Apr 26 2016

Too wise to woo peaceably

(originally published at bibliobuffet.com January, 2010)

“What, really, does Shakespeare have to say to women?”

This question was posed to—or rather, hurled at—a class of young women (including myself) by the radical feminist philosopher Mary Daly one spring afternoon in 1985. I never forgot it. Nor her answer to her own question, uttered with a kind of flat, furious finality; “Nothing.”

Daly, who was teaching a class on feminist ethics and already surrounded by controversy because she wouldn’t allow any men to enroll in the course (and there was always one or two who attempted to get in), was trying to shock us out of our complacency and assumptions about what constituted a “good” woman in our society. She challenged us to question every model, every illustration of female virtue or vice, from Helen of Troy to “Tootsie” (a movie she despised for its unsubtle statement that to be an independent woman you have to be a man).  We in the class all thought of ourselves as feminists. We thought that we were qualified to do anything—that traditional gender roles were antiquated and no longer applied to our place in modern society. Not a woman in the class had any plans on fulfilling her life goal of becoming a housewife with 2.5 kids.  We had all read Sisterhood is Powerful and we all subscribed to Ms. magazine. We thought we were pretty radical.

We weren’t. With a single question Daly managed to undercut everything we didn’t even know we were taking for granted. She wasn’t simply saying that Shakespeare was worthless. “What if,” she was asking, “the whole of western literature is simply invalid for women?” What if it just doesn’t apply?

It is a valid question. Like all young women I learned instinctively to read in a kind of gender-neutral way. It didn’t matter if the story was about a man or a woman, if it was Jay Gatsby or Jane Eyre. (It is a truism among librarians and booksellers that you can convince girls to read books featuring boys, but you can rarely get a boy to read a book that features a girl. Girls are just used to “setting aside” their gender when they read.)The loves and losses, ambitions and drives, they were all part of the “human” condition. Men and women both hoped. They both bled.  It hadn’t occurred to me—at least, until I met Daly—that feminism was not about claiming a place in a patriarchal society, but recreating that society altogether. Questioning all the old models—which, in my case, meant questioning anything I’d ever learned from books.  I’ve read a lot of books.

Paradigm shifts are never comfortable experiences, and I’ll admit that I kicked at the notion that some literature might just be plain bad for women. Especially canonical literature like Shakespeare. I had spent the previous summer preparing for college by reading all the “Great Books” and I had assumed that they were “great” for a reason. That their relevancy transcended their time and place. And presumably their gender.  Nevertheless, the question had been asked and I couldn’t just pretend I’d never heard it. “What does this really have to say to women?” became one of those underlying, fundamental questions I asked—and continue to ask—of every book I read.

I’ll always be grateful to Daly for kicking me out of the garden of complacency.  (I can hear her now—“Adam gave birth to Eve? How fucked up is that?”). She made my (reading) life much more uncomfortable, and much more interesting.  So it was natural that when I decided on a whim last year, to  go through every Shakespeare play, one of the things that would echo through my mind as watched Henry VI tormented on the battlefield, Richard III railing against his enemies, Titus Andronicus mourning his dead sons, was that long ago question (or was it an accusation?) “What, really, does Shakespeare have to say to women?”

Well, not nothing.  Not for me, anyway. Mary Daly might (actually almost certainly does) disagree.  But I’ll admit that as I navigated my way through Shakespeare’s oeuvre—and to date I’m only about a third of the way through—I was starting to wonder if she had been right.  The women in Shakespeare’s plays, at least in the early plays, are not central characters to the drama. They are not motivators; they are acted upon, rather than determiners of their own fate. In keeping with the era the plays were written, women were property, first and foremost, and the pinnacle of their aspirations lay in the advancement of their husbands, and their filial duty to their “lord and master.” Even when women play a significant role in the plot—Tamora, Queen of the Goths, exacting revenge on Titus, for example, or Queen Margaret, raising the troops in defense of the reign of her husband, the bookish and effeminate King Henry VI—they are only mirrors of the ambitions of the men they belong to; Tamora, who is forever manipulated by her lover Aaron. Margaret, who’s fury is set off not by national politics, but by a slight from the other women at the court on the way she dresses. They do not meet events so much as they are caught up in them. Those that dare aspire to self determination meet with brutal punishments and violent ends.

So where are the women in Shakespeare’s plays? Are they only symbolic figures to be fought over, claimed, won and used? Are they all merely devices, rather than characters? I’m not about to launch into a feminist critique of gender roles in Shakespearean drama—I’m in no way qualified and besides, this Shakespearean journey I’ve been on is a purely personal quest. So I only need to have a personal answer. But as I have been making my way through the plays I have been asking myself what Daly once asked of me—what does he have to say to women? And the question became an unavoidable shout when I got to Taming of the Shrew.

This is the kind of play that makes a modern girl either squirm in embarrassment or want to throw things. Heavy things. At Shakespeare. It’s the story of a spirited woman who is married off against her will because of her dowry, and put through systematic physical abuse and psychological torture until she “breaks” so completely that she has no will of her own, but accepts her husband’s decree on the very nature of reality:
PETRUCHIO:     Come on, a’ God’s name; once more toward our father’s.
Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!

KATHARINA:    The moon! the sun: it is not moonlight now.

PETRUCHIO:    I say it is the moon that shines so bright.

KATHARINA:    I know it is the sun that shines so bright.

PETRUCHIO:     Now, by my mother’s son, and that’s myself,
It shall be moon, or star, or what I list,
Or ere I journey to your father’s house.
Go on, and fetch our horses back again.
Evermore cross’d and cross’d; nothing but cross’d!

HORTENSIO:    Say as he says, or we shall never go.

KATHARINA:     Forward, I pray, since we have come so far,
And be it moon, or sun, or what you please:
An if you please to call it a rush-candle,
Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me.

PETRUCHIO:     I say it is the moon.

KATHARINA:     I know it is the moon.

PETRUCHIO:     Nay, then you lie: it is the blessed sun.

KATHARINA:    Then, God be bless’d, it is the blessed sun:
But sun it is not, when you say it is not;
And the moon changes even as your mind.
What you will have it named, even that it is;
And so it shall be so for Katharina.


But despite the distaste that the whole misogynistic scenario evokes, Taming of the Shrew remains one of Shakespeare’s most popular and best known plays—adapted into literally hundreds of different incarnations, from operas to Broadway musicals to meta-television sitcom episodes. So it must strike a chord with us on some level. Something other, one hopes, than as an appeal to our baser instincts to laugh at the suppression and degradation of an uppity woman.

I had to watch several versions of the play before I finally decided that this particular comedy was satire. Or, as it would have been called in Shakespeare’s day, farce. It was an illustration of romance, courtship and marriage taken to its most absurd and ludicrous degree. Petruchio must be a fool or a madman for the marriage to come off.  He dresses in rags for his wedding and hits the priest. He calls good meat burnt, good bedding dusty. He calls day night, and the sun, the moon.  Even before he ever sees his potential bride, he avows that:

I will attend her here,
And woo her with some spirit when she comes.
Say that she rail; why then I’ll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale:
Say that she frown, I’ll say she looks as clear
As morning roses newly wash’d with dew:
Say she be mute and will not speak a word;
Then I’ll commend her volubility,
And say she uttereth piercing eloquence:
If she do bid me pack, I’ll give her thanks,
As though she bid me stay by her a week:
If she deny to wed, I’ll crave the day
When I shall ask the banns and when be married.

In short, it is a marriage he can only succeed at if reality is turned upside-down.  Not, one would think, a real recipe for marital bliss. The absurdity of the farce takes some of the sting out of the storyline. Not much, but some.

And oddly enough, it was here, at the first meeting of Petruchio and Katharina, that I suddenly “found” the real women in Shakespeare. The two headstrong and obstinate people meet and Petruchio immediately launches into a rather absurd greeting that begins by accusing Katharina of lying about her own name:

Good morrow, Kate; for that’s your name, I hear.

KATHARINA:     Well have you heard, but something hard of hearing:
They call me Katharina that do talk of me.

PETRUCHIO:     You lie, in faith; for you are call’d plain Kate,
And bonny Kate and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation;
Hearing thy mildness praised in every town,
Thy virtues spoke of, and thy beauty sounded,
Yet not so deeply as to thee belongs,
Myself am moved to woo thee for my wife.

KATHARINA:     Moved! in good time: let him that moved you hither
Remove you hence: I knew you at the first
You were a moveable.

PETRUCHIO:     Why, what’s a moveable?

KATHARINA:     A join’d-stool.

PETRUCHIO:     Thou hast hit it: come, sit on me.

KATHARINA:     Asses are made to bear, and so are you.

PETRUCHIO:     Women are made to bear, and so are you.

Wait a second, I thought. I’ve heard this before.  This sharp back-and-forth repartee. It was there between Joan of Arc and Talbert in Henry VI Part I, (“Good-bye, my lord. We came but to tell you/
That we are here.”)

Between the Duke of Gloucester and his betraying Duchess in Henry Vi, Part II, (“I am Duke Humphrey’s wife/  And he a prince and ruler of the land:/  Yet so he ruled and such a prince he was / As he stood by whilst I, his forlorn duchess, /  Was made a wonder and a pointing-stock /To every idle rascal follower.”)

Between Richard Duke of York and Anne in Richard III, (Anne: “O wonderful, when devils tell the truth!” Richard: “More wonderful, when angels are so angry.”)

This is where the women speak in Shakespeare. Not on the grand stage of historic events that determine the fates of kings and countries, but in these private, intimate one-on-one exchanges; parrying words and wishes with the men who would be their lovers, husbands, conquerors, and companions.

And here, they spring vividly to the forefront of the stage, often eclipsing the men at their sides.  Even young Juliet (who I can never forget was only fourteen years old when she was to be married to some lecherous ancient lord) stands her ground against her father, her mother, and her paramour, the feckless, whimpering, wavering Romeo. Shakespeare may not have written “feminist” women, but not a one of them could be described as a doormat.

It’s perhaps ironic that it took Shakespeare’s most problematically misogynistic play to finally find “what Shakespeare had to say to women,” or, at least, to this woman. But once I knew what I was listening for, I started to hear the women everywhere.  They don’t duel (much), they don’t fight (much). They don’t challenge or rebel (much). But they speak—with more wisdom and passion than can usually be said for the men in their orbit.  In fact, it is only when a man can equal the lady’s wit that the match—in Shakespeare’s eyes, anyway—has any chance of success.  Admittedly, it is a little disturbing that one of the best-matched couples in all the plays are the murderous Getrude and Claudius in Hamlet.  But then again, there is also the gentler counterpoint to Kate and Petruchio in Much Ado About Nothing’s Beatrice and Benedict.  Beatrice is no “shrew” (a word that Mary Daly, in act of conquering fury in her book Pure Lust, reclaimed for feminism and turned into a positive term for women who would not be cowed by men. In class she would exhort us to become “Shrewd Shrews.”) She never resorts, as Katharina does, to bashing her lute over the head of an idiotic teacher—but she’s never at a loss for words. And like Kate and Petruchio, she and Benedict trade insults and barbs from the moment they set eyes on each other until the moment curtain falls.

“Thou and I,” says Benedict (I can almost hear the voice of Shakespeare himself behind the words), “are too wise to woo peaceably.”

By and large, that might be said of every woman in a Shakespearean drama who has more than two or three lines altogether. Women in the Elizabethan era were supposed to be docile and obedient. But Shakespeare, I think, more appreciated a woman with witty tongue and a steadfast heart. At least, he knew that such women made for a better story.

Books mentioned in this column:

Sisterhood is Powerful by Robin Morgan (Random House, 1970)

Henry VI, part i by William Shakespeare

Henry VI part ii by William Shakespeare

Richard III by William Shakespeare

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare

Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Pure Lust by Mary Daly (Beacon Press, 1984)

Mar 28 2016

Wandering Among the Muses: Modotti, Kahlo, Salome

(originally published at Bibliobuffet.com, February 2007)

Wandering among the muses, part 1: Roses

The first time I ever heard of Tina Modotti was just after I was out of college, as broke as a bookseller on minimum wage can be in a crowded city where the rents usually take up half of a decent salary.  I had been holding a stack of magazines to restock the little bookstore newsstand, when a copy of Time fell out of my hands and open on the ground at my feet. There, across the center double-page spread was a grainy image of “Roses”, which had just made the news when it was sold at auction for “more money than anyone had ever paid for a photograph before.”


The photograph mesmerized me. I remember crouching down to look at it, splayed open on the worn wooden floor, before I picked it up casually and took it to the back room. No, I didn’t steal it, exactly. I simply left magazine among the pile of others the staff would peruse during cigarette and coffee breaks.  But not before I had torn out the pages with the photo and slipped them into my bag. That night I dreamed I was falling into the picture, the rose petals soft and clinging to my skin.  I woke up hot, damp, and breathless.

