Please see my review of the first book in the Buru Quartet (This Earth of Mankind) for general background about the novels and the author, IndonesianPlease see my review of the first book in the Buru Quartet (This Earth of Mankind) for general background about the novels and the author, Indonesian Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006). Is it enough to say that in 1995, Pramoedya had spent two years imprisoned by the Dutch (1947-1949), then from 1965 to 1979 by the Indonesian government, and then house arrest for another thirteen years. He was a scholar whose library and research and many of his books were burned during this long period of being treated as a subversive and labelled a "communist" without evidence. When challenged for evidence, the Suharto regime said his communism was generalized since he was such a clever writer he disguised the ideas. !!! His works have been translated into twenty languages, but during his city arrest in Jakarta selling any of his 30 books was a crime. He has received honorary doctorates (one from UC-Berkeley) and numerous writing awards. The Buru Quartet he kept alive during his ten years of cruel emprisonment by reciting them orally since he was forbidden to write anything but letters to his daughter---which then were never sent.
In this second novel, the narrator/hero Minke (continuing from Book one)encounters more evidence of hopeless injustices under colonialism and meets more independent women characters who further challenge the patriarchy of former Javanese hierarchies. We find out more about what happens to Anneliese in the Netherlands, where she is isolated and dies alone. Her death further politicizes Minke, and he begins to understand that his cultural loyalties to European ideologies must be uprooted within himself and he must learn a new appraisal of his own role in life. ...more
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marques; a review. Juanita Rice
After the power and panoply, the beguiling innocence and miracles, of CienLove in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marques; a review. Juanita Rice
After the power and panoply, the beguiling innocence and miracles, of Cien Anos de Soledad, (A Hundred Years of Solitude), also by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, this big novel was greatly disappointing to me. Here Garcia Marquez writes almost only about sex and about love, two things he equates. But he couldn't persuade me of their identity, and in trying to dignify and prettify pederasty by investing the molester with a sense of love and delight he completely lost my credence. Predators are predators, no matter how much they like to call their exploits by the name of love. There are of course marvelous passages but the main thread, or at least one of the two main threads, is the lifelong story of the way a man comforts himself for a deep disappointment in love by seeking serial sexual encounters—innocent women and prostitutes, grand dames and his pre-teen ward, who kills herself when she finds him unfaithful to her.
What a shock such a story would make were the main protagonist a woman. It is unimaginable the noise that would be made if a woman wrote a book about a woman playing at sex games with a young boy in her care, teasing off little stockings and making a long sexual game of stripping off the child's clothes to gratify the adult woman's desire for all kinds of "love." I don't understand our public tolerance for such stories.
I saw what happened to the public image of Andrea Dworkin for trying to draw public attention to the grotesque misogyny of most "Adult" pornography. I accept that my appraisal of this book must remain a minority report. But it's my honest response, so I guess I won't be surprised if the dogs are sent out to bay at my "censorship" (as if I were in a position to ban novels instead of merely offering my own responses and trying to examine them).
And how sad it is to be repulsed by part of the book when the character of the main woman in this story is such a beautiful and powerful character, so intimately portrayed, so complexly, and the ending in which the almost mystical figure of the River's manatees has been erased by the ecological devastation of the travel industry.
The General in his Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a review. Juanita Rice
Tell me I don't appreciate Latino culture and I'll reply that Machismo amThe General in his Labyrinth by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a review. Juanita Rice
Tell me I don't appreciate Latino culture and I'll reply that Machismo among the Oligarchs is a dull and repulsive subject to me that is not the same as "Latino culture," or if it is the same, then Nazism is the same as Germanic culture. False, Q.E.D.
This book turns the "Father of South American Independence"—General Simon Bolivar-- into the main character of Love in the Time of Cholera. Or, rather, it invests him with the dreams and obsessions of Garcia Marquez' alter ego who is the main character of Love in the Time of Cholera, for which you are welcome to read my less than fulsome response which doesn't merit the title "review."
Doubtless this novel conveys aspects of the historical revolution against Europe that I did not appreciate before, and I found those stories compelling. But that just made me want to read a well-written history of Bolivar, instead of this highly sex-infused series of nightmares.
Very unfortunately, I just happened to read this and Cholera in the same time period, and my lack of appreciation of each was exacerbated by my fatigue at the other.
Only now can I perhaps better appreciate Roberto Bolano's castigation of "Magic Realism" a little better. Compared to these dashingly machismo fantasy men, I can better appreciate the history of Amalfitano in 2666 and the grim and gritty reports on serial finds of mutilated, raped and tortured women's corpses in northern Mexico since the 1990s. Not a more attractive topic, but at least a look at where machismo eventually ends up. Perhaps that's a glib observation. It's heartfelt, however, after reading The General and Love in the Time of Cholera too close together.
Days of Wonder by Geraldine Brooks, a review. Juanita Rice
Although I thought that this book had a few "thin spots" toward the ending, too neatly illustDays of Wonder by Geraldine Brooks, a review. Juanita Rice
Although I thought that this book had a few "thin spots" toward the ending, too neatly illustrating a thesis perhaps, still I found the thesis attractive enough that I absolve the writer of grave failure. It is historical fiction, based on the historical records of a rural village in England which quarantined itself when the Plague broke out there around the year 1666. It is the annus mirabilis, like the title of a work by John Dryden, or the "year of miracles," and the period of re-establishment of the dominance of the Anglican Church.
The story is narrated in the first person by Anna, a young woman who is impoverished by the accidental death of her young husband as he works his lead mine. She finds work as a maid for the Episcopalian (Anglican?) minister and his wife. Through the frank and egalitarian friendship the wife Elizabeth extends to her, Anna learns to read, and eventually the two embark on a desperate effort to learn the medicinal lore of two herbalists, midwives whom the frantic villagers kill for witches in the early days of the Plague outbreak.
The story has four notable aspects. First is the skill with which Brooks depicts the emotional and physical horrors of the Bubonic Plague, especially in a time and place with no conception of the biomechanics of contagious disease. The village's agreement to quarantine itself is, however, for that very reason not quite comprehensible. If the nature of contagion is undreamed-of, why would the idea of a quarantine occur to anyone? The historical fact is, however, that this village did make that decision, although nothing in the book fully overcomes the historical oddity. A second notable pleasure of the book is the friendship between two women of unequal status; the truly humble character of the minister's wife is given a grim explanation toward the book's end but her bright determination and good sense remain stirring. In addition, the book offers some insight into the selflessness with which the two women and the minister dedicate themselves to the dying and the dead, and to their attempts to struggle against belief in "witchery," whether that belief manifests itself as murderous hostility as it has so often in our culture's sacred spaces—the Renaissance in Europe and the early Pilgrim days of the U.S. colonies. It is a simple truth that some people do rise to such heroism during events of social devastation, and Brooks depicts their efforts as partly driven by blind momentum, as there is no time to stop to consider, but nevertheless as human beings at their best in the ordinary kinds of heroism.
Last, the book makes a generous effort to allow Anna the kind of escape that colonialism offered to many an English man in a tight scrape: Anna has adopted an unwanted baby but by keeping it alive she crosses the will of its father, a powerful aristocrat. Anna's solution is to disembark from London aboard a ship from which she lands in a Persian or Arab country to live out an honorable life as a midwife and herbalist. Early on, she and her friend Elizabeth had found reference to important medical knowledge from Averroes, a philosopher and doctor from Arabic culture; thus the book's end completes her acquisition of knowledge and of peace. I don't think I need to spell out why I so appreciate Brooks for attempting this small bit of counterweight to the "terrorism propaganda machine" that has animated so much public discourse since the first President Bush, but especially subsequent to the World Trade Center attacks of 2001 and persisting to this day in 2013.
Brooks has been a journalist correspondent in the Middle East and knows more of the humanist culture there than most of us let ourselves learn about, and thus—although Anna's flight from Europe and her easy acceptance into a wealthy man's harm, with her virtue left intact!!, is just a tad glib, serving the feminist aspects of the book, it is still welcome as an alternative to mean-spirited savage endings for the sake of sensationalism.
