the first.  "Did I throw the most important thing, perhaps, by accident away?"  It's a challenge where Speedboat is a delight, and sparing in its rewards, but intentionally so.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Indeed, Jasper's sole flaw, in Liz's opinion, apart from his girlfriend, was that he wore a gold ring from Stanford University, his alma mater; Lis did not care for either jewelry on men or academic ostentatiousness. But she actually was glad to have identified the one thing about Jasper she'd change, because it was similar to realizing what you'd forgotten to take on a trip, and if it were only perfume, as opposed to your driver's license, you were relieved. 
Sittenfeld wrote Eligible as part of the Austen Project, a series of modern retellings of Austen classics by contemporary authors. Eligible is an updated Pride and Prejudice, and, despite being based on an oft re-told Austen novel, it was exciting and fresh enough that I read it through in almost one sitting, including straight through two meals.

The novel takes its title from a Bachelor style show whose former star, Chip Bingley, has moved to Cincinnati to resume his career in medicine just as Liz and Jane Bennet come home from New York City to care for their aging father. At a barbecue, the Bennet sisters meet Chip (sparks fly between him and Jane) and his friend Fitzwilliam Darcy. The story proceeds predictably from there (with an entertaining, reality show twist at the end), but even though I knew exactly who everyone would end up with, I still couldn't put it down. Just as with Austen's novel, the Bennet sisters are unevenly portrayed--Liz and Jane have depth and substance; Kitty, Lydia, and Mary are one dimensional caricatures of themselves. Sittenfeld does sisters well, so the relationships, especially the more difficult ones, are satisfyingly written, but I was hoping for a little more, especially from Mary, the reclusive nerd whose biggest scandal is that she (spoiler alert) secretly bowls in a league every Tuesday.

Jasper, Eligible's George Wickham, is pretty awful right from the start (more obviously so than I remember Wickham being), and he makes Liz a little less credible. She falls for every trick in the book, and even though the ultimate deception isn't revealed until later, it's clear from the get-go to all the rest of us that she's being strung along. Liz's terrible taste in men is balanced out by her wry observations of her dysfunctional family, especially her sisters:
About a year before, Kitty and Lydia had embraced CrossFit, the intense strength and conditioning regimen that involved weight lifting, kettle bells, battle ropes, obscure acronyms, the eschewal of most foods other than meat, and a derisive attitude toward the weak and unenlightened masses who still believed that jogging was a sufficient workout and a bagel was an acceptable breakfast. Naturally, all Bennets except Kitty and Lydia were among these masses. 
This wasn't the most cerebral book I've read this year, but it was really fun. Sittenfeld carefully brings even the most peripheral characters into the modern age, and I loved rediscovering them in their new setting. Sittenfeld has to go a little farther to titillate her 21st century audience (the updated Darcy and Liz also have "hate sex," one of the sisters falls for a trans man, and Jasper's scandal goes a few steps further than Wickhams), but it never felt ridiculous or overblown. If you're an Austen fan who can handle some liberties being taken with a classic, read it!

Stoner by John Williams

In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia.  Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.

William Stoner is the son of dirt-poor Missouri farmers, and when he goes off to the University of Missouri it's to enter the agricultural program so that he in turn can become a better farmer.  He's a good student, but meets his match in the English program, where a cantankerous teacher demands to know what Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 (my favorite) means.  Stoner is unable to answer, but the mystery has awakened something to him, and he embarks on the long and lonely life of an English academic.

Williams, like Stoner, was a relatively unimportant academic who toiled in obscurity.  It's easy to overdo the parallels and wonder if he too suffered from an unhappy marriage to a neurotic socialite, or finally found love as a late-life affair with a younger colleague.  But certainly Williams knew something of the life as lived by Stoner, measured not in its successes--Stoner publishes only one book, mediocrely reviewed, which bestows upon him a pride not related to its quality--but in its ineffable quietness and dignity.  At the book's end, on Stoner's deathbed, he thinks of himself as having been like a clergyman of literature, having led a monastic life.  Williams' prose, sometimes self-consciously plain, is designed to complement Stoner exactly.

