Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Foreign Correspondence, by Geraldine Brooks

I've been paying special attention to memoirs lately, and I just read Mary Karr's superb Art of the Memoir, in which she opines that writers are constitutionally suited for fiction or memoir, but almost never both. I think Foreign Correspondence may be proof positive that Geraldine Brooks is an exception to this rule. Brooks is very gifted with historical fiction if March, her novel about the absent father of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, off fighting in the US Civil War, is anything to go by, and this memoir is superb.

In Foreign Correspondence, Brooks recalls her 1960s childhood in Sydney, which she found stultifying, wishing to be somewhere, anywhere more exciting. She formed long-standing penpal friendships with kids in faraway places -- Joannie in the United States, Mishal in Israel and others. In her middle age, she decided to track down and meet in person those who were still alive. I loved the premise and structure of the book, and I think she pulled it off brilliantly. I especially loved the early pages, on which her images of that Australian childhood are all but palpable. I felt nostalgia for her childhood creeping over me.
On Sundays, our neighborhood quieted as if someone had thrown a blanket over it. It was a stillness different in kind from the weekday lull of the lonely afternoons. This was a peopled silence, like the self-conscious hush of a crowd in a library. Sunday's sounds were the sputtering fat of the lamb leg roasting in the oven, the thud of my mother's knife on the chopping board as she prepared a mountain of vegetables, and the rustle of the thick Sunday papers as my father turned the pages. In the street outside, the neighbors passed by on their way to Mass, their Sunday high heels clip-clipping on the concrete footpath.
As a girl, she shared my love for the distant, the romantic, the exotic -- anything but the local and mundane.  She also shares William F. Buckley's dismay with the changes that Vatican II wrought on the Catholic Mass. He groused about the new "Catholic calisthenics", which had parishioners standing, sitting and kneeling as if for aerobic exercise, and they both decried the change from Latin to the vernacular.
But within this idolaters' extravaganza the service itself had become as banal as the bingo games held in the adjacent church hall. I could just remember the Latin Mass of my early childhood; the murmured words, the priest with his back turned, doing his sacred work at the altar, the bells, the incense, the atmosphere of a divine mystery from which ordinary people were excluded. Words like mea culpa and agnus dei and spiritus sanctus had sounded like a magician's chant; hocus-pocus, abracadabra. There was no such magic in the lawyerly English liturgy, muttered with the sigh of weary housewives and restless children longing to be outdoors. The Lord be with you. AND ALSO WITH YOU. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. IT IS RIGHT AND FITTING TO DO SO.
I learned more about Australian culture in the past few decades from this book than from anything else I've read. Brooks writes pointedly about Australia's national inferiority complex.
When a visiting Noel Coward remarked, "I like Australia and I love those wonderful oysters." Campbell took him to task. "Though he meant it kindly," Campbell wrote, "Mr. Coward lined himself up with many other visitors who have bestowed praise on the animals here rather than the people. No people have played second fiddle to their own fauna so much as Australians." It was bad enough, wrote Campbell, to be upstaged by koalas and kangaroos, but by oysters! "After all, when we go to other countries we take an interest in the people. We don't say: 'I liked Scotland. It has such wonderful cows.'"
There was an eight-year age gap between Geraldine Brooks and her older sister, Darleen, whom she portrays as the more elegant girl, having been a child model. The dynamic between them will never change -- it was set when they were small, and even when they're elderly, she suggests, she'll still be the klutz. In a metaphor that I love, she says they are "trapped in the aspic of our age gap."