I will soon be reading another Geraldine Brooks book thanks to my book club; I look forward to it. She's not as profound and subtle as Toni Morrison. She's not as savvy at total narrative structure as Barbara Kingsolver, nor as complexly multicultural and delightful as Louise Erdrich. But it's a good book, well-written, full of fascinating historical background and evocative vocabulary to boot. Well-done and enjoyable. ...more
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger; a review. Juanita Rice
Well, these are nice high-class characters. Clare, the "Wife" of the title is thThe Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger; a review. Juanita Rice
Well, these are nice high-class characters. Clare, the "Wife" of the title is the beautiful daughter of a filthy-rich dysfunctional family, her father a super big attorney, her mother a manipulative alcoholic. Henry, the time-traveler, is the son of a great symphony musician and a famous opera-star mother. We are definitely "traveling" in good company: Clare's family has a nice spinster housekeeper servant, in the British tradition, plus a good black cook. Henry's dad is cosseted by the Korean good-cook and good-woman living downstairs. There's also, for 'local color?', a very short black lesbian and a crazy suicidal rejected woman. I really hated living in their milieu: why was I supposed to care about them? Nevertheless, I did enjoy the bizarre complexity of the plot. How do you write about a story that takes place in dozens of different time schemes. When Clare is a child and Henry is—what?, in his forties? When Clare and Henry are both in mostly Clare's "time." When Clare has met Henry several times, but he travels back and meets her when he's younger and doesn't know that his older self has already been there. When he realizes that he's already been somewhere. Or doesn't remember, but Clare does. And how about the woman Henry is living with when he first meets the child Clare. I wasn't sold on the in-the-fiction thesis that Henry's time traveling is caused by something genetic: and I especially didn't love the meeting between him after his death and his son who's inherited the genetic affect. I would have much preferred that the story be left in the realm of the magic inexplicable, like certain science fiction of Ursula K. LeGuin, for instance. Nevertheless, and that's saying alot, I enjoyed and engaged with their "fate." It was not quite believable that Henry could keep a job in one chronological present and then disappear, showing up other places in other (previous and subsequent) time periods naked and shoeless and often sick. And survive. Another drawback was all the situations and characters that were featured in various times that disappeared. Clare's brother has invited a girlfriend to a family dinner; she's pregnant and they're going to marry. Clare's mother has a fit that she will ruin his life, and she's definitely rude. We learn that Clare's parents married under the same circumstances, but there's no aftermath with the prospective sister-in-law's intimidation nor the exposure of the parents' secret. Henry's girlfriend commits suicide; a woman who loved her becomes special friends with Henry in his marriage. Why? Reading this was like watching someone put together a complex puzzle. The individual pieces were complex and often beautifully detailed. The characters had moments of compelling believable life. But in the end, when the puzzle was all together, it didn't make a whole greater than the parts. Like watching someone put together a Rubik's cube: fascinating. But not revelatory.
The Summer of the Citroen by Ollie Nash; a review. Juanita Rice
The first chapter or two of this book gave little hint of the seriousness to come. TheyThe Summer of the Citroen by Ollie Nash; a review. Juanita Rice
The first chapter or two of this book gave little hint of the seriousness to come. They struck me as intentionally not quite believable and just a little comic. Even though a grade-school boy dies of leukemia, it looked to me like this was going to be a rather cynically humorous parody of boys in the south. We get some fifth-grade boys obsessed with comic books and movies, with in-group bullying and uncomprehending parents, and I was getting a bad taste in my mouth. I feared it was becoming a kind of slack-muscled Catcher in the Rye emulsified with Leave it to Beaver. I was wrong. When a vibrant young Cajun couple, Jean and Mina Russo, arrive in Northern Alabama, fresh from Louisiana and driving a bizarre Citroen, the author's ability to draw convincing although eccentric character, partly through good dialect-inflected dialogue engages its gears and a story emerges that gathers momentum and muscle just like its main character, thirteen-year-old Dexter Morris, as he matures physically and emotionally.
Because what he discovers is change. By the book's end in 1965, a mere six years later, Dexter Morris has been drafted and is on his way to report to the army at the height of the U.S. war in Vietnam. The grit of the story emerged back in 1959, the titular season, The Summer of the Citroen, and the ten chapters of the last part serve mostly to reveal the permanent aftermath of that explosive period. For it was not just a mellow vacation between school years for the boy, but a sudden and forced maturation in the face of an adult world of sex and violence and death and work and money. At the outset, granted, it's a little bit like Dukes of Hazzard too: a southern Sheriff, an excessively dramatic preacher, a rum-running ne'er-do-well named Biffle, a nutty older cousin Nadine whom Dexter spies on as she preaches naked in an empty church, and a conspicuous-in-retrospect absence of black families or culture, except for one nameless maid in a rich house in Mobile near the end.
Oh, yes, and tons of beautiful, terribly sexy women. No girls for Dexter—the grown-up ones don't give him time for that. Dex's early maturation includes a barely credible account of his management of a twenty-acre truck farm and a second piece of property with mostly corn and cotton. He's thirteen, remember. It is impossible to doubt the author's intimate knowledge of farming at this level, but the sudden manhood with which the boy emerges from his youthful chrysalis of comic books and cowboy matinees to wheel and deal with pickers, buyers, renters, while he schedules fertilizing, haying and packing strained my credulity, detailed and well-written as it was.
The third element of Dexter's coming-of-age is his inability to remain the naive child of a picture-perfect marriage. Dexter's confrontations with sex, violence, and death in the neighborhood coincide with the unavoidable knowledge that troubles reach deeply into the lives of the two parents he loves unquestioningly well beyond the "Aw gee whiz Mom do I have to?" level. His certain belief in the rightness of God's world-- first shaken by his classmate's death at ten in what was something of a prologue—is further compromised and fractured as deep passions show themselves altering his perceptions, and ours, of even the most cutely comic eccentrics that ring his life. The concluding chapters in 1965 convey a heart-hardened and sad young man submitting to serve as cannon-fodder in a terrifying war. His final cross-country trip on a Harley echos the long-distant but vital images of Easy Rider and a world where illusions are not easily nurtured.
Feminist ponderings. I thought this a well-written book but the all-too-willing women who throw themselves avidly on young Dexter's lance make me wonder about "normal" male perception. I never could have imagined an "ordinary" nubile boy so irresistible to adult women that they can't wait to pull his pecker out and sit on it one way or another. And—moreover—the notion that this boy loves it all so intensely in a relatively uncomplicated manner.
No doubt there are—for I read many male authors' fictional constructs of such a phenomenon—many an adult woman who craves sex with young boys. I think of a couple classic movies: What's Eating Gilbert Grape with Mary Steenburgen forcing somewhat infantile seductions on an unwilling Johnny Depp character, (but who was not an adolescent and who also didn't much like her attentions), and then there was the tragic darkness of The Last Picture Show of long, long ago, plainly portraying the sexuality of the high school age boy as complicated and complicating and the Coach's wife, the seductress, as a sad and neurotic woman. The Summer of the Citroen doesn't take a stance as a clear genre like that latter tragic vision of backwater America and the former slightly satirical comedy despite its deaths, deprivations and disabilities. Nash's vision is not so clear to me, so there is more than a hint of sexual fantasy about the story. What really makes Dexter disgusted with his mother? What really drives him to search for the family of Jean Russo?
Don't mistake me: the story is both possible and entertaining and original. It just didn't seem to me to have a point except to say how neurotic, crazy, tempting, and untrustworthy women are in a world that might be better off without them if it weren't for the delightful sensations they stir up in men who might otherwise enjoy the undamaged male solidarity which is the only serious thing in the world. Besides making good money, that is, and owning pristine property you can sell off for strip mining to meet your charitable projects for the crazy woman cousin you had sex with throughout your teenage years.
There just seems to be no morality in the story, no ethic. Everything is value-free except the mother who left her husband and son. She remains, or remained, unforgiven and unforgivable and, if I'm not mistaken, was so crushed by the coldness and cruelty of her grown son (our hero Dex) that she kills herself. We can't really know, because the only area of the world that's illuminated is that of the authorial alter ego. Dexter leaves her house, so we readers aren't completely privy to what comes next in his mother's life. Or death.
I know that many books function that way. Reading Edith Wharton novels recently I can reflect on their similar construction but Wharton's stories follow through. They chew on issues of right and wrong, of social morality and ethics, of choices with consequences.
Dexter's story has no consequences except property, money and sex, lots of sex—all initiated by women. One gets pregnant and runs away in order not to burden the boy father nor face his parents. Two die. The other main armful was certifiably crazy to begin with, a cousin who suffers psychotic episodes. One –a waitress in passing—he doesn't have time for. And one pulls him into her on the front porch before he even knows who she is.
Women and money just won't leave Dex alone. Even though the people he really loves (chastely) are men. A strange perspective and one that has little of value to say to me, a woman. (And needless to say, a woman whose contemplations of fiction were formed in the heyday of feminism's insistent injection of the second-gender perception.)
