Here is a light review on the United States’s day of Thanksgiving.
A few weeks ago when I reviewed Lolita I remembered this delightful book of poetry, Picnic, Lightning (1998), titled after a line from Lolita. Billy Collins served two terms as the United States Poet Laureate from 2001-2003, and it was during that term that I came to know him and this particular collection of poetry. He then served as New York State’s Poet Laureate from 2004-2006. Since this collection, Collins has released four collections, Ballistics (2008) being the most recent. However, none of them have matched Picnic, Lightning for me.
Billy Collins is well known as an accessible poet. In fact, he feels that poetry should be accessible. Here is a quote from 1998 (according to wikipedia : ) ):
As I’m writing, I’m always reader conscious. I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I’m talking to, and I want to make sure I don’t talk too fast, or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong.
Here is a good example of this effect:
Lines Composed Over Three Thousand Miles from Tintern Abbey
I was here before, a long time ago,
and now I am here again
is an observation that occurs in poetry
as frequently as rain occurs in life.
Much of his poetry is playing with everyday observations, turning them into something more playful, if not more profound. Indeed, his humor is well known, and in 2005 he won the first annual Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry. Here is a list of titles that should give some idea of how playful Collins’s poetry is:
- “Lines Lost Among Trees,” about a man who went for a walk, had a great line, and, before he could fetch a pencil, lost them.
- “Shoveling Snow with Buddha,” juxtaposing a mobile Buddha with his typical sitting figurine.
- “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” (“The complexity of women’s undergarments / in the nineteenth-century Ameica / is not to be waved off . . .”) a wonderfully amusing homage to the master poet herself.
Not all of his poems are as playful, but most have a light feel. Many lead the reader from this light feel to a disturbing conclusion that leaves the reader drifting in thought. It is a great poet who can still make me think years later about what his final poem in the collection, “Aristotle,” not only means but how I feel when I think about what it means. Still, even this poem, with its multitude of historical figures and phrases, is very accessible.
For better, and most definitely for worse, I find almost every Collins poem accessible after only one or two reads. This makes it easy to curl up with one of his books of poetry and simply enjoy his observations over and over again. In the conversational tone, he addresses the reader frequently, and for a long time I considered Billy Collins to be an intimate friend despite the fact that he knows nothing of me.
A lot changed after Picnic, Lighting, however. I first went back and read his earlier poems and found them enjoyable too (almost all of his major poetry awards came in the 1990s). But by the time I got around to reading his post-Picnic books, I found his style and his, uhmmm, simiplicity, a bit underwhelming and disappointing. It felt like he hit success and then kept writing similar poems. That is not to say there are no gems in his recent books, but they just don’t have the same fresh feel that Picnic, Lightning offers.
Still, I highly recommend this collection of poetry even for those who do not like poetry. In fact, for those who don’t like poetry but are curious, this is a perfect place to start.
Several months ago I experienced a sudden urge to go to the bookstore and buy Hunger (1890) by Nobel Laureatte Knut Hamsun. For some strange reason, when I returned home with the book I no longer had the urge to read it, and it sat on my shelf until the other day when, still not having an urge to read it, I decided it was high time to work on the pile of boughten but neglected books.
Here we meet an unnamed young man – a starving writer who is apparently a bit of an autobiographical version of Hamsun. In the book divided into four parts, we watch the man wander around Norway’s capital Kristiania (called Oslo since 1924) looking for food, going from bad to worse to lucky or blessed to bad to worse again and again. During his wanderings he encounters several characters, most of whom seem to pity him. He yearns for and yet rejects any overt attempt to help him. Proud, when he has to sell items to the pawnshop, he does so under various pretexts, though he probably is not fooling anyone.
