Sunday, December 02, 2012
Saturday, November 24, 2012
- Doctor Glas by Hjalmar Soderberg Stark, brooding, and enormously controversial when first published in 1905, this astonishing novel juxtaposes impressions of fin-de-siècle Stockholm against the psychological landscape of a man besieged by obsession. Lonely and introspective, Doctor Glas has long felt an instinctive hostility toward the odious local minister. So when the minister’s beautiful wife complains of her husband’s oppressive sexual attentions, Doctor Glas finds himself contemplating murder. A masterpiece of enduring power, Doctor Glas confronts a chilling moral quandary with gripping intensity.
- All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani Wildly funny and wonderfully bizarre, All About H. Hatterr is one of the most perfectly eccentric and strangely absorbing works modern English has produced. H. Hatterr is the son of a European merchant officer and a lady from Penang who has been raised and educated in missionary schools in Calcutta. His story is of his search for enlightenment as, in the course of visiting seven Oriental cities, he consults with seven sages, each of whom specializes in a different aspect of “Living.” Each teacher delivers himself of a great “Generality,” each great Generality launches a new great “Adventure,” from each of which Hatter escapes not so much greatly edified as by the skin of his teeth.
- The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout The Ten Thousand Things is a novel of shimmering strangeness—the story of Felicia, who returns with her baby son from Holland to the Spice Islands of Indonesia, to the house and garden that were her birthplace, over which her powerful grandmother still presides. There Felicia finds herself wedded to an uncanny and dangerous world, full of mystery and violence, where objects tell tales, the dead come and go, and the past is as potent as the present. First published in Holland in 1955, Maria Dermoût's novel was immediately recognized as a magical work, like nothing else Dutch—or European—literature had seen before. The Ten Thousand Things is an entranced vision of a far-off place that is as convincingly real and intimate as it is exotic, a book that is at once a lament and an ecstatic ode to nature and life.
- Tun-huang by Yasushi Inoue More than a thousand years ago, an extraordinary trove of early Buddhist sutras and other scriptures was secreted away in caves near the Silk Road city of Tun-huang. But who hid this magnificent treasure and why? In Tun-huang, the great modern Japanese novelist Yasushi Inoue tells the story of Chao Hsing-te, a young Chinese man whose accidental failure to take the all-important exam that will qualify him as a high government official leads to a chance encounter that draws him farther and farther into the wild and contested lands west of the Chinese Empire. Here he finds love, distinguishes himself in battle, and ultimately devotes himself to the strange task of depositing the scrolls in the caves where, many centuries later, they will be rediscovered. A book of magically vivid scenes, fierce passions, and astonishing adventures, Tun-huang is also a profound and stirring meditation on the mystery of history and the hidden presence of the past.
- The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay Hailed as “an utter delight, the most brilliant witty and charming book I have read since I can’t remember when” by The New York Times when it was originally published in 1956, Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond tells the gleefully absurd story of Aunt Dot, Father Chantry-Pigg, Aunt Dot’s deranged camel, and our narrator, Laurie, who are traveling from Istanbul to legendary Trebizond on a convoluted mission. Along the way they will encounter spies, a Greek sorcerer, a precocious ape, and Billy Graham with a busload of evangelists. Part travelogue, part comedy, it is also a meditation on love, faith, doubt, and the difficulties, moral and intellectual, of being a Christian in the modern world.
Saturday, November 17, 2012
I've been wanting to read Rose Macaulay ever since she appeared in Nancy Pearl's Booklust. Pearl recommends The Towers of Trebizond for the notable opening line, " 'Take my camel, dear,' said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass." That was back in 2003 and here we are nearly at the end of 2012 and I have just finished reading my first Rose Macaulay. It did not turn out to be Towers of Trebizond but Crewe Train. My copy of the book came from the Minneapolis Public Library and was a gift to the library in July 1942 from one Rufus Rand, a most delightful name don't you think?
The book is the story of Denham who, at the age of seven, was dragged abroad by her recently widowed father who had thrown up his hands at being a clergymen and was looking to live cheaply and as far away from the English as possible. We zip through Denham's unconventional childhood to begin the story when Denham is a young woman living in Andorra. Her mother's sister, Evelyn Gresham, and her adult children are visiting and it is at this point Denham's father dies. Her Aunt Evelyn decides to take Denham under her wing, bring her back to England, and civilize her into a proper English girl. Denham goes along because she has nowhere else to go, but she firmly resists being turned into a proper lady.
All these do's and don't and should's and so many forks and different kinds of plates and why can't she use one fork and eat her entire dinner at once on one plate? But worst of all, in Denham's opinion, everyone talks too much and they talk about things that don't matter. Denham unexpectedly falls in love with Arnold Chapel, a young man who works in Mr. Gresham's publishing office. They get engaged and are soon married and for Arnold, Denham makes an effort to live up to the "high life" as she calls it. Talking for the sake of talking, talking in order to entertain one another, is an art beyond Denham. She tries though, and fails spectacularly. Talking, she determines, is a creative art
for by it you build up things that have, until talked about, no existence, such as scandals, secrets, quarrels, literary and artistic standards, all kinds of points of view about persons and things. Let us talk, we say, meaning, let us see what we can create, or in what way we can transmute the facts that are into facts that are not yet. It is one of the magic arts.
Denham is much too practical and literal-minded to be able to carry on much conversation at all. She is unable and unwilling to leap from "facts as they are" to "facts that are not yet." She ends up asking questions that make people uncomfortable and, not being interested in gossip or politics or art or most any topic, she sits dumb and bored as people babble on around her.
Of course Arnold falls in love with Denham because she is so very different but it also becomes the source of their disagreements. Why can't Denham be like everyone else? But Denham doesn't care what other people do and think, everyone should be allowed to carry on as he or she likes:
'It's such rot,' Denham protested, 'doing things we don't like doing because someone else does them.'
And Denham protests and does her own thing right up to almost the end when she and Arnold compromise and find a house in the far suburbs of London and Denham becomes pregnant. The book leaves the end up in the air. Does Denham give in and become like everyone else or does she continue on in her silent and resisting ways? I like to think she does not give in, that she remains true to herself in spite of the overwhelming pressure to conform.
A good part of the delight of this book comes from Denham's outsider viewpoint. She inadvertently points out to Arnold and the Greshams and everyone else, the absurdities of middle class and upper-middle class life as it is lived. The other thing that makes Crewe Train so much fun is the writing itself. It sparkles and trips along. Macaulay has a wonderful comedic eye and like any good comedy, serious truths are uncovered but we are whisked away from being able to think about them too much or grow too serious over them. Only when we stop reading and close the book are we allowed to pause and think.
I am so happy to have finally gotten around to reading Macaulay. She has quite an oeuvre that includes novels, biography and travel writing. The Towers of Trebizond is considered her fiction masterpiece and since I enjoyed Crewe Train so much I know I will be in for quite the treat when I get to Trebizond, and I will get there most definitely.
Cross posted at So Many Books
Oh, Mr. Porter, whatever shall I do?
I want to go to Birmingham, but they've sent me on to Crewe!
Thursday, November 15, 2012
Crewe Train tells the story of Denham Dobie, the daughter of a widowed English clergyman who can't stand chatter and sociability and so tries to find a place to live where he can avoid people who "insist on conversing with you." Unfortunately for him, the English "cannot stay at home" and his quest for perfect peace is ruined by cheerful, well-meaning, annoying people who "insisted on making friends with him and his grave, square-faced, brown-legged girl." They end up in Andorra: "enquiring about it, he ascertained that it was very difficult of access, being snowbound from November to May, and mountainous all the year round, and that the approach to it was by mule." Promising as that sounds, Mr. Dobie nonetheless is still unable to cut himself off from life, and ends up remarried and drawn back into society in spite of himself. The irresistible pull of relationships with other people turns out to be a central idea of the novel.
Denham takes after her father in her dislike of "that strange love of human intercourse, of making talk." She finds other people mostly just puzzling and troublesome in their demands and expectations: "when she saw anyone whom she knew approaching, she plunged aside off the path and lurked hidden until they were passed by."
