Tag Archives: novels

“Masses Are Asses!”

This irrefutable statement is the title of chapter thirty-five in H.T. Tsiang’s delightful satire The Hanging on Union Square.

“‘Masses! Masses! New Masses; Old Masses!
“Nothing can be said that is new. Nothing can be said that is old. Masses are Asses in all ages.
“Stupid! Selfish! Contented! Short-sighted!…” (p 149)

It goes on for a couple of pages, this diatribe, coming towards the end of the novel’s 24 hour span in which our protagonist, Mr. Nut, traverses lower Manhattan in the 1930’s, transforming from anti-hero into hero. The humor and insight of this passage, among others, is what makes it such a fun read—laughing, but then also sighing. heavily. 1930’s America was a desperate age, but then so is this one, and so, and so….we laugh and sigh.

I came across this book while working my day job. The book was edited by Floyd Cheung, a professor at Smith College, our paths have minimally crossed but I know him to be a lovely man, so when I was looking into adding some his scholarly work to our library’s institutional repository, I was introduced to the nutty world of Mr. Nut and friends. Cheung also wrote the afterword and notes, beautifully contextualizing the man, H.T. Tsiang: in Tsiang’s time as well through our own. The introduction to the novel is written by Hua Hsu who hilariously describes Tsiang as a man, like many self-publishers of an “American Epic,” as someone worthy of interest, but “especially when they seem to luxuriate in their own marginality” (p x). Now, I’ve never self-published an American Epic or any other kind of epic for that matter, but I think I know a thing or two about luxuriating in my own marginality. So of course I was already deeply sympathetic to Tsiang’s sensibilities from the start.

While the book sets up an individual revolt against capitalism and highlights American communism of the day, the pulse of the story is felt through the likability and humanity of Mr. Nut. Ostensibly the characters are reduced to types—their names all clearly delineate the types: Miss Digger, Mr. Wiseguy, Mr. System, Miss Stubborn as well as the political systems they fall, or think they fall, in to. There are moments in the story that clearly evince a sort of commonality of human-ness, but that those moments happen within the stark coldness of the structures and typecasting we are all perpetually stuck in is the brilliant maneuver of this novel. Tsiang has a light, decentralized, and eccentric touch, but the style and substance of the writing are all of a piece, which is what makes the story much more than the sum of its parts.

Naturally the love story is where the distant types become familiar humans—at least for me—as I am a sucker for any and all who love. I should note that the love story part of this novel is used in a fascinating way to sum up the thesis, but I am compelled to point out the sweetness of a passage below, when Nut realizes “what all these mysterious feelings were about” and rushes towards that ‘what’ before contemplating retreat instead :

“He had his four reasons as to why he should not retreat
These four reasons Nut first evolved in his brain; then he wrote them down, in outline, on a bit of paper.
The points he made were logical, reasonable and scientific, he had courage.
Because he had courage, he went back towards Third Avenue.
He walked through the hallway.
He went from one step of the stairs to another.
He reached the door of Stubborn’s apartment.
All those four reasons that he had found, gave Nut the courage to come there.
Suddenly, he discovered that he had no reason at all.” (p 101)

This bit is soon followed by Miss Stubborn’s own frantic exchange between her heart and mind. It’s all very endearing. There is a sort of frenetic Dostoevsky-esque energy to all—as well— Tsiang’s intimate treatment of New York City reminded me of Dostoevsky’s handling of St. Petersburg. Don’t misunderstand me however, this is not a love story, it is more a political manifest of a novel, but within Tsiang’s satirization of the struggle of ‘man’ (read, people), he humanizes those who have been dehumanized, and that, I think, is rather the point of literature, if alas, not our political systems.

