Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers

And the confusing point is this: All useful things have a price, and are bought only with money, as that is the way the world is run. You know without having to reason about it the price of a bale of cotton, or a quart of molasses. But no value has been put on human life; it is given to us free and taken without being paid for. What is it worth? If you look around, at times the value may seem to be little or nothing at all. Often after you have sweated and tried and things are not better for you, there comes a feeling deep down in the soul that you are not worth much.

Carson McCullers really only has one subject, I think: unrequited love.  More than anyone, she understands what it means for love to be unrequited--only very rarely are people consciously spurned by the objects of their affection.  Rather, most love goes unspoken, unseen by the person it adores, and often unacknowledged even by the person who possesses it.  Sometimes it's a romantic love, but not always, or even often: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is about the unrequited love of an entire town for the mute John Singer, and The Member of the Wedding is about Frankie's inability to share in the love of her brother and his fiancee.  The homosexual desire of the Captain in Reflections in a Golden Eye is buried so deep that even he doesn't even recognize it.

"The Ballad of the Sad Cafe," the central novella of this collection of McCullers' stories, examines unrequited love in its most teen-movie of forms: the love triangle.  Miss Amelia, a bitter and taciturn shop-owner, is suddenly softened by the arrival in town of a hunchbacked dwarf claiming to be her cousin.  Cousin Lymon and Amelia open the title cafe together, which brings a new life to the town that parallels their own heightened feelings for each other.  But when Amelia's ex-husband, an amoral lout named Marvin Macy, returns, she watches helplessly as Cousin Lymon develops a puerile attachment to him.  He lurks around the cafe, causing mild trouble, until Amelia and Marvin Macy finally come to blows--and Cousin Lymon, at the last second, attacks Miss Amelia from behind.  Marvin and Lymon destroy the cafe on their way out of town:

They unlocked the private cabinet of curios and took everything in it.

They broke the mechanical piano.

They carved terrible words on the cafe tables.

They found the watch that opened in the back to show a picture of a waterfall and took that also.

They poured a gallon of sorghum syrup all over the kitchen floor and smashed the jars of preserves.

They went out in the swamp and completely wrecked the still, ruining the big new condenser and the cooler, and setting fire to the shack itself.

They fixed a dish of Miss Amelia's favorite food, grits with sausage, seasoned it with enough poison to kill of the county, and placed this dish temptingly on the cafe counter.

They did everything ruinous they could think of without actually breaking into the office where Miss Amelia stayed the night.  Then they went off together, the two of them.

I especially love the "terrible words" they carved on the tables--McCullers is a virtuoso at adding the telling detail, but she's just as canny about leaving some things out.  I also loved when, in a story called "The Jockey," the diminutive title figure carefully takes out a cigarette and cuts it in half with a penknife so it's his own size.  (McCullers loves weirdos--jockeys, dwarves, etc.)

The other stories are shorter, more experimental.  "Sad Cafe" has so many of McCullers' hallmarks--the small southern town, the physical oddball, etc.--that it might be the work of a particularly good imitator.  The other stories see her treading unfamiliar ground.  There are stories set in Ohio, and in New York City, where McCullers lived most of her adult life, but which seem outside the realm of her interests.  But each of them has the same lyric quality, the same interest in human failures and frailties, and the same vast empathy.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Despair by Vladimir Nabokov

It even seems to me now that it was, that town, constructed of certain refuse particles of my past, for I discovered in it things most remarkably and most uncannily familiar to me: a low pale-blue house, the exact counterpart of which I had seen in a St. Petersburg suburb; an old-clothes hop, where suits hung that had belonged to dead acquaintances of mine; a street lamp bearing the same number (I always like to notice the numbers of street lamps) as one that had stood in front of the Moscow house where I lodged; and nearby the same bare birch tree with the same forked trunk in an iron corset (ah, that is what made me look at the number on the lamp). I could, if I chose, give many more examples of that kind, some of which are so subtle, so--how shall I put it?  ...abstractly personal, as to be unintelligible, whom I pet and pamper like a devoted nurse.  Nor am I quite certain of the exceptionality of the aforesaid phenomena.  Every man with a keen eye is familiar with those anonymously retold passages from his past life: false-innocent combinations of details, which smack revoltingly of plagiarism.  Let us leave them to the conscience of fate and return, with a sinking heart and dull reluctance, to the monument at the end of the street.