Mr. Dobie dies and Denham is taken back to London by her mother's family, the Greshams. And so the stage is set for the fish-out-of-water comedy that makes up the bulk of the novel. Denham is a perfect device for Macaulay to poke fun at the conventions and morés of high society. She can't see the point of all the rules--what to wear, what to say, where to sit, when to stand, how to pass one's time. Since, of course, most of these really are perfectly arbitrary rules, it's not that hard to satirize the mindless compliance of the Greshams and their friends--but once you get the idea, it's also not really that interesting or sophisticated a critique. Here's Denham newly arrived in London, for instance:
London. The problem was, why did so many people live in it? Millions and millions of people, swarming all over the streets, as thick as flies over a dead goat, as buzzing and as busy. Why? Did they all agree with Uncle Peter that nothing was like London and that they must, therefore, be in London, this unique spot? Did they all have to be here? Had they been adopted by relations and brought here, or did they do something here which they couldn't do elsewhere? . . .
And then the streets. Thousands and thousands of omnibuses, taxis, vans and cars, all roaring down the streets together, like an army going into battle, mowing down with angry trumpetings all human life that crossed their path. Were they all necessary? Was human life in London so cheap? Denham, after the first, had no personal anxieties on this head, for she felt competent to evade the assaults of these monsters; neither had she much pity for the victims, for they could probably well be spared, and certainly the population needed thinning; but it seemed a curious way of doing it.Funny, right, especially that deft little jab at the end? And the theme is funny in all of its variations, even as its underlying point is serious and well-taken:
With these Greshams life was like walking on a tight-rope. The things you mustn't do, mustn't wear. You must, for instance, spend a great deal of money on silk stockings, when, for much less, you could have got artificial silk or Lisle thread. Why? Did not these meaner fabrics equally clothe the leg? Why had people agreed that one material was the right wear and that others did not do? Why did not anything do?
The same with gloves, with shoes, with frocks, with garments underneath frocks. In all these things people had set up a standard, and if you did not conform to it you were not right, you were left. . . You had, somehow or other, to conform to a ritual, to be like the people you knew.It's not only expensive living up to these standards, but it is also a lot of trouble, and if there's one thing Denham hates, it's going to any trouble. She dreams "of a life in which one took practically no trouble at all. One would be alone; one would have no standards; there would be a warm climate and few clothes, and all food off the same plate, if a plate at all. And no conversation." Awash in the trivial chatter and clutter of London society, Denham goes along to get along, but it's all folly, as far as she's concerned.
The novel follows Denham to marriage (to Arnold Chapel, a writer) and then a pregnancy that (happily, from her perspective) ends in a miscarriage -- imagine how much trouble motherhood would be! Despite these gestures towards normalcy, she still craves escape, and she finds what she thinks is the perfect alternative to the Greshams' lifestyle in an ill-kept Cornish cottage complete with a smuggler's passage to the sea and a cave she sets up as her parlor. Then, when her privacy in this not-so-bucolic retreat is destroyed by a news story about her eccentric choices, she heads off on a bicycle tour, believing that in constant motion she can free herself from the constraints of society.
No such luck, however. Just as her father was drawn into a second marriage by "madness of the blood" and Denham herself also into marriage by her own passionate response to Arnold's kisses, so once again it's passion that thwarts Denham's plans as she has an affair with a fisherman and becomes pregnant again. Her return home feels something like a failure, as she's clearly capitulating, of necessity, to the trivialities and domesticities she has always hated. For all that human relationships are troublesome and social conventions pointless, life outside them is an impossibility, a fantasy. "Love," reflects Denham, "was the great taming emotion":
Oh, life itself was the trap, and love the piece of toasted cheese that baited it, and, the bait once taken, there was no escape.It's a potentially poignant moment, but I felt disoriented at the end of the novel about how Macaulay really meant to steer us. So society is silly and superficial--but Denham's life and thoughts hardly offer us an exhilarating alternative. She's no untamed genius, no blooming wildflower ruined by her new unnatural environment, no free spirit caught and tragically tamed. She's dull, sluggish, literal, unimaginative, anti-intellectual, and, in her own dogged way, entirely selfish. She can't see any motive for doing anything other than for personal pleasure or satisfaction. She holds up no positive value except individual freedom--and not freedom of a high order (political freedom, freedom of the mind, freedom from oppression, freedom to create or worship or love) but just freedom to do what you feel like doing and nothing else. She thinks books are pointless, plays are "tedious stuff," children are a nuisance. At times I thought perhaps it was Denham who was being satirized ("What a trade it was, increasing the number of books in a world already stocked with them! As bad as parents, who increased the number of people"). I suppose there's no reason why the scoffing couldn't go in both directions. Society: can't live with it, can't live without it! But the novel would have been more compelling to me--it would have seemed like more than an eccentrically amusing story--if there had been a clearer sense of what the costs are of the two options. I guess I like my social comedy to have a stronger undercurrent of moral seriousness. Vanity Fair, this isn't.
I'm looking forward to hearing from everyone else about the novel!
Saturday, September 15, 2012
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Sunday, September 09, 2012
Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald -- "In 1912, rational Fred Fairly, one of Cambridge's best and brightest, crashes his bike and wakes up in bed with a stranger - fellow casualty Daisy Saunders, a charming, pretty, generous working-class nurse. So begins a series of complications - not only of the heart but also of the head - as Fred and Daisy take up each other's education and turn each other's philosophies upside down." (176 pp.)
All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky -- "Set in France between 1910 and 1940 and first published in France in 1947, five years after the author’s death, All Our Worldly Goods is a gripping story of war, family life and star-crossed lovers. Pierre and Agnes marry for love against the wishes of his parents and his grandfather, the tyrannical family patriarch. Their marriage provokes a family feud that cascades down the generations." (272 pp.)
The Innocent Traveller by Ethel Wilson (OP) -- "Precocious in childhood, irrepressible in old age, Miss Topaz Edgeworth’s singular accomplishment is to live out an entire century in unflagging – and mostly oblivious – optimism. At once outmoded and unconventional, tyrannical and benign, Topaz leads a largely unexamined life. But the magical quality of her consciousness, revealed through stunning narrative technique, makes her into one of the most delightful characters in Canadian literature. Published in 1949, The Innocent Traveller is Ethel Wilson’s most original literary achievement." (245 pp.)
Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay (OP) --"On the death of her father, a retired clergyman, Denham Dobie is forced to leave her wild and carefree life in Spain and is thrust into the gossiping highbrow circle of her well-meaning relatives in London. Thrown into a world of publishers and writers, this awkward young woman—a tomboy and rebel at heart—sees their society for the self-absorbed, self-satisfied world it is and offers a devastating, and very funny, social commentary within her own moving story. A bitingly funny, elegantly written comedy of manners from the incomparable Rose Macaulay." (256 pp.)
The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen -- "When eleven-year-old Henrietta arrives at the Fishers’ well-appointed house in Paris, she is prepared to spend her day between trains looked after by an old friend of her grandmother’s. Henrietta longs to see a few sights in the foreign city; little does she know what fascinating secrets the Fisher house itself contains. For Henrietta finds that her visit coincides with that of Leopold, an intense child who has come to Paris to be introduced to the mother he has never known. In the course of a single day, the relations between Leopold, Henrietta’s agitated hostess Naomi Fisher, Leopold’s mysterious mother, his dead father, and the dying matriarch in bed upstairs, come to light slowly and tantalizingly. And when Henrietta leaves the house that evening, it is in possession of the kind of grave knowledge usually reserved only for adults." (288 pp.)
I'll tally votes on Friday September 14. Since we're a little late in choosing, how about we reconvene to discuss on Saturday November 17. Please cast your vote!
Wednesday, August 01, 2012
She did not understand how such a nice, kind, good God as the one they prayed to, could condemn the whole earth for sinfulness and flood it, or condemn his only Son to a disgusting death on behalf of everyone.
And then this insight.
This death did not seem to have done much good.
Before continuing, let me make it clear that I'm not trying to step on toes or start a religious war. I have carefully edited out my personal views. We all find different themes in our reading and this is the one that stood out to me. And that's all.