That magazine picture stayed with me for several years—tapped above my desk, or folded into the pages of whatever journal I was haphazardly keeping at the time. Sometimes, I would unfold it and stare at the roses before I would go to bed, in the hopes of having that dream again.  I looked up Tina Modotti, of course, but the Internet was still a few years off, I believe we still relied upon clay tablets and papyrus scrolls. I could find nothing written about an obscure female photographer whose claim to fame seemed to begin and end with one expensive photograph and the fact that she was Edward Weston’s model, apprentice, mistress and muse.

Tina-Modotti-Hooks-Margaret-9780044409250It took a couple of years before a freelance correspondent living in Mexico named Margaret Hooks published a biography of Modotti, with the forthright title Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary. I remember taking the book out of the box and immediately flipping through it, stopping at all the pictures, enjoying the shivery flush that crawled over me when I came to Roses, used as the frontispiece to the book.  Enjoying also, the sense of the future strung forth in “Telegraph wires”, its implied promise in “Doors”, and “Stairs” and “The typewriter.”  In Modotti’s photographs—in her many portraits but also in her photographs of buildings, objects, flowers, even her self portraits and nudes—I felt the sense of a rising tide.  Whether that tide was her rising creativity and artistic vision, her hopes for an oncoming socialist revolution to sweep the world, or simply my own flooding sense of creative purpose and erotic awakening is hard to say—a reader brings only himself—herself—to a book.  All I can say is that I had the book for over a week before I stopped just looking at the pictures and actually read it.

Tina Modotti: Photographer and Revolutionary—the title sums up everything a reader can expect to find in this book.  Margaret Hooks was determined to write a comprehensive account of a woman whose contributions—both to photography and to history—had been until then sidelined and eclipsed by the men in her orbit—the early pioneers of photography, the early leaders of the socialist and communist movements.  A feminist scholar at heart, Hooks undertook to shift the spotlight from Modotti’s many lovers and teachers onto the woman herself—a woman who, we are convinced by the end of the story, effected events as often as she was affected by them.

Tina Modotti was born in Italy, moved to California as a young woman where she had a brief but vivid career in the silent movies. She became interested in photography and through a series of fortuitous events, established herself in the studio of Edward Weston, where she quickly became his favorite model, and eventually his lover and his apprentice.  It was the early twenties; the age of the avant garde, of artistic and sexual exploration, a time when art was no longer expected to imitate life—rather life was to be lived as art.

Modotti and Weston traveled to Mexico in the early 1920’s.  Mexico City was becoming a center of cultural and artistic revolution, attracting an international collection of artists, poets and philosophers.  Ultimately, though, revolution was not as interesting to Weston as art, and he returned to California. Tina Modotti stayed, however, finding something in the political foment that inspired her.  Modotti’s apartments became a gathering place for radicals and writers, a salon of sorts although that word does little to describe the furious political and sexual intrigues that the gatherings seemed to spawn.

Hooks gives a careful account—citing a bewilderingly large number of names, places and dates in rapid succession—of Modotti’s time in Mexico from her first visit with her famous photographer mentor to her eventual exile with the then equally famous radical communist mentor Vittorio Vidali. As a biographer, she is careful, perhaps overly so, to document every point in Modotti’s life than can be reasonably documented.  And it was a fantastic, colorful life, filled with great passion and idealism, at least two political assassinations, several frightening acts of espionage, not to mention a number of turbulent, headline-producing affairs. So perhaps the rising sense of frustration I felt as I read was irrational—but I had a persistent feeling that being told what had happened in Tina Modotti’s life was not the same thing as knowing how it happened. The problem with careful documentation is that it can’t talk about what can’t be documented—her attempt to live as though her art, her desires, and her political beliefs were all things that would compliment, not conflict:

“You may say to me then,” she once wrote to Weston, “that since the element of life is stronger in me than the element of art I should just resign to it and make the best of it – but I cannot accept life as it is – it is too chaotic—too unconscious –therefore my resistance to it –my combat with it –I am forever struggling o mould life according to my temperament and needs…I put too much art in my life”

Hooks tells us about Modotti’s lovers, but not about how she falls in love.  She records how she learned to take a picture, but not how she learned what to photograph. The phases of Tina Modotti’s life are laid out like a well organized file, a dossier worthy of any secret service organization. But nowhere was there any hint for an electrified and frustrated reader at what made her take a picture like Roses.

Sometime in 1931, two years after her Cuban lover Julia Antonio Mella was shot at her side while they walked down a dark street (so close, Tina could taste gunpowder in her mouth when she gasped), and one year after the Mexican government had her deported for her Communist activities, she lost the struggle to keep her love, her politics and her photography serving the same cause.  She was ready to sacrifice her life for the cause of the proletariat, but she couldn’t sacrifice her artistic standards or her aesthetics. When it became a choice of a good picture or the good of the people, Tina Modotti put her camera down.


Part II—The Dove

Sometime in 1923 Tina Modotti gave one of the parties that had become a focal point for the artistic and radical set in Mexico City.  It might be said of most of the men who came that they came for Tina, not the politics or the conversation. But one man for whom that was not true was Diego Rivera, the muralist with a rising reputation for his art, his socialism and his many affairs. By the time of the party, however, his brief affair with Tina was long over, ending amicably on both sides when they realized they enjoyed talking politics and art with each other more than they enjoyed sex. The party got a little wild: “[it was] a period when people carried pistols and went around shooting the street lamps on Madero Avenue and getting into mischief,” recalled one of the people at the party. “Diego shot a phonograph and I began to be very interested in him in spite of the fear I had of him.” The speaker was a young painter named Frida Kahlo, who had just seen Rivera for the very first time.

Like Tina Modotti, my first encounter with Frida Kahlo, was through her art. It was, in its way, just as shocking—an angry boyfriend sent me a postcard of a painting called “Broken Column.”  It was the picture of a woman split down the middle, weeping, the two halves of her body held together by nails and surgical tape. In between, a cracked and ruined stone column ran from her head down to her hips. On the back of the card was scrawled the words “fuck you!”


Kahlo and Modotti were good friends, until Tina Modotti’s politics finally resulted in her exile to Europe. The women had a lot in common—they believed in art as a political force. They felt that desire was a form of creativity. They struggled to keep their own artistic existence separate and distinct from works of the men in their lives.  Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were married not long after they first met, and the marriage lasted until Kahlo’s death in 1954, despite their tempestuous natures, and frequent, tumultuous affairs on both sides. He was called The Frog Prince. She was often called The Dove. Kahlo found in Rivera a mentor and teacher, but whereas Rivera’s work was large scale, historical, and even epic, her own was more internal, folkloric, and intimate—often only 12 or 15 inches wide.  It is pretty well known that Kahlo survived a terrible accident when she was only eighteen—her school bus was rammed by a streetcar in Mexico City, and Kahlo was impaled on a metal bar. Her spine was fractured, her pelvis crushed, her foot broken. That she survived at all was a miracle, but she survived to live forever in constant pain and illness, unable to ever bear children, and to the certain future of ongoing medical procedures and operations and battles against her body’s disintegration.  “She lived dying” said one friend. She learned to paint, to really paint, laying on her back in a hospital bed. “Death dances around me” she wrote in a letter to a lover. Death would dance around her for the next twenty-nine years, until she finally gave in, and took his hand.

For a long time Kahlo, like Modotti, was known as much for the men she loved as she was for her own art. Also like Modotti, her own work has since become to be regarded as critically significant in its own right.  Oddly enough, although her husband’s work marched across buildings, portraying historical events and people and symbols of industry and agriculture, it is Kahlo’s galaxy of self portraits—sad eyed, weeping and bleeding, broken, cut apart, littered across desert scapes and dream-like jungles—that have endured.

9780810959545During the last ten years of her life Kahlo kept a journal (The Diary of Frida Kahlo: An Intimate Self-Portrait)—a vivid scrawling volume of sketches, poetry, letters and appeals that I have read and stared at over and over again.  It is a diary like none other in the world of letters. Not the quiet, considered reflections of an artist or philosopher sitting at their desk at the close of the day. Not the safe haven where she might indulge her wit and write down all the things she thought, but did not say, to the company she kept.  No, this is a document that seems to have been written in fits and starts, as though she put brush and pen to paper because she simply couldn’t help herself.  Turning the facsimiled pages—reproduced in full color, every marred sketch and crossed out word intact—I felt like I wasn’t seeing writing  at all, but a process of spontaneous combustion.  (“The art of Frida Kahlo,” said Andre Breton, “is a ribbon around a bomb.”)

The first pages of the book are neater, filled with incantations (“no moon, sun, diamonds, hands—fingertip, dot, ray, gauze sea. pine green, pink glass, eye, mine, eraser, mud, mother, I am coming.”). But as the years progress, the neat penmanship gives way to more impulsive scrawls in many different colored inks and paints.  Sometimes she writes about revolution, confronting the same issues Modotti faced—the ferocious tug between politics, revolution and art. “Always revolutionary, never dead, never useless” she writes on one page. “A despair which no words can describe,” She says two pages later “I’m still eager to live. I’ve started to paint again.”  And further on, under a watercolor sketch of a woman’s body floating among pale circles like soap bubbles “Sleep Sleep Sleep Sleep Sleep Sleep I’m falling asleep.”


He’d hate to hear it, but I have always secretly been thankful to that angry boyfriend. He meant only to scare me, but I was too captivated by the woman in the painting to be frightened. Kahlo and Modotti have been called “muses” to the men in their lives—the sources of inspiration for other men’s great works. But the women I discovered were muses in the classic sense—women who embody the arts and inspire the creation process.  I decided, as paged through a book of Kahlo’s paintings, turning over that card over in my hands, that this was a goal worth pursuing—to take your life and make it art.

There is a poem by Pablo Neruda on Tina Modotti’s gravestone:

Pure your gentle name, pure your fragile life,
bees, shadows, fire, snow, silence and foam,
combined with steel and wire and
pollen to make up your firm
and delicate being.

“Fragile” was a word often applied to her, but rarely to Kahlo. There are many ways to describe woman with the broken column holding up her cruelly split body but “fragile” isn’t one of them.   Kahlo’s inner steel led her to a different destiny from her friend’s.  Tina Modotti put away her camera  and sent away most of her lovers to stay devoted to the cause. Kahlo never put away her paint brushes, and she never fell out of love with Rivera.  That magic balance that eluded the photographer, the one that would allow her to be woman, artist and instrument change—Kahlo discovered it in between medical crises and surgical procedures, political rallies and art exhibitions.  “They have amputated my leg” she wrote in February, 1954 “I still feel like committing suicide, Diego prevents me from doing it in the vain belief that maybe he will need me.” And then less than a month later (and only three months before  her body at last shuts completely down)–“I have achieved a lot…Confidence in walking. Confidence in painting. My will is strong. My will remains.”


Wandering Among the Muses Part III–Lou

In the spring of 1937 Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera went to meet a ship.  On the ship was a man and his wife, forced into exile by a regime that no longer viewed them as friends, and indeed had begun to consider them as enemies to its future. The man was Leon Trotsky—one of the three architects of the Russian Revolution. The founder and former head of the Red Army stepped off the ship onto a dry, sandy shore in a brave new world he had never foreseen.  And there to greet him was the Dove. The Aztec Goddess. The force of nature that was Frida Kahlo. History does not say whether he found the exchange satisfying—the leadership of the military might of a new country for a brief but passionate affair in a new land. Certainly Trotsky’s wife, Natalia Sedova, did not. Trotsky kept nothing from his service in the nascent Soviet Union’s first Central Committee except a nervous habit of paranoia that would ultimately be justified. He had nothing from his time with Frida except one small portrait she painted with herself in a pink dress.  It is one of the few self portraits from that era that does not include a monkey.  She called it “Between the Curtains.”

To Americans, who associate Communism with red scares, spy novels and fanatic right-wing politicians, Leon Trotsky’s name rings only the faintest of bells. He is perhaps best known as the pig Snowball in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It is less commonly known that Trotsky was the inspiration for one of the characters in Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, making his influence on great literature rather more successful and enduring than his influence on his own country’s politics.  He triumphs over Stalin in this sphere, at least.

The Trotsky character in Doctor Zhivago is Pavel Pavlovich Antipov (“Pashenka”) , the son of a railway worker, childhood friend and later husband of Yuri Zhivago’s beloved, Lara.  Lara and her huband move to the country after marrying to teach the poor, but Pashenka becomes dissatisfied and joins the army on the eve of World War I.  After the October Revolution, he reappears as “Strelnikov” (“The Shooter”) a hated and feared commissar in the new regime. Pasternak wrote Doctor Zhivago in 1957, and the Soviet Union refused to allow its publication.  It was published in Italy in 1958, translated into Russian by the American CIA, who used the book as anti-communist propaganda.  Pasternak also was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1958, so never let it be said that the Nobels don’t have their political side.