American media and television began to invade Oz as it had the rest of the world.
Most Australians saw nothing wrong with the new influences. We called Americans "Septics" -- in rhyming slang, septic tank equals Yank. But there was no malice in the name. Americans, in most Australians' view, were a bit like golden retriever puppies -- well-intentioned, good-humored, but a little thick. 
Brooks mentions the sexism in 1950s and 60s Oz, citing Jill Ker Conway as one of the country's first feminists to suggest that women might be good for something besides being wives and mothers. Her description of the blatant racism also stunned me, though perhaps it shouldn't have. (Why did I think it was an American phenomenon?)
I was too young to give the changes much thought. But to people of Edna's generation the sudden diversity was shocking in a country built on racist exclusion. Migrants were supposed to be British, or Europeans who could pass for British. Australia feared Jews, blacks and especially the "Yellow Peril" from nearby Asia. For years, the nation's best weekly magazine, the Bulletin, had carried the slogan "Australia for the White Man" under its masthead. The atmosphere had been so racist that the immigration minister, Arthur Calwell, could summarize his opposition to Asian migrants with quips such as "Two Wongs don't make a white." . . .
But by wartime there weren't enough British or Irish migrants to satisfy the labor needs of the growing country, and so a few more exotic people began to slip through the net. Immigration officers were told to select those who were "sixty percent European in appearance and outlook" -- whatever that meant. We called these first non-Anglo-Celtic migrants "Balts" no matter where in northern or eastern Europe they actually came from. Blond, blue-eyed, they were easy enough to get used to, once one got over the annoyance of their funny accents. The "Eye-Ties" -- the large wave of Italians, Greeks and other southern European immigrants that followed the Balts -- were more conspicuous with their dark complexions and pungent foods, and were met with more racism. It wasn't until 1965 that the "White Australia" policy was abandoned. Most Australians came to accept, sometimes grudgingly, that diversity was actually making the place more interesting. Now, racism expresses itself in debates over the number of immigrants wanted, rather than what color they should be.
One of young Geraldine's pen pals visited London and raves about the ethic diversity and the current craze for "great floppy felt hats" in Piccadilly Circus before asking about the latest fashion in Australia.
"What's up in Australia?" What was up, for me, was a pair of black faux-satin flared pants that I'd asked the Greek seamstress who lived across the road to make up for me. The pants were so wide around the ankles that the excess fabric flapped in the breeze like a deflated spinnaker. The top half of the outfit consisted of a serape my mother had helped me make out of a square of upholstery brocade with a piece of fringe sewn all around. When I put my head through the hole in the center, I looked like I'd been throttled by a sofa.
Her American penpal, a girl of the same age, struggles with mental illness and nervous disorders, especially in her later high school years, when college application time is approaching. Geraldine struggles with Joannie's accounts of her various treatments and hospitalisations -- in Australia, she feels, people would find Joannie self-indulgent or weak and would tell her to simply pull herself together. Still, she does her best to sympathise.
And I was having a hard time reading this outpouring of painful emotion. Until now, Joannie had written to me after she had climbed out of her depressions. As a result, I hadn't felt the full force of her despair. I'd let myself believe that Joannie was going through a bad phase that would eventually pass. It had seemed impossible to me that her intelligence wouldn't somehow lead her out of the emotional thicket in which she was temporarily lost.
Years later, Geraldine goes to the United States to pursue a Masters at Columbia University, and she looks forward to meeting Joannie in person for the first time. A week or two before she leaves Sydney, she hears from Joannie's mother that Joannie is dead. After years of battling debilitating anorexia nervosa, she finally suffered heart failure. Geraldine declines her friend's mother's invitation to come visit anyway (at least initially) and goes instead straight to NYC, where she soon discovers that Joannie's problems were not malingering.
That autumn at Columbia University, I began to glimpse for the first time the sources of Joannie's despair. Growing up had been so easy in Sydney, where childhood passed at its own leisurely pace, with no rush into adulthood. At Columbia, I came to see the different way achievement was measured for my American classmates. For them, graduate school wasn't the surprising and luxurious blessing it was for me. Instead, it was just another hurdle on a track determined for them at birth. And for many of them, the bar was always set just a hair beyond the point that they could comfortably reach. I'd been spared the pressure that my American contemporaries felt, some of them since preschool. For me, with parents who'd never had a chance to go to college, any academic achievement was treated as a small miracle. If my grade in a subject was a credit or a distinction, that was great and we celebrated. No one asked me why I hadn't got a high distinction.
As a child, Brooks had been enamored of Judaism and so sought an Israeli penpal, who she promptly idealised. When she meets Mishal in person years later, she finds not a heroic rebel or an iconoclast, but a middle-aged man who wants to go to work, support his family and come home again. It's as if she, now a professional journalist -- a foreign correspondent -- suddenly sees the value of the mundane.
Reporters look for the quotable people, the articulate. Unsurprisingly, those people turn out to be the hotheads, the passionately committed. Meanwhile, real life is happening elsewhere, in the middle, among the Mishals and the Cohens, who care more about their families and jobs than ideology. These people are elusive to journalists precisely because they aren't out wielding a placard or writing an op-ed or even all that ready with a fully formed opinion if stopped on a street corner.
I think part of being a romantic is that happiness is the carrot that remains at the end of the stick. The grass is always greener, more nutritious, more interesting, more enticing on the other side of the immigration check-point.  I thank Geraldine Brooks for reminding me of the fallacy in this world-view.
Scientists have discovered that all human beings have a "happiness set point” -- that just as our bodies have a preset weight to which they will tend to return after diet or binge, our minds are preprogrammed at a certain level of contentment. Thus, the mood-altering effects of winning a Pulitzer or losing a spouse will rarely endure. Within a year, most people are again either the happy or morose persons they always were. Therefore, the researchers suggest, the pursuit of happiness may be more successful if we give up hoping for triumphs and instead sprinkle our lives with whatever small gratification -- working in the garden, eating a favorite food -- give us day-to-day pleasure. A writer named Steven Lewis puts this eloquently in his book Zen and the Art of Fatherhood. It is, he writes, between the bread and the butter that the great moments of life are lived. Lewis also observes that children are naturally Zenlike in their games, living entirely in the here and now. But I was not a Zenlike child. My games were never of here, always of elsewhere. My pen pals were extensions of those childhood games.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter's Dictionary, by Frederick Buechner