The Norse mythology was fascinating and I must say, Byatt is a wonderful writer. The descriptive language is beautiful, yet tight and spare. Strunk and White would be proud. I can't pretend every name and place was absorbed, but I got the gist of most of the stories and a few sucked me right in. Loki's snake daughter that ate and ate until she circled the globe was gleefully horrifying.
I noticed many, sometimes startling connections between Norse myths and biblical stories. At the beginning we see a great tree where life seemed to spring from and I immediately thought of the infamous one that supposedly played a role in humanity's downfall. The comparisons could go on and on with the Creation of the world by the gods, Loki being a type of Satan, and an earlier war between the Norse gods with the war in Heaven where the bad angels and Lucifer were cast out. Hel/Hell were there as well. The last battle seemed very Armageddonish to me, complete with a Lake of Fire. Of course Ragnarok spells the end of the gods versus a resurrection and judgment for people.
The thin child was adept at finding these similarities and it strengthened her growing skepticism. I was rather amused that she found the idea of Heaven boring in both accounts. Here, she feels bad about the inescapable fates for both Baldur and Jesus.
The thin child considered Baldur the beautiful. He was a god who was doomed to die...The figure in the painting of Jesus talking to the animals, all white gentleness and golden radiance, was also a god who was doomed to die.
The end of the gods verses the end of faith. Or in the thin child's instance, the logical thought processes that rejected the whole premise outright. Ultimately she saw no difference in the Norse tales and the biblical ones. Her conclusion was this.
That the story had always been there, and the actors and always known it.
And so when I reached Byatt's Midgard serpent-long list of creatures that live in the sea, with subcategories for all the kinds of sharks and crabs, and her lengthy list of every type of animal, vegetable, mineral, disease, etc., that cried for Baldur to be released from the underworld, I was ready to put this title on my own mental list of Byatts That Don't Work for Me (unlike the more lengthy list of ones I love--The Children's Book's in the number one position there). I couldn't keep from zoning out.
And I hated that. I have such a shallow background in Norse mythology and I'd bought this book the moment it was released in the UK in order to remedy that. Surely the fault was all mine.
So Monday night I started rereading the book that failed to hold my attention on Friday night. I was more focused than I'd been over the weekend, plus in the meantime I'd done some dipping into The Prose Edda and Norwegian Mythology, which I conveniently had--unread-- on my shelves. (I definitely want to read The Prose Edda after this quick dip.)
I was much happier with it the second time round. I even appreciated the lyrical nature of the ineluctable listing of things.
What I, here in the Bible Belt, found most interesting first time through and what I continued to marvel at on the second was the young Byatt's ability to reject Christianity at such an early age. She finds the Old Testament and New Testament gods numbing: neither "the sweet,cotton-wool meek and mild one, the barbaric sacrificial gloating one. . .. made her want to write, or fed her imagination."
The thin child walked through the fair field in all weathers, her satchel of books and pens, with the gas-mask hanging from it, like Christian's burden when he walked in the fields, reading in his Book. She thought long and hard, as she walked, about the meaning of belief. She did not believe the stories in Asgard and the Gods. But they were coiled like smoke in her skull, humming like dark bees in a hive. She read the Greek stories at school, and said to herself that there had once been people who brought 'belief' to these capricious and quarrelsome gods and goddesses, but she herself read them as she read fairy stories, Puss in Boots, Baba Yaga, brownies, pucks, and fairies, foolish and dangerous, nymphs, dryads, hyrdra and the white winged horse, Pegasus, all these offered the pleasure to the mind that the unreal offers when it is briefly more real than the visible world can ever be. But they didn't live in her, and she didn't live in them.
The idea of eternity bored her. A string of days "going nowhere" bored her. She prefers the "stories that ended, instead of going in circles and cycles," finding them "grimly satisfactory." The Norse gods who know Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods and the end of the world, is coming, but are too stupid or too resigned to letting the story they find themselves in play out, are the ones she returns to.
Before Ragnarok, I knew of Byatt and Drabble's mother primarily through Drabble's writings, a portrayal that Byatt's taken issue with. Drabble wrote The Peppered Moth in an attempt to better understand her mother, claiming in the novel's afterward she "went down into the underworld" looking for her, mentioning a myth in which a woman rubbed herself with dead rat water in order to gain admittance to the underworld so that she could search for her loved one there. Drabble said writing about her mother left her unable to get rid of the smell of dead rat and mentions feeling biased in favor of her father. Her experience of the mother was one of a manipulative, intellectually frustrated depressive prone to outbursts of rage. Nonetheless, Byatt has stated that Drabble was the mother's favorite.
In Ragnarok, Byatt's describing the time when the same woman was actually happy. She was a highly intelligent woman, "gallant and resourceful in wartime," permitted to teach, shoehorned back into the life of a housewife, suffering "a fall into the quotidian," once her husband returns. "Dailiness defeated her. She made herself lonely and slept in the afternoons, saying she was suffering from neuralgia and sick headaches. The thin child came to identify the word 'housewife' with the word 'prisoner'."
Despite the war, the nights spent behind blackout curtains, worrying about the Germans "dealing death out of the night sky," the young Byatt finds these years a kind of paradise. If her family had not evacuated from the city, her asthma may have killed her. The bleak Norse myths hum in her head while she's walking through a countryside covered with flowers. When the family returns to urban life, her father takes an axe to a wild ash tree that's rooted itself on the sill of the garden shed in their walled garden. For a child who's loved the World-Ash, Yggdrasil, the removal of the tree closes a gate in her head. She's now on the quotidian side of life.
Byatt chose to not retell the myth as its narrative story as so many others have done like Margaret Atwood's Penelopiad and Victor Pelevin's Helmet of Horror. Instead we have "the thin child," evacuated from London to the countryside during WWII with her mother, her father gone off in the Air Force flying over Africa. The thin child reads Pilgrim's Progress and another book she found, Asgard and the Gods. Byatt relates several different stories of the gods in order to set the stage for Ragnarok, the ultimate destruction. The stories are interspersed with the thoughts and worries of the thin child who finds the story of the Norse gods, and Ragnarok especially, much more satisfying than the story of the Christian god in whom she is supposed to believe.
The story of Ragnarok and the complete destruction of the gods and all life mirrors the darkness and destruction of the ongoing war, the war that seems like it will never end, the war the thin child is certain her father will not return from. Leading up to Ragnarok we learn of Loki's monstrous children. The gods manage to contain them for a time and life goes on. But when Frigg tries to guarantee that her son, Baldur the Beautiful, will never be harmed, she unknowingly sets up the beginning of the end. Frigg gets promises from every living creature to not harm her son but of course, she misses one: the mistletoe (the story is very much like Achilles and his mother Thetis dipping him in the river Styx except for his heel where she was holding onto him). Loki discovers the mistletoe and fashions a spear from it and gives it to Baldur's brother who, along with all the gods was playing at throwing things at Baldur and watching them turn aside harmlessly. Baldur dies, the gods and all the world are devastated by grief. Loki continues to stir up trouble and his children escape their bonds and so begins the war between the gods in which mutual destruction is assured. After all the gods die, nothing is left but darkness.
Yet while the thin child reads of destruction and the real world seems to be heading for its own Ragnarok, she is also in a sort of paradise. The thin child has asthma but out in the countryside and away for the dirty city air she is able to breathe again. She walks to and from school everyday through a beautiful meadow full of flowers and butterflies. She experiences a kind of freedom that she did not have in the city.
Unlike the gods, humanity does not destroy itself, this time, it feels as though there is a this time in the story as though next time we might not be so lucky. The thin child's father returns unharmed and they all go back to their London home. But for the thin child, it is as though she has lost paradise. The dirty city air makes breathing difficult again. She has lost her meadow, and even though her father takes on the project of creating a garden, it is not the same especially after he cuts down a tree the thin child liked. "Dailiness" defeats both the thin girl and her mother. During the war the mother worked as a teacher and now in peacetime she is not to work, she becomes bored and lonely:
The thin child came to identify the word 'housewife' with the word 'prisoner'. Fear of imprisonment haunted the thin child, although she did not quite acknowledge this.