But before the October Revolution which sent so many writers and intellectuals (although not Pasternak) to fleeing their country, before World War I exhaled the last gasping breath of the czar’s regime, Pasternak was the son of a Jewish painter at the Moscow School of Painting. His mother was a pianist and their home was a place of literary and artistic congress, a gathering place for the great writers and intelligentsia.  On a summer day in 1900, when Pasternak was only ten years old, one such couple arrived for a visit. The man was short, dark, nervous and wore a large cape with a rather affected air. The woman was tall, composed, beautiful, and intimidating.  They were Rainer Maria Rilke and his mistress, Lou Andreas-Salomé.

letters_summerThe heirs to history can only speculate about things like fate. Pasternak’s meeting with Rilke was the beginning of a friendship that would last until Rilke’s death over twenty-five years later. In the summer of 1926, while Pasternak was in Moscow struggling to be a poet under the Bolshevik regime, he wrote to Rilke, who was then struggling to be a poet in Berlin (and suffering from leukemia).  He wrote ostensibly to say “Happy Birthday”, but the letter is a veiled plea. Revolution had “. . .caught all of us up…cut off from Europe and the world of culture in the nightmarish conditions of our Russian life.”  Pasternak tells Rilke that his poetry has become “cherished” by them.  This letter set off a series of correspondence between the dying Rilke, the persecuted Pasternak, and the exiled Maria Tsvetayeva, then living in France.  The exchange, collected in a volume with the unassuming title of Letters: Summer 1926, portrays a brief but intense discussion of the role of poetry and the poet in an era torn asunder by war and revolution. “It is the poet who matters” writes Tsvetayeva to both Rilke and Pasternak “not the martyr.”  Rilke took this philosophy and wrote The Duino Elelgies.  Pasternak took it and wrote Doctor Zhivago.

It might be argued that Pasternak would not have become Pasternak if he had never met Rilke. But Rilke would not have come to Russia if it weren’t for that tall, mysterious and intimidating woman at his side—Lou Andreas-Salomé.

51YuNDTKt0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Men fell in love with Lou. It had been happening all her life. As a young girl in Russia in the late 19th century (her father was a general in the army) she convinced her tutor to teach her French and German philosophers and literature that her father had banned her from reading. The tutor, who was twenty-five years older than her, begged the seventeen year old to marry him, despite the fact he was already married and had two children. Lou was not impressed and soon after convinced her mother to take her south, ostensibly for her health. Lou Salomé eventually ended up in Rome, where her apartment became a salon of sorts for many of the exiled and drifting intellectuals of the era. She continued her studies, met and fell in love with the philosopher Paul Reé, met and fell in love with Reé’s own tutor, an intense young man named Friedrich Nietzsche, and became mistress to them both. Each proposed to her. She said no. In fact, she suggested instead that the three of them live together in a kind of mariage a trois. In the only in depth biography that has ever been written about her, My Sister My Spouse by H.F. Peters, she relates her dream: “[I] dreamt that we were sharing a large apartment. There is a study and a library in the center, filled with books and flowers, and bedrooms on either side. We all lived and worked together in perfect harmony, and it made no difference at all that I was a woman, and you were men.”  Paul Reé was somewhat astounded by the proposal, but allowed himself to become convinced. Madame von Salomé, Lou’s mother, was appalled.

Lou Andreas-Salomé is sometimes accused of being one of those femme fatales who uses her sexuality to devour men. Nietzsche had moments where he felt this, but even he, as self centered and despairing as he was, knew it not to be true. Salomé had no desire to be any man’s muse. She did not want to appear in their paintings or their poetry. She did not want to be known only for warming the beds of artists and writers.  She was an accomplished writer herself, and more concerned with the pursuit of art than the pursuit of love.  (“I was glad,” she once told a friend about Nietzsche, “when he said that he hated all creative work unless it was excellent.”)

The “mariage a trois” as Reé and Nietzsche called it, eventually fell apart. As odd as it sounds, the two men were ultimately too conservative for Lou. They neither one ever abandoned their hopes that she would marry one of them, and hence grew bitter when they were forced to conclude she would never do so. They might have been consoled, however, to know that they had been fortunate. When Lou Salomé finally agreed to marry one of her ardent suitors, it was only with the stipulation that there would be no sex. Her marriage to Carl Friedrich Andreas was completely celibate. Peters’ biography tells us that he was unhappy about this.

Lou met Rilke at a party in the spring of 1897, but although he was a rising young poet (he was twenty-two at the time), she didn’t really notice him.  It wasn’t until he wrote her a letter—a rather intense and overboard letter—on an article of hers he had read that she began to sit up and take notice of this young, effeminate man.  The article was called “Jesus the Jew” and Rilke claimed to find “a devout fellow-feeling walked ahead of me along this solemn path—and then at last it was like a great rejoicing in me to find expressed in such supremely clear words, with the tremendous force of a religious conviction, what my [Visions of Christ] present in dreamlike epics.”

Flattery, it is said, will get you everywhere. That latter started of a correspondence between the two that would blossom into a deep friendship, a deeper lover, and a few passionate weekends.  The passions flared and subsided, but the friendship remained, and grew so deep that, in Rilke’s last few days as he lay dying from leukemia, he refused to see either his wife or his mistress, but he would read Lou’s letters.

9780520229235Rilke has been called the first “modern” poet.  In an age of war, revolution and upheaval, he wrote poetry of the internal life, not outer events.  Diego Rivera painted canvases of worker industry. Tina Modotti took photographs of protest marches. Boris Pasternak wrote books about oppressed intellectuals.  Rilke wrote

But to have been
once, even though only once:
this having been earthly seems lasting, beyond repeal.

All that we
can achieve here, is to recognize ourselves completely
in what can be seen on earth

Duino Elegies (#9)


Modotti and Kahlo worried about reconciling their art and their life. Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé did not draw the distinction. It was the art that was real.

Early in their relationship, Rilke proposed publishing a book of love poems written to Lou. She squashed that idea, and told him to get a grip. She wrote to him about his poetry, his moods, his many despairing moments and manic periods. She identified in him a creature she called “the other one” whose destructiveness was both the energy and the enemy of his art.  (Freud would latter tell her she had identified the subconscious).  She also told Rilke to change his name.  It was Rene, which she thought sounded girly. Lou started calling him “Rainer.” In a very real sense, the Rilke who visited the Pasternaks in 1900 was creation of Lou Andreas-Salomé.

9780393049763There is a lovely collection of the letters between Rilke and Salomé, (Rainer Maria Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé: The Correspondence) that, unlike most collections of letters between friends is remarkable for its lack of the little mundane details of life.  The weather is rarely mentioned, and only then to some purpose (“Today it is raining,” writes Rilke in a farewell sentence, “No doubt also on Kufstein and Pushkin.”).  The reader who is curious about the progression of either writer’s outer life will find very little to satisfy him here.  But as a record of their inner lives, it is remarkably complex and captivating:

Rilke to Salomé on August 10, 1903:

“Somehow I too must find a way of making things; not plastic, written things, but realities that arise from the craft itself. Somehow I too must discover the smallest constituent element, the cell of my art, the tangible immaterial means of expressing everything…”

Salomé to Rilke, August 10, 1903:

“[The artist] works day and night on that space within him, so that nothing would pace around in it any longer like a phantom, restless and demanding. . .Perhaps when he succeeds in that he will then create just the one hand of which you speak in your words about Rodin, but “all around it will be pure splendor”; for only then will it be the hand, the hand that exists as if it were all there is.”

When Rilke published The Duino Elegies in 1923, he inscribed a copy with the words “For Lou, who has owned it with me from the first, this now in its ultimate form. Rainer”

It is too much to say that Sonnets to Orpheus, the Duino Elegies, Doctor Zhivago, and even Thus Spake  Zarathustra (written by Neitzche in a fit of despair when he realized Lou would not come back to him) may never have existed without her, one can’t help feel grateful that she was there—to inspire when inspiration was called for, to criticize when inspiration turned to folly, and to love, when love was so desperately needed.


Feb 17 2016

Rainbow Days

(originally published at Bibliobuffet.com, September 14, 2010)

The year 1985 was a momentous one, and not just because of lesser events like the launch of Windows 1.0, the first broadcast of the Discovery Channel, the discovery of the Titanic, and the attempt to dupe everyone into drinking New Coke. Far more significant that all that, 1985 was the year I landed my first job in a bookstore, and several months later it became the year I kissed my first girl. She was my manager at the bookstore, but I still maintain I went for the job because of the books, not the girl. Still, I wasn’t complaining about the girl.

Those mad, mad, beautiful days of whirlwind reading and whirlwind romance came back to me in a fond rush recently when I was reading fellow contributor Lauren Baratz-Logsted’s recent column “Straight Reading Gay (On a Bench).”  It is a lament, of sorts, for the tendency of bookstores to shelve books with gay themes in “Gay and Lesbian” sections, thereby making it difficult for someone like her to find them. “…all I could see it as was book segregation” she comments, after a frustrating search for two novels finally, finally drives her to ask a store clerk, who points her first towards the African American section, and then towards the Gay/Lesbian section in the store.

I’ve heard this complaint before—that having separate sections for books of African American interest, or Gay interest, or any other “interest” that can be devised, in effect marginalizes them. It implies that the book is more about being gay than being a good story. That it is only of interest to a certain group of people and somehow doesn’t belong over with the rest of the “real” fiction.  I know authors often feel they miss potential new readers by having their books shelved in special sections. BiblioBuffet’s own Lev Raphael, a well-established author who writes across several genres (mystery, fiction, nonfiction, short stories) and several identities (gay, Jewish, child of Holocaust survivors, passionate devotee of Edith Wharton) has told me he feels unhappy about finding his books relegated to special sections if they can’t also be found in more obvious places—his mystery series actually in the mystery section, for example.

I get this, I do. But I would be very sorry to see Gay sections disappear from bookstores, or see authors whose books might be found there cease to identify with or support them. It’s a purely personal response on my part, one that goes back to that first kiss.

If you were going to come out of the closet in 1985, and you didn’t happen to live in San Francisco, then Boston was a pretty good second choice.  Gay culture was vibrant and active and, more to the point, visible. There were several gay bars and at least two that catered to women. There was a gay weekly circular, and the freebie entertainment paper included gay oriented events, articles, and classifieds (oh, those classifieds!) as a matter of course.   It had been a long, hard, and very painful fight by the previous generation of gay men and lesbians to be recognized, but it meant that when I pulled away, gasping, from that first kiss—my fingers tangled in the short curls of her dark hair, her strong hands gripping hard around my waist—I stepped into a culture that was established and acknowledged, and even teetering towards being accepted.

This was true of book culture too. In the city where I was delightedly discovering how to make out with girls there were two gay bookstores and one very well-known feminist bookstore called New Words that was naturally very gay-friendly. Most bookstores in the city—and Boston had more bookstores per capita than it had take out Chinese restaurants—had “Gay/Lesbian” sections and “Women’s Studies” sections, along with the usual plethora of other identities—Native American, African American, Asian American…if there was a politically correct way to say it, there was a section for it in the store.   Even the used bookstores in the city had shelves and sometimes whole cases marked with wavering hand-written signs in colored markers on whatever topic seemed to be politically significant at the time (the signs marking the Gay section were usually rainbow-colored and bracketed by smiley-faced double male/female symbols).  There were also a growing number of publishers who specialized in gay themes; Alyson Books, which brought us Heather Has Two Mommies, Crossing Press, Firebrand Books, which would publish Dorothy Allison’s first story collection, Trash.

Within a few years, gay culture would be recognized as a serious (and lucrative) market by mainstream publishers, who started to create gay-oriented imprints with pink triangles on their spines and names like “Stonewall Editions.”  By 1992—about halfway between the moment I kissed my first girl and the moment Lauren Baratz-Logsted went looking for a gay novel in a bookstore and couldn’t find it shelved in fiction—Dorothy Allison was standing in front of a crowd at a Penguin-orchestrated event at the big annual booksellers convention in Washington, DC to celebrate the publication of her novel Bastard Out of Carolina. Behind her stretched a long row of publisher exhibits people were calling “Rainbow Alley.”  (And somewhere on the exhibit floor, a sales rep for St. Martin’s Press was talking excitedly to booksellers about the new story collection Dancing on Tisha B’Av, by up-and-coming gay author Lev Raphael). “We are here,” said Allison to the crowd, “We’ve arrived.”