The Grave-Digger's Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates; a review. Juanita Rice
This is a book I loved to hated, and hated to love. Or vice versa. It's onlyThe Grave-Digger's Daughter, by Joyce Carol Oates; a review. Juanita Rice
This is a book I loved to hated, and hated to love. Or vice versa. It's only my second book by Joyce Carol Oates, and inferior in my opinion to Pretty Little Bird of Heaven because I couldn't quite connect the pieces of the mosaic to something coherent. After only two samples of the Oates oeuvre, can I disill some essence-of-Oates here? I'll try, because I think I "get" it. What was that Dune term? Grok! Joyce Carol Oates has a consummate imagination of detail. The writing is rich with sounds, smells, sights and other tactile senses—the sensations of heat, cold, how clothes feel on the body, the mutual touches of love, the first time talented hands explore piano keys, the smell and warmth of an infant. And she's equally adept with the violent emotions of terror, rage, hope, and need and the situations that can evoke them. She powerfully depicts lives of the subjected: children who hate school, women who slide into prostitution from positions of dependence on men for gifts and favors, men in the grip of drugs, alcohol, and crime. And violence at all these levels. She knows the backwaters of old cities in the eddying shadows after the triumphal looting of capitalism has moved on to new victims: empty mills and abandoned factories, alcoholic Native veterans of World War II or Korea. Her style, topics, characters and events could even perhaps be described as a mirror-image reflection of the great American novelists of the early twentieth century, Edith Wharton. Wharton wrote of the costs of American life among the wealthy and Oates evokes the tragic outlines of American life among the poor and working classes. Oates writes within the context of traditional realism with subjective narrative, life as experienced by one or two characters who are not omniscient; even the narrator and the reader are not privileged to know the meaning or reasons completely. Both of these books dwell close to dangerous violence. They are not adventures or suspense or mystery although they are suspenseful, they pose some haunting questions, and they leave some things unsaid. It's easier to describe Pretty Little Bird of Heaven. A woman who was a local celebrity as a country music singer is viciously murdered in an apartment after she leaves her working-class husband. The suspects are the husband who's a part-Seneca car mechanic, and a married man with whom she has an affair. Being publicly suspected of an ugly murder destroys both men, psychologically and financially, and brutalizes the men's children. The story is told through the eyes of these children, the dead woman's teen-aged son and the other suspect's teen-aged daughter as their lives are drawn into the vortices of the aftermath. A powerful element is the cruel way the singer learns that she is just one more pretty face and voice in a crowd of wannabe's with no hope of the fame to which they aspire. At story's end the two grown children learn at last that neither of their fathers was guilty but by then their fathers are dead. The Gravedigger's Daughter is just one woman's story, a woman whose life is also powerfully influenced by a violence that precedes, and is perpetuated by, her father. This story is again shaped by violence and grotesque social rejection, and grounded in larger social issues: here the family who finds lodging in upstate New York are "Displaced Persons," Jews escaping the Nazis' Anti-semitism. Rebecca, her brothers and parents barely escape Germany alive in 1936; she is, in fact, born in the emigration ship in New York harbor off Ellis Island. Rebecca's German parents Jacob and Anna—a high school math teacher father and a pianist mother—do not recover, do not find a "place" in the new country. Jacob becomes a gravedigger and cemetery caretaker for a small upstate town in New York. Living in a grotesque old hovel in the graveyard, Jacob's grief and bitterness make of him a raging abusive terror to his family. In 1941 the family learns that Anna's married sister with her husband and children has left Europe and will arrive in New York City. They hear nothing more for months until they learn that the ship, with 900 Jewish refugees, was turned back. It is a final blow: Anna sinks into utter inert despair and Jacob eventually explodes. Rebecca escapes and survives, but finds herself in a violently abusive marriage, from which she and her child again escape. In the long run, she meets a man of great kindness, her son blooms with inherited pianist abilities but with the blight of a family's aftermath. The story ends as Rebecca discovers news of a cousin who had survived the return of that refugee ship and now lives in the United States, a powerful but bristly scholar. Overall, the book failed to ever come into focus for me. The book seems to hypothesize that the main character Rebecca is chained irrevocably to her hideous family experiences and those experiences directly stem from the German pursuit of a final eradication of European Jews, compounded by the lukewarm assistance offered to the victims by the supposedly 'heroic' nations as evidenced by the widespread failure of England, France, and the United States to accept the fleeing refugees. But I failed to feel the reality of how Rebecca's parents and family would have been different had their emigration been more successful and not such a social and financial (and therefore emotional) disaster. Rebecca survives—some would say she thrives, eventually. I don't know why: yes, she was resourceful in many ways, but that contradicts the sense of almost fatal injury in her family's catastrophic breakdown. Some of it seems to be almost just "luck," which negates the story of fatal aftermaths. Her experience of abuse by a detestable husband was the most powerful part of the book for me; it succeeded in detailing a realistic sequence of logical but fatal choices on Rebecca's part. I understood perfectly why Rebecca marries Niles Tignor. Oates is also completely plausible in outlining Rebecca's successful escape efforts. After that her story becomes her attachment to a damaged son. Then, finally a faint glimpse of the surfacing of her need to go back, to re-connect with the Jewish experience of World War II as she tries to connect with her cousin in her old age. And then the story's over. I understand that damaged people often, even usually, continue to be damaged and to choose mates and friends who repeat the traumatic situations of childhood. But Rebecca seems at last almost free of the paradigm. And I don't know how or why, and I don't know that I cared much. The moment-to-moment experience of reading The Gravedigger's Daughter was engaging, exciting, often vivid and suspenseful. What her brothers do, how they get out of the family, was engrossing: they had something that held my imagination. But not her parents—they were hopeless from the start. The violent paroxysm that caps Rebecca's family life failed to stir any response from me. Frankly, I felt, what did it matter for these unremittingly broken people? What most moved me was the episode in which the family of Anna's sister arrive as refugees in the harbor of New York City but are turned back to almost certain incarceration in the Nazi camps. I assumed the ship, called the Marea, was non-fictional, but it was only loosely based on the actual experiences of thousands of refugees and of the heroic efforts of ship captains and others trying to save their lives. The Marea with its 900 Jewish refugees seems to have been partly derived from an actual ship, the St. Louis, which was turned back to Europe from Havana for which the passengers had visas but were denied entry, and then were repulsed from Florida ports. I feel it's only fitting that I continue to dedicate reading time to the novels of Joyce Carol Oates. There's something about her choices, her knowledge of and interest in, women and the "non-genteel," whether that's defined by race, or ethnicity or just straight-out class demographics. She's a little unrelentingly lurid in a way that approaches sensationalism, but so are many lives in the not-so-middle classes.
I was in Mexico for a short ten days,in Sayulita on the Pacific Coast, and met a couple of film-makers from Toronto: Agi and Aaron. One day on the pathI was in Mexico for a short ten days,in Sayulita on the Pacific Coast, and met a couple of film-makers from Toronto: Agi and Aaron. One day on the path to a distant beach, Agi was talking about the problem of coincidence in films, that audiences can dismiss coincidences as contrived which actually happen with some frequency in life. And then Aaron mentioned Infinite Jest, which he wanted Agi to read.
Well, coincidentally, Infinite Jest stands right up there next to Les Miserables in my great book list. Coincidentally Aaron had just that day finished reading D.T.Max's biography of David Foster Wallace, which he loaned me.
And I spent one of my precious ten days in the tropical paradise devouring this book. Extraordinarily well-written, the book earns its right to discuss the brilliant Wallace and Max's circumspect choices about what to include and what to emphasize made this a must-own book for me. Good bibliography, a great comprehension of Wallace's major fiction. I think it misses the importance some of the short stories, but it haunts me yet.
I was particularly interested to read that Wallace actually tried to attend retreat at Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village in France, but his need for cigarettes drove him away. To me this brings up my only criticism of the other-wise completely admirable AA emphasis, and that is AA's antiquated tolerance of nicotine addiction. Their story goes that cigarettes (and coffee) are mild and harmless, and that trying to quit all addictions at once jeopardizes the recovery from the life-destroying addictions (drugs and alcohol). As a recovered smoker, I think I am justified in saying that you cannot (!!) really pursue a spiritual path while nicotine is jerking your mind around and causing mood swings and mild poisoning. But hindsight about what might have delivered Wallace from the torments of depression/anxiety are pointless. I just couldn't resist this observation.
The main reason to read the biography is to try to comprehend the devastations of mental illness, and to grasp the fact that mental illness is not a moral failing, nor is suicide. I recently saw a documentary video of two young men who volunteered to go through electronically stimulated labor-contraction simulations for a mere two hours. One couldn't take it. Both soon stopped laughing. If everyone who rides a moral high horse looking down at the despicable groundlings who suffer from mental/emotional trauma could live for a mere two hours inside an anxiety attack or an addictive attack or a good taste of depressive self-loathing, perhaps our society would have more compassion. (And probably 75% of prison inmates would have had psychiatric treatment and not be where they are.)
I know a writer who won't read Wallace because he thinks people who commit suicide have nothing to teach him; he finds suicide a coward's resort and an inconsiderate imposition on others. Jonathan Franzen's cowardly article in The New Yorker also pushed the high-road hindsight when he condemned "his friend" for committing suicide to make himself more marketable!!! Some friend.