Hermann, the narrator of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Despair, stumbles one day across a vagrant who could be his doppelganger.  The vagrant, Felix, seems unimpressed by their resemblance, but Hermann sees in it a fantastic opportunity: He will murder Felix, and make it look like his own suicide.  It will be the perfect crime.  The only problem, we find out at the end of the novel--spoiler alert here, for what it's worth--is that Hermann is mistaken; Felix looks nothing like him.

Despair is a lot of things.  It's a farcical "up yours" to Dostoevsky, whose ponderous morality tales Nabokov despised.  Hermann, like Raskolnikov, wants to engineer the perfect crime for no other reason than because he can, because he believes in his own fortuitous position in the world.  Hermann points out that "Felix" means "happy" or "lucky," but it is Hermann who sees his own impeccability in the mirror that is Felix.  It's also, like much of Nabokov's work, a sly treatise on literary criticism.  Hermann "reads" himself into Felix, and the consequences are disastrous.  At some level, everything Nabokov writes seems to tell us we can't possibly get anything out of reading, while reveling gleefully in the contradictions of that very statement.

But I like thinking of it most as a condemnation of the ego.  In a way, when we look at other people we see only ourselves; Hermann only takes this idea to its logical conclusion.  But Nabokov suggests that all kinds of sight and sense--everything we know and perceive--is contaminated by our inescapable ego, and that we're perpetually gazing at the inside of our own skulls.  Our world "smack[s] revoltingly of plagiarism," but it's these echoes--repetitions, doubles, doppelgangers--that Nabokov found so endlessly fascinating.

It's also incredibly funny.  Nabokov makes much of Hermann's feckless wife, Lydia, who once tore the final pages out of a mystery book so she wouldn't be tempted to spoil it for herself, and then promptly lost them.  (Come to think of it, Nabokov's a lot like that--a mystery novel with the end torn out.)  Equally comic is her cousin, Ardalion, a failed and fatuous painter who only Hermann can't tell is having an affair with Lydia.  Nabokov has a reputation, and an earned one, for difficult prose, but Despair, like Lolita, is as readable and compelling as the schlockiest genre fiction.

Despair was the first of Nabokov's novels that he translated into English from Russian.  All known copies were, apparently, destroyed by German bombs in World War II.  The version that exists now is a second translation, with improvements, made many decades later.  It's easy to imagine Nabokov, translating the novel for a second time, laughing at the idea that his novel had its own doppelganger--one that no one else could ever track down.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

'Is it true,' she said, 'that England is like a dream?  Because one of my friends who married an Englishman wrote and told me so.  She said this place London is like a cold dark dream sometimes.  I want to wake up.'

'Well,' I answered annoyed, 'that is precisely how your beautiful island seems to me, quite unreal and like a dream.'

'But how can rivers and mountains and the sea be unreal?'

'And how can millions of people, their houses and their streets bu unreal?'

'More easily,' she said, 'much more easily.  Yes a big city must be like a dream.'

'No, this is unreal and like a dream,' I thought.

Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea presents the story of Bertha Mason--whose name is really Antoinette Cosway--the mad wife of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, who is imprisoned in Rochester's attic and appears, from time to time, to light things on fire and generally make things difficult for Jane.  Bronte's depiction of Bertha can seem almost like a parody of Victorian literature, which banishes to the metaphorical attic both the victims of colonialism (think of the slaves on Thomas Bertram's plantations in Mansfield Park) and women who, unlike Jane Eyre, cannot be meek or pure.

Rhys starts by situating Antoinette in a difficult place in her native Jamaica: she is a Creole woman of both black and white descent, and therefore a kind of outsider even before she meets Rochester and is spirited away to England.  Her black neighbors treat her family with suspicion, calling them "white niggers."  In a frightening, evocative scene which the novel never is really able to reproduce, Antoinette's black neighbors burn her family's estate to the ground.  Antoinette's brother dies in the fire, and so does her parrot:

I opened my eyes, everybody was looking up and pointing at Coco on the glacis railings with his feathers alight.  He made an effort to fly down but his clipped wings failed him and he fell screeching.  He was all on fire.