A gate closes in the thin child's mind and on the other side of the gate is Asgard and the gods and "the bright black world into which she had walked in the time of her evacuation," and the end of things.
Ragnarok is short and a fairly fast read but it is also a book to savor. I very much enjoyed it and was left feeling a bit sad at the end for the thin girl and for the gods of Asgard. Byatt was also kind enough to include a short bibliography for further reading which I hope to try a few books from sometime.
Cross posted at So Many Books
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, by A.S. Byatt. Grove Press (2012), Hardcover, 192 pages.
Byatt captured me right from the start, plunging me into her vigorous rendition of Nordic myths unfamiliar to me. The precision of her words, the pace and tension of her writing, and the grim awareness of impending doom were compelling. Yet my question remained. Why are these myths so powerful for me, an adult not often drawn to myths?
In part, Byatt answers that question through her creation of “the thin girl,” bright, curious, and asthmatic, living in the countryside to be away from the bombs falling on London. The story of her need for these stories is interwoven with Byatt’s telling of the myths. The thin girl lives with war. Her father is fighting in Africa, and she has no hope he will return. Planes fly over the countryside, and news of fighting and death is inescapable. She is taken to the church with its stain glass window of Jesus, meek and mild, surrounded by bunny rabbits, but Christianity seems dull and irrelevant to her. It is the Nordic myths, with all their colorful gore that hold her attention. She doesn’t “believe” them, as she is told to believe in Christianity, but “the myths stay coiled inside her.” The death of the gods is very real for her, something she needs to read about. Resurrection can be ignored. At night she dreams of her parents made helpless by the Nazi. She likes the fact that that the gods can be stupid and dumb and will be judged, unlike the all-good, all-powerful God of Christianity. When the war is over and her father returns unharmed, the family goes back to a London suburb, the thin girl misses the countryside and the myths she read there.
Byatt ends the book with her own views on myths and their importance. She sees myth as depicting impersonal forces without the personal, psychological forces of fairy tales. They also lack assured happy endings of other narratives. Byatt also confirms the autobiographical nature of “the thin girl.” In addition, she writes of how we today face the same kind of lurking dangers as global warming and chaos approach.
This week, as I read Ragnarok, I was overwhelmed with my own health problems, my dog was dangerously hurt, and budget cuts that were threatened at the library my husband directs. Like the thin girl, danger was palatable for me. More generally, I cannot escape the vulnerability of our entire globe, the ongoing financial crises, the fiasco of American politics, and global warming. Somehow, the gods and their self-inflicted destruction give me more satisfying images of upcoming disasters than all the charts and videos of future floods and heat waves. Because I can visualize the death of the gods, as Byatt tells it, I can control my own panic about the future. And like the thin girl, we have all survived.
Read on my NOOK
Whilst it is the business of myth to put powerfully enigmatic stories in the places that we find numinous and inexplicable – like the start of the world, for instance – probably none are quite so fascinated by destruction and disaster as the Norse Myths. The one word ‘Ragnarok’ most vividly evokes this collection of stories, and refers to the final apocalyptic battle of the Gods in which they all die, bringing their world down with them. It was interesting to me to think that this was the myth that A. S. Byatt would choose to update for the Canongate series, when I think of her as such a controlled writer, so coolly organised and mentally astute. What she has written is a tribute to the difficult nature of Norse mythology, an unflinching account of its radical strangeness, and its dark, demonic passions. And then she has added on the end a neat, intelligent overview that carefully steers these awkward myths into an academic parking place.
Unlike other writers in this series, Byatt has resisted the impulse to turn the myths into an allegorical story. Instead, she has chosen to focus on their reception by using as a focaliser the autobiographical figure of the ‘thin child’. The thin child has recently been evacuated to the country with her mother, her father being sent to certain death (she believes) in the air force. She is reading Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and then this, Asgard and the Gods, written by an academic German author. For the thin child, the Norse myths have emotional resonance with her own world, plunged into warfare that may well last forever, or so it seems. They certainly make more sense of what is happening around her than the gentle, tepid myths of Christianity which she wishes she could believe but cannot. The narrative that unfolds now follows on from, and elaborates, the thin child’s experience of reading the Norse myths.
The creation of the world in which the Norse myths take place is a perplexing one. In the gulf of nothingness, Ginnungagap, stretched between icy wastes to the north, hellish hot ones to the south, a giant is formed, Ymir. The first Norse Gods set upon the giant and slaughtered him, making their world out of his body. In its centre they placed the home of the Gods, Asgard, and around it were the gardens of Midgard, where other giants lurked. Odin, the leader of the gods lived in Valhalla, the hall where those slaughtered in the endless daily battles were brought back to life. For these Gods are even more capricious and argumentative than the Greek and Roman ones, existing only in conflict. Somewhere in this world (and if anyone can enlighten me as to how they fit in, please do), there are two great natural resources, the tree of life, Yggdrasil, and the sea-tree, Rándrasill. These are important in Byatt’s retelling of the myth as they support a huge and complex eco-system, a rich flourishing of plant and animal life that spawn great passages of lyrical, concentrated Byatt prose. The almost excessive attention the author gives to this natural world is there, I think, to balance out the destructive nature of the Gods, but also to give the reader an idea of what they waste and plunder.
At the centre of the Norse myths is the figure of Loki, the God of mischief and misrule. Loki is clever and intelligent, but he is also irresponsible, a trickster. His power is that of the demonic, the fierce uprush of energetic life that can be turned to good or evil, the ferocious spirit of humankind that metes out creation and destruction without purpose or plan. We see this in his dual family life – one ‘regular’ family in Asgard, but three demonic children, spawned from his shapeshifting liaison with a wolf-giantess. These children are suitably disparate – a wolf, a snake and a giantess. Knowing that these children spell doom to the Gods, Odin does his best to contain them. The giantess, Hel, is sent to the freezing cold lands in the north to look over those who have not died in battle. The snake is thrown far into the sea, where she grows outlandishly large, eventually swallowing her own tail as she encircles the world. The wolf is set upon by the Gods who try to tie him down, and finally manage it on the third attempt. This is the thing about the Norse myths: they are hard to hold in the mind because they exist on a foundation that is inconsistent, jagged, disparate. You can see it in the impossible-to-imagine world of the myths, you can see it in the three ‘unorthodox’ children that Loki fathers. And it struck me again in the magical bindings the Gods create to hold Fenris the wolf down, fashioned on commission by the dwarves:
‘And the dwarves made a supple skein from unthings. There were six, woven together: the sound of a cat’s footfall, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish and the spittle of a bird. The thing was light as air and smooth as silk, a long, delicate ribbon.The world of the Norse myths has its seemingly constant repetitions, like the resurrection of the Gods, but this is a pecularly constructed world, one that shivers on the edge of imbalance for all its richness and recklessness. When the Gods suspect that Loki is behind the death of their beloved Baldaur, the beautiful God who brings spring and liveliness into their world, they decide they’ve had enough of his behaviour. They track him down and overcome him. But this whole story, the only thing that feels like a proper story in Byatt’s retelling, the death of Baldaur and the God’s revenge, sets in motion the ultimate destruction of the world through an entropy that ressembles environmental crisis:
The spring of the world was gone. There was a rainbow but it was watery and incomplete, patches of hectic colour here and there in the thick cloud, which never seemed to lift. The tides, swelled by tears, were irregular and unpredictable. Things on the earth drooped in their wetness which would not quite dry. Yggdrasil had stains of mould and decay. Rándrasill was scraped bare, in places, by rasping tongues licking up tearwater. A kind of sloth was at the heart of things.Loki breaks free, followed by his bad children, and in the ensuing battle with the Gods, everything, but everything, is destroyed. Having recounted the myths from the perspective of the thin child, who is pleased with this finality, Byatt then adds a coda from the perspective of the adult she has become. Myths, she says, are not explanations, they are not allegories, and yet the contemporary parallel with a world spinning towards ecological disaster exerts its own magnetism:
If I were writing an allegory [Loki] would be the detached scientific intelligence which could either save the earth or contribute to its rapid disintegration. As it is the world ends because neither the all too human gods, with their armies and quarrels, nor the fiery thinker know how to save it.This is a perfectly shaped ending to a series of myths that resist coherence and easy assimilation, that are rich in resonance but recount folly and misadventure with the greatest possible consequences. Byatt writes a strange, hybrid text here, neither story nor analysis, although containing elements of both, and as ever her work requires an alert and responsive reader. She doesn’t make this heterogeneous narrative slip down the reading throat. But she gives us a lot to think about, which is precisely what a good myth should do.