You see this must be a good biography when it provokes me to such fulminations.
All Wallace fans, and some scoffers, should read this. (Jan. 21 is an estimated date for my 24-hour binge.)...more
Silent Words by Ruby Slipperjack; a Review. By Juanita Rice
Roughly contemporaneous with Louise Erdrich, another Ojibwe woman novelist, Ruby SlipperjackSilent Words by Ruby Slipperjack; a Review. By Juanita Rice
Roughly contemporaneous with Louise Erdrich, another Ojibwe woman novelist, Ruby Slipperjack spent her formative years in Canada, where her experience was not as mainstreamed as Erdrich's whose father was a German-American and who lived mostly in the northern U.S. Slipperjack (or sometimes Slipperjack Farrell) has written six books; this 1992 novel is her second. I have not read any of the others.
If you have stumbled across any of my reviews of books narrated by children, you know I am not a fan. And here is another one, the story of maybe six months in the life of a tormented boy, Danny Lynx. Danny is eleven; he was happy living in the bush with his parents Charlotte and Daniel, but then they moved "to town," and all hell broke loose, as the saying goes. Charlotte was due to give birth but found that her husband had another woman in town who was also pregnant. Charlotte lost her baby and left; Daniel moved in with the new woman, who is presented as unredeemably motivelessly evil. I would have said "impossibly" or "unbelievably" evil, but I have worked with a juvenile rehab center long enough to know that, sadly, Dickensian torment of children is still very much part of modern life. ("Well, Mr. Gandhi, you've seen London now. What's your opinion of Western Civilization?" "Ah, Mr. Churchill, I think it would be an excellent idea.") She beats Danny and then tells his dad that Danny attacked her, so the father beats him too. Alcohol complicates everything. Here's a sample of the experience, but also of a strange over-writing that negated much of the story's fable-like value for me:
I heard footsteps behind me. The cup went flying and my neck jerked back hard as her hand clamped down on the top of my head. Screeching at me, she pulled me around and I went flying into the living room. I hit the floor face down and it knocked the breath out of me. In an instant, I felt her full weight land on top of me. Sharp pain shot through my body as fists landed hard on my back, one after another. Her other hand clamped down on my hair, holding my face against the floor.
She told him I was lying when I said she threw it at me, because I was jealous having to share Father with her. She said I tripped off the steps. Dad believed her and yelled at me never to tell stories about her again. That really hurt. Dad picked her side. I hate her! I wish I was with Mama, but I don't know where she is. Dad won't even let me talk about her.
There's something about this style that seems over-detailed and yet doesn't create a clear picture or impression of what's happening. The narrator seems younger than eleven, and also doesn't seem like the same person who's in the experience.
What I do like about the story is the contrast between Danny's experience at home and what happens to him as he travels alone into the backcountry where mostly native people live. They readily invite him home, feed him, are generous; he in turn learns that generosity, learns a certain reserve and respect, the "silent words" way of communication (which my Buddhist teacher would call deep listening and skillful speech). I feared from the way the story started that this was going to be a Suffering Story, but once Danny gets away from the "witch," he suffers mostly from his repeated patterns of overreaction and habituated fear.
I was not convinced of the veracity of the somewhat idyllic portrait of native life in the woods and on the lakes, and sometimes the detailing of each small happening with the same emphasis as important ones got tiresome. For instance, Danny meets with a man who is heading north, far north, by canoe. Every single portage is related in step by step manner: "then I went back to carry the food box and put the satchel on top of it while he was getting the canoe ready to carry and I came back again while he was moving it and got the last things from the shore." I paraphrase. But. Every single portage, and there were many.
I did love, however, the story of an old couple that let Danny stay with them, a place he learns safety, quiet, and love. The old man sits quietly most of the time, and then occasionally he tells a simple beautiful story. He describes, for instance, the life cycle of a leaf, how it is folded up on itself when it is born and slowly straightens up to receive the air and sun. Sometimes if it completes its cycle it dies and floats to the ground to give back to the earth; sometimes its cycle is cut short and instead it curls in on itself again before its death. Humans are born folded in on themselves, curled tight. If they live well, they grow straight and take in life. If they are ready when they die, they can die straight and strong, and give back life. If they begin to curl in on themselves, however, they may not complete their cycle. Only it's told more beautifully and wisely. Slipperjack also takes a risk here as a writer: she imitates the dialect of native speakers who don't speak English naturally and smoothly. It's an accent quite recognizable to me, strangely, although the speakers I've known with such a strong accent were Navajo and Lakota. "Sometime, w'en da spirit leaves da body w'en it wasn't time for it to die, da body try to curl up as't was in da beginnin before it turn't into a leaf, because da spirit is dere no more to tell it dat it was already a leaf...pity dat mos' people don' know. . ."
Later in the story we learn that the woman who tends so lovingly and appreciatively to the old man is his sister. After her children were grown and her husband died, she came to take care of her brother for the rest of their lives. The nature of the relationship somehow makes their lives even more beautiful.
Among the good things in the novel are the descriptions of the north country, including Whitewater Lake, which was the lake where the novelist actually spent her young life with her father on his trapline. She was born in 1952, when such places were already disappearing further south. She writes, "I have been to all the places I write about. I know the smell, feel, and texture of the earth I walk on. I belong to it."
This book reminds me somewhat of Andrea Barrett's earliest work like Lucid Stars, in that it's a moral fable pretty obviously. But gently, and with ingenious events and characters. I wish this book had been partially at least narrated by Danny's mother, his father when he began to look for Danny, by one of the many people who later became adoptive parents to him, allowing us to see him a little more objectively and thus understand his subjectivity better. You don't get to know an eleven-year-old by reading in their diary; they are much deeper than they can yet express. It seemed to me that Slipperjack understood that and yet she didn't quite solve the problem.
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton; a Review. By Juanita Rice
Edith Wharton: the name seemed familiar. I was browsing in a bargain book bin at a used bThe House of Mirth by Edith Wharton; a Review. By Juanita Rice
Edith Wharton: the name seemed familiar. I was browsing in a bargain book bin at a used book store. Edith Wharton. As I dredged up some fragments from the memory-stew, out came Ethan Frome. We read it in high school English class. And then I snatched at another floating wisp: an image of Julie Harris in the movie. That's all I really knew about Wharton, and it's probably more than many people do. So I picked this up, on a whim, to know more about women novelists of the past. Once I began reading, I couldn't put the book down. And this novel is supposedly "inferior" to her later major works such as Ethan Frome (which I suspect is read in high schools because it is short and because it "teaches" that any girl who does any fooling around with a married man, even sled-riding, is going to be very very sorry. I think of Dylan Thomas writing about the "useless gifts" he got in "A Child's Christmas in Wales," when he said and of course "the book that told us about boys who wanted to go skating on Farmer Giles's pond, although they were told not to, and did, and drowned."). (How's that for a parenthetical?)
Edith Wharton was one of few women novelists to win a Pulitzer Prize: hers was for The Age of Innocencein 1920. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1930. To my mind she excels any other woman novelist until the 1960s. She is comparable to Henry James, and better than him in my opinion, although of course much less well-known. Gore Vidal was of this opinion: "At best, there are only three or four American novelists who can be thought of as 'major' and Edith Wharton is one." He also said: "Traditionally Henry James has always been placed slightly higher up the slope of Mount Parnassus than Edith Wharton. But now that the prejudice against the female writer is on the wane, they look to be exactly what they are: giants, equals, the tutelary and benign gods of our American literature." So if he thought that, why didn't he write about Edith Wharton in his novel The Golden Age, in which he cites the distinguished Henry James with some frequency, and barely a word about Edith Wharton.
Edith Jones Wharton was born to the high New York society she so dispassionately dissects in The House of Mirth; thus she knows all the tiny markers of prestige, the subtlety of tone or gaze that indicates the rise or fall of someone's stocks in the social market. She understands the eccentricities that differentiate individuals while seeing clearly that, on the other hand, the apparent idiosyncracies and distinctions are only tiny markers in a conformist herd. The actors ascribe almost instinctively to a code that remains unspoken while they frequently and gaily declare an opposite devotion to being vivid, daring, spontaneous, free and daring. Oh, yes. So open, unstuffy, gregarious, free of judgment they are in their frivolities. So ready to spring open trapdoors under another's feet. So coldly calculating each other's relative currencies. So careful to obey the subtle strictures.
The House of Mirth, 1906, was not Edith Wharton's first publication by any means but it was the first to establish her as both a serious novelist and a popular one. In many ways this could be a companion piece to Balzac's Père Goriot, but written about a young woman in a position comparable to that of Balzac's young law student who tries to go "into society." Lily Bart is, in a way, already "in" society; she was born to a life of spending and making life decorative in social circulation. But her father lost his fortune, and both parents died.