I was standing in that crowd, and it certainly felt like it.

I’ve never quite lost that sense of exhilaration—that shining feeling of “we are here!” that I came into when I came out in Boston all those years ago. And Gay sections in bookstores have always been a part of that feeling. I, who lives my life in books, who sees the sections and divisions in the library and bookstore as a mirror of the world before me, will always want a special place for gay lives, stories, and experiences. Far from feeling marginalized, I can’t help but see the sign that says “Gay/Lesbian” over a case in a bookstore as a statement of legitimacy, even defiance. We are here.

There were, of course, other more prosaic issues at work in 2003 when Lauren went looking for a book and couldn’t find it until she checked the Gay section.  She points out in her essay that this wouldn’t have happened in a library. That in a library, books are shelved sensibly and alphabetically by author. If they are novels, they are in fiction. If they aren’t, they are somewhere else.  Bookstores, she seems to imply, make it hard to find books when they put them in other places “. . . so that people looking only for a certain kind of reading experience could find them.”

But a bookstore is not a library. Its purpose is not to make all books available to all people, but to sell as many books as it possibly can. And while I have no doubt that when a bookstore creates a Gay and Lesbian section on the sales floor it is in some sense a political statement, it is also a pragmatic and logistical one. They are trying to make it as easy as possible for the people most likely to buy the book to find it. And by that thinking, a novel about gay men is best put on the shelf in the Gay section, because that’s where gay men are likely to go first.

It’s a frustratingly reductive approach, but not without evidence to support it. Teenage girls buy books about teenage girls. Grade school boys buy books about wizards and superheroes. Middle-aged women buy books featuring middle-aged women dealing with the things middle-aged women deal with. Young women buy chick lit. Vampires apparently buy books about teenage girls. And the people most likely to buy gay books, presumably, are gay people. It’s all very predictable and no matter how much we might as individuals rail against being so pigeon-holed, the truth is that to publishers and bookstores and most of the industry, we all fall into some kind of “market.” So Lauren, searching for her friend’s new novel The Year of Ice, might be looking in fiction, but the bookseller, seeing that the story is about a young man falling in love with another young man, thinks “I’m going to put this wherever we’ve put Andrew Holleran and Maupin’s Tales of the City books.”

“[it] says to me that the underlying belief is that only a certain kind of person would be interested in those books and that they are not books the general public are expected to care about,” notes Lauren in her essay. If you take out the word “only,” she’s almost right. It’s a trade off. The book could have been left in fiction, where it would have to hold its own against what is traditionally the largest and most competitive section of the store. But the bookstore, by shelving her friend’s novel in the Gay section instead of general fiction, at once gives it a better chance at being noticed and all but ensures that only gay people will be doing the noticing. In Lauren’s words, they “don’t expect the general public to care” about a new gay novel. “Put the book where the people most likely to buy it will most easily find it.” –that it is the over-riding philosophy of any bookstore. (And that is why bookstores don’t usually have “Gay Young Adult” sections. Not, as Lauren suggests, because there is a spirit of egalitarianism among today’s young adults—although one can hope—but simply because a shelf labeled “Gay Young Adult” would draw more controversy and ire and angry parents than sales. Every bookseller I know carries in their head a list of favorite gay-themed titles to recommend for teens, and every one of them knows that discretion is more likely than audacity to get those books into the teenager’s hands.)

Still, there is nothing stopping the straight reader from wandering over to the Gay section to see what’s new, is there? But straight people won’t. They could, but they won’t. That’s the flip side, the darker side, to the complaint that gay sections “marginalize” their authors. Straight people will drift on by the Gay section (or the African American section) because they assume it has nothing to do with them. How much of that assumption is obliviousness and how much a lingering unease is hard to say. But they will never deliberately walk over to the Gay section of the store unless, like my friend Lauren, they are looking for something specific and have been told that is where it can be found. If you want me to read it, they seem to say, bring it on over to my side of the store.

In 2003, if Lauren had come looking for her friend’s book in the bookstore I was managing, she would have found it shelved in fiction because my store didn’t have a Gay/Lesbian section. Which was a little ironic, since I was openly gay, and so was the assistant manager, and one other part time employee, and the most popular television show at the time was about a gang of gay guys who invaded people’s homes and forcibly redecorated their living rooms. But it was a tiny store in coastal North Carolina, and we deemed that space would be better used for sections like “Southern Fiction” and “Beach Books.”  I assuaged my feelings by creating periodic displays of gay literature and writing little “shelf talker” cards recommending the books on them. I also—and I think Lauren would like this—would “sneak” gay-themed titles onto the table we reserved for books being read by book clubs, on the theory that the books would at least make for a great discussion. In this way I sold many more copies of Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit than one might have expected from a tiny bookstore in the buckle of the Bible Belt. And of course, many, many copies of Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.

But as gratifying as it was to hear perfectly respectable church-going elderly ladies sing out “Tawanda!” to me when they walked in the door, it never really matched those breathless happy days when my first-ever girlfriend and I would hold hands while we combed through the shelves of the women’s bookstore, looking for feminist poetry and lesbian romances to read to each other.

Lauren says that “[B]ooks written by or about gay people—it’s not a separate genre, not in the way that Science Fiction is or Romance is, where the books follow distinct genre constraints. They’re just books about human experience.” I suppose in this day and age, when things like gay marriage and being openly gay in the military are more questions of when than if, one can almost accept that. We can look back to Dorothy Allison and say, yes, we are here. But I hope that “here” will always have space for Gay sections in bookstores. They have been an indelible part of my literary landscape, my “portrait in books,” and I know—I know—that even now I am not the only one for whom this is so.

Books mentioned in this column:

Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman (Alyson Books, 1989)


Trash by Dorothy Allison (Firebrand Books, 1987)


Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison (New American Library, 1992)


Dancing on Tisha B’Av by Lev Raphael (St. Martin’s Press, 1992)


The Year of Ice by Brian Mallory (St. Martin’s Press, 2003)


Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (HarperCollins, 1978)


Aug 5 2015

Love and highlights in Harare


“I tell you that a clever, thoughtful, ambitious hairdresser wields a power beyond the comprehension of most men.” —John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley

9780821421635About seven years ago I succumbed, on a dare, to a long-suppressed desire to have my hair done over in narrow “box” braids.  I still remember the day I had it done. It was a hot early summer weekday, and the salon was in a small storefront with a shop on one side that sold mostly gray market CD players, and a dingy bar on the other side with window and door grates that wouldn’t be open until the evening.  The salon itself had a red, yellow and green painted sign that said “African Heritage Braids” and its mistress was Katie, who had attended a school for doing hair in Senegal, where she was from.

It took Katie and her two assistants seven hours to do my hair, because while the style was not complicated, my hair was very, very long. All the while they chattered to each other over my head in French, and sometimes to me in English. Katie’s daughter played in the front of the shop, and the television was turned to a station that apparently ran back to back episodes of Dora, the Adventurer, all day long.  I was, that day, the only white person in the salon.

Seven hours of having my hair pulled while Dora squeaked along in the background left me with a raging headache, but also a hair style I haven’t changed since. I had been feeling like my life needed a change. I didn’t want to be the woman in the long skirts and her hair in a bun anymore—like some outdated stereotype of a librarian.  So, new hairstyle, shorter skirts, new life. I’ve been back to Katie several times since, (armed with an iPod and aspirin), but I’ve never had my hair out of braids since.

“There’s only one secrete to being a successful hairdresser,” says Vimbai, the narrator in the novel The Hairdresser of Harare, “Your client should leave the salon feeling like a white woman.” Vimbai should know of what she speaks. She is the most sought-after stylist in the Khumalo Hair and Beauty Treatment Salon, and one of the reasons the salon is one of the most successful in the city (the rusty sign and haphazard building construction not withstanding). Vimbai can count even a Minister among her regular clients, something that allows her to feel secure in her status as “queen bee” of the salon, even though she is merely an employee, not an owner or partner.

That all changes with the arrival of Dumisani, a personable and soft-spoken young man who applies for a position as a ladies stylist—unheard of!—and gets it when he changes a style Vimbai has just finished, taking over the startled client and dismissing her feeble protests with a determined click of the scissors. “Your hair was set beautifully,” he says to the woman in the chair while Vimbai seethes in the background, “but the style she’s given you is not for you.” When he is finished, the woman stares in the mirror in wonder. “Sweet Jesus, I look like Naomi Campbell.”

As it turns out, Vimbai’s philosophy that you give the customer what she wants because the customer is always right, is wrong. The women who come into the salon don’t want to feel white. They want to feel beautiful.

I had a hairdresser like Dumi once. He completely disregarded what I wanted (“a trim”) and proceeded to turn my hair into the careful disarray that the women on the covers of Vogue were sporting that year, while I cowered in my chair, too intimidated to object. I never went back. In fact, I avoided all hair salons for the next fifteen years, until I finally ventured into Katie’s domain for my mid life crisis makeover. She didn’t make me feel white, but she did make me feel young.

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu is a quick but almost painfully vivid slice-of-life story about life in contemporary Harare, the beleaguered capital city of Zimbabwe. Beset by corruption and relentless economic depression, Harare is a city where many things are possible for the enterprising and ambitious, but even more is possible for the unscrupulous and greedy. A hair salon, as it turns out, is a good place to see the wide range of humanity in the city. Everyone wants to look beautiful, and even very important people will subject themselves (or allow their wives to subject themselves) to an hour under the lamps with their hair in foils and curlers so that later they will look perfect in front of cabinets and television cameras. Highlighting is a great equalizer in that respect.

Vimbai and Dumi should by all rights become enemies in the Khumalo Salon, but something unexpected happens. They become friends, and then good friends, and then something more than friends, although what, exactly, they are to each other is undefined. Family, perhaps. Partly this is because Dumi’s self-assurance with scissors is not poisoned by an envious nature. Partly it is because Vimbai herself possesses a healthy streak of hard-won independence and is not inclined to fold when confronted by adversity. Plus, they have unexpected things in common, such as the fact that they are each estranged from their own families and heartsick about it. So although Dumi has cost Vimbai her place at the top of the pyramid of Khumalo Salon, and even taken some of her regular clients, when Vimbai hears he is looking for a place to live, she offers to rent him a room in her house. Dumi in turn repays her generosity of spirit with his own, becoming attached to her and her daughter and serving as a shield to the many predators that seek out women without protectors.

When Dumi eventually asks Vimbai to come with him to his brother’s wedding, she wonders if their relationship is changing, and if she dare think of a future beyond the next paycheck, the next set of bills that must be paid. Certainly, Dumi’s family seems to like her. More than that, they seem to adore her with near-hysterical excessiveness, which Vimbai finds hard to understand since she is really just country girl with an illegitimate child and they are—she is shocked to find out—sophisticated, connected, cosmopolitan, and extremely rich. “Why did you tell me you were poor,” she hisses to Dumi sotte voce at the wedding. Dumi seems surprised. “I didn’t, I told you I went to school on a rugby scholarship.” It is one of many preconceptions about Dumi that will be destroyed as she becomes closer to the man and his family. Another is that they will ever be husband and wife. As it turns out, Dumi is gay.

Zimbabwe is a country, writes Huchu, where homosexuals are condemned by the government as “lower than pigs and dogs” and where having gay sex can mean prosecution and imprisonment. In such a society men like Dumi are forced to live strange, masked lives full of secrets that twist their best intentions.  The gay hair stylist is a tired stereotype in the United States, but not so in Harare where there is no such thing as being “out.” In any case it is not one that applies to Dumi, who steps easily into his traditional role of male protector on many occasions—once punching  a man who insults Vimbai and knocking out his two front teeth, and another time standing up to a gang of “war veterans” (men with machine guns) looking to harass a client who has the wrong politics and connections. The only thing that is really unusual about him is his talent for making women feel, well, like women. And that is a talent that everyone at the salon immediately recognizes is worth its weight in foreign currency. It makes Dumi’s situation even more poignant, to see how carefully he must tread to live life on his own terms.

When Vimbai discovers what Dumi has been hiding, she is horrified and betrayed, angry and devastated.  What she is not is understanding or tolerant. It is not a thing she has ever had to be tolerant about.  All at once Dumi is not her best friend, but a pervert, not her daughter’s guardian, but a danger to her. It is only after she discovers the dreadful consequences of yet another of her preconceptions that Vimbai is able to accept what Dumi truly means to her and her daughter. And what they might mean to him. But by then, it is too late.