Saturday, June 23, 2012
We are always delighted to have newcomers join us, so if you haven't participated in one of our group reads before, please leave a message in comments, and we'll get things set up so that you can leave a post.
Looking forward to the discussion!
Edited: New Invites have been sent out--please check your emails!
Saturday, June 16, 2012
Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt. (192 pages) From Amazon: Ragnarok retells the finale of Norse mythology. A story of the destruction of life on this planet and the end of the gods themselves: what more relevant myth could any modern writer choose? Just as Wagner used this dramatic and catastrophic struggle for the climax of his Ring Cycle, so AS Byatt now reinvents it in all its intensity and glory. As the bombs of the Blitz rain down on Britain, one young girl is evacuated to the countryside. She is struggling to make sense of her new wartime life. Then she is given a copy of Asgard and the Gods - a book of ancient Norse myths - and her inner and outer worlds are transformed.
The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns. (152 pages) From Amazon: The Vet's Daughter combines shocking realism with a visionary edge. The vet lives with his bedridden wife and shy daughter Alice in a sinister London suburb. He works constantly, captive to a strange private fury, and treats his family with brutality and contempt. After his wife's death, the vet takes up with a crass, needling woman who tries to refashion Alice in her own image. And yet as Alice retreats ever deeper into a dream world, she discovers an extraordinary secret power of her own. Harrowing and haunting, like an unexpected cross between Flannery O'Connor and Stephen King, The Vet's Daughter is a story of outraged innocence that culminates in a scene of appalling triumph.
In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke. (336 pages) From Amazon: This is the way the world ends... It was a fairy tale come true when Mark Dorn—handsome pilot, widower, tragic father of three—chose Jiselle to be his wife. The other flight attendants were jealous: She could quit now, leaving behind the million daily irritations of the job. (Since the outbreak of the Phoenix flu, passengers had become even more difficult and nervous, and a life of constant travel had grown harder.) She could move into Mark Dorn's precious log cabin and help him raise his three beautiful children. But fairy tales aren't like marriage. Or motherhood. With Mark almost always gone, Jiselle finds herself alone, and lonely. She suspects that Mark's daughters hate her. And the Phoenix flu, which Jiselle had thought of as a passing hysteria (when she had thought of it at all), well . . . it turns out that the Phoenix flu will change everything for Jiselle, for her new family, and for the life she thought she had chosen.
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. (640 pages) From Amazon: Beneath the towering bleached ribs of a dead, ancient beast lies New Crobuzon, a squalid city where humans, Re-mades, and arcane races live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. The air and rivers are thick with factory pollutants and the strange effluents of alchemy, and the ghettos contain a vast mix of workers, artists, spies, junkies, and whores. In New Crobuzon, the unsavory deal is stranger to none—not even to Isaac, a brilliant scientist with a penchant for Crisis Theory. Isaac has spent a lifetime quietly carrying out his unique research. But when a half-bird, half-human creature known as the Garuda comes to him from afar, Isaac is faced with challenges he has never before fathomed. Though the Garuda's request is scientifically daunting, Isaac is sparked by his own curiosity and an uncanny reverence for this curious stranger.While Isaac's experiments for the Garuda turn into an obsession, one of his lab specimens demands attention: a brilliantly colored caterpillar that feeds on nothing but a hallucinatory drug and grows larger—and more consuming—by the day. What finally emerges from the silken cocoon will permeate every fiber of New Crobuzon—and not even the Ambassador of Hell will challenge the malignant terror it invokes . . .
Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman. (353 pages) From Amazon: In 1899 Jeremy, a young engineer, leaves a small town in Maine to oversee the construction of a railroad across East Africa. In charge of hundreds of Indian laborers, he soon finds himself the reluctant hunter of two lions that are killing his men in almost nightly attacks on their camp. Plagued by fear, wracked with malaria and alienated by a secret he can tell no one, he takes increasing solace in the company of the African who helps him hunt. In 2000 Max, an American ethnobotonist, travels to Rwanda in search of an obscure vine that could become a lifesaving pharmaceutical. Stationed in the mountains, she closely shadows a family of gorillas, the last of their group to survive the encroachment of local poachers. Max bears a striking gift for understanding the ape's non-verbal communication, but their precarious solidarity is threatened as a violent rebel group from the nearby Congo draws close.
I'll tally up and announce the winner on June 23.
Friday, June 01, 2012
The Yacoubian, an Art Deco-styled apartment building constructed in the 1930s in downtown Cairo, originally served as apartments for Egypt's elite. Since that time, the Yacoubian's tenants have taken a decidedly down-scale turn: storage units on the roof have been converted into slum apartments and the silver showroom on the ground floor has devolved into a mere clothing store. Alaa Al Aswany, who operated his own dental practice from the Yacoubian, recognized its potential as a setting for his international best-selling The Yacoubian Building, a novel that highlights the corruption that permeates contemporary Egyptian society by focusing on the lives of a disparate group of Yacoubian tenants.
Zaki Bey, a Paris-educated aristocrat whose family lost most of its wealth during the Revolution, and the Hagg, the immigrant shoeshine boy turned drug dealer who's now wealthy enough to bribe his way into the government, have offices there. The elderly Zaki uses his to romance an unending string of women, enduring vitamin injections in the buttocks and consuming coffee, opium, whisky and salad before every sexual encounter. Outwardly-religious Hagg marries a second wife, one kept secret from the first, and hides Souad away in an apartment in the Yacoubian. Newspaper editor Hatim Rasheed patronizes the gay bar below street level in the Yacoubian, then quietly brings his current lover upstairs to his opulent, Bohemian artist-inspired rooms. On the roof, Taha, the doorkeeper's son, pines for childhood sweetheart Busayna and a position on the police force. Busayna, forced to support her family after her father's death, dreams of escaping Egypt altogether, or at least the sexual advances of her employers. Malak, a shirtmaker who upsets the rooftop inhabitants by daring to open a shop among their homes, connives to expand his holdings into the actual apartments below.
But it's nigh impossible to get what you want in contemporary Egypt unless you're rich enough to pay the necessary bribes or know the right people. After being turned down by the police interview, a humiliated Taha falls in with the poor Islamic fundamentalists at the college, among whom he regains his self-respect. Beaten and raped by soldiers following student protests of the Gulf War, Taha moves to a jihad training camp, thereby sealing his fate. In an effort to regain her own self-respect and improve her status, Souad defies the rules of her marriage and becomes pregnant. When she cannot be convinced to willingly have an abortion and remain nothing more than a sex toy, the Hagg sends in thugs in the middle of the night to overpower her, drug her, and take her to the hospital for the procedure. Afterwards, the Hagg sends a son by his first marriage to tell Souad she's been divorced and dismissed.
I was slow to warm to The Yacoubian Building. I find books that start with a discussion of a character's sex life off-putting even when I'm not trying to find my bearings in a tale placed in a culture I'm pretty ignorant of. I had to keep returning to the Cast of Characters at the front of the book to keep everyone straight. I hated reading about Souad, who seemed so fake. Why hadn't the author bothered to make her the least bit believable? Taha and Busayna were the only characters I cared about.
Then I gradually lost the need to flip to the Cast of Characters. I realized itt wasn't the author who'd failed with Souad, but the Hagg himself, who was oblivious to the fact that the situation he'd placed her in required all her dealings with him to be faked. And Souad was hardly the only one needing to pretend and bluff her way through; that's what it took for anyone to survive.
Zaki, who I'd hated at first, then sort of came to love because of his basic kindness, cannot understand Busayna's intense desire to leave Egypt.
"If you can't find good in your own country, you won't find it anywhere else."