The parallels to Antoinette/Bertha, who spends much of Jane Eyre setting stuff on fire and eventually dies in a conflagration of her own making, are clear.  Like Coco, Antoinette is a beautiful thing doomed to suffer at the hands of oppressive forces.  Rumors of her mother's insanity dog her all her life, but no one seems interested in recognizing this destruction as a pretty good reason to go insane.  Antoinette becomes the mad Bertha, yes, but Rhys wants us to ask why.

Rhys style is laconic, spare, and effective.  It leaves out much more than it says.  Rochester is never named, though he is the narrator of half the novel.  She has a knack for leaving out key information that makes the novel mysterious and compelling, but not particularly easy to read, despite the simplicity of its language.  The reasons for the dissolution of Antoinette and Rochester's marriage--he comes to believe that she has married him to steal his money, I think, partly thanks to a troublemaker who claims to be Antoinette's brother--are difficult to follow.

The most unforgivable thing about Wide Sargasso Sea, though, is that it makes no real attempt to reproduce the character of Mr. Rochester, whose sarcasm and megalomania are the some of the most compelling aspects of Jane Eyre.  It seems like missing the point to judge Wide Sargasso Sea by the quality and character of Jane Eyre, I know.  But it wouldn't take much tweaking to turn Rochester, who is already a quite suspicious and not quite trustworthy character, into a bitter, scheming colonialist.  He spends most of Jane Eyre running roughshod over Jane's psyche, after all.  But Rhys doesn't seem interested in Rochester, especially, even as a narrator; it's Antoinette she wants us to think about it.  That's all well and good, but why make Rochester a narrator at all?

I wonder how much one might get out of this novel if they'd never read Jane Eyre.  But I also wonder if it might not be better--and able to stand on its own considerable merits--without the ghost of Jane Eyre hovering around.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Steig's Shrek!, Kant's Critique of Judgement, Steig's Yellow and Pink, and Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.


So they got hitched as soon as possible and they lived horribly ever after, scaring the socks off all who fell afoul of them.
I took a class this week on teaching philosophy through children's literature and for it I read Shrek! and Yellow by Williams Steig along with Kant's Critique of Judgement and Hume's Diaglogues Concerning Natural Religion. Shrek! was definitely the closest to my reading level, so it made the cover photo.

Mostly I learned that since graduating college my brain has completely forgotten how to read. In the opening small group talks, I admitted that I didn't understand the difference between what Kant describes as "pleasant" (which is subjective) and "beauty" (which isn't). My discussion leader said "It all comes down to 'subjective universality'" at which point I turned my book around to show him my high level annotation where I had circled the phrase "subjective universality" and written, in large letters "WTF IS THIS." Needless to say, I struggled with Kant.

After three hours of class and a lot of brainwork, I think what Kant is trying to say is that beautiful things (sunsets, waterfalls, Leonardo DiCaprio in the 90s) produce a universal reaction in all humans; it's not grounded in individual perception or taste.  Kant discusses how matters of taste ("Canary wine is pleasant" for example) vary from person to person, but subjective universalities like beauty don't. I then got sidetracked wondering whether or not I found Canary wine to be pleasant. Shrek!, who is uglier than his parents put together and can "spit flame a full ninety-nine yards and vent smoke from either ear," both illustrates and challenges Kant. He is a great example of subjective taste: he compliments a witch on her "ugly stench" and falls in love with a princess because she's ugly, but he doesn't seem buy into the subjective universality of beauty (since he hates flowers and children). I think that was it?

Hume was a little easier, although I found the format of dialogues a little confusing. My limited Hume knowledge from college slash the internet told me that he was an atheist, so when he kicked things off by stating that clearly God exists because "No man; no man, at least of common sense, I am persuaded, ever entertained a serious doubt with regard to a truth so certain and self evident." From there, Philo (who is sort of Hume) spends his time dismantling Cleanthes "a posteriori" (a word I had to look up) arguments for the existence of God. Cleanthes' general argument is that the universe's design mimics the design of human inventions, and we clearly understand that books have authors, therefore, the universe has an author with human-like qualities. Philo says the analogy falls apart because the things are too dissimilar (and that we can't make the assumption that a human-like God created the universe since we've never witnessed the "origin of worlds"). He starts to make an argument about how everything could have just randomly come into being on its own, but he stops short of saying there isn't a God.