What was it like to read this, as a teacher?  Well, I recognized certainly the feeling of "knowing something through words that could not be put in words"--perhaps as good a defense of the value of literature as ever written.  And I recognized, too, the way in which the things that touch you most deeply about the study of literature as being those things which are impossible to impress upon your students:

Always, from the time he had fumbled through his first classes of freshman English, he had been aware of the gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom.  He had hoped that time and experience would repair the gulf; but they had not done so.  Those things that he held most deeply were most profoundly betrayed when he spoke of them to his classes; what was most alive withered in his words; and what moved him most became cold in its utterance.

I recognized also, I'm sad to say, the kind of student represented in the text by Charles Walker: the knowitall who really knows nothing, mistakes platitudes for depth, and despises the tedious and elaborate work of analysis without knowing he really despises it.  In Stoner's case, it's his noble insistence that Walker should not be awarded a degree that puts him at odds with the chairman of the English department and scuttles his chances of professional enjoyment or advancement for decades.  In this way Stoner is one of those stories in which a good man is attacked on all sides by selfishness and vindictiveness, and even his goodness turned into a weapon to destroy him.  But it's the simplicity of Stoner's motives that make his nobility believable, and his suffering, such as it is, profound.

I have always wondered: can anyone really write about failure, or mediocrity, successfully?  It seems to me that even the most affecting literary accounts of these things are tempered by the very fact that you can read them, that they are, in a sense, successes.  Even Williams won a National Book Award in his lifetime, though the recently renewed attention to his work is (apparently) thanks to a new posthumous French translation.  But Stoner comes as close to anything I've ever read at finding the value in a life quietly and unobtrusively lived.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard

Engaging as their legends are--particularly as enhanced by Robert Louis Stevenson and Walt Disney--the true story of the pirates of the Caribbean is even more captivating; a long-lost tale of tyranny and resistance, a maritime revolt that shook the very foundations of the newly formed British Empire, bringing transatlantic commerce to a standstill and fueling the democratic sentiments that would later drive the American revolution.  At its center was a pirate republic, a zone of freedom in the midst of an authoritarian age.

Psychologists say you're more willing to accomplish something if you commit to it by sharing your goal with others, so: I'm trying to write a book.  It involves, for some reason, pirates.  But like most people, I think, what I know about pirates is filtered through the lens of Hollywood movies, bad cartoons, and my childhood abridged copy Treasure Island: yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum, etc., etc.  So I picked up Colin Woodard's book about the history of the pirates of the Caribbean and their short-lived haven at Nassau in the Bahamas.

Woodard's book is antiprogrammatic; there's no real historical argument here except perhaps an emphasis on the surprisingly humane and democratic sentiments of the pirates involved.  Mostly it's a straightforward history about a surprisingly brief period of time.  Among the interesting things I learned are:

  • The whole pirate thing was really very brief.  The Golden Age of Piracy starts at the turn of the century, around 1700, and extends only to about the 1730's.  By that time the bigwig pirates like Blackbeard, Sam Bellamy, and Charles Vane, are dead, and the pirate hunter and Bahamian governor Woodes Rogers--those are the four focal points of Woodard's book, Rogers and the three pirates--has reestablished peace at Nassau.
  • Blackbeard was more bark than bite.  In all of the recorded stories about him, there's not a single instance of Blackbeard killing another human being.  Instead, he relied on a sense of theatricality, including placing lit fuses under this hat to look like a scary smoke monster, to intimidate those whose ships he wanted to plunder into submission.  This was in contrast to the raping and pillaging ways of the ruthless Charles Vane.
  • Pirates were political.  Many of them started out as privateers during Queen Anne's Wars, attacking French ships with commissions from the British government.  When the war ended, they found themselves without government support, and turned to piracy as sort of a way of keeping their careers going.  But beyond that, many pirates were Jacobites, meaning they supported the right of James Stuart of Scotland to the throne over George I, a German imported in order to avoid having a Catholic King.  Some of them even plotted aiding James in an attack on British soil, though that was never carried out.