The advent of Lily's sudden fall dramatically contrasts with her incomprehension of the idea of "expense." As her father approaches a luncheon table, the young Lily appeals to him to please furnish the house with better fresh flowers, lily-of-the-valley, she thinks. He laughs in an odd way which causes Lily's mother instantly to dismiss the butler. "Are you ill?" she says cuttingly. "Ill?—No, I'm ruined," he answers. For two years after his death, which followed hard on his bankruptcy, Lily's mother keeps them anxiously on the edges of society while she prepares Lily to use her extraordinary beauty as "the raw material of conquest." Wharton's insight into the kind of self-delusion inculcated in people by the idea of personal beauty as a distinctive value, and of "good taste" as almost a social value in itself, a virtue Lily comes to see as given her by an innate superiority,unable as she is, like most of us actually, to understand that social advantages do not bestow any moral rights whatsoever:
"[Lily] liked to think of her beauty as a power for good, as giving her the opportunity to attain a position where she should make her influence felt in the vague diffusion of refinement and good taste. . . . she could not help thinking that the possession of such tastes ennobled her desire for worldly advantages."
After both parents' death, Lily is taken in somewhat reluctantly by a strict and stuffy widowed aunt who does, however, understand the need for a woman to "dress," and gives Lily gifts and pays for her clothing, which enables Lily to stay beautifully costumed although she is always in debt because she always wants more and genuinely sees no reason she should not have everything she desires. We meet her when she is twenty-nine. She has been courted by many but she is still unmarried. Most men bore her. Why should she give up her pleasant life? She is so popular, so charming, so decorative, that women vie to have her for their weekends, their seasons, their parties. And competition means gifts from her hostesses: sometimes exquisite clothing, sometimes cash. Lily makes her way by means of these parties and gifts.
She knows, however, that she is at the age when she must marry or lose the status of "charming girl" and become "spinster." She identifies a good candidate: a young man fabulously wealthy but almost pathologically shy. Just now, however, another complication presses upon her. Her closest friend and main benefactor Judy Trenor has taken up hosting bridge parties, and Lily is expected to play cards. For money. It is understood that at parties, her role is to "help" Judy, whether that means the tediousness of writing out notes and cards for her, or perhaps charming guests who might be sticky or stodgy. Or appearing as a lively entertaining figure at the card tables. And the wealthy play for rather large stakes. When Lily wins, she is delighted and she spends. When she loses, however, difficulties arise. No one must know how utterly destitute she really is. And the young man she thinks she must marry would be shocked to know she owes money for "gambling debts."
The final complication is that there is one man who does not bore her, an attorney, Lawrence Selden. He has adequate family status to be seen at occasional parties but he has no money to speak of. She likes him but he is ineligible as a husband for just as Lily had to have better fresh flowers at home she needs a better fortune for the life she is trained for. He is just attractive enough, however, that spending time with him compromises her dedication to taking a rich husband.
One of Wharton's gifts is to make the reader admire the grit and cleverness with which Lily maneuvers in this artificial society and simultaneously to see the fatuous vanity of it as well as its heartlessness. Wharton doesn't make Lily an innocent victimized by the cruelty; she is an adept and she knows what she is doing. But she is also spoiled by how successfully she has managed other people in the past, and she is impulsive, drawn to instant gratifications of what she sees as justifiable desires. The novel begins with such an impulse: to have tea with Lawrence Selden when she is stranded in a hot train station waiting for a late train. There is always a mild flirtation between them, with the more serious element just under the surface, and when he invites her to take tea with him in his hotel lodgings she yields to the impulse. As she leaves, her sense of how it might look to others—a single woman going to a man's hotel rooms-- gives her a momentary disquiet and then to her dismay she meets the one man who moves somewhat in her circles but whom she finds loathesome. Her inability to use her charms to make sure he does not speak maliciously about her leaving Selden's apartment will be eventually the final complication.
Lily is not above rebellious feelings that she cannot have both her freedom from financial worries and complete freedom from bores. She chafes under her obligations to always be careful, adroit, charming.
"Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from routine? Why could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artifice? She had yielded to a passing impulse in going to Lawrence Selden's rooms, and it was so seldom that she could allow herselfthe luxury of an impulse! This one, at any rate, was going to cost her rather more than she could afford."
For Wharton is not a Louisa May Alcott: she builds a careful case to convince us of the complete unlikelihood of Lily Bart freeing herself. Anyone who has read Ethan Frome knows that Edith Wharton is not going to supply artificial happy endings even if a situation is intolerable; people are what they are in her fictions and there is no divine rescue, no poetic justice, no fairy godmother. And Lily knows her own weaknesses: the idea of setting herself up independently to earn her own way is laughably unrealistic, she knows. No life seems to her more dreadful than that of the few single women she knows who live by their own work in ugly little rooms and dismal clothing and no parties, no thrillingly beautiful people, no excitement. She knows herself incapable of making that choice.
Wharton's most admirable quality is the patience, the detail, the fulsomeness with which she constructs the plot for both believability and empathy, in which she details each step in the inexorable descent, and with which she allows the coils she has laid out to slowly close around Lily.
I do have to single out one thing for criticism, however: racist stereotypes which Wharton depends on for verisimilitude which struck me, as they surely should strike any educated reader today (I hope), as flimsy and objectionable, an offensive reminder of how culturally promoted prejudices can fasten themselves on even the most intelligent of persons. One of Wharton's male characters is, or seems to be, Jewish; he is fabulously successful on Wall Street and doggedly determined to rise in society, but he does not come from "people." The social aversions to Sim Rosedale (think Rosen, Rosenbaum, etc.) are never stated flatly in terms of anti-Semitism. He is a "nouveau riche" in a setting with long traditions about restricting who is acceptable to those of "good family." Any "nouveau" or "nobody" is avoided in this world. Nevertheless Wharton depends on us to sympathize with Lily's special repugnance by describing Rosedale in terms of "the instincts of his race," and "the tradition of his blood," for instance. Wharton may have empathy for others excluded from the elite air, but not for Rosedale.
She also employs racist associations to describe a woman of disrepute, in ways that I suppose are meant to be telling to the reader. But the particular references have fallen from use now, so that I was completely ignorant of what she was referring to by "ladies of her nationality," "the ideal of their race," and "Oriental indolence and disorder." And you have to understand that "Oriental" does not refer to a nationality here but to decadence and sensuousness, characteristics Western Colonialist prejudice assigned to those 'Others' as justification for needing to civilize them by invasion, aggression and oppression. Wharton can write simply and directly of sex, despite the contemporary expectation of "women back then," but in the sub-plot about "Mrs. Norma" and the scene around her I found more than the usual amount of obfuscation and innuendo. I was, frankly, puzzled.
Elizabeth Hardwick, in "Introduction: Mrs. Wharton in New York," of the 1999 edition,(an extract from a piece in her 1998 Sight Reading) glosses over the ugly tracks of racism in Wharton's writing as merely "[i]n the practice of the period." Hardwick finds the predatory Gus Trenor (husband of Lily's friend Judy) merely "realistic" when he is only a nudge away from an attempted rape. But she describes Rosedale as "a crafty usurper" when in the end he turns down marriage with Lily after she is becoming a social liability, even though he never does anything unkind or rude to Lily, or anyone else that we know of. I am surprised at a woman of Hardwick's stature continuing "in the practice of the period" in her own prejudices in 1998.
All in all, The House of Mirth was a great reading experience. I was swept up in the story, and I found myself in tears for many pages leading to the ending. Perhaps a reason for my special susceptibility was that I could identify with Lily's predicament. When I was a girl, women still had to "take care" around men. You had to accept and pass off with smiling grace their crude suggestions, dirty little insinuations, and outright sexual aggressions. I was in my thirties before I was finally willing to risk a man's hostility, at last becoming more comfortable with insults and anger than with being a willing victim.
In my twenties I honestly did not know what to do with my life. And I understand much of Lily's dilemma. I was not trained to envision myself in a career, and I was not prepared for one. When I turned thirty I did have an epiphany where Lily did not, when I realized my "girlhood" was gone; in its place, however, I found my adult competence. It was far less exciting than a vision of myself as being "attractive" to successful and well-financed men. I didn't really want to be a wife either. Or a woman who could take care of herself. But I enrolled in graduate school, even if I had to temporarily support myself with office work. I look back now, at the moment my life changed and think how easily it might not have. How easily any young woman who is attractive and successful at girlhood's temptations without envisioning her financial future realistically might not make that turn. I work with those girls every week, volunteering to mentor girls who are in juvenile detention. They are not raised to luxury, but they are raised in a media culture of parties, sexiness, fashionable self-display. And they don't know anything else. When they encounter that "anything," they get high. It's a revolving door; they get addicted to parties and drugs, they get strung out and used by men, they are arrested and go into detention, they are rehabbed, educated, psychologized, medicated, but they come out into the same world they left. Like the standard young victim of thirties and forties fiction, they dream of "Celebrity" the way those girls envisioned "Hollywood." They want to become famous and glamorous, or at least feel like it. Young women can still "fall from grace."