There is a strong element of witnessing to The Hairdresser of Harare—a desire to testify, perhaps, to how precarious life is for the marginalized of all kinds in Zimbabwe. Not just gay people, but young women, unwed mothers, people whose families and tribal affiliations are in conflict with the current ruling parties, poor people of all kinds.  But it would be simplistic and do a disservice to the book to file it under the label of “what it is like to be gay in Zimbabwe.” It is the evolving nature of Vimbai and Dumi’s relationship that is at the core of the novel, the thread holds the story together. They come together, support each other, sometimes fight each other, sometimes even fail each other. It is not a simple relationship by any means, but Vimbai and Dumi are not simple people. And love, in whatever form and whatever the culture, is rarely a simple thing.

Books mentioned in this column:

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu (Weaver Press, 2010) 978-1-77922-109-4


Originally published at Bibliobuffet.com, March 2012

Jul 19 2015

Southern Fictions: Story always rises to the top

Last Friday the UPS driver dropped two packages off on my doorstep. This is not an unusual occurrence; I’m a book reviewer so people send me books. I’m a reader, so I also order lots of books. Books arrive at my house several times a week in everything from thin flimsy envelopes to massive cardboard boxes. Last month my UPS driver told me to get a Kindle.

Southern Fictions

Southern Fictions

Last Friday, one of the packages he brought had a Kindle in it.  The other contained, well, the exact opposite of a Kindle; a letterpress edition of a chapbook of poems, with a hand-made cover, a hand-sewn binding, typeset by hand, signed by the poet and numbered “42” out of the 100 that were printed.  I stood looking at these two packages thinking how strange it was that they arrived together and how fluid my “TBR” stack had become.

Every reader has a To-Be-Read stack. Mostly, it exists as piles of books stacked up on bedside tables, next to favorite chairs, on coffee tables, on little shelves in the bathroom. Or, if you are like me, in all of the above. Piles of books I want to read tend to accumulate near any spot I settle in to read, so there are stacks all over the house.  But the “stack” is evolving. Aside from the usual pile of paperbacks and hard covers, new releases and battered finds from library sales, there are also “ARCs” – review copies not quite finalized, sometimes with just the title, author and publication date printed across the front. There are ring-bound manuscripts that haven’t even made it to the review copy stage. There is a pile of papers that I printed out myself from a file a writer sent me of her new novel, which has yet to find a publisher. There is my little iPod, which is currently loaded with Shakespeare and poetry, since I have suddenly conceived a desire to hear great poems read aloud, rather than just read.  And now there is this—a chapbook that looks like it ought to be under glass in a museum, and a slightly worse-for-the-wear ebook reader that looks like it belongs in the box of old electronic stuff I don’t use anymore.

The Kindle, I should say, was a gift of sorts. A hand me down first generation version (the one that looks like the thing Captain Kirk was always signing and handing back to his Yeoman with the amazing hairdo), a friend had decided he didn’t want it and asked if I did. Since I would never actually purchase a Kindle, but had been curious about them, I said sure.  I have since bought exactly one book for it—fellow BiblioBuffet contributor Lev Raphael’s new novel Rosedale in Love, which is only available as an eBook. I had been wondering how I would get to read it.

But if the Kindle was a kind of afterthought, the chapbook was not. The chapbook, a collection of sonnets titled Southern Fictions by the former North Carolina poet laureate Kathryn Stripling Byer, I had been waiting for. I had put in a request for a copy six months earlier, when I first heard of the publishing project.  The Kindle can apparently hold 1500 books. The chapbook is about twenty pages long. The Kindle came free. The chapbook, I was willing to pay a hundred dollars for—partly to support the press and the cause (proceeds are used to fund youth writing workshops)—but mostly to support the poet, who once convinced a newspaper to publish a poem I had written, and even more importantly, told me I should keep writing poetry.

That encouragement was worth far more than a hundred dollars to an uncertain poet. The Kindle has never encouraged me about anything. So it won’t surprise anyone to hear that it was Southern Fictions that floated to the top of the TBR stack and that I picked up first to read.

Southern Fictions is a series of sonnets Byer wrote exploring her personal experience with racial conflict in the area of Southwest Georgia, where she grew up.  There are six poems, each a snapshot, a memory, of a girl’s imperfect awareness of the simmering violence around her:


I don’t know. I still can’t get it right,
the way those dirt roads cut across the flats
and led to shacks where hounds and muddy shoats
skulked roundabouts. Describing it sounds trite
as hell, the good old South I love to hate.
The truth? What’s that? How should I know?
I stayed inside too much. I learned to boast
of stupid things. I kept my ears shut tight,
as we kept doors locked, windows locked,
the curtains drawn. Now I know why.
The dark could hide things from us. Dark could see
what we could not. Sometimes those dirt roads shocked
me, where they ended up: I watched a dog die
in the ditch. The man who shot him winked at me.

The sonnets had been published years ago in a special edition of Callaloo, but this chapbook was something else entirely.  The poems gave birth to it, one might say. Its very form is a physical expression of the words within.

The first line of the first sonnet goes “My father drapes his battle-flag across a back room window. If I tried to tell him why I wish he wouldn’t, I’d have hell to pay.” Richard Krawiec, the publisher of Jacar Press which spearheaded the project, David Wofford, the craftsman whose Horse and Buggy Press did the printing, and Ann Marie Kennedy, the paper artist that created the covers for the book, decided to take that line as literal inspiration. “All books feature a frontispiece image of a flag,” writes Wofford, “which is meant to imitate what a flag might look like after being up in a window for decades and faded by the sun.”

But there is something else. The thick, textured, dull red cover of hand-pulled sheets also evoke that first sonnet, because amongst  cotton and flax fibers are the strands of cut up, pulped, old Confederate battle flags. “You are literally holding a repurposed flag in your hands while you read Kay’s poems,” says the printer. “I will admit it was nerve wracking looking at a 3 foot by 5 foot Confederate battle flag… but after getting over that it felt pretty good to take a rotary cutter and slice the thing up into pieces.”

Southern Fictions may have been the shortest, most lightweight volume in my TBR stack but it feels like the longest and the heaviest. The weight of all that memory Byer infuses into her sonnets. The deliberate intentions and craft that went into the creation of the chapbook. My own stuttering memories of my first, timid approach to the poet with a poem I’d written about a traffic light being out at an intersection and her very kind, very encouraging reply.  Even the defiant pride those shredded flags once displayed that was now part of the texture under my fingers. Someone could put each of the sonnets on a blog somewhere and it would be a good thing—they are worth reading, worth coming to understand. But these sonnets, in this book which is number 42 of a 100, are different. The story of the book is entangled with the story in the book and the story of the reader who intersected with the story of the writer. And if this book, number 42, were to be lost, that swirl of joined stories would be as well.

An eBook doesn’t have all that extra weight of story.  It winks in and out of existence like the lightning bugs hovering over my front lawn in the August dusk.  And despite the several pounds of weight this early Kindle (1.0) carries, it remains oddly insubstantial. There is nothing about the device that hints, for example, at the long friendship Lev Raphael and I have shared except for the fact that his book is the one that comes up at the top of the booklist—being the “most recently” (and only) ebook purchased for the device. I have an entire shelf filled with Lev’s novels and nonfiction, most of which he has signed at some point with little notes that make sense to no one but me—a testament to years of emails and letters and what-are-you-reading-now? notes to each other. Rosedale in Love remains excluded from this evidence of a valued literary friendship, locked away from Lev’s other books in its own pattern of 0s and 1s. I suppose I could send him the Kindle to sign.

But really, I decided on a hot afternoon later that weekend, it doesn’t matter. I had spent about an hour reading Southern Fictions and letting myself get lost in the poems. Later that day I grabbed my iPod, put the leash on the dog and spent several hours walking him through the scrubby fields and along the marsh while listening to and getting lost in the poetry of Wilfred Owen.

And when we came back, hot and dusty, we curled up on the couch under the one working ceiling fan—the dog to sleep and I to read Rosedale in Love. And it was as easy to get lost in the story as it had been to get lost in the poetry. Oh, I didn’t “forget” I was reading on a computer, any more than I could have forgotten the heavy textured cover of Kay Byers’ chapbook had ripped up Confederate flags in it, or that the poems of Wilfred Owen were spoken in someone else’s voice rather than his own.  But it was still utterly easy to get lost in what was said, and suddenly, I looked up from Lev’s brilliant re-envisioning of Wharton’s House of Mirth and it was almost dark, and I realized the electronic “pages” had become hard to read. Fine writing is like that, which is why all the strange forms that are manifesting in my TBR pile are not, I think, causes for lament or alarm. Books may evolve, but we seem hardly capable of keeping Story contained to a single format—to a few printed pages or a collection of 1s and 0s. Story just bursts out everywhere. And Story always rises to the top.


Books mentioned in this column:

Southern Fictions by Katheryn Stripling Byer (Jacar Press, 2011)
Rosedale in Love by Lev Raphael (Kindle edition, 2011)
The War Poems by Wilfrid Owen (Audio Connoisseur, 2010)
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton


Website showing the process of creating Southern Fictions:


Originally published at Bibliobuffet.com, June 12, 2011

Jun 3 2012

Long Journeys in Wild Lands


Cattle die, kinsmen die,
oneself dies just the same.
But words of glory never die
for one who gets a good name.
-Hávámál, from The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore

I saw the Rūs, who had come for trade and had camped by the river Itil. I have never seen bodies more perfect than theirs. They were like palm trees. They are fair and ruddy. They wear neither coats nor caftans, but a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves one hand free. Each of them carries an axe, a sword and a knife and is never parted from any of the arms we have mentioned. Their swords are broad bladed and grooved like the Frankish ones. From the tips of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green with designs, and so forth. –Ibn Fadlán, In the Land of Darkness


The Long ShipsIn the year 921 the Caliph of Baghdad, Muqtadir, sent an emissary north up the Volga river to a recently converted khan who was seeking religious instruction in his new faith, not to mention a surer alliance with his powerful southern neighbor. The emissary was Ibn Fadlán, a man who was both conscientious and devout, and perhaps also a little curious for he wrote a diary of his journey recording his impressions and what he observed of the customs of the people whose land he passed through on his way northwards towards the Bulghar khanate.

His account has been largely ignored by history since it lacks both what his contemporaries would call “wonders” (descriptions of miraculous things), and moral edifications of the kind that highlight the superiority of the faithful and the civilized over the barbarian unbelievers. It is, Ibn Fadlán’s fellow scribes might have commented, a remarkably dry and boring account of how a barbaric people lived–what they ate, how they dressed, (and an unflinching description of how, and how often, they had sex).

In other words, Ibn Fadlán was something of an anthropologist. And if it is clear that he wasn’t always best pleased with the circumstances he found himself in (“They have neither olive oil nor sesame oil; in place of these they use fish oil, so that everything they make with it smells bad.”) modern scholars are nevertheless indebted to Ibn Fadlán’s talent for observation and attention to detail.  His account is one of the few reliable primary sources  for the area and the era–for the people of the upper Volga known as the Rūs. Today, we would call them the Vikings.

Ibn Fadlán reached Kiev in 922. If he had made his journey a generation later, he might have run into someone like Red Orm, the engaging Viking chieftain  at the center of The Long Ships, the Danish historical novel by Frans. G. Bengtsson, newly resurrected from oblivion by NYRB Classics press. A stirring epic of a bygone age, The Long Ships is a remarkable portrayal of a northern Europe that is little understood–a Europe where the Roman Empire is a long ago legend, Charlemagne a living memory, and where Christianity was still a suspect new religion contending against pagan practices that have stood for thousands of years.

Orm is the youngest son of a Danish Thane who spends the long days of summer roving the sea with his ships, raiding coastal settlements as far as Ireland, before returning home at the end of the season, boats laden with plunder, ready to settle down and grow old with his wife and his family at their holding. This contentment lasts while the winter nights remain long, but eventually spring comes, the ale runs low, his wife tires of him underfoot, and the sea calls him back. And then he is gone again, taking his eldest sons with him.

But not Orm, who his mother keeps by her side for fear of a premonition she has had that he will die at sea.  Alas, like most premonitions, it is in attempting to avoid our fate that we cause it to come to pass, and thus it is with Orm (called “Red Orm” for the color of his beard and his quick temper).  The holding is attacked by a party of raiders, and Orm suffers a bit of bad luck and is wounded and captured. Thus, his mother’s vision of her youngest son lying bleeding on the deck of a ship comes true.

But Orm does not die. Instead, he recovers, and wins his place among the company that has captured him, and finds he likes the life of a Viking raider.  It is the beginning of his first long voyage, which takes Orm to the coasts of Northern France, all the way down to Cordoba, Spain, where he ends up as a galley slave before eventually winning the favor of the great Muslim general and defender of the faith, Almansur. He serves his new master well and is rewarded and is seemingly content with his new life, until fate intervenes again and sends Orm back to the North, this time with his own commandeered ships and treasures. He ends up at the court of the Danish King Harald Bluetooth, and earns his favor by proving to be a good fighter, a good storyteller, not to mention a man who happened to carry stolen holy relics in his commandeered ship that were able to cure the king’s debilitating toothache. Orm almost undoes all this goodwill by falling for the King’s daughter, but fate intervenes again, and he escapes Harald’s wrath to return home a rich man, ten years after he was first spirited away.

