Tag Archives: novels

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.



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.



Retarded Evolution

‘You don’t know what it is to have been loved and broken with. You haven’t been broken with, because in your relation what can there have been worth speaking of to break?’ (553) – Henry James, The Golden Bowl

IMG_2150When I searched the library stacks for The Golden Bowl there were several volumes on the shelf. I always look for the physically smaller book as I have to carry it around. But I want to want to hold it as well. I was strongly put off by the cover of one of the copies, which met the correct proportions, but as it was an ugly shiny movie poster of a cover, it bothered me on many levels. However, it had a forward by Gore Vidal – too long to read at that moment…so I reluctantly checked the copy out.

Their lips sought their lips, their pressure their response and their response and their pressure; with a violence that had sighed itself the next moment to the longest and deepest of stillnesses they passionately sealed their pledge (259).

If you are familiar with the story, or have been the unfortunate viewer of the film whose equally hideous poster picture adorned my book, then you know two things:
1) It’s a Henry James novel, therefore the extremely vivid and passionate passage above…isn’t going to end well.
2) It’s a Henry James novel, so the extremely vivid and passionate passage above is an anomaly of straightforward desire meets straightforward action – a rare thing in James’ worlds.

After all, ‘Does one ever put into words anything so fatuously rash?’ (221), not in a James novel they don’t, that’s for damn sure. But what he does put into words is the excruciating process of self and socially induced censorship. The ocean of difference between what one thinks or feels and what one says or shows is displayed by James in naked detail – and it is painful. After one particularly long heartfelt speech James drops in this sentence: Some such words as those were what didn’t ring out…”  Ha! Oh Dear man, no! – God forbid one says what they want or mean! Truly, I had an epiphany, perhaps a rather obvious one, but still I was powerfully struck by the thought – what a different world it would be if people could actually communicate honestly with one another…a completely different order.

‘No – nothing is incredible to me of people immensely in love’ (204).

James gives glimpse of love’s ability to pierce the inner worlds. But love is never Love when it can’t conquer social mores or social climbing – never mind the emotional retardation required to meet those conquering heroes of the modern age – conventions and ambition. The father and daughter Verver’s marry for convention’s sake to the lover’s Charlotte and Amerigo, who each marry a Verver (respectively) for ambition- the results are predictably depressing.

‘They believe in themselves. They take it for what it is. And that,’ she said, ‘saves them’ (299).

So says the delightful Mrs. Assingham to her husband, the Colonel, who represent the only open and true relationship of the entire story. They joyfully and hilariously speculate about the inner, hidden, smothered lives of the Ververs, The Prince, and Charlotte. And they are not wrong – to believe in oneself is a sadly rare but beautiful thing – and when two people believe in each other – ah! that’s the very thing.

He had noticed it before: it was the English, the American sign that duplicity, like ‘love’, had to be joked about. It couldn’t be ‘gone into’ (51).

We are taught right from the start what not to say. We have no educational or cultural methods by which to be honest, respectfully, with one another. We are so molded to suppress what we say and how we act that a certain numbness creeps in and for many people the ability to really feel, or know what one feels is lost altogether. Feelings are suspect, troublesome, weak and ‘womanly’. And yet, in the end, to feel is all that matters, it is all the experience this life can really offer us.

As with Charlotte, just before, she was embarrassed by the difference between what she took in and what she could say, what she felt and what she could show (228).

The Golden Bowl goes very deep into the mental processes that result in warped and smothered emotional lives. So deep, sometimes the reader feels lost in the labyrinth of a character’s mind. But the result is a true and tortured account of the energy it requires to try to figure out other people’s motives and intentions when nobody can, or will,  simply state what they are. The intensity of the examination is consuming. The novel is subtle and ambiguous – for the majority of it I just wanted someone to like, someone to root for, but James never offers up a hero – all are duped- mostly by themselves.

The shiny smarmy Hollywood cover of my book started to make a sort of sense – I couldn’t stand to touch it, I want nothing to do with it! The ending, which I have seen outlined by some as a declaration of love, was for me anything but. It was a confirmation of the shallowness of a life lived for the sake of keeping up appearances, it was the effectiveness of a person’s ability to construct emotional blinders – to purchase, with one’s soul, a deal with society while losing the possibility of an authentic life. It was an ending that deflates one’s heart – see? it seems to say – nobody cares about you, Heart.