In Steig's Yellow and Pink two puppets argue about how they came into being, but this time Pink (the Cleanthes of the two) gets to be the skeptic. Yellow argues that they could have been created by chance (a branch falling off a tree, being struck by lightning, and rolling down a hill over some paint), and Pink tries to deconstruct his argument by asking questions about the likelihood of such a process creating such perfect puppets. The best part (but also the most troubling part for the atheist in me) is when the guy who made them (and left them out in the sun for their paint to dry) comes to pick them up at the end: "'Who is this guy?' Yellow whispered in Pink's ear. Pink didn't know."

Overall, I highly recommend both Steig books. Kant and Hume, if you want to impress people at dinner parties, are best read on Sparknotes if at all.

Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt


As much as cisgender persons may like or dislike their bodies, and engage in altering or enhancing them, they don't deny that their bodies are their own. It's a knowledge so intimate that it remains largely subconscious. When it comes to that physical self, for a transgender person every waking moment, every conscious breath, is a denial of who they truly are. For these people their bodies are at odds with their ideas of themselves, or their ideas of who they should be. They are estranged from the very thing that sustains them in the world, and there is no way to reconcile this conflict through psychological counseling or behavioral conditioning There is only one way out of the alienation, and that's to make the body congruent with the mind. 

I first heard about the Maines family when I read a Boston Globe article about them with my ninth graders a few years ago. The Maines family adopt identical twin boys, Wyatt and Jonah, at birth, and as the twins move through toddlerhood Wyatt begins to express his desire to dress and live as and be a girl. His parents react the way we hope all parents would: they listen. They don't buy in right away, and the dad, a conservative veteran, takes longer than the mom, but they eventually help Wyatt transition into life as Nicole. The transition is fraught: medical treatment for young people wishing to transition is still a somewhat experimental science, her school won't let her use the girls' bathroom, parents of students pressure their children to alienate her, and so on and so forth. The book tracks Nicole's life starting with her parents' childhoods, all the way up to her recent graduation from high school after winning a landmark court case earning transgender children the right to use the bathroom designated for the gender with which they identify (an especially relevant issue these days).

There are parts of the book that are heart-wrenching. Wyatt, at age 2, tells his father earnestly that he hates his penis and his father, despite not fully believing or understanding him, reassuring his kid that "Everything is going to be okay." Wyatt and Nicole's childhood poetry and essays are scattered throughout the book and give a window into just how scary and overwhelming this experience was for her. The victories, both personal and legal, feel huge in comparison, and watching Wayne Maines, the father, grow into the advocate and champion he is by the end of the book is almost a more exciting transformation than Nicole's.

Nutt researched and wrote this book beautifully. She writes with empathy about each member of the Maines family and gives us the background we need to fully understand where they all are at each stage of this transformation. More importantly though, she gives clear, well researched, scientific descriptions of transgender life (as well as other gender permutations) explaining things in ways that make it hard not to understand and sympathize. There is nothing preachy or self righteous about her prose, and she manages to be matter of fact while still being warm and understanding.

One of the later chapters, where Nutt discusses some pretty outrageous anti-transgender legislation, ends with this quote from political activist and writer Jennifer Finney Boylan, which I especially liked:
"The only dependable test for gender is the truth of a person's life, the lives we live each day. Surely the best judge of a person's gender is not a degrading, questionable examination. The best judge of a person's gender is what lies within her, or his, heart. How do we test for the gender of the heart, then?"
If you teach, parent, work with, or interact with other humans on a regular basis, I would recommend reading this book. There's more to this issue that one girl's story, but this feels like a great place to start.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence


He had come to this new country, the youngest country on the globe, to start a new life and flutter with a new hope.  And he started with a rabid desire not to see anything and not to speak one single word to any single body--except Harriet, whom he snapped at hard enough.  To be sure, the mornings sometimes won him over.  They were so blue and pure: the blue harbour like a lake among the land, so pale blue and heavenly, with its hidden and half-hidden lobes intruding among the low, dark-brown cliffs, and among the dark-looking tree-covered shores, and up the bright red suburbs.  But htel nad, the ever-dark brush that was allowed to come to the shores of the harbour!

Richard Somers and his wife Harriet are taking an extended holiday in Australia.  To Somers, recently hounded out of England on suspicion of being a German spy--much like Lawrence himself--Australia represents a new beginning, not just for himself, but as a "new country" that exists as something of a blank slate.