The Hanging on Union Square, by H.T. Tsiang. Penguin Classic, 2019. Copyright, 2013 Kaya Press. First published in the United States of America by H.T. Tsiang, 1935

Upset and Annoyed

“The woman was an example. Of something. Of not making it easy.” (p11)

Little Constructions by Anna Burns must be considered an inevitable follow up to her brilliant Milkman. Both books map the topography of chaos; the damage of whole societies as well as individual persons living in a state of trauma that creates a fractured, splintered atmosphere imbued with an absence of hope—not hopelessness—an absence of hope, like the idea of hope has yet to even be considered. One needs a root in order to fool around with the suffixes—to have the luxury of attaching the lessness to the concept. But Little Constructions takes the Heideggerian aspects of an always already traumatized population into something of a third dimension.

“So what’s going on? Do we have a psychoanalyst or a psychoanalytical psychologist or a psychophysiological profiler or even an unaccredited enthusiast with Jungian leanings in the building who could perhaps do a bit of maturity work for us here? Is this a state of stuckness? A state of sickness? Did these men perhaps leave school before they’d learnt enough and should have? Or is it that they couldn’t get themselves individuated and thus had intermingling mythic mirages, not only in their dreams but in their waking lives as well? I wouldn’t know about interpretations, for my expertise lies in being a bystander.” (p31)

The actually story is brief, but the tale is long, convoluted, and necessarily repetitive as trauma grotesquely repeats itself, doesn’t it? The characters practically all have the same names highlighting the incestuous nature of the situation, both concretely and metaphorically. It is easy to follow because what we have, really, is a simple tale of murder and incest, but at the same time difficult to follow as we have a dizzying array of the casualties, the fall out of the mess is strewn about like shrapnel, one hardly knows how to catch the through line, but fear not, we have our narrator, our friendly bystander, to explain the situation to us with verve and patience.

“And he went off. Ramblings. You know ramblings. So did Jotty. Even before he started, she felt Early Onset Compassion Fatigue Syndrome set in.” p 284

I love a good narrator. The intimacy a good narrator can create with the reader, or at least with this reader, is a powerful attractor. She’s talking to me. She’s funny and smart, and while in-the-know, also, sometimes, as puzzled as I am over the goings on; but as told by her, the dark tale becomes farce and gallows humor is a comfort to us both. The trauma is set off as to expose its ridiculousness. It’s all an absurdity. The real tragedy is the waste. The wasted time of the wasted lives that can’t get beyond the de-personalized injury inflicted upon them. It’s like they are twice assaulted, once by the assaulter, and again by their own fixation on that assault which had, in reality, very little to do with them beyond the happenstance of being there, then. But try telling that to the ruminating machines we call brains.

How do we cope? We say nothing. It’s best to say nothing, after all. Break the machine. Speak and think in code if you must think or speak at all to get as far away as you can from the thing—as if that thing had solid form within our heads—in order to physically get away from it a psychic fracturing is necessary and obviously logical. It’s upsetting and annoying, but it must be done.

“‘Julie,’ she said, and by now she was beside herself. ‘I’ve just come from therapy. Just found out at therapy. My therapist says that even though I say I’m upset and annoyed – she says that in reality I’m much, much more than that!’ […]

Julie was stunned. Both of them were stunned. By this time they had stopped walking and were staring fixedly into each other’s eyes on the High Street.

‘How’d you mean?’ said Julie. ‘I don’t understand. Where is the evidence for your therapist to be saying this? How is it possible anyway, to be more than upset and annoyed?” (pp 245-246)

How indeed.

An Unhappy Passion for Certainty

Back in the day, when one spent an afternoon in a used bookshop, I purchased a tattered one dollar paperback of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. I’d never read Maugham, but I had seen the film—long enough ago so that I can just barely recall Bette Davis’s wonderful villainy playing Mildred, but then again, that could be any number of her great films.

When my son saw the title of the book he raised his eyebrows and said, “Mother, what are you reading?” “Oh no no no,” I protested, and began to give him a synopsis of the tale. But, as I related the plot I re-thought my knee-jerk protestation, because, well, actually, the denotation of some sort of S&M story is not that far off. Maugham does in fact spin a compelling tale which rather directly describes the more sado masochistic aspects of love.

