Monday, December 23, 2013

Christopher's Top Ten of 2013

Alas, 2013!  I knew him well, Horatio.  I haven't posted all my reviews, and I won't be able to until I'm back in Brooklyn in January, but I did reach 50 once again--six out of seven years now.  Here are my ten favorites from this year of reading.

10.) The Optimist's Daughter by Eudora Welty -- This was a tough slot.  I might have easily put Herta Muller's The Appointment here or Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Blithedale RomanceI'm going with The Optimist's Daughter because it continues to mystify me.  What begins as a story of an adult woman dealing with the death of her father and her acrimonious stepmother changes several times over until it's something stranger and less easy to categorize.

9.) Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow -- This is one of three Africa books I read this year (including No Longer at Ease and Out of Africa) and it's certainly the one that has the least to do with Africa as it really exists.  Bellow's Africa is an elaborate fantasy, but its message about the difficulty of living life fully is powerful and real.

8.) Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card -- This was the year that Card's political conservatism caught up with him, as the Ender's Game movie forced to light some of the ugly and controversial things he's had to say about homosexuality in the past.  The thing that amazes me is that the Card who has said these things seems like a man who has never read Speaker for the Dead, much less wrote it.  The main idea of Speaker, like Ender's Game, is that it is impossible to truly understand anyone and not love them.  In this sequel Ender, disgraced but unknown, travels the universe "speaking" for the dead, as well as hoping to avert the destruction of another alien species by communicating exactly that kind of understanding.  Why is Card capable of imagining sympathy for pig-like aliens but not for homosexuals?

7.) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson -- I think I prefer Robinson's first novel, Housekeeping, but I will say that I think this book is more human and more sympathetic.  I'm not sure I've ever read a more honest and sympathetic portrayal of religion in human life.  And Robinson's prose, of course, is better than anyone else living.

6.) The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath -- Knowing that Sylvia Plath's novel about a young woman's mental unraveling is pretty much autobiographical makes it an even more affecting read.  The way that the narrator, Esther Greenwood, moves from the typical anxieties of young adulthood to paralyzing depression is chilling--and sobering.

5.) The Lost Estate by Alain-Fournier -- I'll say it: Better than The Great Gatsby. 

4.) The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay -- Macaulay milks a lot of laughter out of the sight of her fellow Britons running around Turkey writing their "Turkey books," yet she's constantly aware that The Towers of Trebizond is exactly that: too wrapped up in itself to really say or even notice anything significant about Turkey.  Few other books I've read have been as consistently funny and deeply sad.

3.) Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes -- What is there left to say about Don Quixote?  It's our greatest book about friendship, and our greatest book about imagination.  Modern literature owes more to Cervantes than anybody, Shakespeare (probably) not excepted.

2.) The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg -- My top two books this year are both from a class I took on the novel in the Romantic period.  Both are exceedingly strange.  The Private Memoirs are the story of a Puritan fanatic in Scotland who falls under the influence of his doppelganger, who convinces him to kill people for God.  Things do not go well for him.  I almost made this #1.

1.) The Monk by Matthew Lewis -- I think anyone who doesn't read literature written before fifty years ago because it's antiquated or stuffy ought to read The Monk.  It's got it all: Evil priests, Satanic pacts, forcible rape, infant corpses, dismemberment by demon, etc., etc.  This was my favorite book of the year because it was awesome.

That's a wrap!  As always, we're constantly looking for more contributors to our blog.  If you'd like to challenge yourself to read and write about fifty books in 2014, shoot me an e-mail at misterchilton at gmail dot com.

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

And as she sickened with this feeling a thought and explanation suddenly came to her, so that she knew and almost said aloud: They are the we of me.  Yesterday, and all the twelve years of her life, she had been only Frankie.  She was an I person who had to walk around and do things by herself.  All other people had a we to claim, all other except her.  When Berenice said we, she meant Honey and Big Mama, her lodge, her church.  The we of her father was the store.  All members of clubs have a we to belong to and talk about.  The soldiers in the army can say we, and even the criminals on chain-gangs.  But the old Frankie had no we to claim, unless it would be the terrible summer we of her and John Henry and Berenice--and that was the last we in the world she wanted.  Now all this was suddenly over and changed.  There was her brother and the bride, and it was though when first she saw them something she had known inside of her: They are the we of me.

Carson McCullers' The Member of the Wedding opens by saying, "It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old.  This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member.  She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world."  Mick Kelly, one of the protagonists of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, claims that "[s]he wasn't a member of any bunch."  Both Frankie and Mick spend their summers wandering around, isolated from other teenagers, hanging out with those much younger than them if they hang out with anyone at all.  They share the same anxieties about maturing, especially the fact that they have endured sudden growth spurts and are now taller than their peers.  Both seem to have a closer relationship with their family's black servants than with their parents.