And without disclosing much of the plot, that is about it concerning how the plot moves. The interesting aspect of the novel is his mental decline as he becomes “drunk with starvation.” Sometimes he plays petty pranks on the people he meets in the street. Sometimes he is downright mean. However, rather than resent these people who have what he needs, he views their lives as fairly blessed by God, the opposite of what he considers himself to be:
These people that I met – how lightly and merrily they bobbed their bright faces, dancing their way through life as though it were a ballroom!
Since he is a writer, some interesting aspects of his decline are shown in the writing projects he takes on. Here is an early one:
Needless to say, I would have an opportunity to deal a deathblow to Kant’s sophisms . . . On second thought, I would not attack Kant; it could be avoided, after all – I just had to make an imperceptible detour when I came to the problem of time and space.
As his mind digresses, however, he finds writing more and more difficult:
My thoughts gradually began to compose themselves. Taking great care, I wrote slowly a couple of well-considered pages, an introduction to something; it could serve as the beginning to almost anything, whether a travelogue or a political article, depending on what I felt like doing. It was an excellent beginning to many things.
However, this being a young Hamsun, we know that writing will help him get through some of the difficulties, but not all.
As happened just recently with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, my enjoyment with the book was not found while reading it. I would actually find myself on the train with nothing to do but read (a most enjoyable situation in which to find oneself) but without the desire to work through the pages of this short book. I’m willing to say that it was my mood or that every other moment of the day is so busy my mind didn’t want to engage. Still, I think it is because I read Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K earlier this year and found its writing about the decline of a starving man to be far superior to this. Then again, perhaps Coetzee is in debt to Hamsun, who was one of the pilgrims of modern writing about the inner man.
And in retrospect I have some thoughts on the book that make me think it was worth the read. For example, here is one of the more complex and intriguing encounters the narrator has, this one with a prostitute:
I went with her. When we were a few steps past the cabstand, I stopped, freed my arm and said, “Listen, my friend, I don’t have a penny.” And I prepared to go.
At first she refused to believe me, but when she had gone through all my pockets without anything turning up, she got peeved, tossed her head and called me a dry stick.
“Good night,” I said.
“Wait a minute,” she called. “Those are gold-rimmed glasses, aren’t they?”
“Then go to blazes!”
And I went.
Shortly afterward she came running after me and called me once more. “You can come anyway,” she said.
I felt humiliated by this offer from a poor streetwalker and said no. Besides, it was getting late and I had to be somewhere; nor could she afford such sacrifices.”
“No, now I want you to come.”
“But I won’t go with you under those circumstances.”
“You’re on your wat to someone else, of course,” she said.
“No,” I answered.
Alas, I had no real bounce in me these days; women had become almost like men to me. Want had dried me up.
A Separate Peace (1959) might be the first book that made me recognize the deep potential of books. I still remember where I was when I read it - the lighting, the temperature, the silence. Since then, when asked what some of my favorite books are, in my very long reply I often say A Separate Peace. But recently I realized that I didn’t know if it still was one of my favorite books because I couldn’t remember anything that happened in it other than two things, neither of which was World War II (yes, it’s been a while). I decided to revisit it, scared that I might kill off one of my favorite books if it didn’t live up to my memories of how I felt when reading it.
Imagine my delight, then, when I sat down and read the first two paragraphs and knew that at the very least I was in the hands of a gifted writer:
I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before. It seemed more sedate than I remembered it, more perpendicular and strait-laced, with narrower windows and shinier woodwork, as though a coat of varnish had been put over everything for better preservation. But, of course, fifteen years before there had been a war going on. Perhaps the school wasn’t as well kept in those days; perhaps varnish, along with everything else, had gone to war.
I didn’t entirely like this glossy new surface, because it made the school look like a museum, and that’s exactly what it was to me, and what I did not want it to be. In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left.
Here we meet Gene Forrester revisiting his old school in New Hampshire fifteen years after he left. Though this is a bildungsroman, and a fairly nostalgic one at that, we know from the beginning that this is not going to be a sentimental young adult novel:
Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence.