It takes a little time to get on Philip’s side, but this is what makes him an excellent protagonist—he’s flawed, and yet, his maturing moments of self-reflection are piercing and unsentimentally honest.

Maugham writes with such wit and dry humor, and with such a lovely use of vocabulary, that I can not help but adore him. That said, his underlying strength as a writer stems from the compassion with which he views our complicated species.

As I got involved in the story, I began to relate to Philip: I too have an unhappy passion for certainty, and possess a stubborn disinclination for drudgery, as well as an all-to-clear understanding of human bondage as it relates to matters of the heart, but it was the following passage that resonated most deeply. It begins with Philip’s odious guardian, his uncle Mr. Carey, a man of “somewhat less than average height, inclined to corpulence, with his hair, worn long, arranged over the scalp so as to conceal his baldness,” who is a truly awful specimen. The worst kind of fundamentally inconsequential yet horrid human. He’s hypocritical, judgmental, and completely unaware of his petty but utter selfishness. Plus he is a complete asshole to his meek and kind wife—all the while thinking himself an important and godly man. He is ever disappointed in Philip’s admitted difficulty in setting his life up in a ‘proper’ manner. In one argument he says to Philip, “I suppose you think you’re very clever. I think your flippancy is quite inane.” This comment evinces this bit of musing from Philip :

“He thought with a smile of his uncle’s remark. It was lucky that the turn of his mind tended to flippancy. He had begun to realise what a great loss he had sustained in the death of his father and mother. That was one of the differences in his life which prevented him from seeing things in the same way as other people. The love of parents for their children is the only emotion which is quite disinterested. Among strangers he had grown up best he could, but he had seldom been used with patience or forbearance. He prided himself on his self-control. It had been whipped into him by the mockery of his fellows. Then they called him cynical and callous. He had acquired calmness of demeanor and under most circumstances an unruffled exterior, so that now he could not show his feelings. People told him he was unemotional; but he knew he was at the mercy of his emotions: an accidental kindness touched him so much that sometimes he did not venture to speak in order not to betray the unsteadiness of his voice. He remembered the bitterness of his life at school, the humiliation which he endured, the banter which had made him morbidly afraid of making himself ridiculous; and he remembered the loneliness he had felt since, faced with the world, the disillusion and the disappointment caused by the difference between what it promised to his active imagination and what it gave him. But notwithstanding he was able to look at himself from the outside and smile with amusement. “By Jove, if I weren’t flippant, I should hang myself,” he thought cheerfully.”

pp.120 Doubleday edition 1915, 42nd printing 1970

It’s a long passage, I am sorry, I simple could not shorten it for all the effect it had on me. I re-read it endlessly, I thought about it for days. If I ever penned a memoir I am afraid to admit how little of that passage I would have to edit to make it mine. In fact, a couple of days after I read it, my partner and I were out of sorts, arguing and frustrated, and what did he say to me? He said my problem was— I was flippant. Well, one of my problems. Thank goodness I had the self control not to laugh at the confirmation.

I thought about titling this post. “If I Weren’t Flippant, I Should Hang Myself,” but I didn’t want to worry anyone needlessly who might not share my and Philip’s dark sense of a flippant’s survival mechanism.

Philip’s story is of a man who is trying to figure it out. Thinking there is some certainty out there, at least in love, right? He doesn’t want to waste time with half measures. He seeks the truth even when the truth is a tool of torture. The story travels his life from early schooling days, forays into the business world, academic hardships, friendships forming and failing, at one point he flees to Paris to become an artist and grapples with the problem of talent—when does one know whether they possess a talent for something? As Monsieur Foinet puts it, “It is cruel to discover one’s mediocrity only when it is too late. It does not improve the temper” (p 113). This is quite correct, and yet oftener than not, we simple have to go through, at our own erratic pace, our own process of discovery. Philip does; he is able to come to terms with his limitations, minor talents, and severe pecuniarily-induced hurdles, but lacking a solid foundation in love, in which he feels he belongs in love, is, through Mildred, nearly his undoing. Without that foundation to rest upon there can be no trust in oneself, never mind in the other. He can’t know his own feelings. It’s a sort of homelessness of the heart that plagues him. The opportunistic Mildred has very little to do with the cause of that.