* title from pg. 520 of Penguin Books edition – “What retarded evolution, she asked herself in these hours, mightn’t poor Charlotte all unwittingly have precipitated?



What I Remember

It never occurs to anybody that she might have loved someone and the love meant something to her.
Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (95)


I am a person who laughs a lot: on the brink of despair, over a shared meal, once over an open grave, lollygagging on a patch of grass with my children, writhing in pain that time I fell down the stairs and broke my butt- there’s rarely a reason not to laugh. Milan Kundera’s novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a series of seven stories that explores lives defined by loss. Its tone is melancholy and thoughtful; the searching and mapping of love, laughter and meaning overlapping throughout the stories.

Kundera’s musings on the origin and purpose of laughter is captivating- the devil’s invention and the misinterpretation of the angel’s imitation breaking one concept into two. The Devil’s laughter came first, according to the book, and was born of malice and relief, the angel’s is a reactive laughter of joy.

Whereas the Devil’s laughter pointed up the meaninglessness of things, the angel’s shout rejoiced in how rationally organized, well conceived, beautiful, good, and sensible everything on earth was. (62)

One word and concept to describe two very different ways of absorbing the world in all its complex horror and wonder. I can’t help believing that in navigating life, both are essential, and yet to think of laughter as having two opposing origins is fascinating, not least of all because it reminds us of the limits of our language in expressing the true depth of our real emotional lives.

But the word “border” in the common geographical sense of the term conjured up another border as well, an intangible and immaterial border he had been thinking of more and more lately. (206)

Kundera’s fascination, in this novel, with borders stems specifically from his status as a man with no country, as well as a man who has lost his father. I am mesmerized as well by the concept of borders, the tangible as well as intangible. As a species we spend an inordinate amount of time constructing them, and then an equal amount of time defining religions or philosophies that will aid us in forgetting them. All that demarcates and describes us comes down to a border. Whether it be nation, country, patrimony, love or hate. Where do I begin and end? Where do we overlap?

We are all prisoners of a rigid conception of what is important and what is not. (197)

Because we do overlap. In every way, messy and neat, we are joined together and it is the “rigid conceptions,” the intangibles that manifest into tangibles that really hurt us. There are no borders that can’t be laughed away. Even if laughter is a means of forgetting, it also brings us to a relief of exultation, the border between the two opposing concepts is just as porous as all the rest.

What’s beautiful about forgetting is that it softens the rigidity. Laughter’s beauty is our remembrance of our absurdity as well as our joy.

The Drooping Hours

In self reproach and loneliness and disillusion he came to the entrance of the labyrinth. (265)
-F.Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise
…Well this side of Paradise!…
There’s little comfort in the wise.
-Rupert Brooke

The sad construction of the life of our Young Egoist, Armory, is told by Fitzgerald with an initially sardonic tone that slowly turns into a tender sympathy. The ground work for Amory’s self discovery at the end of the novel is laid in the wonderfully off kilter childhood, meaningless yet sturdy architecture of his prep-school days and finally the real intellectual awakening of an intelligent man through his college days.

You will admit that if it was not life it was magnificent (8)

The heart of the book is the lead up to and fall from a love affair. That rare thing that we all half-hope isn’t true if we have not experienced it, and then, goodness, if we do,  find ourselves unexpectedly alive with the meaning for living.

“It may be an insane love-affair,” she told her anxious mother, “but it’s not inane” (186)

The affair leaves such a searingly raw wound on our Suffering Egoist that it can only be told in the form of a script. The later sense of unreality, that feeling of did I imagine all that? can only be rendered as a third person theatrical event,  Some distance must be created in order to get the words out.

Rosalind: I’d rather keep it as a beautiful memory – tucked away in my heart.