And that was his first voyage. There are three others.

The Long Ships is high adventure of the kind that earn novelists like Patrick O’Brian and Dorothy Dunnett such fanatical, devoted followings. Panoramic and almost ballad-like in its language, it gives no quarter to the eager reader but simply sets him down on the deck of a Viking ship to see for himself–just as Ibn Fadlán had done so many years before. It is with the almost innocent eyes of a company of Viking raiders that we see the powers that be at work in the world:

Of Christianity, which is making headway in the north, they have only the vaguest notions: “Orm said that he had heard that the dead man had been nailed to a tree, as the sons of Ragnar Hairy-Breeks had done in the old days with the chief priest of England. But how they could continue to regard him as a god after the Jews had killed him, none of them could understand; for obviously no true God could be killed by men.

Of struggles for territory among distant kings, they have a kind of fatalistic acceptance that this is how it has been and will always be: “Here ancient crosses were constantly to be seen on promontories and at river mouths, but even more frequent were pikes with bearded heads set on them, to signify that the rulers of that land had no desire to welcome seamen from their own northern climes upon their coasts.” Orm on seeing them commented that “he would bear in mind, when he got home, this idea of putting heads on poles, for they would make fine scarecrows to protect his sheep.” His fellow sailors find this funny.

In fact, one of the best things about The Long Ships is its forthright, irrepressible humor, which in turn often cloaks a kind of sad wisdom that shores up the story. One of Orm’s shipmates, for example, chose a life on the sea to escape a shrewish wife. He is called Berse the Wise, because he is the most patient man among the company.

Such brief quick moments of clarity often catch the reader by surprise–unexpected in a story that has maintained tone of a poet singing for his supper. (The author modeled the narrative on the some of the smaller Icelandic sagas called “pættir.”) We forget that this is no fairy-tale or legend until we are suddenly brought up short by a quick portrait of real human agony, such as one man’s last-ditch revenge on the man who has enslaved him, or the sudden scene of the birth of a deep friendship–such as the argument Orm has with a Christian priest who is treating him for an injury. The priest is abrasive, Orm is hypochondriac, and the two manage to earn each other’s respect in that contrary way that would have every woman from Denmark to Japan shaking their heads and thinking “men.” When Orm thanks the priest for not trying to convert him while he is treating him, the priest answers that Orm is not worth the bother: “the grown men of this country are veritable apostles of Satan…no redemption can suffice to wipe away such vileness as their souls are stained with. Of this I am sure, for I know them well; therefore I do not waste my time trying to convert such men as you.

Orm, who has served under an Islamic master and bowed towards Mecca five times a day at his insistence, once again finds this funny. He is of a pragmatic bent when it comes to religion, his big complaint with Islam being its ban on alcohol, and he is perfectly willing to turn Christian when he realizes it will allow him to marry his lady. Brother Willeford, who finds one of his few joys in life in abusing the men of this wild north land as the spawns of Satan, chooses to follow Orm and his newlywed wife deep into the borderlands, even taking up arms on their behalf. (Well, he throws a rock at a pursuer–but his aim is excellent).

So there is a strong element of parody in the book, but an equally strong sense of affection, and even patriotism. The Long Ships was first published in Sweden in 1941, under the title Roede Orm, sjoefararae i vaesterled (Red Orm on the Western Way).  It quickly became a national bestseller, Red Orm a kind of Danish and Swedish Davy Crockett–a portrait of the best of the character of the men of the north. The War prevented the book reaching a wider European audience–Bengtsson himself blocked the translation of the book into Norweigan while the country was under Nazi occupation, and it wasn’t until after his death that the book was finally translated into English, in 1955. But it has never lost its popularity in its own country, and is sometimes credited with sparking the resurging interest in Viking culture and lore. That it has not become better known in the English-speaking world–where we idolize authors like JRR Tolkien–is something of a mystery. Bengtsson is a far better storyteller. Plus, when his characters break into poetry and song, they keep it short. And he never subjects the reader to long passages in made up languages.

A strange and exotic story of a long lost time, full of battles and duels, treasure-ships and kingly feasts, strange pagan practices and absurd theological arguments, and vivid pictures of the real costs of war, The Long Ships is a mesmerizing tale, where the high drama comes not from some high quest or pursuit of a noble cause (no Holy Grails to be found in these northern lands, no crusades are wielded on its shores, no evil lords are challenged or defeated), but simply from the steadfast resolution of a man determined to win his way through what the fates throw at him, while retaining his honor, securing his fortune, and claiming his place for his family and his home.

When the story opens, Orm is watching his restless father sail off onto a summer sea, a man never truly content in any one place. But not so his son, who travels much further than his father ever will. Orm has seen the sands of Spain, the cliffs of Ireland, and the stones of Kiev. He has drawn his sword in many battles in many distant lands, and defended many different kings, and many different kinds of ladies. But in the end is what he most wants is to defend his own wife and own hearth.

Praise the day at evening; a wife, when she’s been burnt;
a sword, which it’s been tested; a maid, when she’s
been wed;
ice, when it’s crossed over; ale, when it’s drunk down.

Cut wood on a windy day, row to sea in fine weather,
murmur to friends in the darkness: many are the
eyes of day;
ask swiftness of a ship, protection from a shield,
sharpness from a sword, kisses from a girl.

Drink ale by the fireside, slide on ice,
buy a mount lean and a sword-blade bloody,
fatten a horse at home and a hound in the house.

-Hávámál, from The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore

Books mentioned in this column:

The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking Lore, translated and edited by Andy Orchard (Penguin, 2011)

Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North, translated with an introduction by Paul Lunde and Carolina Stone (Penguin, 2012)

The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson, translated by Michael Meyer (NYRB, 2010)


May 29 2011

History rhymes.

History Rhymes.

“The gods have not given all their gifts to one man. You know how to win victory, Hannibal, you do not how to use it.” –Maharbal to Hannibal, after the Battle of Cannae. In Titus Livy’s The History of Rome, Book XXII

Ghosts of CannaeOn a hot morning in early August two armies amassed on an Italian plain, preparing to do battle. On one side was a massive force—the largest ever seen by anyone up until that day.  On the other side the force was smaller, but it had been a fighting unit for years and come through many battles together, unlike their enemy, whose battalions were swelled with new recruits. Altogether, there was something like 120,000 soldiers on the field under the rising summer sun. By the end of the day more than a third of them would lay dead.

It was “…a terrible apocalyptic day,” writes military historian Robert L. O’Connell at the beginning of The Ghosts of Cannae, “…120,000 men engaged in what amounted to a mass knife fight.”  That statement encapsulates what makes O’Connell’s account of this ancient Roman battle at once so compelling, enlightening, and readable. The author possesses a rare talent among scholars to bring remote and seemingly academic facts down from their rarified heights and put them, vividly and viscerally, right in front of the reader.  And it doesn’t get more visceral than 50,000 men, lying gutted on the field of battle on a hot summer day.

The Ghosts of Cannae is a study of that battle—the worse defeat in Roman history, and a battle that cost more lives than any other single engagement in Europe, up to and including the Battle of Somme. More Romans died at Cannae on August 2, 216 BC than Americans did during the whole of the Vietnam War. O’Connell undertakes to explain the entirety of Cannae, from the events, the cultural, social and political  pressures that led to the engagement to the rippling after effects of the Roman defeat which would eventually shake the foundations of the Republic itself.

O’Connell takes the long view—the really long view—beginning with an account of the rising enmity of Rome and Carthage that led to the First Punic War more than half a century before Cannae. In fact, he takes a longer view that that, unable to resist a substantial digression into the theories of how ancient armies came into being. There is actually some useful and interesting information here about the development of the phalanx formation and its role in the evolution of warfare from what had been essentially an endless series of single combats (think of Achilles facing off against Hector in The Iliad) to a corporate strategy with groups of soldiers tasked with different objectives. There is also some less useful information, like the rather unexpected theory that the origins of the military drill can be found in the victory dances of roving bands of mammoth hunters during the Neolithic age.

But, setting aside the bemusing vision of these hunters sharing “rhythmic and intricate patterns of big muscle movements,” the story of Cannae actually begins with a dispute between Rome and Carthage over who would hold sway over the island of Sicily in 264 BC – the root cause of the First Punic War, and the thing that would forever pit Rome and Carthage as rivals.  Carthage lost, eventually, being without the kind of militant aggressiveness that has always been a hallmark of the Roman character. But one of their generals did not lose—Hamilcar Barca (“barca” means “thunderbolt”)—who fought a successful guerrilla war against Roman incursions in Sicily and thoroughly exasperated the Roman generals. Hamilcar Barca only quit the field when he was essentially recalled by the city of Carthage for other purposes. He left, but not before having conceived a bitter, implacable hatred for Rome which he passed on to his children, one of whom was named Hannibal.

Classical historians have always been hampered by the dearth of any objective evidence or contemporary, unbiased accounts of their subject. O’Connell himself admits that most of what we know of Rome at the time of the invasion of Hannibal comes from the work of Titus Livy, who was more than willing to sacrifice accuracy for literary impact and style, and Polybius, who was more disciplined in his account but nevertheless beholden to his Roman patron, a descendent of Publius Scipio Africanus (who would eventually defeat Hannibal), and also confirmed in his belief that Rome was morally superior to Carthage, and “deserved to win,” as the author puts it.

There is also the problem that the actual sites of these long ago events are lost to antiquity. No one can walk Hannibal’s route across the Alps, because frankly, we don’t know which route he took although apparently we are inclined to argue about it. (“A perfect example of an academic dispute grown bitter because so little is at stake,” comments the author). And while we know where Cannae is, and thus where the battle was fought, there is a slight problem of geography, since ancients sources describe the river in completely the wrong place.

Then too, there are all the legends and stories that have grow up around the men and the events. The story that Hannibal took an oath on the altar of the god of war to defeat Rome, at the age of nine. The story that shields sweated blood and tent stakes became hard to pull up on the day before a battle—signaling the gods’ displeasure. O’Connell likens consulting ancient sources to looking at a tattered patchwork quilt: “…because of the limited nature of the material, there is always the temptation to fall back on a truly outlandish polka dot or outlandishly garish plaid….In the end, even among otherwise tasteful and scrupulous ancient historians, something is almost always better than nothing.”

O’Connell picks his way deftly between all the polka dots and plaids, between “somethings” and “probably nothings” with care as he traces the rise of the Barcid family—as Hamilcar Barca’s clan came to be called—and their unusual aggressiveness and almost fanatical antipathy towards Rome that would eventually culminate in Hannibal’s spectacular invasion of Italy and the supposedly decisive victory he would win against the Romans at Cannae.

Except that it wasn’t. Despite the “rules of engagement” that existed for the times, the Romans refused to concede and sue for terms, the way any other self-respecting city-state at the time would have done. Instead, although they lost nearly every battle they fought against him, and something like a fifth of the men of fighting age in country, Rome continued to resist Hannibal’s forces by picking off raiding parties, burning crops and fields to deny them food and supplies and generally waging a war of attrition until the Carthaginian general found himself victoriously battling himself into a tiny corner on the toe of Italy’s boot. When he was finally called home to Carthage, he left having won every battle, but having lost the war.

The Ghosts of Cannae, then, is constructed in a vast arc, with the battle of Cannae sitting at the apex (if you look at it from Hannibal’s point of view) or the nadir (if you look at it from the perspective of Rome).  And despite the many fascinating things that came before (the author’s detailed descriptions of just how Hannibal got across the Alps with those elephants beggars belief), it is the aftermath of the battle that most interests and concerns O’Connell.  Because Cannae marked a change in Roman military tactics and in the way the city conducted war that would have far reaching effects for the future of the Roman Republic.

Before Cannae, the Roman army was a “citizen army” – meaning that every citizen was required to serve for a period. This meant the army was never short of soldiery, but also that the turnover was high. Many of the men in the army that fought at Cannae may never have actually killed another person in battle—a psychological disadvantage that would not have been understood.  The army was led by the consuls—the highest political office in the state—of which there were two. And at the time of Cannae it was standard practice that leadership of the army alternated between the two consuls on a daily basis.

This of course sounds absolutely insane to a modern reader, but it took confronting a general like Hannibal, a wily fox at the head of a professional army of career soldiers who unlike their Roman counterparts were quite used to killing people in battle, in particular, killing Romans, to clarify the flaws of the system for the Roman generals. After Cannae, then, the Romans wouldn’t make the same mistake. But O’Connell suggests that instead, they may have made a deal with the devil.