Ultimately however, the story is very satisfying, the nod to Tolstoy with its Levin-esque epiphany is all the sweeter for centering not in the sacred realm of nature, but instead, in the profane realm of the human heart.

When at last I finished the book, I closed it and set it down firmly on the porch swing. I announced to my partner, who was sitting beside me: “It’s a love story.” “Oh dear,” he replied.

Title from p. 133

A Drop in the River

IMG_0843The truly timeless tales are those that seem to be telling a localized story but are in fact about something greater, larger, universal. All stories are like a drop in the river of our humanity, but a really good story, to paraphrase Rumi, is not a drop in the river but is the whole river in a drop.

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simple able to see any issue from both sides.

Thus begins The Sympathizer by Viet Thang Nguyen. Generally, when I write a blog post, I am pretty skimpy on plot details. My logic is: if one hasn’t read the book, why spoil it? and if one has, why repeat or rephrase what was carefully rendered by the author’s own purposeful style and pace? What I like to record for the benefit of my memory as well as for, hopefully, any interested person’s benefit is the effect a book has on me.

Maybe it says more about me than I’d like, but I have to admit that my favorite kind of humor is gallows humor. The narrator of The Sympathizer is just the sort I like and the structure of the novel, in which the narrator is telling the story to one particular person, allows a gullible reader such as myself to feel an intimacy with him. He is amusing, has interesting tales to tell, and unique perspectives to share.

Nguyen, I am hardly the first person to report (he received a pulitzer among many other awards for this book, after all), has written a beautifully affecting novel. The novel begins at the fall of Saigon in 1975, a double agent, The Captain, tells his story in a tone that evinces both a sense of fatalism and chaotic happenstance. From his own heritage to the international conflict at play, nothing is simple, everything is its own opposite. That tension imbues, colors, and complicates everything. Nguyen’s style however, is light.

All this time I kept my gaze fixed on hers, an enormously difficult task given the gravitational pull exerted by her cleavage. While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilizations, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese may have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity (p 232).

The story weaves its web from the outside in. The sum is not seen until the very end. There is a clarity and power of message that I did not anticipate for at least the first 2/3 of the story, and that….sneakiness is a delight even while it leads to the greater theme which is heart-wrenchingly human, all too human.

In the Minds of Others

so I argue within myself whether to take my shoes off or not, and of course I could not ask him if I’m to take them off or not however it doesn’t seem right to me to begin analysis proper with a question of this sort especially since I have trouble becoming intimate with people, even with my father there was no intimacy, and in conclusion since hesitating any longer could also look insulting to him while he waits and perhaps doesn’t understand I resolutely take off my shoes…
—Giuseppe Berto, incubus (269)


While I was in Italy a friend of mine posted a Facebook game in which all participants were to reach for the closest book, turn to a certain page, and write down the fifth sentence they came upon. I did not even need to decide if I wanted to participate because the book I was reading at the time, Giuseppe Berto’s incubus doesn’t do sentences. Written in 1964, and leaning hard on the conceit of a session at the analyst’s office, the exposition of the central problem of the narrator’s life (father issues) is very nearly a 383 page stream-of-conscious work. It is a tour-de-force of a study in modern angst as well as a fun and fascinating read.

my God I’m not fourteen yet and already I have such a great longing to die, what am I doing in this world what am I doing, I love love love so wretchedly and immensely that I don’t have the courage to decide on an object for my love, and then mine is love in bitterness love in renunciation, now houses and human beings are far away and I can sing without anybody hearing me Lovely liar beauty of an hour your lips are like a poisoned flower….(304)