The words slipped out from Zaki Bey, but he felt that they were ungracious so he smiled to lessen their impact on Busayna, who had stoood up and was saying bitterly, "You don't understand because you're well-off. When you've stood for two hours at the bus stop or taken three different buses and had to go through hell every day just to get home, when your house has collapsed and the government has left you sitting with your children in a tent on the street, when the police officer has insulted you and beaten you just because you're on a minibus at night, when you've spent the whole day going around the shops looking for work and there isn't any, when you're a fine sturdy young man with an education and all you have in your pockets is a pound, or sometimes nothing at all, then you'll know why we hate Egypt."
Zaki recognizes that "Egypt's curse is dictatorship and dictatorship inevitably leads to poverty, corruption, and failure in all fields." He puts the blame on Abd el Nasser, "the worst ruler in the whole history of Egypt," who "taught the Eqyptians to be cowards, opportunists, and hypocrites."
I'm intrigued enough by Al Aswany's characters to have placed the movie version at the top of our Netflix list.
Thursday, May 31, 2012
There's more than the building that holds the novel together; there is also a simmering frustration with Egyptian society and government that plays a part in many if not all of the stories. Taha, for example, finds himself unable to fulfill his dream of entering the Police Academy because of favoritism and corruption and soon joins a militant Islamic group. Busayna discovers that the only way she can support herself and her family is by allowing male employers to take sexual advantage of her. Zaki falls victim to his conniving sister who evicts him from his own apartment by getting the police on her side. Money, family, and connections are everything, and without them, there is little one can do to change one's fate. It helps very much not to be a woman as well.
I admired the range of stories (not that there are all that many main narrative threads, maybe a handful) and subject matter they explore, from political corruption to workplace exploitation, religious devotion, family dynamics, sexuality, con men, drug dealing, torture, and falling in love. It's a lot to cover in 250 pages, and Al Aswany does it admirably, giving us a feel for life in Cairo. I was grateful for the list of characters and their descriptions included right before the novel's opening because the frequent switching from story to story got distracting at times, and the guidance was helpful.
I was never fully immersed in the novel, another function, I'm sure, of the jumps from character to character. But there were rewards to compensate for this, especially the overview of Egyptian society the multiple stories offered and the economy with which Al Aswany captures a rich sense of his characters' lives. The narrator seems to withhold judgment, portraying the characters' virtues and failings with equanimity. He seems interested more in understanding why people are the way they are rather than in judging them for what they do. It's possible to find this narrative style flat and affectless, but I felt an undercurrent of compassion that at times is powerful.
I wanted to the like the book but I just haven't been able to. I read a few reviews in the book papers to try and figure out if I missed something. They mention how funny parts of the book are but I didn't find anything funny. I found the book to be rather sad and depressing. The book portrays a society that gets along on corruption and bribes, where nearly everyone is using everyone else to get whatever they can to make a better life for themselves or gain power and influence.
There is Taha, a young man who has done well in school and scored high marks on all the entrance exams for the police force, he just has to pass the entrance interview. But at the interview he quickly learns that unless he has money to pay bribes, he is not going to get a job as a police officer. Disillusioned, he gets recruited into the Muslim Brotherhood and ends his life a martyr for the cause.
There is Busayna, a young woman engaged to Taha. Her father dies and the family has no money. She has to work in order to help feed her mother and siblings. But she gets fired from every job after only a few days because when the boss makes sexual advances she refuses to play along. A friend eventually tells her that if she wants to keep a job she has to go along and explains to her what to do, how to give the boss what he wants while still remaining a virgin and making a little extra on top of her regular salary. She quickly becomes bitter and resentful and says cruel things to Taha who tells her she needs to put her trust in God who will provide for her.
There is a large cast of characters I won't go through them all but you get the idea from Taha and Busayna what the book is like. What I had a really hard time with, and why I didn't like the book, is the way women are portrayed and treated as well as the way Hatim, a gay man is portrayed.
The women are all pretty much prostitutes in one way or another or they are older and angry. None of them want an education or look for any way out of their situation other than being attached to a man. Their position mainly is to provide sex on demand. Early in the book women are described as loving sex "enormously" but
They do not love it simply as a way of quenching lust but because sex, and their husbands' greed for it, makes them feel that despite all the misery they suffer they are still women, beautiful and desired by their menfolk….Do these brief hours of pleasure not furnish her with proof that her wretched life is somehow, despite everything, blessed with success?Being desirable makes everything ok. And Busayna, she gets a happy ending in the book because she gets to marry the old man for whom she is a "secretary."
Poor Souad is not so lucky. A widow, she leaves her child in the care of others in order to marry Azzam, a wealthy heroin dealer and politician. She is Azzam's second wife and a secret, even though more than one wife is legal. Souad's only purpose is to provide Azzam with sex whenever he wants it, keep quiet, and don't get pregnant. In return, Azzam pays for her son to attend school. But Souad gets pregnant and when Azzam finds out he demands she have an abortion. When she refuses he has her drugged and forcibly aborted.
Then there is Hatim, a successful journalist who is gay. But homosexuality is unacceptable in Egyptian society and picking up anybody is always risky. Eventually Hatim finds Abdu who is married with children. Abdu is probably not himself gay, but because Hatim pays for his family's upkeep and buys Abdu presents and a small business, Abdu does whatever Hatim wants. The relationship ends, however, when Abdu's small son becomes sick and dies. The reviews I read called the Yacoubian Building a groundbreaking book for portraying a homosexual character as being just like anyone else. And this is true and good. However, I could not help but notice that Hatim is the only one who gets a childhood backstory. And in this backstory he is molested over a number of years by Idris, the manservant who essentially raises him because Hatim's parents are wealthy workaholics. While it is never said outright that Hatim is gay because of Idris, I have heard too much anti-gay rhetoric to be able to overlook the implications of Idris having sex with Hatim, who very quickly enjoys Idris's attentions even though he suspects it is wrong.
I tried really hard while reading the book to take into consideration cultural differences but when it came down to the way women were treated and what their roles were assumed to be and to what Hatim's backstory seems to imply, I couldn't let it slide. I don't require vocal feminists in my cross-cultural reading, but I cannot accept women being portrayed as good only for sex. Nor can I accept the implication that a character is gay because he was molested as a child.
Taha's story was the most interesting and well-done part of the book but it was not enough. Even without the objections mentioned above, I found the dialogue to often be stilted and the tone flat. Whether this is Aswany or the translation, I don't know, but it was at times distracting. A book not having a plot is generally not a problem for me, but somehow this book's lack of plot made it feel more like a mash of stories with nothing holding them together other than a a setting.
The book was not a success with me. That happens sometimes. The Slaves chose this book for discussion and you can see what others thought of it at the Slaves blog and follow our discussion and even join in yourself at the forum.
Cross posted at So Many Books
The Yacoubian Building (and the Yacoubian Building) is a microcosm of a world that comes across as chaotic, risky, bleak, yet shot through with a kind of wistful longing for dignity and love, the two things all of the characters are ultimately in search of. Even as you watch their mistakes, their compromises, their sacrifices, their sins, it's hard to sit in judgment, because the medium they move in is so relentlessly corrupt. The conviction that there's no winning against this system may account for the matter-of-fact tone and the absence of authorial commentary about even the novel's most depressing sequences, such as Taha's descent into extremism--inaugurated not by religious fanaticism or political commitment but by the injustice and prejudice of a bureaucracy that blocks him from his honorable dream--or the disastrous conclusion of Hatim's affair with Abd Rabbuh, for whose shame, guilt and resentment Hatim's sad love proves an unequal match. "I'm sure that Our Lord will forgive us because we don't do anyone any harm," Hatim reassures his lover; "We just love one another." If only that belief were reflected in the world around them.
Al Aswany's storytelling is so inexorable it feels fatalistic. But against the backdrop of cynicism and despair, Al Aswany sets the unlikely, unforeseeable--the "strange and unexpected"-- love story of Busayna and Zaki: "little by little, raising his arms aloft amid the joyful laughter and cries of the others, he joined her in the dance."