One of the more unusual aspects of the Roman army at Cannae—aside from its sheer size—was that every soldier had taken an oath to not give up his position except to capture an enemy or save a fellow solder. In effect, to fight to the death.  Swelled with the confidence inspired by their numbers, it was an oath they were by all accounts eager to take. And not just the infantry, the foot soldiers. More than a third of the Roman senate was on the field in some capacity—usually as cavalry—in order to have a place in what everyone was sure would be a great victory for Rome. Of course the problem with oaths to fight to the death is that if the tide of battle turns against you, you have to actually fight to the death. The soldiers that escaped Cannae—and O’Connell suggests that they only survived because the Carthaginians were hampered in their slaughter by the great piles of bodies that grew around them as the bloody day wore on—found themselves vilified by the Roman people. The mere fact that they survived marked them as traitors to the Republic.

Hannibal would go on to harry the countryside for another ten years, although he never laid siege to Rome itself. (“You know how to win victory, Hannibal, you do not how to use it.” said his brother.) The survivors of Cannae were exiled to Sicily, their lands and properties forfeit, themselves condemned to live, not in any town or habitable village, but in the wild, at least ten miles from any kind of established community. They became the “ghosts” of the book’s title, holding no place in the country they fought for. Shown no gratitude for their sacrifices, no compassion for their suffering.

And here, the author says, is the reason Cannae is important, the reason he wrote the book. The battle has been covered extensively by many military historians, studied even more extensively by many military strategists—overawed by Hannibal’s ability to kill so many men in such a short period of time. But O’Connell isn’t interested in “how” – although he does explain how in distressing detail, neither reveling in nor shirking from the realities of what 50,000 men killed by swords would look and smell like. O’Connell is interested in “why” – why Cannae is important. Why should we care?

Because history rhymes. “There is much about the clash between Rome and Carthage that seems hauntingly familiar,” writes the author, and cites the famous phrase attributed to Mark Twain that although history doesn’t repeat itself, it does sometimes rhyme. He finds in the conflict between Carthage and Rome a cautionary tale for our own time. The end result of Rome’s banishment of the survivors of Cannae was that ten years later the city would find it had to call upon them again—as they were the only soldiers left with enough experience to fight Hannibal.  A brilliant young general named Publius Cornelius Scipio (who had been in three engagements against Hannibal himself, including Cannae, before he was twenty-five) would “rehabilitate” the exiled soldiers and use them to form the core of his own personal volunteer army. It would be this army that would eventually defeat Hannibal at Zama. And this army was utterly devoted—not to Rome, but to the man who had brought them out of exile.

From this point on, O’Connell writes, the Roman army looked to their commanders, rather than the State, as their highest allegiance. And while Scipio never took advantage of the fact that he had the complete loyalty and obedience of the largest, best-trained and deadliest fighting force in the Mediterranean to, say, stage a military coup—in the years to come other generals would not be so circumspect.  Because of Cannae, says O’Connell, we got Julius Caesar. But because of what happened at Cannae, the Roman Republic would fall.

In the end, a reader will have learned many things about Rome’s war with Carthage, and Hannibal’s vendetta against Rome. He will learn what armor an infantry soldier wore, and how he used his sword. He will learn standard battle formations and why they made sense, as well as what their weaknesses were. He will learn why elephants are more trouble than they are worth in a battle. But while all of this is interesting, it isn’t why we should know about Cannae. Cannae is important because actions—of a person, and of a nation—always have consequences. And history, rhymes.


Books mentioned in this column:

The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic by Robert O’Connell (Random House, 2010) 9781400067022

The War with Hannibal: Books XXI-XXX of the History of Rome from Its Foundation by Titus Livius Livy (Penguin Books, 1965) 9780140441451

Oct 26 2008

Country roads to halls of fame

I got lost trying  on my way to visit the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.  I got lost because I am of that uncertain generation that no longer thinks of keeping road maps in the car, but neither have I quite yet justified to myself spending $300 on a GPS navigation system for a minivan that was over ten years old and starting to show signs of rust.  What I had was a printout from Google maps, and Google, it turns out, is not the most reliable source for information about rural routes and old country roads.

So I drove along a series of two-lane highways, lined with alternate patches of bright white cotton fields and the faded green-gold of soybeans, and criss-crossed by rusting railroad tracks.  I stopped at old gas stations with signs like “Racing fuel sold here!” to ask directions, feeling out of place in my black high heels and tastefully arty outfit, while scruffy guys who were blowing off church argued with each other about the best route I should take to get to the Weymouth Center for the Arts in Southern Pines, North Carolina.  I was directed, with confidence and contradictory instructions, to a nature preserve that allowed hunting.

Google said it would be a three hour trip and it was, since all the time I saved by going eighty on the interstate was spent fruitlessly wandering around roads with battered signs that said “old highway 1” or getting stuck behind an old truck that was stuck behind an even older guy driving farm equipment from one field to the next at the top speed of your average John Deere threshing machine, maybe five miles per hour.  The guy was falling asleep at the wheel, too, and we watched in fascinated dread as his massive machine drifted further and further to the right, tilting perilously as he came closer to the roadside ditch while all of us behind him leaned on our horns in a vain attempt to wake him up. What woke him, eventually, was the listing tilt of his seat, thank god. And through it all I was cataloging and memorizing and thinking “I’ve got to write this down.”

This expedition into the wilds of piedmont, North Carolina was on behalf of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame (LHOF), which was having its bi-annual induction ceremony that afternoon. Because I serve on the board of the organization that runs LHOF—not to be pronounced like “laugh”—I had promised to come. I had promised the same thing in the past, mind you, but always found an excuse not to attend.    Alas, on this particular Sunday no convenient excuses were available. It was a beautiful, warm October day. I didn’t have any other pressing engagements I couldn’t put off. The car, for a wonder, had nothing wrong with it. Even more miraculously, it had a nearly full tank of gas. So I had sighed, bowed to fate, and put on my semi-fancy duds to attend one of the more high-toned events in this area’s literary community.

Eventually the soybeans gave way to horse farms, and more by chance than design I found myself on the right road (although at the wrong end of it).  I finally pulled up into a beautiful historic and well-cared for estate with narrow graveled drives, white-washed, arched walkways.  I was just in time. About a 150 folding chairs had been set out on the covered patio and most of them were already filled, but I was happy to sneak into a  seat at the back.  Just because I hadn’t wanted to come, didn’t mean I wasn’t happy to see these writers honored.

Of course, what I really wanted was to see them read.

Selected PoemsThis year’s inductees were the poet James Applewhite, the historian William S. Powell, and the novelist Lee Smith.  After living in this state for seventeen years (working as a bookseller for most of that time) I am usually familiar with the writers who are chosen to be added to the Literary Hall of Fame. The last few times, I’d even go so far to say that I have very fond personal relationships with—if not the authors, at least their books.  When I first moved to North Carolina, it was William Powell’s North Carolina Gazetteer and his North Carolina Through Four Centuries (a massive tome) that I picked up to tell me about the place I had moved to. (Some people buy guidebooks, I buy books about the histories of place-names).  I discovered Applewhite because someone had put a poem of his next to a vintage photograph at an exhibition I had gone to see.  And Lee Smith’s Oral History was the first novel I read for the first book club I ever joined.

As I found a seat a man stepped up to the inadequate microphone.  “The North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame,” said the master of ceremonies solemnly, “is our state’s Stonehenge.”  The audience tittered. One thing you can count on about attending an event that honors writers—the people in the audience know bad writing when they hear it.  The poor MC, a newspaper book critic, seemed to realize belatedly how over the top the statement was, and muttered that it wasn’t his fault newspapers were firing all their editors. That received a louder laugh, and for the rest of the presentation we got to hear various impromptu “Stonehenge” references at ever possible opportunity.

North Carolina GazetteerThe absurdity of the comparison was patently obvious: there was nothing about the fragile historic home we had all come to, (over a hundred years old and with small placards on the furniture that pleaded with visitors to not set anything down on this original piece of…’), or about its pretty gardens and walkways that evoked the ancient and eternal feeling of Stonehenge.  But still, I could see why he wanted to say it. A Hall of Fame should reach for eternity—it’s mission is to make sure its subjects are never, ever forgotten.  In the house behind us where we were seated, on the second floor, was a study that had been used by the original owner, James Boyd.  It was a place of great comfort and companionship for many writers, from the British playwright James Galsworthy to Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson.  It is this study that is now the official site North Carolina’s Literary Hall of Fame, its walls lined with photographs of the state’s great authors, it’s glass-fronted bookshelves filled with copies of their books.  It is not an “eternal” place, as Stonehenge is, but it is a place that is frozen in time, and that is an attempt, at least, at the eternal.

Oral HistoryOf course, one might say that the real monument to these authors isn’t on the study wall. It is on the bookshelves of schools and libraries and bookstores and homes across the state. Stonehenge stands mute and mysterious, but the words of Lee Smith, James Applewhite and William Powell speak to anyone who can find a copy of their books. As long as they can be read, they live.

That is true. But the books aren’t the whole story.  What Weymouth preserves is something more ephemeral;  the sense of community evoked by the history of James Boyd’s study. They say writing is a solitary act but that isn’t true in North Carolina.  Storytelling is a way of life here—as natural as breathing.  People tell stories to each other, they can’t hardly help it.  It is how they communicate with each other.  The novelist Jill McCorkle read an excerpt from one of Lee Smith’s books as part of the program because she had been a student of Smith’s.  Lee Smith in her turn, had as a young writer insinuated herself into the class of the novelist Doris Betts, who was in the audience beaming at her unorthodox student and whose portrait is also on the wall of Boyd’s study. Betts herself was a reporter in the same town and for the same paper as William Powell. The threads and connections were everywhere. There was probably not a person in the audience who was not enmeshed; who was not, somehow, a slightly better storyteller because of the writers we were honoring that afternoon.  And I include myself, because why else would I, who had always been a just a reader, find myself thinking as I wandered around lost on a country highway not “where the hell am I” or “god damn it, I’m going to be late” but  “I’ve got to write this down.”


Books mentioned in this column:

North Carolina Gazetteer by William S. Powell (University of North Carolina Press, 1976)
North Carolina Through Four Centuries by William S. Powell (University of North Carolina Press, 1989)
Oral History by Lee Smith, (Ballantine Books, 1984)

May 12 2007

Christine Falls

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black
(alias, John Banville)

Christine FallsThere is a rather querulous essay by the  classic detective fiction writer S.S. Van Dine (aka Willard Huntington Wright) called “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” where the author lays out the dos—and more importantly the don’ts of the genre for aspiring detective novelists.  Benjamin Black manages to break nearly all of them in his “debut” crime novel Christine Falls.

One can’t help seeing the quotation marks around the word “debut” since Benjamin Black is a pseudonymous persona for the Irish author John Banville, whose literary reputation is so well and long established he hasn’t needed to “debut”  even a grocery list for twenty years.  Christine Falls is not even his first attempt at crime fiction—that honor belongs to the frightening and unsettling The Book of Evidence, an in depth character study of the sociopathic Freddie Montgomery, who is the kind of guy that makes Thomas Ripley seem tame.  But setting aside the trivialities of pen names and the literary alter egos they imply, Christine Falls is exactly the kind of crime novel one might expect John Banville to write; a crime novel that dismisses the conventions of the genre with arrogance, with aplomb, and with admitted success.

John Banville has been called one of the most stylistically perfect writers in the English language, the literary heir to Vladimir Nabokov and even, if you can pardon the hyperbole, James Joyce. He is famously quoted as saying that fiction as a literary form is “childish.” “It’s too coarse. Which is why I’m trying to change it. My modest ambition in life is to change the novel entirely.”  So the casual reader might be forgiven for wondering why this author—who finds the general form of the novel so simplistic and limiting—would choose to write in a genre known for it’s formulaic approach to narrative. Why a writer known for his in depth character studies would write in a genre where plot is more important than person.  Why a writer whose novels so often leave us contemplating our own unfulfilled desires and dreams would write in a genre whose raison d’etre is to deliver the kind resolution and justice so often lacking in real life.

“The detective story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws — unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them.” fusses Van Dine in the introduction to his list of rules.   The rules, of course, include things like “play fair–don’t tell the detective anything you don’t also tell the reader.” “Make sure the clues are there for the reader to solve the puzzle.” “Don’t get sidetracked by extraneous subplots” and don’t, no matter what, fall back on “The butler did it.”