If I thought about it, there would probably be dozens of other similarities--so many that you might uncharitably say that The Member of the Wedding is a rehash by an author who only has one idea.  But I prefer to think of this short novel as a variation on a theme, a single riff plucked out of the fugue that is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and sent off on a jazz solo.  (In fact, at one point McCullers writes that in Frankie "a jazz sadness quivered her nerves.")

Frankie responds to her isolation and anxiety by developing an obsession with her older brother and his upcoming wedding.  As her caretaker Berenice says, she is "in love with" their wedding, and she makes plans to escape the boredom of her life by running away with the newlyweds after the wedding:

Frankie stood looking into the sky.  For when the old question came to her--the who she was and what she would be in the world, and why she was standing there that minute--when the old question came to her, she did not feel hurt and unanswered.  At last she knew just who she was and understood where she was going.  She loved her brother and the bride and she was a member of the wedding.  The three of them would go into the world and they would always be together.

Just as in Lonely Hunter, McCullers' ability to write from a child's perspective is really uncanny.  Frankie and Mick can be precocious at times, but they never seem like adults disguised in children's clothes.  In Member, McCullers gives Frankie a companion in six-year old John Henry, and their conversations are perfectly attuned, I think, to the way kids talk.  The triangular relationship between Frankie, John Henry, and their caretaker Berenice--one which Frankie is constantly trying to extricate herself from, and then returning to--is the heart of the novel.  I was really struck by these comments by Berenice on her ex-husbands, which serve as a warning to Frankie:

"Why, don't you see what I was doing?" asked Berenice.  "I loved Ludie and he was the first man I ever loved.  Therefore, I had to go and copy myself forever afterward.  What I did was to marry off little pieces of Ludie whenever I come across them.  It was just my misfortune they all turned out to be the wrong pieces... You and that wedding at Winter Hill," Berenice said finally.  "That is what I am warning about.  I can see right through them two gray eyes of yours like they was glass.  And what I see is the saddest piece of foolishness I ever knew."
Later on there's a really fantastic scene where Frankie, yearning to be older, hangs around a taproom until a drunken soldier asks her on a date.  She, however, does not know what drunkenness looks like, and interprets it as eccentricity.  This all leads to a very frightening scene in his hotel room which very nearly becomes a sexual assault; again, perhaps like the scene between Mick Kelly and Harry Minowitz at the lake in Lonely Hunter.  But here the danger and the fear are amplified, and make a stark contrast to the adult world of intimacy and companionship that Frankie thinks she will be able to enter at the wedding.

We know, of course, that Berenice is right; Frankie will never be part of her brother's marriage in the way that she wants to be.  Yet when the moment comes, when we think we are prepared for the final sadness, McCullers finds a way to make the ending even more heartbreaking.  Despite being a third as long, The Member of the Wedding is nearly as moving and sad as The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and seems to me like an author honing her most deeply held ideas, rather than an uninspired retread.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Lais of Marie de France

In your honor, noble King,
who are so brave and courteous,
repository of all joys
in whose heart all goodness takes root,
I undertook to assemble these lais
to compose and recount them in rhyme.
In my heart I thought and determined,
sire, that I would present them to you.
If it pleases you to receive them,
you will give me great joy;
I shall be happy forever.
Do not think me presumptuous if I dare present them to you.
Now hear how they begin.

Marie de France is the earliest known female French poet, although we're not totally sure she's from France and it seems likely that she wrote most of her works for English king Henry II.  Whatever.  She claims that these brief poetic tales of love and magic are translations from Breton songs called lais, though even that is dubious.  Wherever they come from, they're pretty delightful.

Mostly, they're about romantic love.  The first, and my favorite, "Guigemar," is about a young knight who has no interest in women until one day he's out hunting and comes across a magical androgynous white deer.  He shoots it--robbing the world of probably its only magical androgynous white deer--but the arrow rebounds and strikes him.  With its dying breath, the deer curses Guigemar:

Then she spoke, in this fashion:
"Alas!  I'm dying!
And you, vassal, who wounded me,
this be your destiny:
may you never get medicine for your wound!
Neither herb nor root,
neither physician nor potion,
will cure you
of that wound in your thigh,
until a woman heals you,
one who will suffer, out of love for you,
pain and grief
such as no woman ever suffered before.
And out of love for her, you'll suffer as much;
the affair will be a marvel
to lovers, past and present,
and all those yet to come.
Now go away, leave me in peace!"