(cross-posted to Novel Readings)
Friday, April 13, 2012
Thursday, April 05, 2012
Penelope Lively, City of the Mind: "Wherever architect Matthew Halland looks in London, the city offers him its history - and his own. Here lie memories of his boyhood, his daughter Jane's early years and his failed marriage. Here too is the London of prehistory, of grander times and of the Blitz. But Matthew is occupied with constructing a new future for London in Docklands, and as he strives to look ahead for the city he begins tentatively to forge new beginnings of his own."
Sunday, April 01, 2012
Nellie is fifteen the first time she meets Myra Henshawe, but she has already been primed for this encounter by family stories of the old days, in which Myra’s narrative takes special precedence. Nellie’s Aunt Lydia has long remained one of Myra’s close friends and will tell her ‘about that thrilling night (probably the most exciting in her life), when Myra Driscoll came down that path from the house and out of those big iron gates, for the last time.’ What Myra is leaving behind is a comfortable fortune, and she has exchanged it for a passionate love affair with Oswald Henshawe. The fascination, then, of Myra’s character is that she acts. She does things that other people wouldn’t do, particularly women at a time when passivity and compliance were still feminine ideals. Instead Myra gambles her all on love, taking the only truly rocky adventure open to her kind. So her fate becomes paradigmatic, a glorious triumph or a cautionary tale – at this point the jury’s out. But the idealising and story-hungry eyes of Nellie long for romance to win.
The novella lingers on two separate periods of time spent by Nellie in Myra Henshawe’s company. The first is a Christmas visit, a time when Nellie is seduced by Myra’s overpowering brand of charm, a kind of rich luxuriousness of spirit that is reflected and amplified by the material circumstances she exists within. From the Henshawe’s New York apartment, with its gorgeous furnishings: ‘The long, heavy velvet curtains and the velvet chairs were a wonderful plum-colour, like ripe purple fruit. The curtains were lined with that rich cream-colour that lies under the blue skin of ripe figs’ to the fountains of Madison Square Gardens whose ‘rhythmical splash was like the voice of the place. It rose and fell like something taking deep, happy breaths; and the sound was musical, seemed to come from the throat of spring’ Nellie is in a kind of sensuous paradise. Myra is of a piece with these surroundings, like the central jewel in a beautiful necklace: ‘My aunt often said that Myra was incorrigibly extravagant; but I saw that her chief extravagance was in caring for so many people and in caring for them so much.’ But into this American Eden come indications of the serpent, the cuff links that Oswald receives from a female admirer and Myra’s fury when she uncovers the deception.
By the time Nellie comes across the Henshawes again, much has changed. The couple are living in horribly reduced circumstances, Myra is fatally ill, and they are clearly unhappy. Nellie has grown up, too, and has had family troubles of her own. She is making a living as a teacher, and is more than able to brush aside Myra’s attempts to direct her fate. Circumstances again correspond to the emotional climate. Myra has ‘exhausted’ her generosity along with their cash, the neighbours don’t call round to sing hauntingly beautiful songs, but torment her with their heavy footfall, and in what looks to be a judgement on her life choices, she laments being left alone to die with her ‘mortal enemy’.
What this novella makes me realise is how close to the spirit of Modernism Cather was, once she’d worked the prairies out of her blood. This book was written in 1925 and it makes me think of other characters who outlive their settled contentment and become either anachronisms or absurdities. For some reason both Woolf’s Mrs Ramsey in To The Lighthouse (1927) and Gregor Samsa, the unfortunate beetle in Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915) spring to mind. This was the coming of the anti-hero, when the main protagonist in a novel might be defined by their flaws and their errors, or even simply by the extent to which they did not understand themselves or the things that had happened to them. Modernism crops up whenever grand narratives start to crumble – grand narratives being the all-encompassing ideological stories, like religion or science or the teleological march of history that makes sense of the great sweep of the world from the past through to the future. Characters in grand narratives know their places; they may be mere cogs in the machine, but they have a purpose and significance, if you can only get enough distance to view the particular in relation to the general. But when grand narratives crumble, characters start to move out of the roles they have been assigned, out of the places in which they make sense and they can cause havoc within narrative systems. They are no longer good products of the Enlightenment, people who may be enigmatic but can be solved; they are instead creatures of the gap, irreconcilable to their stories, unresolved in their fates. Myra Henshawe with her chequered life and her undecidable good/bad character seems to be one of these.
Cather’s use of the Birdseye viewpoint here is a fascinating strategic device. On the one hand, it shows us how people are always viewed through the shreds and scraps of other perspectives, the fragments of narrative that are sewn together from rumour, gossip, anecdotes, glimpses and sightings. The social character is a patchwork that we try to take as the whole. But Nellie, as astute and observant witness, is forced to acknowledge the incongruence of the stories she has heard about Myra and the reality she experiences. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that she cunningly gives the reader a mixed handful of significant fragments about Myra, without even attempting to stitch them into a coherent whole. Grand narratives rely on the transparency of language to reality, the belief that we can translate what lies ‘out there’ into an accurate representation on the page. Modernism suggests that there are only competing stories, and that reality lies elusively beyond our grasp. In My Mortal Enemy the shortness of the novella is belied by the multiplicity of possible and implied stories it spawns. We can read the Henshawe marriage as a disaster, or as a survival of loyalty in spite of desperate circumstances, we can see Myra as a splendid diva or a horrible harpy, Oswald as a womaniser or a man of saintly tolerance, we can even see Nellie as a dull and insipid hanger-on or a wise and compassionate friend.
I was going to say the same about the ‘mortal enemy’ of the title. How it comes to assume many guises. But for my own reading of this story, I’ve come to understand that enemy as the overpowering passion of Myra, the part of her that hurtles her into reckless and excessive actions, and the negativity that makes her howl with rage and regret. They are the two sides of the one coin that can be termed the ‘demonic’, which the Greeks defined as the vital wellspring of energetic force that could be used for good or for evil. Energy is the quick route to understanding Cather’s characters and here Oswald describes how Myra ‘can’t endure, but she has enough desperate courage for a regiment.’ For me, it’s that desperate courage that Myra never knows whether she’s fighting for or against.
Saturday, March 31, 2012
How apropos is this?
Last night one of the library's regular patrons, a Chinese man who often has us explain English idioms or figures of speech that have confounded him, came by to ask if I'd participate in a one-question survey he was taking.
Sure, I said.
Do you, he said, regard your spouse as a friend or an enemy?
And I, who'd finished My Mortal Enemy less than 24 hours before, startled him by ducking underneath the desk for my purse, then brandishing my Cather before him, telling him he had to read this book.
He wrote down Cather's name, then told me 70 percent of married Chinese consider their spouse their enemy while 70 percent of Americans consider them their friend. He didn't understand why there was such a wide swing in perception between the two nationalities. I suggested it might be because Americans generally divorce a spouse they regard as an enemy.
But now, today, I'm thinking about how my own parents would have fallen into the enemy camp, and they were married for more than 61 years.
My mother remained angry at my dad throughout my life, for more than 40 years, because of something he'd done before I was born (I was a midlife accident; they'd eloped when she was 17 and he was 22 and no one --i.e., my sister-- told me what he'd done to get in her bad graces until I was 22, a month or so shy of marrying myself). Then, during the final months of their lives (they died five weeks apart), thanks to the Alzheimers, she either forgave him, or more likely, forgot that she had ever been mad at him. Unfortunately, my dad remembered that anger and while the series of strokes he'd endured left him unable to communicate with anyone very well verbally, his demeanor made it clear he had not forgiven her.
What a mess we can make of our lives if we put our minds to it, huh?
I can't remember if I connected my parents' relationship with that of the characters in My Mortal Enemy when I read it in '83. My suspicions are that I probably speculated more on how a particular friend would grow to regard her husband as her mortal enemy if he failed to provide her with the level of material success and social standing she desired--back then another friend and I were quite intrigued with her machinations and expressed desire: I want more. We couldn't figure out how she always managed to get it. Shouldn't the universe at some point say no?
So, now that I've gotten all that out of the way, on to an the actual Willa Cather novella.