Someone in my former church recommended Frederick Buechner's novel The Son of Laughter, his
fictionalised version of the story of Jacob. As I was browsing his books, though, I came upon this one, and seeing that my own inclination is toward doubt, I grabbed it.

The woman who directed me to Buechner is as implacable as the Old Testament patriarchs she adores, so I was surprised to find his voice folksy and down-to-earth. Not a whiff of brimstone.  He is not, however, without spine. His entry on born-again Christians is wry and scathing.

Some of those who specifically refer to themselves as "Born Again Christians", however, seem to use the term in a different sense. You get the feeling that to them it means Super Christians. They are apt to have the relentless cheerfulness of car salesmen. They tend to be a little too friendly a little too soon and the women to wear more make-up than they need. You can't imagine any of them ever having had a bad moment or a lascivious thought or used a nasty word when they bumped their head getting out of the car. They speak a great deal about "the Lord" as if they have him in their hip pocket and seem to feel that it's no harder to figure out what he wants them to do in any given situation than to look up in Fanny Farmer how to make brownies. The whole shadow side of human existence -- the suffering, the doubt, the frustration, the ambiguity -- appears as absent from their view of things as litter from the streets of Disneyland. To hear them speak of God, he seems about as elusive and mysterious as a Billy Graham rally at Madison Square Garden, and on their lips the Born Again experience often sounds like something we can all make happen any time we want to, like fudge, if only we follow their recipe. It is not for anybody to judge the authenticity of the Born Again's spiritual rebirth or anybody else's, but my guess is that by the style and substance of their witnessing to it, the souls they turn on to Christ are apt to be fewer in number than the ones they turn off.

His meditation on dying is brilliant, veering far from the "Christians should have no fear" pablum that I might have expected. I pray he's got it right.

The airport is crowded, noisy, frenetic. There are yowling babies, people being paged, the usual ruckus. Outside, a mixture of snow and sleet is coming down. The runways show signs of icing. Flight delays and cancellations are called out over the PA system together with the repeated warning that in view of recent events any luggage left unattended will be immediately impounded. There are more people than usual smoking at the various gates. The air is blue with it. Once aboard you peer through the windows for traces of ice on the wings and search the pancaked faces of the stewardesses for anything like the knot of anxiety you feel in your own stomach as they run through the customary emergency procedures. The great craft lumbers its way to the take-off position, the jets shrill. Picking up speed, you count the seconds till you feel lift-off. More than so many, you've heard, means trouble. Once airborne, you can hardly see the wings at all through the grey turbulence scudding by. The steep climb is rough as a Ford pick-up. Gradually it starts to even out. The clouds thin a little. Here and there you see tatters of clear air among them. The pilot levels off slightly. Nobody is talking. The calm and quiet of it are almost palpable. Suddenly, in a rush of light, you break out of the weather. Beneath you the clouds are a furrowed pasture. Above, no sky in creation was ever bluer. Possibly the last take-off of all is something like that. When the time finally comes, you're scared stiff to be sure, but maybe by then you're just as glad to leave the whole show behind and get going. In a matter of moments, everything that seemed to matter stops mattering. The slow climb is all there is. The stillness. The clouds. Then the miracle of flight as from fathom upon fathom down you surface suddenly into open sky. The dazzling sun.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

And Then You Die, by Michael Dibdin

I'd been moaning (again, still) about never having travelled in Italy and regretting it. My ever so sensible friend Markku suggested I start shopping for airline tickets and just plan the damned trip already, but where would I begin? There's just too much to see and do and eat. "Well then," he said, "just stay home and read Michael Dibdin."