But as the saying goes, wherever you go, there you are, and Somers cannot quite escape his own moody self-isolation and aloofness.  When he falls in with a secret organization of fascist paramilitary groups called the Diggers and their leader, a Sydney lawyer who goes by the name "Kangaroo," he flirts with the idea of contributing his skills as a writer to their cause but cannot commit.

The Diggers are certainly dangerous.  Kangaroo talks to Somers a lot about his deep love for the people of Australia, which comes off as creepily paternalistic, if not something darker and more heinous.  (Somers thinks of Kangaroo "keeping the nation in his pouch.")  But it's not at all clear whether Lawrence himself, who was known to flirt with racist and fascist ideals, thinks that the Diggers' philosophy is all that bad.  Like all Lawrence books, the mushy mysticism tends to be hard to pin down, and open to frequent reversals; it seems as likely that we are meant to be suspicious of Kangaroo as it is that we are meant to see Somers' inability to participate in the Diggers' mission as a kind of tragedy.  You might expect a book about a well-meaning man who falls in with a charismatic, but insidious figure, yet I think you might legitimately ask who here is well-meaning and who is insidious.

It leads to, however, one of the more powerful scenes I've ever read in Lawrence's books: the dying Kangaroo, shot in the gut after an otherwise successful raid on a labor organizing rally, demanding Somers' love while wasting away in a hospital bed.  Somers cannot bring himself to do it; rather than presenting a blank slate, the strange and empty Australia has made him recede farther into himself, in a kind of emulation of the land's blankness.

Kangaro  has all of Lawrence's flaws: It goes on too long, it's something of a mess, its philosophical meanderings go from incomprehensible to reprehensible and back again.  The best thing about Kangaroo, as it always is with Lawrence, is the prose, and it's worth reading just for the vivid and skillful depictions of the Australian landscape:
But he was looking mostly straight below him, at the massed foliage of the cliff-slope.  Down into the centre of the great, dull-green whorls of the tree-ferns, and on to the shaggy mops of the cabbage-palms.  In one place a long fall of creeper was yellowish with damp flowers.  Gum-trees came up in tufts.  The previous world! -- the world of the coal age.  The lonely, lonely world that had waited, it seemed, since the coal age.  These ancient flat-topped tree-ferns, these tousled palms like mops.  What was the good of trying to be an alert conscious man here?  You couldn't.  Drift, drift into a sort of obscurity, backwards into a nameless past, hoary as the country is hoary.  Strange, old feelings wake in the soul: old, non-human feelings.
It's these "old, non-human feelings" that drive Somers away from the company of other people, and make him unable to return the love of Kangaroo.  Lawrence talks a lot about a "dark god" whose identity is warped whenever he is named--as Christ, or Thor, or whatever--and you can see the way that Lawrence, fleeing from the sour gentility of Europe, embraced Australia as a kind of place where that mysticism might be recovered.  Like Lawrence, Somers eventually leaves Australia, and heads to the United States.  Lawrence never wrote a book about the U.S.; the one book he wrote while living in New Mexico was about (old) Mexico.  That's a shame; I'd like to have seen America through Lawrence's eyes.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

NW by Zadie Smith

Every unknown word sent her to a dictionary--in search of something like "completion"--and every book led to another book, a process which of course could never be completed. This route through early life gave her no small portion of joy, and indeed it seemed at first that her desires and her capacities were basically aligned. She wanted to read things--could not resist wanting to read things--and reading was easily done, and praise for such reflexive habits baffled the girl, for she knew herself to be fantastically stupid about many things. Wasn't it possible that what others mistook for intelligence might in fact be only a sort of mutation of the will?
NW is (sort of) a book about a neighborhood. In classic Zadie Smith style, the novel opens with a cacophony of voices and story lines (so much so that it is very difficult to get your bearings at first), all of which take place in NW London. It takes most of the novel for them to coalesce into one narrative arc, but it does so in fairly satisfying fashion by the end.

I felt about this book the same way I've felt about most of the Smith I've read. At first, I really didn't enjoy it. The narratives were too disjointed--the voices to hard to follow. She slips into these inner monologues that are almost impossible to decipher that go on for pages and pages, and then she'll leave a character at the drop of a hat and pick up with a brand new one. It often took me several pages of a new character to re-orient myself, and by the time I did that, she was usually ready to move on to something else. Once I got used to that pace, I was able to sink in and enjoy the writing (which, as always, is excellent), and Smith settles into one coherent story line for the second half of the book that is much easier to follow (and broken up into neat little vignettes).