As the distance between wealth and poverty continues to increase, with the insecurity and exploitation of working people, more and more the longing to escape from financial bondage is understandable. Thank my lucky stars I was a good scholar, got a meaningful professional degree, and along the way encountered three liberation movements that let me understand where the real devil lies: the class system, racism, sexism. Social hierarchies supported by the drive for profit on one hand and the policing functions of those in power on the other, whether we speak of war, the Patriot Act, or the Justice system.
Lily Bart never betrays her inner sense of decency or dignity. She doesn't stoop to blackmail. She doesn't stoop to selling her body or sexuality. She doesn't intentionally hurt anyone. And she doesn't waste her spirit in hatred, revenge, or blame. She just tires out. And in her circumstances, she hits a wall. In her circumstances I could have.
This fall I found a used copy of The Moonstone, a Victorian Mystery novel by Wilkie Collins, 1868. I had read it as an adolescent but I retained no m This fall I found a used copy of The Moonstone, a Victorian Mystery novel by Wilkie Collins, 1868. I had read it as an adolescent but I retained no memory beyond the title. I didn't remember it as a mystery because I had then no conception of "mysteries" as a genre, nor had I heard of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers or Arthur Conan Doyle. Neither did I have enough sense of history to remember it as "Victorian." At that age—twelve and thirteen—all time was still eternal despite whatever history might have been taught in grade school.
Reading it again, I was at first disappointed because the opening seemed "hoaky" if I can use that word to label a story replete with evil relatives, stolen and cursed diamonds, a beautiful young (and rich) heroine, handsome suitors and humorous servants. The frame work was a clutch of cliches which, of course, are now familiar to me as they weren't at my first reading. But The Moonstone is far more than a "mere" Victorian Mystery, and it is worth considering at some length. In some ways it epitomizes important characteristics of Anglophone Mystery stories, it is curiously modern, and shows a complicated ambivalence toward the usual Orientalist twist to generic dangers. The mystery concerns a valuable "yellow" diamond from India, called The Moonstone, which is reputed to be cursed, and which a British officer in India illegally and immorally steals. Later, in England, he bequeaths the stone to his niece and the night it is given to her, it is stolen from the country house, from her own sitting room.
Standard requisites of the nineteenth-century novel in general overlap with those of the mystery, and The Moonstone is well supplied with the necessities: in addition to heroine, suitors, and servants, these include a famous detective, a no-nonsense solicitor, and additional satirical comic relief. Three other characters surprised me: two are hardly introduced until late in the book, but the character Rosanna Spearman figures importantly in early parts of the plot. She is a novelty in a Victorian book, and lends a curious tone to the story. Rosanna is a criminal, born into urban poverty and early prison, whom Lady Verinder (Rachel's mother) hires as a house-servant because a Matron there thought her rehabilitated. Rosanna has never before been exposed to "fine people" and her expectations mislead her. One of Rachel's suitors, handsome Franklin Blake, treats Rosanna with politeness and kindness, with the result that Rosanna falls in love with him, and Blake is completely unaware of it. Soon after the diamond's disappearance, Rosanna commits suicide in a gruesome manner, of grief for being beneath Blake's notice.
I don't know what structural function such a character and background would ordinarily serve in the Victorian era, or if it's as unusual as it seems to me, but it is a unique twist to the story and oddly unsettling. Perhaps I am mistaken to find everything about the depiction of Rosanna Spearman unusual, and almost modern. In 1868, however, Ibsen was writing in Europe, Balzac had written, Flaubert and Zola were raising eyebrows, and Thomas Hardy, of course, was hardly Victorian. Even Victor Hugo treated seriously the theme of the daughter of criminals loving a young nobleman (Eponine and Marius).
In his "Preface" Collins avers that one object of his writing was to reveal "the influence of circumstances on character," definitely a trait of some modernity. In The Moonstone, however, he purports conversely to trace the "influence of character on circumstances," aiming to show how the unexpected firmness of intention of an eighteen-year-old girl influenced events so strongly because no one could have guessed her discernment of alternatives. I had not thought about how "modern" Rachel's behavior is, but certainly the cunning of the plot of The Moonstone does owe much to the fact that Rosanna Spearman's character is misinterpreted, in the story and by readers as well.
What makes the story rise even more markedly above a normal "good" mystery, I think, is the device of having it told by four different characters who witnessed events at different stages. How much the structure was influenced by its initial appearances in three serial segments I can't say, but certainly the stylistic variety in itself enhanced my pleasure in its reading.
The first section, by far the longest, is told by Gabriel Betteredge, the steward, a man seventy years old who knew Lady Verinder before she was married. His is the voice of the loyal retainer: prosaic, undignified, and sometimes a little crusty—especially when his stubborn faith in the young Mistress Rachel is questioned--but shrewd and practical nonetheless. Most of all, he is amusing in the stereotypical way that a good country serving man is "supposed" to entertain us cosmopolitan literary types.
In the meantime, here is another false start and more waste of good writing paper. What's to be done now? Nothing that I know of, except for you to keep your temper, and for me to begin it all over again for the third time.
A further humorous eccentricity is that Betteredge treats a volume of Robinson Crusoe the way some people superstitiously treat the Tao Te Ching or the Bible, as a kind of fortune-telling talisman. Whatever page he opens it to, he finds solutions to riddles, answers to questions he didn't realize he had; sometimes even the foretelling of events. So between his dithering about the difficulty of having to write, his recourse to Robinson Crusoe, his frequent naps in a chair in the sun, his attention to details of the household, his long history with the family, and his sentimental warmth, the first half (40%) of the book which introduces all the major characters, including the noted Sergeant Cuff, flows briskly along through family history, the arrival of the diamond and discovery of its theft, subsequent suspicions and uproar, and initial investigations, with the clarity of the below-stairs view.
The narrator of the second segment is the most caricatured portrait in the book, and other than the ostracized uncle who bequeaths the diamond to Rachel, she is one of only two mean-spirited characters, both of them proselytizing Christians. Miss Clack is an eager bearer of tracts of "good works" such as "The Devil in the Hairbrush" (about women's vanity). Among Miss Clack's misguided spiritual companions there are men and married women available for this role, so I frowned a little at the presumed prior inferiority of the "spinster," which I felt verged on the heavy-handed. But the ridicule is funny and this particular kind of smug proselytizing well deserves savage mockery. Like Gabriel Betteredge, Miss Clack constantly comments on her writing style too, but without his humility, a trait Miss Clack lacks absolutely:
Oh, be morally tidy! Let your faith be as your stockings, and your stockings as your faith. Both ever spotless, and ready to be put on at a moment's notice! I beg a thousand pardons. I have fallen insensibly into my Sunday-school style. Most inappropriate in such a record as this. Let me try to be worldly.
Her charities are also ridiculed: the best one being the "British-Ladies-Servants'-Sunday-Sweetheart-Supervision-Society." But the "Mothers'-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society" also has its charms: this committee buys in trousers that have been pawned and converts them to children's clothes, primarily to punish the profligate fathers who will not get their pants back!
There is one passage that could well be the creed of some of our own twenty-first-century know-nothings:
Taxation may be the consequence of a mission; riots may be the consequence of a mission; wars may be the consequence of a mission: we go on with our work, irrespective of every human consideration which moves the world outside us. We are above reason; we are beyond ridicule; we see with nobody's eyes, we hear with nobody's ears, we feel with nobody's hearts, but our own. Glorious, glorious privilege! And how is it earned? Ah, my friends, you may spare yourselves the useless inquiry! We are the only people who can earn it—for we are the only people who are always right [emph. mine].
The final segment of the book is written primarily by the rejected suitor Franklin Blake. Two minor characters play decisive roles here. First, there is a crippled, embittered girl of "low rank" who holds a clue almost completely unexpected although it was foreshadowed in Gabriel Betteredge's part of the tale. After everyone but the servants had left the estate, Lucy Yolland appeared, a nearby fisherman's daughter, both lamed enough to use a crutch and desperately lean and haggard. She hails Gabriel "as if she could have eaten me alive," looking for Franklin Blake, "the murderer"! Lucy has a letter for him from Rosanna, written before her death. "Murderer," she calls him because he ought to have seen Rosanna was in love, he ought to have taken pity of her, he ought to have noticed when someone was suffering. He therefore caused her death.. She even argues in general:
Where is this gentleman that I mustn't speak of,except with respect? Ha, Mr. Betteredge, the day is not far off when the poor will rise against the rich. I pray Heaven they may begin with him. I pray Heaven they may begin with him."