Michael Dibdin is the English author of the Aurelio Zen mystery novels, all set in Italy, and Markku promised no better armchair travel could be had.  Dubious, I downloaded the 12 books. Although I like to read series in order, whether or not they're stand-alone, I somehow managed to start with And Then You Die, which is number eight. The advice to stay home and read Dibdin is up there with "don't forget Florence" or "check out the Vatican".

Early in the book, Zen stretches himself out on a lounger at a beach, which Dibdin describes as "the dense expanse of tan granules".  That phrase alone is better than the best gelato I can imagine, and I savoured it for minutes. As Zen scans his surroundings, he notices that "what men there were had a decidedly supernumerary air about them..."  I had to look that one up:  "in excess of the normal or requisite number; not wanted or needed; redundant".  Is it too much? No, it strikes me as just the right word for the job, not the almost right word that Mark Twain fretted about.  ("The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter - 'tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.")

Zen is reclining on the lounger belonging to the villa in which he's hiding out after a failed attempt to kill him. He's assumed the identity of the villa owner's long absent brother. He's really not in a position to woo a woman, but she is eye-catching...
The majority of the bikinis in Versilia were being worn by women who didn't seem to realize or care that they had reached a point in life when any men around were more likely to be mentally dressing them than the reverse. The exception was Gemma, if that was indeed her name. There was no reason to suppose that it wasn't, but ever since I'incidente Zen had been living in a world where people's names, assuming they bothered to offer one, were at best generic flags of convenience, polite formulae designed to ease social contacts, of no significance or substance in themselves. But of course Gemma belonged not to that world...
As he's a critical witness in their case against the criminal thugs, Aurelio's bosses decide he should be sent out of Italy for safekeeping, but he is resolutely opposed to the idea. When he hears that they're shipping him to the United States, he goes apoplectic.
Il bel paese could offer the traveller every conceivable variety of landscape, climate, natural beauties and cultural treasures. Why waste a lot of time going to some foreign country where they used funny money, spoke some barbaric dialect, and couldn't be relied upon to make a decent cup of coffee, still less know how to cook pasta properly? It was-a stupid idea, however you looked at it. And if the foreign country in question was on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, it became quite literally insane.
Zen's rule of thumb in these matters was very simple. In theory, at least, he was prepared to at least consider going to any country which had formed part of the Roman Empire. If it had also been part of the political or trading empire of the Venetian Republic, so much the better. Egypt, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, the Balkans, Austria, Bavaria, France, Iberia, North Africa - even England, at a pinch - he could contemplate as a hypothetical destination. Beyond those limits, he just didn't see the point. The Romans had been brutal bastards, but they were no fools. If they hadn't bothered to conquer Sweden or Poland; there was probably a good reason. And they certainly hadn't been to America. Maybe they didn't know it was there. Or perhaps they'd heard rumours, but just didn't care enough to investigate further. Either way, Zen was inclined to trust their judgement.
He is outnumbered and outranked, however, so once on the jet, he tries to see the bright side of the situation.
He flipped through the magazine, pausing to skim an article about the city he was bound for. Apparently it had originally impenetrable mysteries, double-dealing, back-stabbing and underhand intrigues been settled by the Spanish, who named it El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles. There was a translation in Italian, 'The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels', and photographs of an old stone monastery gleaming white in the sunlight. Maybe Los Angeles wouldn't be so bad after all, he thought. It sounded like a pleasant, old-fashioned sort of place, and at least the people would all be Catholics. Although by no means a committed believer, Zen preferred to be surrounded by his own sort. Protestants were an enigma to him, all high ideals one minute and ruthless expediency the next. You knew where you were in a Catholic culture: up to your neck in lies, evasions, of every kind. With which comforting thought he lowered the blind again and dozed off.
Eventually back in Italy, he finally arranges a dinner date at Gemma's villa, but before she can serve the antipasto, the bad guy arrives. She and Zen prevail, and he ends up dead on the dining room floor. They concoct a plan to dispose of the body over a glass or two of wine, and then she whips up some penne, because they certainly can't be carting a corpse about on empty stomachs.

Most excellent armchair travel material, this book, but also blithe and elegant. Thanks, Markku!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

This novel's been on my radar ever since it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009.
Woman and the Sea,
by Will Barnet

As I looked at its entry on Goodreads, I noticed that reader reviews were almost entirely at the opposite ends of the spectrum -- one-star ("If I could use one word to describe this book, it would probably be boring. Awkward is a close runner-up. I think Elizabeth Strout must be the type of person who is less of the entertainment school of writing and more of the vitamins school of writing...") or five-star ("... this book gives us a new female heroine. Not meant to be liked, not meant to be revered, not meant to fit in, but totally and absolutely real.")  