The protagonist, a writer living in Rome, tells the story of his life and consequences of being the son of a father unable to show any love towards him. It is at once funny and tragic. A sort of Italian Catholic Woody Allen flinging himself from one illness to another, some real and some imagined.

he wants me to dig up in the Gospels or some sacred text or other article of faith whereby a person that has nobody to weep for him on earth cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and for the hundredth time I explain to him that such an article of faith doesn’t exist because it isn’t in accord with the ethical principles of our religion, nor of any other religion in the world I’m sure, however I believe he needn’t worry about this since it’s a film he’s making and not a theological treatise, and since the gimmick involving Gennerio is poetically valid according to me he can proceed freely with out articles of faith, but since I have used pretty obscure words like ethical principles and theology and poetically valid he looks at me like I’m trying to put something over on him…  (186–7)

I found this book in a used-book shop in Trastevere and I was happy to discover it. It kept me company when I took breaks from walking and looking and thinking. Although my trip was truly wonderful, I was also quite alone (when I wasn’t working, and even much of the time then) and as in all lonely periods of my life books afford me time out of my own incessant internal dialogue. This book was particularly interesting to me not only because it was set in Rome, the city I stayed in for over a month, but also because it took place in someone else’s mind. Someone else’s fears, foibles, and fables mercifully quieting my own; giving me someone besides me myself and I to listen and talk to.

Throughout all of the struggles of the unnamed protagonist in this tale, one thing becomes painfully clear to both reader and hero—while there may indeed be no article of faith that prohibits a person from entering heaven if no one weeps for him, the knowledge that no one will is the most wretched sort of life one could endure. My loneliness was temporary. The disorientation of being in a foreign country with middling fluency in the language gave me the freedom and a silence created by the remove of social interactions to fearlessly examine my past and my future hopes. Berto’s hero was not so lucky. He worked himself up into a froth of incurable isolation. It was heartbreaking to witness.

*Published in Italy as Il Male Oscure. This Penguin Books edition translated by William Weaver.


That Goodly Mansion


There is something truly wonderful about a very long book. And Charlotte Brontë’s Villette is indeed a very long book. With so much time to develop the characters the reader can sink deeply into the story no matter the pace at which they read it. Life, being what it is, forced me to renew this book at the library an embarrassing number of times. But this book, being what it is, will stay within me indefinitely.

“Do not let me think of them too often, too much, too fondly,” I implored. “let me be content with a temperate draught of this living stream: let me not run athirst, and apply passionately to its welcome waters: let me not imagine in them a sweeter taste than earth’s fountains know. Oh! Would to God I may be enabled to feel enough sustained by an occasional, amicable intercourse, rare, brief, engrossing and tranquil: quite tranquil!” (223)

Anyone familiar with one of my favorite books, Jane Eyre,  will be familiar with Brontë’s typical heroine. Both Jane and Lucy Snowe are sober, realistic, controlled but deeply feeling. They are orphans, not just in actual fact—but emotionally—they absorb the losses of their lives with equanimity to the point of capriciousness. This book, more than in Jane Eyre, deeply examines the English and Protestant underpinnings of that disposition. Set in Catholic France the cultural differences are pronounced by the added condition of expatria, and yet, what is truly wonderful about the book is the human feeling of loneliness and yearning for a true and intimate companionship that Brontë beautifully captures.

“As if one could let you alone, when you are so peculiar and so mysterious!”
“The mystery and peculiarity being entirely the conception of your own brain—maggots—neither more nor less, be so good as to keep them out of my sight.” (391)

Lucy can be a little sharp-tongued, but her honesty is refreshing and her wit is true and never malicious. Brontë’s characters are,to me, deeply appealing. Villette is not constructed like other novels of this genre. The plot takes time to get going, and the narrator’s relationship to the reader is fascinating.