The book is so sprawling that it's hard to pin down one thing that it's about, but the friendship at it's center is a beautifully conceived one. Two girls, each impressively and utterly believably insecure, grow apart and then back together, and we get to crawl into each of their brains throughout. The ways in which they brutally compare themselves to each other, the conviction they each hold that the other is smarter, more pulled together, more genuinely herself--each of these pieces is perfectly written. What could feel cliche or preachy instead feels honest and a little uncomfortable in its accuracy.

The voices Smith crafts, while initially confusing and off-putting, become totally immersive by the end of the book. Her sentences tumble and weave and sound just like the jumble of thoughts that go on in your head, but they resolve into these beautiful nuggets (that sound nothing like thoughts I have ever had). Sprinkled throughout are these sentences that stop you in your tracks for minutes a time: "While she was becoming, everyone grew up and became." "I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me." "Like most children, theirs was a relationship built on verbs, not nouns." I'm willing to put up with a lot of garbled monologues to get to gems like these.

Overall, I ended up enjoying it. I often felt like I wasn't a smart enough reader to grasp what Smith was trying to achieve, but I found enough to hold onto to ground myself in the story and enjoy the ride.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

SPQR by Mary Beard

I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans--or, for that matter, from the ancient Greeks, or from any other ancient civilisation... But I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn--as much about ourselves as about the past--by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments . Western culture has a very varied inheritance.  Happily, we are not the heirs to the classical past alone.  Nevertheless, since the Renaissance at least, many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury, and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing.

When Mary Beard's SPQR is described as a "popular history of Ancient Rome," it might be easy to miss the resonances hidden in the acronym: Senatus Populusque Romanus--the Senate and the Roman people.  It's a history which is written for the layperson, sure, but Beard's title intentionally draws our attention to that second populus, which is part of what makes the book so engaging.  It's not just a story of Great Men--though there are plenty of them here, from Romulus to Cincinnatus to Hannibal to Julius Caesar to Augustus--but also a book that pays special attention to what life was like for the average Roman citizen, who tends to get lost in the historical narrative.  What was it like to be a woman in Rome?  What about a slave?

That kind of approach can seem like a fuzzy kind of history, one that forsakes the clarity of what happened for the ephemera of domestic life.  But Beard makes a clear case that such an approach is necessary if we really want to engage with the problems and ideas that shaped the Roman consciousness over a millennium, and which continue, shadow-like, to inform our own problems and ideas today.  The class conflict between the Senate and the plebs, and later the optimates and populares, don't map neatly onto our own class conflicts, but man, are they recognizable.  So too the argument about citizenship--who gets to be a Roman, where, and why?--that preoccupied the ancients until universal citizenship was granted in the third century CE have their own echoes in our current political cycle.  The preemptive strike which utterly destroyed the city of Carthage in the Third Punic War looms large when we think about our own role as the world's mightiest military, and Beard carefully and consciously wants us to consider what it might have been like to be a Carthaginian.

But SPQR is also filled with those great, faintly familiar stories about power, intrigue, statecraft, and war which are the hallmarks of Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  It's fun to read about Cicero railing against the traitor Catiline, even as Beard asks us to consider the hypothesis that Catiline was something of a popular reformer, rather than a venal turncoat.  And who doesn't love to hear about the bloody exploits of Nero, who fiddled while Rome burned and bungled the murder of his own mother, even as Beard points out that it's the murdered emperors, on whose perfidy their successors' legitimacy rested, seem to be the worst of the bunch?

SPQR hits a sweet spot for me--it reminds me of the history that I know already, and which fascinates, while prodding me to think in directions I might not have otherwise.  It's thoughtful in a way that a "popular history" probably doesn't have to be, and that's what makes it worth reading.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton

"Only feeling, sire," answered the Provost.  "I was born, like other men, in a spot of the earth which I loved because I had played boys' games there, and fallen in love, and talked with my friends through nights that were the nights of the gods.  And I feel the riddle.  These little gardens where we told our loves.  These streets where we brought out our dead.  Why should they be commonplace?  Why should they be absurd?  Why should it be grotesque to say that a pillar-box is poetic when for a year I could not see a red pillar-box against the yellow evening in a certain street without being wracked with something of which God keeps the secret, but which is stronger than sorrow or joy?  Why should any one be able to raise a laugh by saying ' the Cause of Notting Hill'?--Notting Hill where thousands of immortal spirits blaze with alternate hope and fear."