When Carolyn Chute published her all too realistic and none too flattering novel, The Beans of Egypt, Maine in 1985, it received similar love-hate responses. My father felt it was painfully realistic but had no redemptive value.

I wonder how many of the adverse reactions come from people who feel defensive of a state that they cherish as a summer holiday destination -- crystal clear skies, rugged coastlines, steamed lobster! They may well be reluctant to consider the Maine of a dismal February, when elderly people die in their living rooms of hypothermia because they can't afford enough heating oil, or a Maine with skyrocketing addiction to prescription painkillers thanks to all the workplace injuries among fishermen, loggers and other blue-collar workers. Maine has always had a dark, grim aspect. One artist that captures both its beauty and somberness is Will Barnet. His lithograph, "Woman and the Sea", is hanging in my living room now. It hung for many years in my mother's living room before that, and it drew much the same responses from our friends, who have found it either serene or morbidly depressing.  I think it's both.  It is fundamentally Maine. Exactly like Olive Kitteridge and the other characters that weave in and out of Elizabeth Strout's 13 interconnected short stories. 

Olive is the thread that connects them; she's central to some, peripheral to others. When her husband hires a young woman to work in his pharmacy, Olive shares her opinion, which is, as always, deadly blunt.
"Mousy," his wife said, when he hired the new girl. "Looks just like a mouse." Denise Thibodeau had round cheeks, and small eyes that peeped through her brown-framed glasses.
"But a nice mouse," Henry said. "A cute one."
"No one's cute who can't stand up straight," Olive said.

In another story, Angie has decided that she can no longer carry on with her married lover. After two decades.
She went to the phone and dialed Malcolm's number. Not once, in twenty-two years, had she called him at home, although she had memorized his number long ago. Twenty-two years, she thought, as she listened to the buzz of the ring, would be considered a very long time by most people, but for Angie time was as big and round as the sky, and to try to make sense of it was like trying to make sense of music and God and why the ocean was deep. Long ago Angie had known not to try to make sense of these things, the way other people tried to do. Malcolm answered the phone.
It was a curious thing -- she didn't like the sound of his voice. "Malcolm," she said softly. "I can't see you anymore. I'm so terribly sorry, but I can't do this anymore." Silence. His wife was probably right there. "Bye, now," she said. 
She phoned Malcolm from the pay phone in the lounge where she played piano.  After hanging up the phone, she returns to work.
She drank, with one hand, all the Irish coffee. And then she played all sorts of songs. She didn't know what she played, couldn't have said, but she was inside the music, and the lights on the Christmas tree were bright and seemed far away. Inside the music like this, she understood many things. She understood that Simon was a disappointed man if he needed, at this age, to tell her he had pitied her for years. She understood that as he drove his car back down the coast toward Boston, toward his wife with whom he had raised three children, that something in him would be satisfied to have witnessed her the way he had tonight, and she understood that this form of comfort was true for many people, as it made Malcolm feel better to call Walter Dalton a pathetic fairy, but it was thin milk, this form of nourishment; it could not change that you had wanted to be a concert pianist and ended up a real estate lawyer, that you had married a woman and stayed married to her for thirty years, when she did not ever find you lovely in bed. The lounge was mostly empty now. And warmer, since the door wasn't being opened all the time. She played "We Shall Overcome" she played it twice, slowly, grandly, and looked over at the bar to where Walter was smiling at her. He raised a fist into the air.
"Want a ride, there, Angie?" Joe asked as she closed the top of the piano, went and gathered her coat and pocketbook.
"No, thank you, dear," she said as Walter helped her into her white fake fur coat. "The walk will do me good." Clutching her little blue pocketbook, she picked her way over the snowbank ...
Mainers tend to be loners; some by choice, others less so. The weather is harsh.
Bessie Davis, the town's old maid, stood and talked for a long time while she bought a new dustpan. She spoke of her hip problems, her bursitis. She spoke of her sister's thyroid condition. "Hate this time of year," she said, shaking her head. Harmon felt a rush of anxiety as she left. Some skin that had stood between himself and the world seemed to have been ripped away, and everything was close, and frightening. Bessie Davis had always talked on, but now he saw her loneliness as a lesion on her face. The words Not me, not me crossed over his mind.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

Phat Diem cathedral
[photo mine, March 2015]
I reached for The Quiet American after visiting the Phat Diem Cathedral in Vietnam's Ninh Binh province last March.  Besides being an enigmatic place in its own right, the church figures heavily in the novel.  Published in 1956, the story is set at the time the French army was battling the Vietminh guerrillas.