Amory: Yes, women can do that -but not men. I’d remember always, not the beauty of it while it lasted, but just the bitterness, the long bitterness.  (194)

Fitzgerald constructs a devastating recreation of one of the worst disillusionment known to mankind. The last third of the novel attempts to deal with the despair. The sardonic tone is heroically enlisted, but in the end the novel takes a very somber turn. Armory, turning philosophical, gives an impassioned and intelligent plea for socialism:

“Well,” said Amory, “I simply state that I’m a product of a versatile mind in a restless generation-with every reason to throw my mind and pen in with the radicals. Even if, deep in my heart, I thought we were all blind atoms in a world as limited as a stroke of a pendulum, I and my sort would struggle against tradition; try, at least, to displace old cants with new ones. I’ve thought I was right about life at various times, but faith is difficult. One thing I know. If living isn’t seeking for the grail it may be a damned amusing game. (278)

In Armory’s view life should not be lived for the bags of gold, but for the blue ribbons. He argues for the idea that people prefer to do things for the honor of doing them, for the honor of living and feeling. Living and feeling well, which is obviously within our capacity.

The woman that he truly loved left him for a bag of gold. He comes to see that this is a mistake of epic and tragic proportions. His entire world view, which he puts forward as a sort of political philosophy, is camped at the entrance of what looks to him as a stupid labyrinth: the incomprehensible fact that she left him for the banal safety of a bourgeoisie life.

It’s all a tragic error:  we are conditioned to go along, progress, go forward, collect your bags of gold and ignore the rest. When what we really want is meaning and connection to what makes us human. That connection is the grail; it is the blue ribbon.
For Armory, it is cold comfort to have come to this understanding of who he is: an understanding with his heart.
The blue ribbon is love, and he lost.


*title of post from- The Drooping Hours a chapter heading- Fitzgerald has a near Hugo-ian talent for titles and chapter headings.

Horripilating Certainty

What would she have done? How did people bear it, who had no place to go, when something dreadful had to be done and they weren’t ready yet to do it?
– John Crowley, AEgypt (115)


What makes people love each other? Why do they bother?…She must have known once. Because love had made her do a lot of things, and go to a lot of trouble…A cold loss of knowledge and dark ignorance were where her heart had been, and were all that these commonplace things, innocent tools and toys, called to; her dog Nothing, the name of the stone in her breast. (335-336)

Here’s one version: Reading Herodotus (Book Two) on Egypt, I came upon a mention of Apuleius’ Golden Ass. Apuleius led me to AEgypt. AEgypt, which is the first of a quadrilogy, wraps around these histories and stories several times and takes me back where I started. What is that? That this was exactly the next logical book to read. Some knowing wind that carries me forward? Coincidence?  I can not tell, but I do know that as soon as I opened this book I had a feeling. Like a good first kiss: a lovely feeling of- I’m going to like this. Unlike a kiss, books do not have to enrapture you from the start -but gee, it’s nice.

Although I love a good tangent, Crowley doesn’t go off on random explorations of earthly or heavenly oddities, the depth(s) of his story are seamlessly woven into the tale. The weft and warp make cloth, and yet the questions is, how many cloths?

“There’s more than one History of the World, you know,” he said. “Isn’t there? More than one. One for each of us, maybe. Wouldn’t you say so?” (73)

A wefting mythology slipping under a latent man and woman, a hippie party in a field, a broken down bus, religions and sheep – naturally. The warp of an academic and literary journey, angels whose names begin with A, Shakespeare, divorce, Roses, and lots of books. The fabric shimmers and shakes off loose threads of ancient lore, repeating symbols, and modern angst.

This is fundamentally a book about discovery. The filling in of the vast background of history is a pleasure to read, relieving the pressure of solitude: thoughts I’ve had, words I’ve said, connections I’ve felt, searching meanings I’ve hope for.

There is a sweetness and earnest perplexity in the protagonist Pierce that is enormously appealing. Trying to order the details of his life along the shelves of his history,  if not to make sense then at least an organized catalog of what has shaped him, what he knows, knew, or forgot…I see, I get it.  I suppose we all have our own systems- a personalized Dewey Decimal of the heart.

-he would receive, like a wave that reaches far up a dry shingle and then recedes, a dash of that day’s understanding: and for a moment taste its certainty like salt. (95)

The breadth of knowledge has no circumference and that  I see, I get it moment is a gift that readers like me covet and search for. In AEgypt Crowley has somehow perfected the ordinary voice of Everyman, with the extra-ordinary voice of our potential. If I knew ten thousand more things than I do, I might be on more equal footing:

Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love. Sick sick sick. (232)

The fact that Crowley does not announce that the above quote comes from the Song of Solomon makes me at once happy that it happens to be my favorite line from the poem, and also depresses me because there are probably one hundred other allusions that have swam free above my head. But, as one of the women I work for loves to say- we must take what we can get.