In the summer of 1942, Gene was sixteen years old, just on the cusp of entering the War for which all of the seventeen year olds are preparing. Notwithstanding this and the omnipresent news of the War, to Gene the War doesn’t seem real. Other things are more relevant, like the simple studies and games typical to sixteen year old boys. Gene has the fortune of being roommates and best friends with Phineas (no last name, but he’s usually called Finny), a natural charmer and the best athlete at Devon, perhaps the best athlete Devon’s ever seen.
Finny embodies innocence and gusto. He approaches sport expecting to be the best, and he gets his satisfaction from doing his best, not by doing better than someone else. Indeed, Finny doesn’t seem to be competing with anyone in the many sports he invents and plays. This is important when contrasting Finny to Gene. Gene is good at sport, but not as good as Finny. However, Gene is perhaps the best student at Devon, while Finny is very poor. In his zeal for life, Finny sets up daily activities for him and Gene and the others. The tension is set when Finny gets Gene to go to the beach the night before a big trigonometry test. After failing the test, Gene realizes that Finny is attempting to sabotage him, that on the overall balance of sports/academics Gene is ahead so Finny wants him to fail. Resentful, Gene doubles his efforts on academics while trying not to let Finny realize that he knows what’s going on. In a very sad moment in the early pages, Gene finds out that he is mistaken about Finny. Finny does not want Gene to fail. On the contrary, he expects Gene to be the best. He only thought that academics came naturally to Gene, like sports to himself, so he never expected his activities to get in the way.
In the moment of realizing this, Gene recognizes his true position against Finny – he is very low indeed. And he cannot accept this. In a moment that changes everything, Gene purposefully tries to defeat his best friend who has become his personal enemy.
That’s all pretty soon in the book, but I don’t want to give away too much more in case you haven’t read it. It’s fairly short, so the payback per page is very high – you should read it.
What I want to talk about now is that aspect of the book that I had completely forgotten about: World War II. This book never has a scene that depicts the fighting in the war. There are no guns or jeeps. Yet the War pervades everything. Though these boys are in school doing typical schoolboy things, the war still finds them in the way people look at them:
I think we reminded them of what peace was like, we boys of sixteen. We were registered with no draft board, we had taken no physical examinations. No one had ever tested us for hernia or color blindness. Trick knees and punctured eardrums were minor complaints and not yet disabilities which would separate a few from the fate of the rest. We were careless and wild, and I suppose we could be thought of as a sign of the life the war was being fought to preserve.
Though none of these boys fires a shot, by the end of the novel all have moved from this innocent state. The war is a nice vehicle to describe what happens to these boys when they are confronted with that thing that makes them grow up, lose their innocence. And that brings us to the magnificent last page which is one of those endings that warps the whole book, making it more real and more sinister than could be expected.
Here’s another book I’ve often pulled from the bookstore shelf, only to put it back, sometimes even after I’ve already gotten in line to purchase it. There just always seemed to be another book that felt more urgent and more likely to be missed if not purchased instead. Consequently, I’ve read the first small section dozens of times but knew little about the rest of the book. Now, with Harper Perrenial’s limited edition, I finally found that The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) was the book I couldn’t pass up at the bookstore.
A quick word about the limited edition, which I knew about only because I saw an advertisement in the New York Review of Books. Apparently at this point there are three titles available: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (the title of which comes from that first small section of The Unbearable Lightness of Being that I mentioned above), and Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (does this one have anything to do with the other titles?). They are compact and sturdy - the size of a mass-market paperback but the feel of a trade paperback. They seem to be widely available (I’ve seen all three at several local bookstores). And the best part: they cost only $10. The worst part: these titles don’t seem to need a reissue at this moment, and there are so many others we’re on the fringe of losing that could use a good marketing campaign. Perhaps Harper Perrenial can use these three to get some interest in the series (should it turn out to be a series) and release more deserving books later.