The narrator is one of Greene's classic types -- a long-term British correspondent in Saigon, possessively attached to Phuong, his Vietnamese lover who prepares his opium for him. Fowler is weary, bitter, jaded and dour. One day he meets Alden Pyle, who appears to be his precise opposite -- a young, earnest and open American. From the moment we meet him, Pyle seems to personify his country's naive idealism, and Fowler has been around long enough to recognise it and to foresee what will come of it.
"How did you meet him first?" Vigot asked me. Why should I explain to him that it was Pyle who had met me? I had seen him last September coming across the square towards the bar of the Continental: an unmistakably young and unused face flung at us like a dart.
As I read this book in 2015, I couldn't help but draw comparisons to what drew the United States to invade Iraq. That equally disastrous move was perhaps less idealistic and innocent, but it was surely as ill-informed.
Why does one want to tease the innocent? Perhaps only ten days ago he had been walking back across the Common in Boston, his arms full of the books he had been reading in advance on the Far East and the problems of China. He didn't even hear what I said: he was absorbed already in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West: he was determined -- I learnt that very soon -- to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world. Well, he was in his element now with the whole universe to improve.
Fairly early in the novel, Greene makes clear that Pyle has been killed, and the French and American authorities are hectoring Fowler for information. He lets them have it.
"Have you any hunch," he asked, "why they killed him? and who?"
Suddenly I was angry; I was tired of the whole pack of them with their private stores of Coca-Cola and their portable hospitals and their wide cars and their not quite latest guns. I said, "Yes. They killed him because he was too innocent to live. He was young and ignorant and silly and he got involved. He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair's about, and you gave him money and York Harding's books on the East and said, 'Go ahead. Win the East for democracy.' He never saw anything he hadn't heard in a lecture-hall, and his writers and his lectures made a fool of him. When he saw a dead body he couldn't even see the wounds. A Red menace, a soldier of democracy."
"I thought you were his friend," he said in a tone of reproach.
At one point, both Fowler and Pyle go north, to the conflict zone near Ninh Binh, where they're nearly killed.  (Graham Greene himself sought sanctuary from the fighting in the cathedral, which is a jolting mix of western church and Vietnamese temple architecture.)
All that was left of the Bishop's army brass band led the procession, and the French officers, pious by order of the colonel, followed like choirboys through the gateway into the Cathedral precincts, past the white statue of the Sacred Heart that stood on an island in the little lake before the Cathedral, under the bell tower with spreading oriental wings and into the carved wooden cathedral with its gigantic pillars formed out of single trees and the scarlet lacquer work of the altar, more Buddhist than Christian. From all the villages between the canals, from that Low Country landscape where young green rice-shoots and golden harvests take the place of tulips and churches of windmills, the people poured in.

While they are hiding out from the Vietminh, Pyle shares some of his history with Fowler, much, in fact, like a dog who's desperate to please. I think this is one of Greene's most brilliant moments, capturing the very nature of both men without damning or ridiculing either of them.
"The first dog I ever had was called Prince. I called him after the Black Prince. You know, the fellow who.. ."
"Massacred all the women and children in Limoges."
"I don't remember that."
"The history books gloss it over." I was to see many times that look of pain and disappointment touch his eyes and mouth, when reality didn't match the romantic ideas he cherished, or when someone he loved or admired dropped below the impossible standard he had set...
Pyle had been silent a long while, and I had nothing more to say. Indeed I had said too much. He looked white and beaten and ready to faint, and I thought, 'What's the good? he'll always he innocent, you can't blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.'
In 1995, Robert Strange McNamara (and yes, that was really his middle name), who was Secretary of Defense at the time the United States entered the Vietnam War, published a memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. I remember when the book came out, middle-aged anti-war protesters were sad but gratified to see that the book bore a heavy tone of regret. The Quiet American made me want to read McNamara's book. I wonder whether he ever read Greene's novel (probably), and if so, what he made of young, dead Alden Pyle.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Severed Head, by Iris Murdoch

If you want a dark, ironic, insightful novel about infidelity, this is your book. Martin's wife has left him for her American psychoanalyst, Palmer. Given that he's having an affair with a younger, free-spirited academic, Georgie, one wouldn't think he would mind so much, but Palmer is more than a little aggrieved. Add to this Palmer's "demonic" sister, named Honor (of all things) and you've got a real mess.