Similarly, pirate ships could be highly democratic.  They tended to elect their captains, and the captains took a far smaller share of the plunder than commissioned privateers.  Most decisions were made by voting.  They often returned to the owners of the ships they plundered what they could not used, and even paid for what they took, though forcibly.  And pirate ships were one of the only places in Americas where black Africans shared in the freedom of whites--it's possibly that a quarter of Blackbeard's men were, at one time, escaped slaves from the Middle Passage.

The stories of piracy which captivated the world in the 1710's and 20's are engaging enough, but for me the most interesting part of Woodard's account comes at the end, when George I, operating under the advice of Woodes Rogers, offers a pardon to any pirate willing to take it.  This tears the pirates, who thought they'd never be able to live on the right side of the law again, into warring pro-pardon and anti-pardon factions.  Blackbeard's mentor Benjamin Hornigold even takes up pirate hunting after receiving his pardon, helping to chase down the staunchly anti-pardon Vane.

All in all, The Republic of Pirates was a fun look at a period of history that's often clouded by popular myth.  One thing the movies do get right is the rum: those pirates couldn't get enough rum.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

The Medium lost the delighted smile she had worn till then. "Oh, why must you make me look at unpleasant things when there are so many delightful ones to see?"Again Mrs. Which's voice reverberated through the cave. "Therre will nno llonggerr bee sso many pplleasanntt thinggss too llookk att iff rressponssible ppeoplle ddo nnott ddoo ssomethingg abboutt thee unnppleasanntt oness."
I loved this book when I was a kid--I read it over and over so often that I felt like I lived in it, especially the opening chapters in the Murry household. Like Calvin, a classmate of Meg Murry's, I felt like I'd found my place in the world: "I've never even seen your house, and I have the funniest feeling that for the first time in my life I'm going home!" The Murrys live in a rambly old house: Meg, the misfit, only understood by her mother and her brother Charles Wallace, and Sandy and Dennys, the "normal" athletic twins. Their mother, an absent-minded scientist who balances motherhood and research by making stew over bunsen burners in her lab, seems to delight in her children's oddities, especially Charles Wallace and Meg's. It's the family that every nerdlet longs for except, of course, that Meg's father is missing. Charles Wallace, Meg, and their new friend Calvin form a little triad of weird and together with Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which they travel across the universe to save Mr. Murry. 
Tessering explained by Mrs. Whatsit
A Wrinkle in Time held up better than I expected. It's full of powerful, smart (scientist!), female characters, and the science fiction part of the novel doesn't come off as cheesy or overdone as I expected, although the light vs. dark dynamic is a little on the nose throughout; the evil force threatening the universe is a dark shroud, and the good guys are shrouded in light. The physics of space travel is clearly written, and the novel has the neatest explanation of wormholes ("tesseracts" in this novel) that I've read. I understand physics now!

I bristled a little at how Calvin, Charles Wallace (even as a much younger brother), and Mr. Murray each try to protect Meg: "Calvin walked with Meg, his fingers barely touching her arm in a protective gesture." I would read this as a budding romance, except it happens with her father and her younger brother throughout the novel. Meg, despite being brilliant, still comes off as a little helpless, reliant on the men who surround her to pull through. That being said, for a young adult novel written in the early 60's, it has far more impressive women than I'm used to. 

Overall, this definitely bears revisiting if you haven't read it in a while, and it absolutely is worth picking up if you never have. 


Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.
My seniors are reading The Road in English class, and while we have a history of reading some less than uplifting titles with them (Handmaids Tale! Night! Macbeth!), this one is certainly hard to get through. The Road takes places somewhere on the East coast in a nuclear winter that has wiped out most of humanity along with all plant and animal life. A man and his son are trying to make their way to the coast, along a road studded with danger and completely devoid of anything remotely resembling sustenance.