Ezra Jennings is another disabled 'freak,' a parallel to Lucy Yolland and to Rosanna Spearman: someone out of place, someone unacceptable to society, whom, however, Collins treats with empathy and in a realistic manner, and who I expected to be somehow culpable, because of the stereotypes I've encountered in the three British mystery authors I know: Conan Doyle, Sayers, and Christie. Jennings has three afflictions. First he had a mother of an "other" race, which partly explains why his appearance is unusual in Victorian England. "I was born, and partly brought up in one of our colonies. My father was an Englishman; but my mother was –."
Second, perhaps as a corollary, he has suffered an unjust accusation which destroyed his reputation and prevents him from having a profitable practice of his own. His third affliction he does not disclose to Blake, but Collins 'omnisciently' imparts the knowledge by including pages from Jennings' journal: Ezra Jennings suffers from a terrible crippling disease which accounts for his gaunt skeletal look, and the pied black and white of his hair.
The entire mystery is bookended by two stories witnessed in India: the initial theft of the Diamond in 1799 and a later post-script sent by a traveler in India. The prologue tells of an assault by British Colonial forces on a town in India. The postscript is a report from India which closes the story. For what I've omitted is the Orientalist twist to the story—the "Curse of the Moonstone" and the eerie presence of three "dark" men, Brahmin descendants of descendants of descendants, who have pursued the diamond since "the lawless Mohammedans" first stole it from the temple of the "Hindoo god of the moon"—"whose seat is on the antelope," and whose four arms "embrace the four corners of the earth."
In my reading, the Hindu deity associated with the moon is Chandra who has only two arms and usually rides in a chariot carrying the lunar disk across the sky, although it is possible to associate him with being seated on an antelope. The four-armed gods, however, are the great Trinity, Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva, and they are not associated with either the moon or the antelope. Imagine reading a story about Americans who worship a Great Christ that holds the graven tablets of the Ten Commandments. That's what I call irresponsible representation. And this kind of irresponsible appropriation and invention of symbols, themes, and stories from "the East" is what is meant by "Orientalism" in Postcolonial Theorizing.
Social Anxiety, Orientalism, and the Mystery Genre: Ambivalence in "The Moonstone." It has been argued that the mystery genre came into being with industrialization and urbanization, that is, when nineteenth-century life was becoming urbanized--full of strangers, chaotic and unpredictable, and stories of "the Other worlds" abounded. Urban danger and chaos reached out to destabilize even the familiar and inviolate hierarchies of the country. And what could be more sinister, lurking in the city of lost innocence, than delegates from the lands of "our" inferiors? Dark people. Dark dangers. Sayers with all her 20s feminist savvy still uses the N-word quite casually, at least once specifically of native of India who had studied at Oxbridge.
Several historical events occur together in the 1840s. The first detective story is generally considered to be Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," (1841) in which the mysterious violent culprit is an "ourang-outang" escaped into a city, a "danger from the East." Poe had recently seen an "orang-utan" (current English) exhibited in Philadelphia, and the coincidence of the exhibit and the Orientalist shape of the story brings together all the tropes of colonial trophies, exoticism, fascination and dangers. The 1840s also saw the establishment of the first professional police forces in a number of cities, American and European. Poe's "little story" set a template for Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and others, but also for the role of "the Orient" and Colonialism in mysteries, including The Moonstone. Conan Doyle's Professor Moriarty figure, and such Christie stories of global criminal conspiracies as her repellent racist and reactionary book The Big Four, point to a perceived social hunger for the reassuring rationality of the detective or mystery story: to set time back, to reestablish a safe and stable social hierarchy in the books, and to end change which threatens those hierarchies: revolutions, uprisings, mutinies, resistance, labor struggles and strikes, feminism and the danger—moral as well as physical-- of cities.
The Mystery or Detective genre of literature soothed the "white" urban psyche in several ways: it identified and arrested the guilty, it cut through the disorder with a supremely intelligent, observant, rational investigator—the unique power of the European, and until well into the twentieth century, the European male!—and, finally, it acknowledged the social anxiety.
According to some psychological theory, victimizers often hate and fear their victims because they project the suspicion that their victims must hate them and crave revenge. Slavery advocates used to claim that their "blacks" were happy and childlike and would not be able to take care of themselves if emancipated, but on the other hand, and at the same time they maintained that "blacks" were savage, dangerous, lustful, unruly, bloodthirsty. In the nineteenth century in Europe, the great fear was from the East (which included the Arab countries, or the "Middle East" and sometimes, unwittingly, Africa and South America)—as if Europe were half the world and the 75% of the world Europe dominated were a roughly equivalent sphere, an opposite, in fact.
For nineteenth-century Britons, and Europeans generally, the Asian colonies were an increasing source of national power, pride, and profit: a place to build careers and acquire wealth. Above all, the East was a topic to discuss, to lecture about, to gossip about, to fantasize over, to "own." Ideological references run a gamut of types and sources, from political speeches and legislation, explorers' tales, advice for investors and administrators about how to rule "the Orient" and why it was incumbent on modern civilizations to provide rational and enlightened supervision to these sadly decadent dens of iniquity, sensuality and chaos—"the white man's burden"—to the taking and displaying of trophies and cultural icons: ivory, beaten brass tables, elephant-foot umbrella holders, tiger and snow leopard rugs, an endless list. The East was repellent and fascinating, dangerous and inviting. Novelists, painters, musicians, poets ("In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree"), and dancers all as readily rendered "Oriental" themes as we children of the 40s used to do "Indian dances" and go "on the warpath" with chicken feathers tied to our heads, a kitchen pot as "tom-tom," bows and arrows with suction cups, and toy tomahawks. Crude and now-embarrassing though it is if looked at clearly, such appropriation of the vanquished has proved a common historical thread.
The best primary source for a thorough understanding of the phenomenon is the detailed and masterly examination of the function of Eurocentric representations of 'the East' over a five hundred year period: Edward W. Said's seminal primer in Post-Colonial Studies, entitled simply Orientalism, a model of deconstructing social fantasies and also of a meticulous and overt avoidance of re-constructing a counter-fantasy.
Said, a classics professor at Columbia, examines how the first European images and ideas about a definable construct called "The Orient" coincide precisely with important political and military interactions of Europe and some object imagined to be Europe's opposite—i.e., the world was essentially divided into two spheres—the West and the East. These 'Eastern' empires were now deemed decadent, sick, turgid, stagnant and backward, in the ideology, and it was up to Europe to rule them and bring them into contemporary civilization (Europe's domain). No distinction is made between Arab, Berber, Afghani, Indian, Pakistani, Malaysian, Chinese, Siberian, Japanese, etc. and in fact many of the national borders were created by Europe. But still one would think that Daoism, Shinto, Confucianism, Hindu, Buddhism and Islam would be seen as quite distinct. No, 'the East"is mystical. "We" in 'the West' are not.
Of special interest to me in The Moonstone is the ambivalence shown by Collins toward "the East". In 1868, when Collins published the book, a notorious Indian Mutiny was just over ten years in the past (1857). The Mutiny's reported atrocities inflamed English popular opinion, and during the aftermath no less a personage than Charles Dickens had advised exterminating the Indians across the board. Yet Collins, Dickens's protege and friend, only a decade later, sets The Moonstone in the past without reference to tensions in India, and the final entry in the book, a peaceful resolution, takes place in India in 1850. So Collins is particularly interesting not just because of the marked Orientalist tone and theme of his book, but in the ambivalence he displays. Yes, there is cast over the whole story the suspense of the "dark" Brahmins from India and their mysterious behavior and "mien," but alongside the danger theme is a counter-theme of noble bearing, of restraint—i.e., they do not harm the men they kidnap, except in the end the villainous thief. Yes, the diamond may be cursed, but in the end it finally does not harm those who, though they had no moral right to it, came by its possession innocently. The curse serves to enable the Brahmins to return the Moonstone to its Hindu culture and in the end leaves no lasting harm.
See my review of The Moonstone on my blog www.juanitarice.blogspot.com for further discussion of Orientalism, and the curious and fascinating (to me) ambivalence Collins displays toward The East. ...more
In the Heart of the Country by J.M.Coetzee; a Response. By Juanita Rice
Oh, all these severe ascetic-looking serious men on the back covers of their 'seIn the Heart of the Country by J.M.Coetzee; a Response. By Juanita Rice
Oh, all these severe ascetic-looking serious men on the back covers of their 'searing' novels, these ascetic, severe novels. And I?—old fool—a woman reading the scripts I encounter along my way looking for "illumination, destruction, diving, diving down to pick up on every shining thing" (Black Crow, Joni Mitchell). Coetzee is a writer in South Africa, winner of the Booker prize for two other books, numerous fiction prizes and in 2003 the Nobel Prize in Literature. In the Heart of the Country was published 1976, so you can see that he has had a long and distinguished writing career.