London just seems to lend itself to these gloomy tales of doomed, illicit love.  (I'm thinking of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, which was also mired in fog, mist, rain and sleet, except Graham one-upped Iris Murdoch by adding war to the mix.)
Outside the window and curtained away was the end of the cold raw misty London afternoon now turned to an evening which still contained in a kind of faintly luminous haze what had never, even at midday, really been daylight.
Ah, poor Martin. He's genuinely distraught when his wife rejects him in favour of her shrink, though not for the reasons one might assume.
I possessed Antonia in a way not totally unlike the way in which I possessed the magnificent set of original prints by Audubon which adorned our staircase at home. I did not possess Georgie. Georgie was simply there.
To make matters worse, Antonia and Palmer have connived to ensure that Martin cope with his loss in the best possible manner.
Palmer stood looking at me for a while, serene and detached and tender with only a very little anxiety in his look. He pulled at the top of his dressing-gown where a snowy white shirt emerged, and bared a little more of his long neck. Then he resumed his pacing. He said, as if confidently testing something out, 'I knew you'd take it well, I knew you'd take it splendidly.'
'I'm not aware that I've yet revealed how I'm taking it!' I said. But as I said this I realized with a bitter clarity that I had already fallen into my role, my role of 'taking it well', which had been prepared for me by Palmer and Antonia. I had put my head straight into the halter which with care and concern and even affection was being held out. It was important to them that I should let them off morally, that I should spare them the necessity of being ruthless. But if I had power, I was already surrendering it. It was already too late for violence. I was indeed facing something big and formidably well organized.
Georgie, for one, questions how well Martin's really managing after the split from his wife. He points out that Palmer was, and still is, one of his friends. In this passage, Murdoch makes plain how badly Martin reads others (and himself). Georgie points out his lack of self-awareness to him, his vulnerability in letting others make his decisions for him, but he only laughs.
'Knowing him has made a lot of difference to me.'
'In what way?'
'I can't say exactly. Perhaps he has made me worry less about the rules!'
'The rules!' Georgie laughed. 'Darling, surely you became indifferent to the rules long ago.'
'Good heavens, no!' I said. 'I'm not indifferent to them now. I'm not a Child of Nature like you. No, it's not exactly that. But Palmer is good at setting people free.'
'If you think I don't worry - but never mind. As for setting people free, I don't trust these professional liberators. Anyone who is good at setting people free is also good at enslaving them, if we are to believe Plato. The trouble with you, Martin, is that you are always looking for a master.'
I laughed.
Felicity. There's a word that's evocative and happily under-used.  (Martin is speaking of Palmer, convincing himself that he wishes his rival no ill.)
He worked hard; and as I saw him, he was and deserved to be a being of an exceptional felicity. 
Honor, Palmer's sister, is fierce, blunt, intellectual. She sounds like a bit of a beast, and she appears to have no use for Martin whatever, yet he develops  bizarre obsession with her. Slinking into a room to be in Honor's presence sounds like textbook Martin-think. Slinking is his nature; can one slink into honour's presence?
In any case I did not relish a head thrust from a window, a confused encounter at a street doorway. What I really wanted was to slink quietly into some room and find myself at once in Honor's presence.
Selfish. Self-serving. Self-absorbed. That's our Martin.
There is a time limit to how long a spirited young person can be kept in cold storage. Georgie's time must be approaching the end. But there was nothing I could do, I could not face seeing Georgie just now. If I saw her I could not tell her the truth -- and neither could I bear to lie to her face-to-face. It was true that I didn't want to lose her. I wanted her love. I was not so flush with love that I could afford to dispense with it. But I did not yet want to make the effort required to decide that I could not merit, and therefore could not ask for, that love. I wanted, frankly, not to have to think about Georgie at all for the present. 
Need I mention that the novel does not have a happy ending?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Timbuktu, by Paul Auster

I read most of this novel when travelling up and down Vietnam by train.  Its narrator is a dog, Mr. Bones, and normally I'm leery of this device, but I figured Paul Auster might be able to pull it off. He did, and exceptionally well.  Mr. Bones accompanies his human, Willy G. Christmas, on a trek to Baltimore, where Willy hopes to find his high school English teacher. Willy, brilliant but mentally ill and homeless, hopes the woman will adopt Mr. Bones, as his own days are numbered. Instead of a bleak or maudlin tale of suffering of both man and dog, Timbuktu gave me profound insight into a clinically disordered mind.