Much of my joy with this novel came right away, in that first of many extremely short sections I had already read so many times. So perhaps I was right to just read it in the line and then put it back. But not so fast – I’ll explain more later about how I felt about this book. Back to that first section, though: there Kundera explains the fundamental philosophy of the novel, which plays with lightness and heaviness.
Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.
Basically, what we do has no real significance – in other words, there is no weight attached to us. The passage of time nullifies our life and death, and we are basically ”dead in advance.” As an example he brings up a battle in Africa in the 1500s that killed thousands of Africans. To him, this has no significance today, so no matter how well they lived or how horribly they died, it doesn’t matter now. Looked at another way, it didn’t matter then. They could have died peacefully in bed or violently on the battlefied – either way, it’s over and will never return. This applies to us today as well. And this knowledge of how truly light our being is somewhat unbearable.
Then Kundera takes us into the story, with four principal characters: Tomas, his wife Tereza, his lover Sabine, and her lover Franz. In the first part (which is very short), we get to know how Tomas and Tereza met, fell in love, and married. Tomas represents lightness. He does not want to get attached to anyone or anything, and he attaches little significance to anything that happens. A prolific philanderer, Tomas has a rule of three about his mistresses: you either see them over a long period of time but must allow three weeks to pass between encounters, or you see them up to three times in quick succession but then never again. Tereza changes all of this. After their first encounter, just as he’s about to send her on her way, she becomes ill and must stay with him for a week. During that time he realizes he loves her, and going against his rules he allows her to sleep with him after sex. He realizes that love is not a desire to have sex with someone; rather, it is a desire to sleep with someone. But to maintain his reputation and the pretext of freedom, he purchases Tereza her own apartment (which she never uses). He also continues his many affairs. Realizing, however, that Tereza is hurt and jealous and might leave him, he decides to marry her – but not stop his affairs.
In Part II (also very short) we see much of the same story as above but from the perspective of Tereza. She represents heaviness; indeed, the first time she meets Tomas she attaches significance to almost everything that goes on – the book he carries (Anna Karenina), the music playing (Beethoven), and the number six. The speak for only an hour, but a week later Teresa visits Tomas. She brings her heavy suitcase, and Kundera frequently makes sure that he describes the weight of things when she’s around. As different as she and Tomas are, they love each other, though they don’t necessarily make each other happy.
In the backdrop of this novel is Prague, a city about to be taken by the Soviets. When the Soviets threaten to take over Prague, Tomas and Tereza move to Switzerland, where Sabina has also moved. After a while, Tereza leaves to go back to Prague. Tomas realizes he will never be able to talk to her again now that Prague has been taken over, and he begins to enjoy his new freedom. But the weight has become comfortable, and after just a few days he also travels back to Prague to find Tereza, knowing they will not be able to leave again. This brings around one of the fundamental philosophies of the novel:
Was it better to be with Tereza or to remain alone?
There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?
As the novel progresses, we meet Franz, who has become Sabina’s lover now that Tomas is gone. Franz also represents weight; Sabina, lightness. The amusingly sad section that introduces their relationship is called “Words Misunderstood.” In this section, Kundera provides a dictionary of some words which mean to Franz different things than to Sabina: woman, fidelity and betrayal, music, lightness and darkness, the beauty of New York, etc. Their relationship is a great failure, in contrast to the relative success of Tomas and Tereza.
We follow these characters to the end of their lives as they struggle in their relationships with each other and with the political climate of the time. It is a very interesting story, and with the philosophy always in the foreground, it’s quite the exercise of the mind.
As I said above, though, much of my joy came at the first of the novel, and I truly mean that I did not experience as much satisfaction while reading this book as I usually do when reading other books. It was engaging, well written, provocative – not in the least unbearable - but for some reason it didn’t satisfy me as much in the act of reading. I think this was principally due to the fact that the book is very much a book of ideas. The basic facts of the novel are fairly simple, so the joy comes in the act of thinking about the novel. Thankfully, there was much to think about, and as I did that I found that reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being was very worthwhile, even if it is heavy material.