In the distant future of 1984 (lol), things are pretty much the same as they were in 1904.  Men still wear their topcoats, and politics has become so humdrum and bureaucratic that the king is chosen at random, because he might as well be.  Chesterton's vision of the future is a wry takedown of the predictors and prognosticators popular in his time who "took something or other that was certainly going on in their time, and then said it would go on more and more until something extraordinary happened."  But it also anticipates the theory of Francis Fukuyama's The End of History, which imagines the universal acceptance of liberal government and the end of nationalist squabbling.  That sounds nice, maybe, but one of the most provocative ideas in The Napoleon of Notting Hill is that there's something to be said for nationalist squabbles.

The stability of this England is upended when Auberon Quin, one of those career bureaucrats, is chosen as king.  Quin uses his new position as an excuse to inject humor into the drab English system of government, and decrees that several London neighborhoods--Notting Hill, Bayswater, South, North, and West Kensington--must build city walls and operate as medieval city-states, with halberdiers, banners, and Arthurian pomp.  No one appreciates the joke, but they begrudgingly go along with the joke.

Years later, the provost of Notting Hill, Adam Wayne, begs for an audience with King Auberon.  The provosts of Bayswater and South Kensington, you see, want to demolish Notting Hill's Pump Street, and its dingy handful of shops, to build a highway.  Wayne is younger than the King, and the other provosts, and in fact he has grown up in the system which the King imposed as a joke.  Which means he doesn't see it as a joke.  He is a living, breathing medieval man, who speaks earnestly in the Arthurian manner which the King speaks ironically, and he believes in the sanctity of Notting Hill.  What follows is a protracted "war" in which the forces of Notting Hill heroically withstand the onslaughts of the halberdiers of the other neighborhoods,  and wins its own sovereignty.

Some of Chesterton's objectives in this novel are political.  He looked at the world of 1904 and saw the massive British Empire systematically squashing smaller states.  Notting Hill, like Nicaragua (whose king makes a brief and baffling appearance in the beginning of the novel), stakes its right to its own sovereignty on the depth of attachment of its own citizens.  Patriotism, for Chesterton, matters because it is subjective, and subjective feeling matters more than the unfeeling interests of the state.  Martin Gardner, in the foreword, argues that we are meant to reject Wayne's assertion that "[t]here were never any just wars but the religious wars," but I think that's Chesterton's point precisely.  Chesterton, of course, died in 1936, just as the dangers of sentimental patriotism were really starting to become apparent.

On another level, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, like The Man Who Was Thursday, political intrigue transforms into religious allegory.  In a final meeting, Quin and Wayne consider themselves as representations of God and man.  God, like Quin, may have made the world in jest and scorn, but man endows it with an inviolate value:

"...Suppose I do not laugh back at you, do not blaspheme you, do not curse you.  But suppose, standing up straight up under the sky, with every power of my being, I thank you for the fools' paradise you have made.  Suppose I praise you, with a literal pain of ecstasy, for the jest that has brought me so terrible a joy.  If we have taken the child's games, and given them the seriousness of a Crusade, if we have drenched your grotesque Dutch garden with the blood of martyrs, we have turned a nursery into a temple.  I ask you, in the name of Heaven, who wins?" 

This doesn't work as well as it does in Thursday, I think, where seems both natural and remarkably profound.  In many ways Notting Hill seems like Chesterton feeling out the mode which he perfects in Thursday: he mines the mundanity of politics for its absurdity and humor, and finds meaning in the absurd.  And unlike Thursday, Chesterton isn't really able to graft this mix of comedy and profundity to a workable plot--the battle scenes, which ought to be funny, are really mostly a slog.  Maybe a Londoner, who knows these places and for whom the absurdity of treating them like medieval Florence or Brittany or something would better land, might have gotten more out of it.