It's McCarthy, so there are gorgeous descriptions of desolation, but more surprising is the heart-wrenchingly tender dialogue; it would be misleading to say this is a book about parenting, but the father-son relationship in this book is so beautiful that it almost outshines the darkness. Almost.
In a pocket of his knapsack he'd found a last half packet of cocoa and he fixed it for the boy and then poured his own cup with hot water and sat blowing at the rim.
You promised not to do that, the boy said.
What?
You know what, Pop.
He poured the hot water back into the pan and took the boy's cup and poured some of the cocoa into his own and then handed it back.
I have to watch you all the time, they boy said.
I know.
If you break little promises, you'll break big ones. That's what you said.
I know. But I won't. 
Desperation has brought out the "calculating reptile brain" in everyone else--pushing them to give up or become completely self serving. These two have managed to keep each other alive, hopeful, sane; they each look out more for the other than they do for themselves. I like to think that I would do the same, but the book forces you to wonder how long you would be able to hold out. It also makes you wonder how long you would last with your complete lack of survival skills and utter reliance on the internet for information. Would I give up sooner because I'm a woman, susceptible to rape, less physically powerful? Would I die sooner because I can't see farther than three feet without my (very breakable) glasses? Would I eat an enemy? A stranger?  My dog? My students had a field day with the eating people side of things (I left for five minutes and came back to find them discussing with my co-teacher who in the class they would eat first), but the question of what most people would do and whether or not you are most people is the most haunting part of the whole novel.

I felt physically sick a few times while reading this; McCarthy doesn't shy away from graphic violence or deeply disturbing scenarios, but the father and son do their job as "carriers of the light" and pull you through. It wasn't light reading by any means, but it wasn't as dark as I expected either.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark

What actually happened to Freddy between the late Saturday afternoon when he lost his memory in Jordan and the early Tuesday afternoon when he regained it in Israel was to come back to him a little later--the outlines of his movements forcing themselves back to him, at first, in a series of meaningless threads. The details followed gradually, throughout the days and into the years ahead and occurred, then, in those fragments, more or less distorted, which are the normal formations and decor of human memory. 

Muriel Spark's The Mandelbaum Gate is the first novel of hers that hasn't grabbed me from the start. She tends to throw her reader into the middle of whatever mess she's writing her way out of, and typically I've enjoyed the orientation process in the opening chapters. Here, I found myself more disoriented than intrigued, and I struggled to keep reading.

The book is presented in flashes--mirroring Freddy Hamilton's episodic memories--and it pieces together a pilgrimage gone awry. Barbara Vaughn is a half Jewish Catholic convert in Jerusalem in pursuit of her beau, an archeologist whom she hopes to marry despite his recent divorce and her Catholicism.  As Ms. Vaughn travels from Israel to Jordan through the Mandelbaum Gate, she puts herself in danger (her Jewish heritage puts her at risk in the tumultuous 1960's), and as the gallant Freddy Hamilton intervenes, chaos (and scarlet fever!) ensues. Freddy loses all memory of his intervention and the book retraces his steps as the incidents of the long weekend slowly return to him. Spark jumps back and forth in her narration and circles back to phrases and scenes, shifting them every so slightly each time so that you can't always right away whether she's returned to a past scene or moved on to a new one. It left me feeling somewhat unmoored as a reader; this was clearly Spark's intention, but it made made the novel difficult to follow and hard to invest in.

I enjoyed the descriptions of Israel and Jordan--places I haven't read much about or thought of much outside of the context of the Bible or modern day conflicts (which leaves me with a massive, thousands year long gap in my understanding of its history). The holy sites and shrines are described with Spark's usual ability to capture the mood of a place with a well-chosen handful of details (and her usual ability to make everything feel just a little bit off). Ms. Vaughn even gets to attend a day of Eichmann's trial, a nice historical marker that grounded the story in a particular time and place.

