Tag Archives: novels

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)

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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.

 

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That Goodly Mansion

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.

 

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The Angel is My Watermark

Every Middle Age is good, whether in man or history. It is full sunlight and roads extend in every direction, and all roads are downhill. I would not level the road nor remove any of the bumps. Each jolt sends a fresh message to the signal tower. I have marked all the spots in passing: to retrace my thoughts I have only to retrace my journey, re-feel those bumps (37).
– 
Henry Miller, Black Spring.

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I didn’t set out to read another Miller so soon after the last, But as I was shelving a book in my Rare Book Room job my eye was caught by a lovely artists’ book – The Angel is my Watermark (by Barbara Beisinghoff).  What a title! I carefully read the book while standing in the stacks. I know some people have some sort of obsession with Angels. I am not one of them. Mine is perhaps more for watermarks. Still, there is something wonderful in it and I really can’t get it out of my head. Turns out the title comes from Henry Miller’s novel Black Spring which was written after Tropic of Cancer. Obviously, I had to read it.

What little I have learned about writing amounts to this: it is not what people think it is. It is an absolutely new thing each time with each individual. Valparaiso, for example. Valparaiso, when I say it, means something totally different from anything it ever meant before. It may mean an English cunt with all her front teeth gone and the bartender standing in the middle of the street searching for customers. It may mean an angel in a silk shirt running his lacy fingers over a black harp (27).

I will admit that about half-way through reading this book a depression descended upon me. The heaviness of the cruel epithets that populate the recounting of Miller’s early life began to crush me down. I wondered how Miller, filled with such bile and objectification, could recover- recover himself! It was at this point that I noticed a small hole in the relatively  ancient paperback version of the book that came to me through the I.L.L (inter library loan). It was a perfect circle, and it went through to the next page, and the next, and next, more appeared and it became apparent that the book had been eaten by worms. I burst out laughing. Perfect!

Sitting in the snow before the place of my birth I remember this incident vividly. Why, I don’t know, except it connects with the grotesque and the void, with the heartbreaking lonelines, the snow, the lack of color, the absence of music (194).

I suppose there are wormholes in us all. The truth is, they were quite beautiful and made me smile to think of the worms digesting Miller before me. I noticed they took it in back-to-front, so, I have that up on them at least– I know which way the pages turn. And, taken as a whole, the book is aching in its love, or maybe just longing, for humanity, even the crassness of individuals, and individual words, can not vitiate the hope.

Miller is brutal in his assault on the pathetic and degenerate only when they combine with stupidity and cruelty. But it can eat away at one. And yet, and yet… worms are the composters of the planet, what do they make but the very majestic living foundation of our existence?–dirt, nourishment, life, a lightening of the crushing dead refuse of the world. The worm is my watermark!

During the journey I wept–I couldn’t help it. When people are too good for this world they have to be put under lock and key. There’s something wrong with people who are too good (95).

The chapter which led me to the book, The Angel is My Watermark, is simply brilliant. I suppose I am a little more like the worms than I like to think- I just get a book and plunge in, it wasn’t until after I read it that I discovered this chapter is quite revered. Rightly so. It is an account of Miller creating a masterpiece, a painting, and the description of the process is an hilarious, true, poignant, brazen, chaotic splendor of the artistic process.

I am merely flipping the pages of my notebook as a warming up exercise. So I imagine. But cursorily and swiftly as I sweep over these notes something fatal is happening to me (51).

He becomes possessed with the idea of drawing and then painting a horse: mistakes lead to modifications to transformations, fire! volcanoes! bedbugs! to the sink, with a nail brush–the Muse dragging him over a bumpy messy road until at last – the masterpiece emerges!
It is a true literary delight to read.

You may say it’s just an accident, this masterpiece, and so it is! But then, so is the Twenty-third Psalm. Every birth is miraculous–and inspired.

Miller is perhaps not for everyone, but there is a fundamental goodness to his work that refuses to cease calling to me, and I refuse to cease responding. Yes, he lets the wormholes lie where they are, and it can be disturbing, but, he seems to ask: they are there–who am I to ignore them?

The angel is there like a watermark, a guarantee of your faultless vision. The angle has no goiter; it is the artist who has the goiter. The angel is there to drop a sprig of parsley in your omelette, to put a shamrock in your buttonhole. I could scrub the mythology out of the horse’s mane; I could scrub the yellow out of the Yangtsze Kiang; I could scrub the date out of the man in the gondola; I could scrub the clouds and the tissue paper in which were wrapped the bouquets with forked lightning……But the angel I can’t scrub out. The angel is my watermark (67).

*drawing by J. Ryan 2014.