But that’s not the only good thing. The symbols and dream sequences are excellently rendered and hauntingly erotic. I particularly enjoyed the fact that toward the end, as Tereza slips around the fringe of losing her mind, Kundera does nothing stylistically to seperate her dreams from reality. The absence of transitions disorients the reader, and in this book that disorientation is part of the quality.
My reading Brideshead Revisited (1945) was not inspired by any viewing of the 2008 film adaptation. Let’s just make that clear. And now that I’ve read the book and watched the trailer to the 2008 film adaptation, I’m certain I’ll never watch it. It looks atrocious and like the makers took some characters and made their own story about them. I’m really not a fan of most film adaptations (there are, of course, many exceptions), especially these days when producers and directors seem to be grasping at – here it is again – a beautiful, showy style rather than a nice meeting of form and substance. I bought this book because I liked the cover. I read it in preparation for a nice long viewing (11 hours) of the apparently superb ITV adaption of 1981 - I have it already, so it’s just a matter of finding that time.
At the beginning of the book, Charles Ryder is a disillusioned, apathetic soldier in World War II. I was quickly drawn into the story and into the writing during at this very early point in the novel. Waugh’s writing, I found, was superb – complex without being burdensome, beautiful without being pretentious. And I could just imagine Jeremy Irons reading this sentence:
Here my last love died. There was nothing remarkable in the manner of its death. One day, not long beofre this last day in camp, as I lay awake before reveille, in the Nissen hut, gazing into the complete blackness, amid the deep breathing and muttering of the four other occupants, turning over in my mind what I had to do that day – had I put in the names of two corporals for the weapon-training course? Should I again have the largest number of men overstaying their leave in the batch due back that day? Could I trust Hooper to take the candidates class out map-reading? - as I lay in that dark hour, I was aghast to realize that something within me, long sickening, had quietly died, and felt as a husband might feel, who, in the fourth year of his marriage, suddenly knew that he had no longer any desire, tenderness, or esteem, for a once-beloved wife; no pleasure in her company, no wish to please, no curiosity about anything she might ever do or say or think; no hope of setting things right, no self-reproach for the disaster.
The company of soldiers Captain Ryder is traveling with ends up at Brideshead, a place, we are to find out, where Ryder’s conflicted and complex past most played out. At any rate, it represents a great deal, and Ryder lapses into the book-length reminiscence. Brideshead is divided into two books. The first one, for the most part, introduces Ryders complex and touching relationship with Sebastian Flyte, a fellow Oxford student. Sebastian is an incredibly wealthy young man who still carries around a teddy bear and adores his nanny. Ryder finds Sebastian and his lifestyle incredibly attractive, and like a lover he despairs when they are apart and finds himself jealous when Sebastian travels without inviting him to come along.
Waugh does a great job developing their relationship. Though I didn’t feel it was ambiguous, there are grounds to believe that their relationship was deeply platonic but not sexual. In not getting explicit, Waugh makes their relationship all the more realistic, somehow. By not going into detail, Ryder’s narration tells a lot about his relationship with Sebastian. To me it didn’t feel like Ryder’s restraint meant he was ashamed – he doesn’t hide the fact that he deeply loved Sebastian, and this love probably was sexual;
Now, that summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never know, a happy childhood, and though its toys were silk shirts and liquers and cigars and its naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins, there was something of nursery freshness about us that fell little short of the joy of innocence.
Rather, his restraint seemed to suggest that he didn’t want to confine his love in language, that he doesn’t want to explain his love to others, that to do so would taint his love. The subtitle of the book is, after all, “The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder.”
This relationship, though seminal and perhaps the beating heart of the story, is not the whole story or even the focus. First, they begin to grow up. The langourness of youth passes on, and the novelty and freshness wears off. Through the years, Sebastian drifts away. His religion and his family create such a conflict within him that alcohol and prodigality seem to be the only real escape.