Of course it was a particular style of the time for the narrator to address the reader—it is intimate—one becomes the special confidant and is subtly elevated to an active role. The famous closing remarks in Jane Eyre: “Reader, I married him,” still warms my heart, but in Villette there is an oddity in that the Lucy’s reserve extends to the reader as well—she does not reveal some of her thoughts or reactions, and sometimes she even refers back to times in which she did not relate all that her heart felt. In a subtle manner her relationship to the reader is like her relationships to the other characters int he book. If you listen to her, and withhold judgment or projection, the fineness of her character comes through.

“Happiness is the cure—a cheerful mind the preventative: cultivate both.”
No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to
cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure” (315)

The novel takes place in the interior of Lucy Snowe’s mind. The brilliant thing that Brontë accomplishes with this mode of narration is that one understands that the mind is not the perfect narrator—there are things which we hide from ourselves before we even have a thought of hiding them from others. It is the complexity and isolation of the interior terrain of the mind that Brontë develops in a surprisingly avant-garde manner considering the pre-Freudian era it seems to have forecasted.

“If,” muttered she, “if he should write, what then: Do you mediate pleasure in replying? Ah, fool! I warn you! Brief in your answer. Hope no delight of heart—no indulgence of intellect: grant no expansion to feeling—give holiday to no single faculty: dally with no friendly exchange: foster no genial intercommunication” (287)

Ah, romance. Yes! of course it is a romance! One to swoon the heart at that. But it is the battle between the mind and heart that is Brontë’s specialty—and what I particularly love about her books. For all of Lucy’s quirks and stringent coping mechanism, Brontë makes clear that her heart’s raging passions are valued above all. And it is that estimation alone that makes her novels so deeply satisfying and pleasurable.

Villette. Everyman’s Library, 1909 edition.

*Title from pg 581: “I believe in that goodly mansion, his heart, he kept one little place under the skylights where Lucy might have entertainment, if she chose to call.”

**photo by Augustus Accardi

A Book by Its Cover

I feel no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all”
—Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (37)

Scan 1.jpg

I attended a symposium in January in which the head of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA—an excellent resource if you don’t know of it) mentioned a book that he had loved (and had had to wait for as there was an over two-hundred person hold on it at his Boston library). I found the book in my library’s consortium, but also had to wait about a month and a half for it. I had already just gotten involved in another book, so when I got the notification that it was waiting for me, I retrieved the book immediately but was then warned that I had to return it in two weeks time due to other holds—I was a bit panicked and so read it right away.

The story takes place in Naples in a poor neighborhood and is narrated by Elena Greco concerning her friend, and her friendship with, Lila Cerullo. It is a really interesting book. Superficially it is a page turner of typical Italian melodrama. And yet there is more. First of all, it is a book about female friendship, which (as far as literary themes in the western “canon” go) is a johnny-come-lately of  a genre (jane, I suppose). For hundreds of years we got female characters who were mothers, sisters, lovers/wives, or daughters, but unlike the well-mined exploration of man-to-man friendships, the domain of female friendships was inaccessible (or perhaps uninteresting) to predominantly male writers. So, that aspect alone, which is richly examined in Ferrante’s first of 4(?) in the series, is quite wonderful.

What, instead, did [Lila] and Stefano have in mind, where did they think they were living? They were behaving in a way that wasn’t familiar even in the poems that I studied in school, in novels I read. I was puzzled. They weren’t reacting to the insults, even the truly intolerable insult that the Solaras were making (273).

The other really lovely subtlety of the novel is the interplay between the poverty of the neighborhood and education. Elena and Lila are both—well, in a word—brilliant, and Ferrante shows the development of their intellects and the struggles which ensue with a thorough beauty. I ended up, in my state of panic, reading the book in two days flat. But that may also be a function of the easy (which I do not mean disparagingly) prose and Ferrante’s ability to suck her readers in. In fact, although I knew going in that it was the first in a series, I have to admit I was a bit annoyed at the forcefulness of the serialization: I feel that I have to read the next book in order to finish the story and that can, and for me does, feel manipulative. But, as I enjoyed reading it, it is not perhaps too burdensome of a manipulation.