Infinite. He felt its infinity tugging at his heart and eyes, and felt an answering infinity within himself: for if it was infinite outside, then it must be infinite inside as well. (366)

Infinite inside as well. That must be it – the ember that refuses to extinguish.

Why must I live in two worlds, Pierce asked, why. Do we all, or is it only some few, living always in two worlds, a world outside of us that is real but strange, a world within that makes sense, and draws tears of assent from us when we enter there. (389)

Why is no longer a question, but a statement. Perhaps the truth is that one history is not enough. The infinite world is too vast, too mysterious to be contained in one. Our own history too large as well. The exertion of stuffing it into one clean narrative is what takes its toll on our souls. As Crowley writes, man is bound in love and sleep (343), but his point is that we are not interpolated on a single line. There is more. We are more. More than our histories told.

With a sudden awful certainty, Pierce knew that he would sob. (389)

All we like sheep
All we like sheep
Have gone astray; have gone astray
Every one to his own way. (32)

Life: A Novel

Perhaps we wouldn’t have been so hard on Robson if it hadn’t been for one central, unshiftable fact: Robson was our age, he was in our terms unexceptional, and yet he had not only conspired to find a girlfriend but also, incontestably, to have sex with her. Fucking bastard!
Julian Barnes, The End of TimesDSCI0018Between the philosophically self evident events of Eros and Thanatos is a story. Julian Barnes’ latest novel The Sense of an Ending pokes serious and fun at the self evidence of our philosophically comical lives, as well as the looming retrospective that Thanatos evokes, and our ever-consuming obsession with Eros-  sought, avoided, or remorsed.

I gave her the short version of the short version, leaving out the names of the relevant philosophers. (56)

Barnes unfolds the story as a story. The first third of the book is the life of Tony as explained by Tony; most of which concentrates on his school days when saying things like “philosophically self evident” comes easily to the earnestly cynical pedant of the over-schooled English lad. But that is not the story, it is merely a novella of the life, with the occasional arch comment about whether or not his life or any other makes a good novel.

Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. (113)

The story is about life as a history. How things are remembered, or suddenly internally or externally recalled. Finding the reasons for a single event, but aware that the history of the teller matters as much as all the predicating details that led to the actual event.

But we learn something else: that the brain doesn’t like being typecast. Just when you think everything is a matter of decrease, of subtraction and division, your brain, your memory, may surprise you. (122)

Barnes’ prose are terse, witty, and slyly moving. The End of Times is funny but also left me thinking about the sad and all too frequent smothered life.

I have often wondered about the novelistic qualities of my own life, I suppose you have to get to end to see clearly the chapters or parts, ( most lives don’t develop beyond the basic part I of childhood and part II of adulthood).

“Are there any Stefan Zweig titles you would particularly recommend?” (141)

Stefan Zweig – Well, surly that’s a mention far and away enough to recommend this book. Zweig’s books are often tragic. Even so,  I think we should live our lives as novels. Why end up as some banal biography of the sort that lines the shelves in a school library? If only for the simply reason that a novel is always written for a purpose, better to be active – write it. Live it.

A Valediction

And then the dreams break into a million tiny pieces. The dream dies. Which leaves you with a choice: you can settle for reality, or you can go off, like a fool, and dream another dream. – Nora Ephron, Heartburn

I had to wait until the peaches were in to make a proper tribute to Nora Ephron. This is her peach pie, from the book Heartburn. I make it every year. It is delicious, and worth the wait.

“I insist on happy endings; I would insist on happy beginnings, too, but that’s not necessary because all beginnings are intrinsically happy, in my opinion. What about middles, you may ask. Middles are a problem. Middles are perhaps the major problem of contemporary life.” Nora Ephron, Heartburn

AS virtuous men pass mildly away,
And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say,
“Now his breath goes,” and some say, “No.”

John Donne, From – A Valediction Forbidding Mourning