The book moves into a discussion on religion, particularly Catholicism, which Ryder thinks has Sebastian and his family stifled. Lady Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother, is deeply religious.
Religion predominated in the house; not only in its practices – the daily mass and rosary, morning and evening in the chapel – but in all its intercourse. “We must make a Catholic of Charles,” Lady Marchmain said, and we had many little talks together during my visits when she delicately steered the subject into a holy quarter.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Ryder’s main antogonist is Catholicism. We get a sense that though Sebastian has the pretense of being irreligious, he believes enough of what he’s been taught to be stifled with guilt. That is the case with the whole family. And the last half of the book develops Ryder’s relationships with those other members, particularly Sebastian’s sister Julia.
One thing that really strengthens this book, besides the subtle writing, is Waugh’s ability to draw and maintain strong motifs: painting and building being one of my favorites. Ryder is an architectural painter, but Waugh manages to use this to achieve a great effect when he pronounces some of the book’s largest themes and conclusions.
Now, for me, it’s on to the 1981 adaptation. And here’s one observation after watching the first hour and a half, which comprises of the first 100 pages of this 350-page book. How did they turn the last 250 pages into ten hours of film? I’m anxious to find out!
While this blog has primarily reviewed novels (and will continue to do so), I thought it might be a nice change of pace to throw in a play every now and then (and maybe a book of poetry, just for kicks). I don’t pretend to be really knowledgeable about plays, especially the acting side, but I have studied modern drama and theory in a few all-too-short classes and there was a time in my life when I was able to attend the theater twice a week (being a student in London has major perks), so I at least have been exposed to it enough to know I enjoy talking about it. Perhaps that time when I can go to the theater twice a week will come again. I hope so, for seeing a play acted out by a superior acting company is much better than merely reading its script, or, for that matter, seeing the movie if one has been made.
With Tom Stoppard, however, I have often found that watching and reading is a necessity to fully appreciate his work. Often, to watch his play is to engage in a metaphysical activity in real time. There is nothing quite like it. However, much like, say, Hamlet, to truly engage with Stoppard’s work it is almost necessary to examine the text – at least that is the case for me. While The Real Thing (1982) is perhaps one of his more straightforward plays, it also pays to visit the text itself. Had I not read The Real Thing, I would never have seen how adept Stoppard is at using the formal aspects of his play to construct and elaborate this play’s large themes.
As I said above, The Real Thing is basically straightforward, though it takes a few minutes to understand the relationship between the main characters: Max and Charlotte, and Henry and Annie. The play begins with Max and Charlotte. As is typical with Stoppard, part of the fun is seeing how he sets the stage before the dialogue begins.
MAX doesn’t have to be physically impressive, but you wouldn’t want him for an enemy. CHARLOTTE doesn’t have to be especially attractive, but you immediately want her for a friend.
Max is building a house of cards on a drawing table. Charlotte shuts the door and the cards tumble. It’s a rough scene that follows when Max, with biting wit, accuses Charlotte of having an affair. Hurt, she leaves. The scene shifts. However, so does the characterization:
HENRY is amiable but can take care of himself. CHARLOTTE is less amiable and can take even better care of herself. MAX is nice, seldom assertive, conciliatory. ANNIE is very much like the woman whom CHARLOTTE has ceased to be.
This strange shift in the characters of Max and Charlotte becomes apparent quickly. The first scene, it turns out, was a play. In reality (but this is kind of the fun part), Charlotte is married to Henry, who wrote the play. Max is married to Annie. Max and Annie have come to visit Charlotte and Henry. While there, Annie and Henry begin to bicker about her involvement in what he considers to be a sentimental activist group.