Here is my main serious complaint: I really hate the cover. I am glad to be done reading it so that I can be done having to look at the hideous thing. It is tacky and expresses nothing of the depth the novel offers: friendship, humanity, quotidian struggle, familial pressure, coming-of-age, prejudices, and culture. Instead it looks something like what the book is in danger of being misunderstood as: a made for TV melodrama mini-series. I have spent time in Naples (although the above photo of two of my children is in Rome it expresses the visual beauty of the country) I went back and looked at some photos I had taken Italy and Naples. The inner city is sensual and striking and I can not understand why the cover to this novel is so cheesy given the resources. This may be a small matter to some people, but I would argue that it is not. Whether one fully realizes it or not, these things matter. If you are asking me to read a book of some 350 pages, you would be wise to make me want to first hold that book in my hands.



Companions in Distress

“What shall I do?” I said. “It seems a pity to commit suicide when I have lived for ninety-two years and really haven’t understood anything.”
—Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet (17)

IMG_6015 (1)

Described as a Surrealist novel, the 1974 book, The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington is nothing if not dreamlike. Where the novel begins bears zero relation from where it ends and the matter-of-fact tone with which Carrington relates the hairpin turns and oddness is exactly like a dream in which things just are and you don’t necessarily question how you know—don’t ask questions! the facts are whatever they appear to be.

Then a terrible thing happened to me. I started to laugh and could not stop. Tears poured down my face and I covered my mouth with my hand, hoping they would think I had a secret sorrow and was weeping and not laughing (45).

The most wonderful thing about the book is the innocently curmudgeon of a protagonist, Marian Leatherby. She is very funny and her friend Carmella is the type of friend we all wish we had:

“I will give you a solution in a few moments,” said Carmella, who was rummaging in a large covered basket that she had brought. “In the meantime I had better give you the chocolate biscuits and the port, before anybody comes” (141).

A woman with priorities! And the one who gives the near-deaf Marian a hearing trumpet which causes her to learn that her odious family, whom she did not in anyway miss hearing, are plotting to send her to a “retirement” home which is where the real adventure begins.

The novel is closer, in my opinion, to a sort of a magical realism in that Carrington does not try ones patience with pseudo-psychological-surrealist imagery. Rather than a deep seeded anxiety, the book has a sort of joyful innocence. Marian is very trusting, and for a fellow-trusting fool like myself, it is nice to root for her.

I leapt right into the boiling soup and stiffened in a moment of intense agony with my companions in distress, one carrot and two onions (176).

*image from L’Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers



Suspended Fog

“Indeed it is a difficult business—this timekeeping; nothing more quickly disorders it than contact with any of the arts”
—Virginia Woolf, Orlando (174)


One of the most wonderful qualities of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is the manner in which she handles, moves, and manipulates time. Perhaps because I took an unusually long time to read this book I was particularly sensitive to that facet. These past few months in the novel of my life I have felt a similar effect of time twisting back on itself, restlessly running ahead, and then suspended in a fog of deep introspection. I suppose I was strangely in synch with Orlando’s odd tale which Woolf relates in a marvelously natural and nonchalant way.

“We must shape our words till they are the thinnest integument for our thoughts. Thoughts are divine etc.” (101)

It is the “etc” that charms. While there is something slightly chilly in Woolf’s writing that keeps her at a bit of a distance from me, I love her playful sense of humor and understatedness.

“And as the first question had not been settled—What is Love?—back it would come at the least provocation or none, and hustle Books or Metaphors or What one lives for into the margin, there to wait till they saw their chance to rush into the field again” (59).

After all, we share similar concerns and unrelenting questions. And while of course I mean Love, of course I mean other concerns as well, but really I mean Love.

Here she took up lodging and began instantly to look about her for what she had come in search of—that is to say, life and a lover (110).