Chris suggests in his review that Barbara Vaughn is a somewhat autobiographical character. If that's the case, this feels like something of a missed opportunity. One of my issues with the novel was how little of Barbara's internality we got to see. I've come to rely on Spark for funny, headstrong female leads, and while Barbara was certainly interesting and stubborn, she wasn't nearly as vibrant as some of Spark's other heroines. I wanted more of her and less of Freddy (who is constantly writing dogroll in his head, and drove me somewhat bonkers).

Overall, I struggled too much with this one to really enjoy it. I liked the idea of it, and I appreciated the stylistic echo of Freddy's memories and the stilted narration, but it took me over 200 pages to hit my stride and fully grasp what was going on. As a result, I kept putting it down and picking it back up days later (which may have led to further confusion on my part). While I enjoy some level of disorientation, this was a little much for me with not quite enough pay off.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Twyborn Affair by Patrick White

She would have had to admit she had not existed in any of her several lives, unless in relationship with innocents, often only servants of ignoble masters, or those who believed themselves her parents or lovers.  She was accepted as real, or so it appeared, by the girls she farmed out for love, and who, if she were to be honest, amounted to fragments of a single image.  Yet whatever form she took, or whatever the illusion temporarily possessing her, the reality of love, which is the core of reality itself, had eluded her, and perhaps always would.

To read descriptions of the plot of The Twyborn Affair, all of them out of date, you might expect something psychologically supernatural, like the connection between Laura and Voss in VossThe back of the book speaks of "a single soul" living "three different lives."  I was expecting reincarnation.  But in truth The Twyborn Affair is about something much more realist, and more familiar to us than it might have been when White wrote the novel: it's about being transgender.

When we first meet the protagonist, Eudoxia Vatatzes, she's a young woman renting a house in the French Riviera with her older husband, a Greek named Angelos who suffers from fits where he thinks he's a Byzantine Emperor.  Probably Angelos is based on White's lover, the Greek Manoly Lascaris.  In the second part, Eudoxia has resumed her birth name, Eddie Twyborn.  (Twice-born, that is--once as a man and once as a woman; or perhaps tri-born, for the three parts of the book.)  Eddie, back home in Australia and living as a man, becomes a hired laborer in the Outback, where he gets caught up in affairs with both his boss' wife and the male manager of the ranch.  In the third, thirty years later, Eddie has escaped to London where he has become the madame of a brothel under the Eadith Trist.  (No analysis on that surname needed, I think.)

Although like all of White's novels the line between the mental world and the real one is pretty blurred, it seems clear to me that The Twyborn Affair was ahead of its time in thinking about the psychological and social travails of a transgender woman.  The old reviews shy away from it, but there is a genuine pathos in Eudoxia/Eddie/Eadith's search for an identity that stands out among White's darker psychological explorations.  Eudoxia records her sense of rootlessness in a diary:

My olive-tree is standing.  The garden would seem an argument for permanence--only one or two insignificant, dispensable branches lying uncouth amongst the silver tussocks, the hummocks and cushions of lavender, dianthus, southernwood, and thrift.  My rented garden.  Nothing is mine except for the coaxing I've put into it.  For that matter, nothing of me is mine, not even the body I was given to inhabit, nor the disguises chosen for it -- A. decides on these, seldom without my agreement.  The real E. has not yet been discovered, and perhaps never will be.

Is "the real E." ever discovered?  There's a nice scene at the end where Eadith meets her estranged mother by chance in London.  Her mother, speechless, writes on thy flyleaf of a prayer book: "Are you my son Eddie?"  And Eadith writes back, "No, but I am your daughter Eadith."  Of course, White can't leave it at that; the end has to be less sentimental and more ghoulish.  But he allows his protagonist a moment of recognition, face-to-face with the mother with whom she has long identified herself, a mother with her own history of conflicted gender identity and sexuality.  Neither the Eddie nor the Eadith portions are as vivid or as captivating as the first section, but this moment feels true because the sensual and adventurous Eudoxia still remains in the body of Eadith, searching for "the real E."  It makes you wonder, without wanting too much to project the work onto its author, what path White himself might have taken in a different time and place.