When a Santa Claus on the television addresses him personally with a message of "goodness, generosity, and self-sacrifice", William Gurevitch resists him mightily, but after a long, emotional debate, he relents, acknowledging that his new mission in life is to "embody the message of Christmas every day of the year, to ask nothing from the world and give only love in return". His sign of this covenant is to change his name to Willy G. Christmas. When his Jewish mother, who has already invested a fortune in her son's mental health, hears this news, she is even less receptive than Willy had initially been to Santa.
Willy was frankly perplexed. He hadn't meant any harm, and in his present blissful state of remorse and conversion, the last thing he wanted was to offend his mother. But talk and explain as he did, she refused to listen. She shrieked at him and called him a Nazi, and when he persisted in trying to make her understand that Santa Claus was an incarnation of the Buddha, a holy being whose message to the world was one of merciful love and compassion, she threatened to send him back to the hospital that very afternoon. This brought to mind a sentence that Willy had heard from a fellow patient at Saint Luke's -- I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy -- and suddenly he knew what was in store for him if he let his mother have her way. So rather than go on beating a dead horse, he climbed into his overcoat and left the apartment, heading in a beeline for God knows where. 

Yes, Willy is mentally ill; he doesn't deny it. Who else but a crazy man would come up with a transparent toaster? As Willy expounds on the idea to Mr. Bones, though, it sounds less like a crackpot idea and more like divine inspiration.
"Whatever else I've been, I've never let myself be that worm. I've jumped, I've galloped, I've soared, and no matter how many times I've crashed back to earth, I've always picked myself up and tried again. Even now, as the darkness closes in on me, my mind holds fast and won't throw in the towel. The transparent toaster, comrade. It came to me in a vision two or three nights ago, and my head's been full of the idea ever since. Why not expose the works, I said to myself, be able to watch the bread turn from white to golden brown, to see the metamorphosis with your own eyes? What good does it do to lock up the bread and hide it behind that ugly stainless steel? I'm talking about clear glass, with the orange coils glowing within. It would be a thing of beauty, a work of art in every kitchen, a luminous sculpture to contemplate even as we go about the humble task of preparing breakfast and fortifying ourselves for the day ahead. Clear, heat-resistant glass. We could tint it blue, tint it green, tint it any color we like, and then, with the orange radiating from within, imagine the combinations, just think of the visual wonders that would be possible. Making toast would be turned into a religious act, an emanation of otherworldliness, a form of prayer. Jesus god. How I wish I had the strength to work on it now, to sit down and draw up some plans, to perfect the thing and see where we got with it. That's all I've ever dreamed of, Mr. Bones. To make the world a better place. To bring some beauty to the drab, humdrum corners of the soul. You can do it with a toaster, you can do it with a poem, you can do it by reaching out your hand to a stranger. It doesn't matter what form it takes. To leave the world a little better than you found it. That's the best a man can ever do."

People who don't live with animals look at those of us who do and shake their heads. We talk to the dog or the cat, and we sometimes express the sincere belief that the world would be a better place if Fido or Fluffy were running it. They call us crazy pet people. Yeah, well, Willy and I happen to agree on this point, 100%.
"But I should have done better by you. I should have given you a chance to reach the stars. It's possible, believe me it is. I just didn't have the courage of my convictions. But the truth is, friend, that dogs can read. Why else would they put those signs on the doors of post offices? NO DOGS ALLOWED EXCEPT FOR SEEING-EYE DOGS. Do you catch my meaning? The man with the dog can't see, so how can he read the sign? And if he can't read it, who else is left? That's what they do in those Seeing-Eye schools. They just don't tell us. They've kept it a secret, and by now it's one of the three or four best-kept secrets in America. For good reason, too. If word got out, just think of what would happen. Dogs as smart as men? A blasphemous assertion. There'd be riots in the streets, they'd burn down the White House, mayhem would rule. In three months, dogs would be pressing for their independence. Delegations would convene, negotiations would begin, and in the end they'd settle the thing by giving up Nebraska, South Dakota, and half of Kansas. They'd kick out the human population and let the dogs move in, and from then on the country would be divided in two. The United States of People and the Independent Republic of Dogs. Good Christ, how I'd love to see that. I'd move there and work for you, Mr. Bones. I'd fetch your slippers and light your pipe. I'd get you elected prime minister. Anything you want, boss, and I'd be your man."

If you're not in favour of receiving wisdom and philosophy from psychotics and dogs, then go ahead and give Timbuktu a miss. Your loss.