The characters shift again, however. Henry and Annie end up alone and we find out that there fight was not real. They were merely acting. In reality (there’s that word again), Henry and Annie are having an affair. As the play moves to the close of Act I, Charlotte and Max find out about the affair and leave their spouses, allowing Henry and Annie to be together, though Annie questions how strongly Henry feels toward her since he doesn’t seem to be jealous:
ANNIE: You don’t love me the way I love you. I’m just a relief after Charlotte, and a novelty.
HENRY: You’re a novelty all right. I never met anyone so silly. I love you. I don’t know why you’re behaving like this.
ANNIE: I’m behaving normally. It’s you who’s abnormal. You don’t care enough to care. Jealousy is normal.
HENRY: I thought you said you weren’t jealous.
ANNIE: Well, why aren’t you every jealous?
HENRY: Of whom?
ANNIE: Of anybody. You don’t care if Gerald Jones sticks his tongue in my ear – which, incidentally, he does whenever he gets the chance.
HENRY: Is that what this is all about?
ANNIE: It’s insulting the way you just laugh.
HENRY: But you’ve got no interest in him.
ANNIE: I know that, but why should you assume it?
HENRY: Because you haven’t. This is stupid.
ANNIE: But why don’t you mind?
HENRY: I do.
ANNIE: No, you don’t.
HENRY: That’s true, I don’t. Why isthat? It’s because I feel superior. There he is, poor bugger, picking up the odd crumb of ear wax from the rich man’s table. You’re right. I don’t mind. I like it. I like the way his presumption admits his poverty. I like him, knowing that that’s all there is, because you’re coming home to me and we don’t want anyone else. I love love. I love having a lover and being one. The insularity of passion. I love it. I love the way it blurs the distinction between everyone who isn’t one’s lover. Only two kinds of presence in the world. There’s you and there’s them. I love you so.
I don’t want to give away too much here, but I have to set the stage for Act II, just because I think it’s what makes this play so brilliant. It’s been a few years, and Henry and Annie are still together. But whatever romance or passion they first experienced is no longer there. During a visit at her home, Henry is confronted by Charlotte who tells him that she had multiple affairs during their marriage.
CHARLOTTE: And look what your one did compared to my nine.
CHARLOTTE: Feel betrayed?
HENRY: Surprised. I thought we’d made a commitment.
CHARLOTTE: There are no commitments, only bargains. And they have to be made again every day. You think making a commitment is it. Finish. You think it sets like a concrete platform and it’ll take any strain you want to put on it. You’re committed. You don’t have to prove anything. IN fact you can afford a little neglect, indulge in a little bit of sarcasm here and there, isolate yourself when you want to. Underneath it’s concrete for life. I’m a cow in some ways, but you’re an idiot. Were an idiot.
Henry, filled with jealousy, returns home to confront Annie, sure she is having an affair.
And somehow, in this wonderful play, I learned a lot about what makes relationships continue, what makes them worthwhile, what makes them real, how to let the “mask slip from the face.” This might sound incredibly romantic and maybe even idealistic. I don’t think that it is, however. It’s not all pretty, and it’s not all “love will overcome all.” Not at all. It’s much better than that. But, fortunately, we get some of Stoppard’s nice romantic lines (even if the line is tinged with a bit of failure):
Well, I remember, the first time I succumbed to the sensation that the universe was dispensable minus one lady–
I hadn’t heard of Marilynne Robinson (a fellow native Idahoan) until sometime in 2004 or 2005 when she won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award for her second novel Gilead. That I had never heard of her, despite our stepping into this world in the same state, is understandable: between Gilead and her first novel Housekeeping (1980) was a span of twenty-four years. For some reason, I still haven’t gotten around to reading Gilead though I’ve picked it up a few times. Now that her third book Home is a finalist for this year’s National Book Award, I thought it was time to go back the beginning and work my way through Robinson’s short (but definitely not inconsequential) oeuvre.