It is, as you may have surmised, the story of a marriage gone awry. Myra Driscoll falls in love with Oswald Henshawe, the son of a man her wealthy uncle, who's raised her, holds a grudge against. Myra's uncle gives her an ultimatum: marry Oswald and get cut off without a penny. "It's better to be a stray dog in this world than a man without money," he warns her.
With the help of her friends, who are thrilled with the secret romance, Myra chooses love over money, and elopes with Oswald, never once returning to attempt reconciliation with the uncle, who leaves his fortune to the Catholic church. As our narrator Nellie Birdseye tells us (Nellie is the daughter of one of Myra's girlhood friends), "[H]er life had been as exciting and varied as ours was monotonous." But Nellie finds it disheartening when her aunt Lydia, who remains in touch with Myra over the years, reports that they are only "as happy as most people." Nellie's opinion is that "the very point of their story was that they should be much happier than other people."
At the age of 15, Nellie finds herself spending the Christmas holiday in New York with the Henshawes and her aunt. She observes Myra at her best--when she is with her artistic set of friends--and at her worst--quarreling with, then leaving Oswald, who is expected to come to her in Pittsburgh to win her back. Although ample evidence is presented that Oswald has a secret life and may very well be conducting an affair, Myra's conduct keeps her from gaining much sympathy from either Nellie or her aunt:
Aunt Lydia was very angry. "I'm sick of Myra's dramatics," she declared. "I've done with them. A man never is justified, but if ever a man was. . . "Ten years later, on the West Coast, Nellie finds the Henshawes living in the same hotel as she. They have fallen on hard times financially and are, as Myra calls it, "in temporary eclipse" from their friends. Myra is in fact dying, and consumed by regrets for how her life has turned out, questioning why she in the position to die, "alone with my mortal enemy":
She smoothed his hair. "No, my poor Oswald, you'll never stagger far under the bulk of me. Oh, if youth but knew!" She closed her eyes and pressed her hands over them. "It's been the ruin of us both. We've destroyed each other. I should have stayed with my uncle. It was money I needed. We've thrown our lives away."
"Come, Myra, don't talk so before Nellie. You don't mean it. Remember the long time we were happy. That was reality, just as much as this."
"We were never really happy. I am a greedy, selfish, worldly woman; I wanted success and a place in the world. Now I'm old and ill and a fright, but among my own kind I'd still have my circle; I'd have courtesy from people of gentle manners, and not have my brains beaten out by hoodlums. Go away, please, both of you, and leave me!" She turned her face to the wall and covered her head.
While Oswald remains devoted to her (although simultaneously enjoying the admiration of another young woman living in the hotel), Myra becomes focused on Catholicism, literature and nature. She misses her long-dead uncle, thinks he wisely left his money where it was needed and would do good, and claims how like him she really is:
"We were very proud of each other, and if he'd lived till now, I'd go back to him and ask his pardon; because I know what it is to be old and lonely and disappointed. Yes, and because as we grow old we become more and more the stuff our forebears put into us. I can feel his savagery strengthen in me. We think we are so individual and so misunderstood when we are young; but the nature our strain of blood carries is inside there, waiting, like our skeleton."Myra calls on the savagery within herself to face death on her own terms. Nellie is left to comfort Oswald, and come to grips with the hard lesson learned from the woman who uttered "such a terrible judgment upon all one hopes for."
I wonder if Myra had lived longer, if she would have managed to forgive her husband for his transgressions, the way she came to forgive her uncle. Or would she have continued to believe that she couldn't forgive him because of the harm she'd done to him? Even Nellie, earlier in the story, had sensed that Oswald's life "had not suited him; that he possessed some kind of courage and force which slept, which in another sort of world might have asserted themselves brilliantly."
What a mess we can make of our lives even if we don't put our minds to it.
My Mortal Enemy is an unlikely choice for my first experience of Willa Cather - it's obscure enough that the Americanist colleague I hit up for a copy to borrow not only didn't have it and hadn't read it, but hadn't even heard of it, and the only copy in our university library is a 1926 edition so old and fragile it is stored in a box because it is considered too flimsy even to restore. Apparently, then, My Mortal Enemy is not the go-to Cather text.
Because I haven't read any other Cather, I'm not in a position to say whether that's because it's anomalous or in some way not up to her usual standards. The introduction to the Vintage edition I finally opted for as an e-book has a long introduction that holds it up as exemplary, particularly of her prose style, which has, says its author, 'a relentless purity of style' which is 'never so pure and never so relentless as in My Mortal Enemy . . . the novel makes a raid on all amplitudes, all mere pleasantness, and all sloppiness.'
As I was reading it, I can't say that I was noticing any particular purity of style, but I did feel the absence of pleasantness. The novella tells the story of Myra Henshawe, an heiress who abandons her father's fortune to marry for love. Her elopement has taken on an almost mythical quality in her home town, where the narrator, Nellie, grows up hearing about her. When Nellie finally meets her, she feels 'quite overpowered' by her, and Nellie is indeed overpowered by Myra throughout the novella - she is a narrator of almost no interest herself, as far as I can tell, serving only as a device to present and contrast with Myra's more showy and emotionally intense character. Myra lives life loud, but her sacrifice for love has not brought her happiness, and the love itself has not proved lasting: when Nellie goes to stay with Myra and her husband Oswald in New York, she eventually sees that despite their superficial displays of unity and affection, the reality is more complex and even sinister. The realization appalls Nellie in a way that would seem disproportionate if it weren't for the status marvellous Myra and her magical marriage have had in Nellie's youthful imagination:
This delightful room had seemed to me a place where lightheartedness and charming manners lived--housed there just as the purple curtains and the Kiva rugs and the gay water-colours were. And now everything was in ruins. The air was still and cold like the air in a refrigerating-room. What I felt was fear; I was afraid to look or speak or move. Everything about me seemed evil. When kindness has left people, even for a few moments, we become afraid of them, as if their reason had left them. When it has left a place where we have always found it, it is like shipwreck; we drop from security into something malevolent and bottomless.
When Nellie next meets Oswald and Myra, they are living in a dingy apartment-hotel where she, having fallen on unspecified hard times, has also taken up residence. Myra is an invalid tortured beyond reason by the clattering and thumping and shrieking of their unsympathetic upstairs neighbours (actually, having lived in basement apartments, I understand how crazy this can make you!). There's nothing left of even superficial glamour in their lives, only bitterness and defeat. Is it tempered at all by the Henshawes' love for each other? Oswald waits on Myra faithfully, even devotedly, and she responds with occasional tenderness, but seeing them now and knowing what she knows, too, Nellie cannot see this as the last phase of a great passion.
Myra's death is clearly meant to be climactic, but I had trouble discerning the precise nature of the conflict to which it is the crisis. "Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy?" cries out Myra. But I didn't understand what she meant or why (or whether) I was supposed to rebel with her or judge her. I wasn't enthralled by Myra's character, and I don't think we are meant to be: there's nothing truly grand or heroic about it, and there's something unpleasantly melodramatic about the way she plays her own part. She's more interesting than anyone else in the novella, though, which I suppose is, indirectly, a critical reflection on the roles people usually play. She's not a tragic heroine--if there's any tragedy, I think it's in the gap between our (or at least Nellie's) expectation that love is worth everything else and the sordid culmination of Myra's life story, in which her grand gesture has done nobody any good.
After finishing the novella I turned to the introduction for ideas, and its author argues that Myra's enemy is 'friendship and love, human relationship itself.' He reads her angry cry as a pun that refers also to her husband, who is 'her enemy because he is the source for her of human relationship, of that which passes without fulfillment, of mortality.' That is, I guess, her husband is standing in for all the false hopes and promises that human relationships bring meaning, and for the inevitable collapse of that beautiful dream in the face of mortality. That sounds plausible enough when he explains it, though it seems to me to take quite a bit of reading into - perhaps, quite a bit of bringing to - the novel what isn't obvious to someone encountering Cather's ethos for the first time. I didn't feel like I was reading My Mortal Enemy very well: I couldn't seem to get oriented in it, and then it was already over. What I'm left with is an interest in reading something more expansive of Cather's, something that gives me a better chance at understanding her for myself.
(cross-posted to Novel Readings)