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Sula by Toni Morrison

As Reverend Deal moved into his sermon, the hands of the women unfolded like pairs of raven's wings and flew high above their hats in the air.  They did not hear all of what he said; they head the one word, or phrase, or inflection that was for them the connection between the event and themselves.  For some it was the term "Sweet Jesus."  And they saw the Lamb's eye and the truly innocent victim: themselves.  They acknowledged the innocent child hiding in the corner of their hearts, holding a sugar-and-butter sandwich.  That one.  The one who lodged deep in their fat, thin, old young skin, and was the one the world had hurt.  Or they thought of their son newly killed and remembered his legs in short pants and wondered where the bullet went in.  Or they remembered how dirty the room looked when their father left home and wondered if that is the way the slim, young Jew felt, he who for them was both son and lover and in whose downy face they could see the sugar-and-butter sandwiches and feel the oldest and most devastating pain there is: not the pain of childhood, but the remembrance of it.

I love buying used books when I travel because when I pick them up, months or even years later, they remind me of where they came from.  It wouldn't be the same with new books, I think--the appeal must lie in the way they must have been possessed, and read, by someone who lived there, or at the very least passed through there.  I bought this copy of Sula in a dusty bookshop in Virgin, Utah, population 596.  In 2000 the town of Virgin, Utah passed a law mandating that every resident possess a firearm.  There's something of a Morrisonian touch there--it seems like each of her books has a "town" who is as much a character as anyone else, and one which can be quite menacing.

In Sula, the town is Medallion, Ohio, which is in every other way not very much like Virgin, Utah (though I think she'd like that name, too).  In the black district, known as The Bottom despite its place in the high hills looking over the majority-white valley, two girls grow up as friends: the conservative Nel and the brash, wild Sula.  Sula is the kind of girl who cuts off her own fingertip to scare off a group of male harassers, as if to say, you don't know what I'm capable of.  Sula and Nel bond over childhood joys as well as traumas, as when they accidentally drown a small child in the river.  (They're swinging him around by his arms and lose their grip--it's weird, and not totally realistic, in a way that's typical of Morrison's novels.)  Later, Sula comes back from a long absence, sleeps with Nel's husband, and generally attracts a bad reputation.

It's tempting, and perhaps not incorrect, to see Sula and Nel as complimentary halves of a single representation.  Sula is the one who leaves, Nel is the one who stays home.  Sula is the whore, Nel is the respectable woman.  Sula is the id, Nel is the ego.  Morrison, as always, is too complex and too cagey to let the story resolve into those easy binaries.  She goes out of her way to show Nel in the process of developing and discovering a discrete self:

She gout out of bed and lit the lamp to look in the mirror.  There was her face, plain brown eyes, three braids and the nose her mother hated.  She looked for a long time and suddenly a shiver ran through her.

"I'm me," she whispered.  "Me."

Nel didn't know quite what she meant, but on the other hand she knew exactly what she meant.

"I'm me.  I'm not their daughter.  I'm not Nel.  I'm me.  Me."

This passage rings very true for me.  Haven't you ever had that late night sensation that there is a you which is somehow separate from and beneath your face, your body, your name, all of that?

Sula seems not to need this realization, for her own discrete selfhood has never been in doubt.  When she sleeps with Nel's husband, Morrison attributes it to a sense of self so resolute and complete that it borders on solipsism.  Confronting her, Nel reminds Sula that such an existence is lonely, but Sula replies, "Yes.  But my lonely is mine.  Now your lonely is somebody else's."  Morrison is hyper-aware of the demands that other people--husbands, children, whole towns and countries--place on us, and the ways in which they limit and define us.  And yet, Nel is right--which of us would take a life as lonely as Sula's, no matter whose lonely it was?

These moments are the heart of Sula, and they're extremely moving.  But they are surprisingly brief.  Sula enters the book late and is ushered out early.  Instead Morrison, as she does in her other novels, dwells lengthily on the figures at the novel's edges.  Figures like Shadrack, the vagrant war veteran who inaugurates The Bottom's National Suicide Day, or the deweys, a trio of adopted boys who no one can tell apart (though they don't look alike) and who never age.  Nel and Sula have sisters, brothers, mothers, grandmothers, all of whom interest Morrison at least as much as the pair themselves.

In a novel like Song of Solomon, this kind of things works well because it helps to define and complement the magnetic character of Milkman, whose gradual embrace of his family history is central to the novel.  Sula is too steely and removed, and too briefly sketched, to serve the same kind of role, and Nel pales against the colorful supporting cat.  As a result, Sula never really coheres in a way that would allow its better aspects to really hit home.