Housekeeping won the PEN/Hemingway Award, an award given to a work of first work of fiction by an American author. It was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1982, the year Rabbit Is Rich won. Compared to the other first novels I’ve read this year, Housekeeping is hands-down the best. In fact, it may be one of the best books I’ve read in years by any author. I’ll soon be making my way through Gilead and Home, and if they follow this vein, I’ll put Robinson in the first-tier of American authors.
Our narrator is Ruth, whose sad and strange childhood we will hear about. In the first chapter (a chapter that had as much content and characterization as many novels) we meet our narrator’s heritage. Her grandfather and grandmother lived in Fingerbone, a small western town with all its small town charm:
What with the lake and the railroads, and what with blizzards and floods and barn fires and forest fires and the general availability of shotguns and bear traps and homemade liquor and dynamite, what with the prevalence of loneliness and religion and the rages and ecstasies they induce, and the closeness of families, violence was inevitable.
Ruth’s grandfather is killed when his train careens into the large lake, a moment that goes into the town’s lore. The grandmother then raises their three daughters on her own. Each daughter moves on to a rather tragic life with terrible men. Ruth’s mother Helen is not the exception, and she manages to bring two daughters of her own, Ruth and Lucille, into this marriage. Eventually Helen borrows a neighbor’s car, drives Ruth and Lucille to Fingerbone, and leaves them on grandmother’s steps. Helen then drives the car into the lake, another event that is long remembered in Fingerbone. The grandmother takes in the two abandoned girls and tries to set up a nice home for them.
Yes, all of this is in the first short chapter, but it feels much more substantial than such a short chapter is usually capable of. As the story continues, the grandmother cannot hang on to life. Her two comical, elderly sisters, Lily and Nona, come to try their bumbling hands with Ruth and Lucille.
Their alarm was evident from the first, in the nervous flutter with which they searched their bags and pockets for the little present they had brought (it was a large box of cough drops – a confection they considered both tasty and salubrious).
When Lily and Nona realize they cannot raise the two young girls (not that they were ever comfortable with the idea of leaving their nice home in Spokane), they send for Sylvie, Helen’s transient sister. Sylvie comes and agrees to stay, though Ruth and Lucille expect her to leave any day. And this is the setup for a strange and touching story about the relationship between Ruth, Lucille, and their eccentric aunt Sylvie.
Never having been a young girl, I can’t speak for the accuracy of the coming of age elements in the story, but they felt real to me. As they grow up, Ruth and Lucille go down different paths. Ruth accepts their past for what it was. Lucille can’t.
. . . and sometimes we would try to remember our mother, though more and more we disagreed and even quarreled about what she had been like. Lucille’s mother was orderly, vigorous, and sensible, a widow (more than I ever knew or she could prove) who was killed in an accident. My mother presided over a life so strictly simple and circumscibed that it could not have made any significant demands on her attention. She tended us with a gentle indifference that made me feel she would have liked to have been even more alone – she was the abandoner, and not the one abandoned.
Worse, Lucille cannot accept Sylvie, who with her remoteness and tendency to disappear, constantly intimating abandonment, represents everything Lucille is trying to escape. Furthermore, it’s getting embarrassing. The house begins to fall into disrepair, and everyone is worried because Ruth seems to accept too easily Sylvie’s habits.
Robinson’s tone thoughout strikes the right note for me. Somehow she injects into her prose the atmosphere of Fingerbone, with its foggy lake, along with the transiency of the characters. Though the town remains in place, it always seems to be drifting away into the past. At the same time, the past does not disappear – the lake remains, and somewhere down there is a wrecked train and car.
Another reason I liked the book is because of Robinson’s control of her imagery. Throughout, Robinson plays with water and fire to create a very interesting feel – for example, “It was blocked, in fact by a big green couch so weighty and shapeless that it looked as if it had been hoisted out of forty feet of water.” - but it never, to me, was heavy handed. Obviously such imagery is Biblical, as is much of the imagery in the book, bringing to mind some excellent classics, but never does she do more than allude to religion. I’m anxious to see how she moves from this to her more overtly religious novels.