I’m sure I am not giving anything away to say that her search was formally his search in the infamous plot twist of the novel. And yet, true to Woolf’s gift for writing, Orlando’s barely registered bemusement at his sudden change of sex makes perfect sense in the context of being a human being confined to one’s own life. What is there to be confused about? We are what we are, we have no way of knowing any other way of being, and so these details hardly merit notice. Save your passion and angst for the rest of it:

Hail! natural desire! Hail! happiness! divine happiness! and pleasure of all sorts, flowers and wine, though one fades and the other intoxicates; and half-crown tickets out of London on Saturdays, and singing in dark chapel hymns about death, and anything, anything that interrupts and confounds the tapping of typewriters and filing of letters and forging links and chains, binding the Empire together” (167).

Save your passion for Life and Love.




Degrees of Difference

As you said, it was too good for mere dirt; you tried to apply it to your own wandering and uneasy life. It is the angle I am aiming for myself, and I don’t mean the rigid angle at which I rest in this chair. I wonder if you ever reached it (24). – Wallace Stegner, The Angle of Repose

IMG_1911One of the many wonderful things about Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose is the title itself. It is the reason, in fact, why I read this book (at a friend’s ardent recommendation). More than that, Stegner knew it. Unlike many books in which the title is a summation, or vague bit of poetical pointing,  Angle of Repose and what it means technically, as well as metaphorically, is addressed throughout the novel. And just exactly because it is a technical term that is given the freedom to expand its meaning to the characters’ philosophical  perspective of life, the reader alike, makes it a particularly meaningful part of the story.

Willingly or unwillingly, she collected experience and wrote it back East in letters. Perhaps she wrote so fully because she wanted to divert Augusta’s depression. Perhaps she was only indulging her own starved desire for talk (140).

I have far too many similarities to the characters in this book to write about it with any sense of comfort, but I can say that, for me, the angle of repose is that sweet spot where the force of gravity and inertia succumbs to a place of rest-  the rocks stop rolling, your place on this earth is found, and felt.

Down this drift, with Kendall walking ahead and the others steering her by the elbows, they made their way. Inevitably she thought of Dante, Virgil, and Beatrice, and up on top Tregoning, Charon of this vertical Styx; but the thought of how silly it would sound to speak that thought made her blot it out. About used up, I should think, Oliver might say (139).

What a wonder and comfort it is that we have our fellow humans to share our feelings, and what a strange and disconcerting thing it is that we persist in thwarting our repose- through pride, hubris, culturally induced concealment, and shame…So what if Dante, Virgil and Charon “used it up”? What’s true is true, and better that we share it than suffer in silence. Stegner so brilliantly and subtly dissects the mores of the ages: Victorian, the free loving 60’s, and the extremities betwixt the two- my heart ached for the protagonist/narrator, Lyman- the smart, sarcastic, stoic and sensitive man- with a capital ‘M,’ for whom the story revolves around. As a rather hopelessly devout reader, I have found that it is the moment in which I fall in love with the voice of a book that keeps me, holds me, and consoles me – like a lover: the language permeates the deepest parts of one’s mind and heart, my eyes race to meet the words, to leap and joyously roll over them, or linger with sorrow and empathy . It is a powerful gift for a writer to share with a reader. It is a powerful union between the two.

The literary device in Angle of Repose of  having the grandson, Lyman, write a history of his grandmother’s life, gives a long and nuanced view as to how unhappiness can take root. An errant or thoughtless figuring here and there, and before you know it, the amount of effort a reckoning would entail, distorts and separates all the equations.

In God’s name, Grandmother, I feel like saying to her, what was the matter with him? Did he have a harelip? Use bad language? Eat with his knife? You can do him harm, constantly adjusting his tie and correcting his grammar and telling him to stand up straight (68).

But Lyman, I feel like saying to him, isn’t it really true that there doesn’t have to be anything ‘wrong’ with him? It is all about the angles, and whether or not one is close enough to adjust their angle to meet another. The failure to try is tragic, but misjudging the difference of degrees between is equally so.