It isn’t unusual for contemporary mystery writers allow themselves to break one or two of Van Dine’s rules. But on the whole, most mystery writers (and readers) are still inclined to live by them, rather the same way that most poets, when writing a haiku, stick to the 5-7-5 rule for syllables per line.   Banville, on the other hand, ignores so many of the conventions of the genre that it is hard not to suspect him of writing the novel almost as an intellectual exercise—just to see how many rules he could break.  About the only thing one can say is that the butler does not do it. Since there are no butlers in the novel, I feel I can write this without being accused of giving away the story—mystery readers hate “spoilers”.  So, no butlers. There are, however, a couple of deliciously Mrs. Danvers- like housekeepers, but that’s all I’ll say about that.

Christine Falls is the name of the woman that Quirke—a Dublin coroner on the wrong side of fifty whose life has been a long decline of failed hopes and unavoidable disappointments—discovers in his morgue late one evening.  There is nothing unusual in this, of course. Quirke has fled the bright hilarity of an office party upstairs for the peace of the dead in his own domain.  What is unusual is that he isn’t alone—Quirke, in an alcoholic haze, stumbles into his brother-in-law Malachy (“Mal”), who apparently has been writing things down in Christine Falls’ file—something he has no business doing.  It takes about a day for Quirke to sober up enough to think the incident odd, but by that time the body of the woman has gone and the cause of death listed on her file—pulmonary embolism—in his brother in law’s handwriting—is a matter of public record.

It is the unfamiliar feeling of curiosity that drives Quirke to investigate Christine Falls, but the curiosity soon turns to suspicion and dismay when he finds evidence that Mal is involved in a cover up. The deeper he digs, the more evidence he finds of a conspiracy that seems to involve his family, his friends and his employers—in short, apparently everyone in Dublin but himself.  His mild questions even garner the attention of some extremely rarified personages in the Catholic Church, and he is counseled, with ominous tones, to drop his haphazard investigation. Which may have had some effect, if Quirke had not lost his faith years before, after the death of the wife he married only because he couldn’t marry her sister.  At the time of the story, Quirke is embittered and frustrated, inclined to drink too much, and far too cynical to care what his brother in law has gotten himself into—except, of course, that he is still in love with Sarah.

 Rule # 1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

There is a lot going on in this novel, but one thing that is not happening is any kind of “intellectual game” or “sporting event.”  There are at least three places in the story where Quirke is given knowledge denied to the reader (and several places where the reader is given knowledge denied to Quirke—which Van Dine considers to be an intellectually lazy way to write a detective story).   At these moments, the reader’s only recourse is to guess at what is happening.  Luckily, we are in an excellent position to do so, because unlike Van Dine, Banville is incapable of creating a character who is not psychologically complex and full of depth.  We may not know what specific thing Quirke is looking at when he opens Christine’s altered file, but we infer quite a lot from the emotions that bubble up within him, and from the way he shuts the file with a snap, and reaches for his hidden bottle of whiskey.

Rule #3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

Christine Falls is awash in “love interests”—both past and present, Failing, failed and fulfilled  It is a silly rule anyway because “love interests” are such an excellent, excellent reasons for murder.

Rule #    6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects.

I’m afraid that although Quirke, as a coroner, might fit the bill as a “detective”, he doesn’t really detect. He stumbles about, asking all sorts of alarming questions which naturally lead to alarming consequences.  He doesn’t solve things so much as  happen to be around when the consequences of his bumbling start to bear fruit.

Rule #    7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice.

Van Dine would be very unhappy with Banville on this point, since although there is more than one corpse; how they have died, who killed them and even why is never really in question.   Murder mysteries aren’t really about justice, they are about violence.  Banville is interested in violence. Although his novels are often called “cold” and ‘aloof” they aren’t. They seethe with suppressed violence in its many shades and colors, from the mildest impulses of intimidation to the most extreme manifestations of megalomaniac rage.

Rule #    13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story.

Well, I did mention that the Catholic Church is involved in the fate of Christine Falls, did I not?  We all know who has done secret Catholic extremist societies to death recently, but I’m happy to say that there are no antique puzzle keys or albino monks cluttering up Banville’s story. If anything, the author seems more interested in the way we reconcile our own good intentions .

Rule #    16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction.

And here is where I secretly suspect Banville of breaking into contemptuous laughter. Because in Christine Falls, we have a crime novel where the many descriptive passages hint at the novel’s underlying themes.  Where atmospheric elements are metaphors for motives, where supposed “side issues” have far reaching effects on the story, where style is more important than plot and where character, as they say, is king.

Quirke is often to be found ruminating on the distant past, and it only serves to call into question his motives in the present.  His relationships with Sarah, (Malachy’s wife), and Phoebe (her daughter) are not quite familial and not at all platonic, but it is in their complexity is the answer to what happened to Christine Falls.  Ultimately, the novel is an exploration into how past sins are always visited upon the present, and how one bad choice ripples outward to wash into the lives of many disparate people. Banville delights in creating subtle—and some not-so-subtle metaphorical allusions to add extra weight to the story’s themes. Quirke—the black sheep of the family, is an obscure coroner who works among the dead. His brother “Mal” (bad, in the Latin) is a successful obstetrician responsible for delivering life.  Quirke believes in nothing but won’t compromise his sense of what is “right.” Mal is a faithful Catholic who lives by eternally compromising.

The truth is, Banville tips his hat at all the usual conventions of the detective novel but bows to none of them.  He is a master of suspense, but he is more interested in the combustive potential of two people than with any epic battle between good and evil.  Quirke doesn’t want to bring down the Catholic Church. He isn’t some avenging angel pursing murderers across the ocean. He just wants to find out what happened to one young woman, and to make sure that whatever happened, it won’t hurt the woman who holds his unrequited love.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Banville has “changed the mystery novel entirely.”  The story has a few flaws—a few of the characters whose personality seems to change to fit the requirements of the story, and a rather hasty ending to one villain involving some railroad tracks that will have traditionalists howling in protest.  Mystery readers who look for justice to be served upon the guilty will find that what is just depends very much on one’s point of view.  Quirke is often called “a good man” in the story—usually by women who want to sleep with him. But his good intentions aren’t equal to his own less than perfect impulses, much less the forces arrayed against him. The mystery of Christine Falls is ultimately solved, and Justice is meted out deus ex machina, but for Quirke, anyway, it resolves nothing.

Sep 17 2006

The things that matter

“Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.”

–Marcel Proust


The Things That MatterYears and years ago, when I was a two-week veteran of college life and still relatively starry-eyed about spending the next four years in libraries and classrooms, surrounded by an atmosphere of intellectual discovery and debate, I had my first argument with a teacher over a book—ever—and  I  won.

Oh, I had disagreed with teachers in the past. Like anyone, my public-school education was filled with a mix of people who were more or less dedicated to stuffing learning into the heads of hormonally-distracted teenagers. Often their dedication was at inverse proportion to their exhaustion.  But exhausted or not, they carried far too much authority in my mind to ever be publicly challenged. A few scathing remarks from the more jaded and cynical ones was enough to curb any impulse I had to speak up when, for example, one of my more unfortunate English teachers decided to take us through The Scarlet Letter and, in a dreadful misuse of Freudian theory, point out the phallic nature of every tree in the wood.  (It was years before I could bring myself to read Hawthorne without an icky feeling crawling up my skin).

Perhaps it was the new city, the room full of people that didn’t know me; that I didn’t know at all. Perhaps it was because this class met in an old library, at wide tables surrounded by dark wooden bookcases filled with leather-bound volumes—the kind of setting which made me feel relaxed and at home. Almost certainly it was because the professor for the class—a survey of classic literature—had just introduced me to the concept of “the great conversation”, which is the idea that all the writers and philosophers there have ever been have been holding a dialogue with each other—posing questions for the next generation to answer. But I decided to speak up at last.  I was on familiar ground here—I had been having conversations with books since I first learned how to read.

The argument that started off my college career was over Jane Eyre and the professor had taken the rather odd stance that Jane was a morally weak character. He based this surprising conclusion on the fact that Jane returns to Rochester after hearing him “call” in the middle of the night. She could have no idea that anything had changed since she had run away from a near-bigamous marriage and Rochester’s proposal that they run away together, live out of wedlock. So how could she return? Wasn’t she simply giving in to a proposal that she had already decided was morally wrong?

I stuttered a protest. Jane Eyre has possibly the most moral integrity of any fictional character ever to grace the printed page. When she is abused, she does not break. When she is tempted, she does not give in. At every pivotal point in her life—at times when even the best of us might be forgiven for compromising ourselves for the sake of a kind word or look—she holds true to some internal compass. Jane, I argued, is never weak.

With all the self-assuredness of the very young, I launched into a slightly breathless defense of dear Jane and insisted that to ignore the love that existed between herself and Rochester is what would have been weak.  She leaves him because to be his mistress would be to base her life on a lie. She refuses to marry her cousin instead, because a loveless marriage is also a lie. And she can not ignore her love for Rochester, or pretend it has no place in her life, because that, also, would be to live in a lie. No, the only answer for Jane is to return and confront this love between them. She goes—with no certainty of anything but confronting a terrible situation which will only cause her pain. But she still goes. Because anything less would be running away from the truth.

Mind you, when I was explaining this to the professor and the class, I think I put it a little less rationally: “But she loved him! She couldn’t ignore that!”

Despite my youthful incoherence, I apparently won the day for Jane Eyre, or else the rest of the class was full of hopeless romantics, because they all agreed.  From that moment on, Jane Eyre became a pivotal role model in my life and it is not an uncommon thing for me to think, when confronted with some dilemma, “what would Jane do?”  Jane—my Jane—the one I hold inside myself, is the bravest person I ever met.

It is somewhat comforting to discover, some twenty-odd years later, that my instincts were right about the book, because the noted literary critic Edward Mendelson totally agrees with me, and says so in his most recent book The Things That Matter: What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life.

It is the kind of book calculated to appeal to people like me, who live their lives in books.  Mendelson has picked seven novels and teased from them lessons about the major developmental stages in life—birth (Frankenstein), childhood (Wuthering Heights), growth (Jane Eyre), marriage (Middlemarch), love (Mrs. Dalloway), parenthood (To the Lighthouse) and aging (Between the Acts). Each section of the book is devoted to one stage, and one novel that seems—to Mendelson—to epitomize the modern human condition, to sum up our wayward existences and to offer to its readers deep philosophical explorations into the nature of identity.

Yeah—that is what I meant to say when I told my professor “But she loved him!”

Mind you, Mendelson’s admiration for Jane Eyre, and all his subsequent conclusions about her character is founded on a much wider acquaintance with the Brontës than I have ever possessed.  Where I just whined and protested that Jane was a fine woman, he is able to draw parallels with Charlotte Brontë’s own philosophical development, make interesting allusions to the Indian practice of suttee (wherein a Hindu widow would immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre), and talk knowledgably about marriage vows and the Book of Common Prayer.   All of which will give the reader a much deeper appreciation for the psychological undercurrents that swirl beneath the story but doesn’t erase the final point: I was right. Jane and Rochester must meet again because they are in love, and love can not be ignored.

Mendelson’s choice of novels to illustrate the stages of life may raise a few eyebrows. Not only are they all by women, but three are by Virginia Woolf, and two by the Brontë sisters.  There is something decidedly odd about using Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to open up a discussion about birth. It is, after all, the most perverse literary birth since the titan Cronus vomited up his devoured children and created the Greek pantheon.  Nor does Wuthering Heights, surely the most furious novel ever written in the English language, really come to mind when thinking about “childhood.”  But Mendelson’s perspective on each of the novels he has chosen wins the curious reader’s attention: if we are not entirely convinced that Catherine and Heathcliffe exist in a unity of soul only capable in childhood fantasy, we are at least intrigued by the idea.  Mendelson brings shades of meaning to books already shrouded in shadows.

Whether or not one agrees with the author’s interpretations or even his choices of books is not really the writer’s point.  There is no reason why, for example, the lessons about growth and maturity he sees in Jane Eyre are not also to be found, in different form, in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.  No reason why the lessons of a life at its close might not be gleaned from John Banville’s The Sea, or Roth’s Human Stain, or from any number of novels by Updike.  Indeed, the reader gets the feeling that Mendelson is encouraging him to do just that. His is a rare breed of literary criticism–he is not so interested in dissecting a book to see what makes the author tick. He is concerned with how books make their readers tick. The Things That Matter is not a book about literature; it is a book about life. When engaging in that curious and near-miraculous process called reading, Mendelson wants the reader to bring the story into himself and claim for his own.

In his lovely novel The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon observes that the art of reading is “. . . an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day.”  It is clear that Edward Mendelson is a great reader.  But what his book does is teach us all to become great readers.  All we have to do is pay attention to the things that matter.