The main character of In the Heart of the Country is tiresomely another incarnation of the misogynist Strindberg's "Miss Julie." Ruling class perverse slut. A tiresome story of servant men taking out their rage on the Master's daughter (not the Master, god forbid). And how these bourgeois women deserve it. Dirty-minded, trying to be superior and yet be desirable, sexy; they're all sex-starved, or else they're frigid and like to lead a man on only to scorn him. In the end, it's a rape fantasy written by a male artist who purports to represent the story from the twisted mind of the girl, and justified to protecting his own contempt onto the "Other" male—the worker, the servant, the black man.
BUT unlike in "Miss Julie," there is more, much more, to the book than the impersonation of a sicko white woman colonialist vis-a-vis a black African servant, but still the basic premise is wrong, skewed, exploitative, sensationalist. White man writes about perverse white woman who indulges the black man and fails to keep the proper distance, fails to keep behind the protective white Master, and thus is subjected to all the punishment a contemptuous patriarchy can unload. Because she is driven by a nameless and despicable desire. Because she was Electra. Because she wanted the Father to screw her, and so when he screwed the Black woman she killed Him and debased her lust with the Black man!!! That's the racist sexist story for 500 years. Shakespeare did it a little better, because his Black Man was not a servant, and the relationship of Desdemona and Othello was NOT perverse. But it was perverted—by Iago, by mistrust, by trickery.
The narrator of the story is this lonely white daughter, and she's not a very dependable narrator either; we know from the outset that she's, well, crazy. She's mean, bitter, neurotic, a white colonizer's daughter in the country in Africa; she is virgin, dried, and alone, alone, alone. Her mother is long dead, and her own life is tight and meaningless. She is parched for experience, love, company. She experiments with different truths as she starts her story. Sometimes she admits she has written a lie and has to go back and pick up the narration again. The first sixteen pages tell in detail of the return of her father from 'somewhere' with a new bride to replace the dead mother. The new bride is a slovenly sexualized shrew; the sexual congress between her and the father is loathesome, unavoidable, haunts the house. Until the narrator/daughter kills them with an axe. But on page seventeen she admits that her father "does not die so easily after all. Disgruntled, saddle-sore, it is he who rides in out of the sunset. . . .He has not brought home a new wife, I am still his daughter."
Hendrik, their best worker/servant (black African), is newly married to a young woman, Anna. When Hendrik is sent on an errand, the Master and Father takes Hendrik's wife to his bed. In anger, disgust, jealousy, as well as intolerably aroused and made meaningless by the sounds of sexuality from her Father's bed, the daughter knocks on their door, calls, rings a bell—anything to be herself noticed, anything to stop being outside such sensual drama. Finally she kills her father with the shotgun.
In his ensuing absence the farm runs down; there are no supplies and there is no pay for Hendrik. All the money is deposited at the post office and requires the Master's signature. The older servants leave right away, fearing to be involved in a murder investigation. But Hendrik stays, helps her bury the corpse, and slowly becomes her Master. She is arrogant, irresponsible, and keeps promising to pay him. Cruelly he rapes her in a moment of rage, and then continues to try to outrage her despite her sexual craving to be "a real woman. "
At last he and Anna leave and the farm is still, empty. The daughter lives on, eating old pumpkins and the remains of grain. How much time passes, who knows?
This is all written by a white South African man. The writing is brilliant. The imaginative trek is not new.
I'd love to see what Toni Morrison would make of this one.
And yet. Like Toni Morrison, after I get past my obsessive revulsion for the ideology that has been the bane of my existence, i.e., Imperial patriarchy (whether Christian, atheist, or Jewish, or Islamic...you name it): when I look beyond that, at the talent and at the positive thing that Coetzee was aiming toward, I find the beauties. We do not destroy the beauty of art when we identify its smuggled enemies inside it. The Trojan Horse may have been an exquisite work of art in itself, but for the Trojans, it was disastrous: it gained the enemy entrance. It made the enemy into the "enemy within." When I take the trouble to externalize what is hostile within a novel, I am then freed to appreciate the artifice and the aim.
In Heart of the Country Coetzee is really aiming at the Hierarchy itself, the Hierarchies themselves: White Colonial Woman vs. Strong Black Servant in a one-to-one relationship is a potent war if it develops. Both are damaged by it, not to mention the incidental...the collateral damage...to Anna, Hendrik's young wife who is dominated by all: by the rapist White Father, by the domineering and jealous White Master's Daughter, and by the Black Husband.. After shooting the Father, the narrator finds Anna "crouching in a corner, listening to the groans from the bedroom."
She berates the frightened young woman: Well, now the fun and games are over! And where are your clothes? Leave my blankets alone, please, you have clothes of your own. Well, come on, what are you going to do now? What are you going to say to your husband? What are you going to say to him about last night? Come on, speak up, what are you going to tell your husband? What have you been up to here in the house? You slut! You filth! Look what a mess you've caused! It's all your fault, all this mess is your fault. (P 140)
At last Anna answers:
"Please, miss, my clothes are gone." "Don't lie to me, your clothes are in the bedroom where you were!" "Yes, miss. Please, miss, he will hit me. "
But listen to the words the ventriloquist Coetzee gives to "her."
Thus, venting torrents of mean-spirited resentment on the girl, swelling with ire and self-righteousness, do I become for a blessed interval a woman among women, shrew among doughty shrews. [emp. mine] It comes of itself, one needs no lessons, only meek folk around one and a grudge against them for not speaking back. ...Is it any wonder that nothing is safe from me, that the lowliest veld-flower is likely to find itself raped in its being or that I should dream with yearning of a bush that resists my metaphysical conquest? Poor Hendrik, poor Anna, what chance have they? (P 140)
As Anna feared, when Hendrik is called, he beats and kicks Anna: "You! I'll kill you!" (We must remember that Hendrik is animated and voiced by the white male ventriloquist: whether the image represents a truth or not, it is not reality, but a projection.)
I pick up my skirts and run towards them. This is certainly action, and unambiguous action too. I cannot deny that there is exhilaration mixed in with my alarm. (Paragraph 141.)
Hendrik demands to be paid as the farm falls apart; 'Miss' has no money.
195. I cannot carry on with these idiot dialogues. The language that should pass between myself and these people was subverted by my father and cannot be recovered. What passes between us now is a parody. I was born into a language of hierarchy, of distance and perspective. It was my father-tongue. I do not say it is the language my heart wants to speak, I feel too much the pathos of its distances, but it is all w e have. I can believe there is a language lovers speak but cannot imagine how it goes. I have no words left to exchange whose value I can trust.
Surely enough, the Primal Scene arrives, the Terror at the Heart of White Civilization. Notice "ducking and grinning" as familiar words that may alert you to the puppeteer's presence, as paragraph 195 continues:
Hendrik is duckiing and grinning secretly all the time he offers me the old locutions. "Miss, miss, miss!" he says to my face; "I know you, you are your father's daughter," he says behind his hand; "you are my wife's half- sister, where your father lay I lie too, I know that man, his mark is in my bed." "You, you, you," sings Klein-Anna from behind hi where I cannot see her. " (Paragraph 195)
As "miss" is subdued by Hendrik's sexual revenge upon her, and fantasizes herself loved, she takes solace in a sororal relationship with Anna:
I am not one of the heroes of desire, what I want is not infinite or unattainable, all I ask myself, faintly, dubiously, querulously, is whether there is not something to do with desire other than striving to possess the desired in a project which must be vain, since its end can only be the annihilation of the desired. And how much keener does my question becomes when woman desires woman, two holes, two emptinesses. (Paragraph 226.)
The first sentence is contemplative; the second is obliterative. And thus goes this book. Profoundly questioning hierarchical race relations, hierarchical relations, emptiness, desire, dissatisfaction, but stumbling always over markers of hidden assumptions about race and gender. Emptiness as women. Grinning and ducking Africans.
"One by one the doors of the great house click shut behind me." As the novel ponderously approaches its end, "I" muses: "I was not, after all, made to live alone. If I had been set down by fate in the middle of the veld in the middle of nowhere, buried to my waist [??] and commanded to live a life, I could not have done it. I am not a philosopher. Women are not philosophers, and I am a woman. A woman cannot make something out of nothing." (Paragraph 230.)
And yet here lies a terrible scarifying picture of the insanity of white racism and its scouring of the African veldt, debasing, killing, and ultimately dying its own death. *** We should all hear the voice of the prophet, the Savior we also killed, the great Seatl, chief of the S'quamish.:
When all the beasts are gone, mankind will die of a great loneliness.
Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. The end of living and the beginning of survival.
All things share the same breath - the beast, the tree, the man... the air shares its spirit with all the life it supports.
Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.
Man does not weave this web of life. He is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.