In the very next moment Marie solves the dilemma that the deer has created--that is, where and how Guigemar will find the woman who will heal his wound.  Distraught, he boards a magical unmanned ship that whisks him away to a faraway world where he is received by a beautiful lady, trapped in a castle by her older, jealous husband.  Naturally, they fall in love and abscond together, where the hapless woman manages to get herself imprisoned by a completely different feudal jerk.  Guigemar kills him and saves the day.

It's such a simple little fairy tale story, but I love the weirdness and imbalance of it.  Why does Marie instantaneously solve the conflict she sets up?  Why is the prison story repeated twice?  I have theories about these question that I am including in a paper I'm writing for my Medieval Literature course, but those answers have very little to do with my first reaction to the strangness of "Guigemar."  Chivalric literature seems in my mind so ossified--knight beats evil lord for lady's hand, repeat--that it was really compelling to see that formula twisted and upended.

Another of my favorites is "Laustic." In this lai, a married woman and her neighbor fall in love merely by seeing each other through the window of their homes.  The woman's jealous husband asks her why she is always staring out the window, and she claims that she is delighting in the nightingale that sings in the tree outside.  The husband, perplexingly, captures the nightingale:

...I have trapped the nightingale
that kept you awake so much.
From now on you can lie in peace:
he will never again awaken you."
When the lady heard him,
she was sad and angry.
She asked her lord for the bird
but he killed it out of spite,
he broke the neck in his hands--
too vicious an act--
and thre the body on the lady;
her shift was stained with blood,
a little, on her breast.

Awesome.  After this, the woman sends the neighbor the bird's body, and he keeps it in a little iron casket around his neck for the rest of his life.  As you can see, evil husbands are a frequent theme here, and Marie seems to be narratizing the contrast between the cruel formality of marriage and the power of love constructed freely between two people.  It's actually a surprisingly modern/Western take on love, though at the time Marie's peers hotly debated the comparative value of marriage d'amour and marriage de convenance.

There's also a lai about a werewolf.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How Soon is Now?: Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time by Carolyn Dinshaw

And though I feel I have achieved my fullest incarnation here as a professional, writing a book with reams of endnotes, I also feel a kinship with the amateur that I can only call queer.  I know, I know: I have been professionally trained as a medievalist, have taught full time for more than thirty years, and have been recognized and well rewarded.  So why should I ever feel myself to be an amateur in a world of professionals, ever lacking, ever behind?  Because I am a queer--a dyke and only sort of white.  Because I am a medievalist, and studying the Middle Ages is, finally, about desire--for another time, for meaning, for life--and desire, moreover, is so particularly marked for queers with lack and shame.  These feelings are not simply personal insecurities.  Like my queerness, my feelings of amateurism aren't a stage of development, aren't ever going to go away; as in the case of queerness, too, my goal is to contribute to the creation of conditions in which an amateur sensibility might be nurtured and its productivity explored.

Amateurism is at the heart of Carolyn Dinshaw's How Soon is Now?, but it is the kind of book only a well-regarded professional could have published: part academic work, part personal essay, compelling but a little off-balance, with chapter titles taken from the discography of The Smiths.  On its face it is a book about the Middle Ages, but often it's a book about books about the Middle Ages, and the cover illustration depicts Washington Irving's Rip van Winkle.

There is a queer way of experiencing time, Dinshaw argues, unregulated by the ticking-clock urgency of marriage and procreation.  She describes queer time in a number of medieval texts in which "straight" subjects find their time disjointed, displaced, or transformed.  The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, for example, abscond to a cave to escape Roman persecution of Christians only to wake up hundreds of years later in the Christian Empire. 

There is something about medieval texts, Dinshaw contends, that makes them ripe for stories of queer time, especially as an attraction for amateur medievalists who, through their non-professional (and thus, in a way, queer) passion for the time period, are out of joint with their own era.  Geoffrey Crayon, the narrator of Washington Irving's collection which contains the Rip van Winkle story is one of these, and as such is linked to Rip as a man out of time.

For each chapter, Dinshaw ends with a personal narrative connecting her own life experiences--her queerness and amateurism--to the observations she is making about medieval texts.  I like the way that How Soon is Now? puts its subject matter into practice; skipping merrily across centuries and between the amateur and the professional spheres.  But in the end, it seems somehow simultaneously overstuffed and half-finished, as the different threads that Dinshaw follows--time, queerness, amateurism, the Middle Ages--are never tied together in a satisfactory way.  Perhaps that's a heteronormative thing for me to say.