Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Invisible Woman, by Claire Tomalin

Ellen Lawless Ternan
I was determined to read The Dinner before seeing the film; I left the cinema after seeing 'The Invisible Woman' vowing to read the book. Claire Tomalin herself co-wrote the screenplay, so I didn't expect any marked deviations; I merely wanted more detail than the film could provide. In some areas, Ms. Tomalin did go into more depth, and in others, of course, she couldn't -- there are simply enormous and willful gaps in the historical record. 

I was a bit concerned that The Invisible Woman would be principally aimed at Dickensian scholars, or at least ardent fans, but I was drawn in to Ellen Ternan's story, in which Dickens played a central role, of course, but which had a great deal to say outside her long affair with him. Had her lover been someone less noteworthy, there would be neither biography nor film, and that would be a shame. She led a remarkable life.

Ellen Ternan was born into a family of actors in 1839. Her father went into an asylum, most probably suffering syphilitic madness, when she was young, and he died there soon after. From then onward, Ellen's mother, her two sisters, Fanny and Maria, and Ellen herself travelled around Britain performing on the stage.  Victorian England offered pros and cons to women who earned their livings in the theatre:  They did enjoy many freedoms and a degree of financial independence unknown to their more conventional sisters, but they also confronted social stigma, their morals often in question and their acting skill derided as inauthenticity, deceptiveness. Of course proper Victorian ladies might attend and enjoy the theatre, but socialising with the players was out of the question.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica had set the tone for all this with its article on actresses, in 1797: "There are some very agreeable and beautiful talents, of which the possession commands a certain sort of admiration; but of which the exercise for the sake of gain is considered, whether from reason or prejudice, as a sort of public prostitution. The pecuniary recompense, therefore, of those who exercise them in this manner, must be sufficient, not only to pay for the time, labour and expence, of acquiring the talents, but for the discredit which attends the employment of them as the means of subsistence."
What's more, once a woman had been on stage, her die was pretty well cast -- she either had to sink or swim as an actress, because other professional options (and quite often respectable marriage) were no longer open to her. And in truth, many actresses were in fact intelligent and highly principled women, despite the prevailing social prejudice against them. Mrs. Ternan raised her three girls to excel professionally but also to lead dignified lives.  It must have concerned her greatly that her youngest, Ellen (or Nelly) did not show as much promise on the stage as her siblings. Life for a mediocre actress was very hard, indeed.
If Nelly was working during her mid-teens, she made no particular mark; all the same she was being prepared for a stage career. What alternative was there for her? The girls had to be self-supporting; they had no money beyond what they earned, and they knew ho way of earning money but the theatre. A young woman who had been on the stage was not likely to find a place as a governess or teacher in a school -- respectable work but hard, lonely and, for girls who had been free, intolerably constricting. Their mother would not have allowed them to sink into the near-slavery of becoming a servant, seamstress or milliner. Through all her vicissitudes she seems to have clung to an ideal view of the theatre as a noble and civilizing profession...

Charles Dickens loved the theatre and often threw himself into amateur productions of his own dramatic works and those of other authors. During one such production, he met the Ternan family and seems to have become almost instantly enamoured of Nelly. He was 45; she was 18, the same age as one of his daughters. Her experience as a travelling performer gave Nelly a more expansive view of the world than many young women had, but she was also sheltered. The combination of intelligence, poise and innocence seems to have been irresistible to Dickens. As for Nelly, while she doesn't come across as a victim, she was still emotionally immature.
A strong, blithe actress like Vestris might face such an atmosphere, use it and subdue it; a nervous girl could hardly hope to. And Nelly had no father and no brothers to take the mystery out of the male sex. Living in a house of women, it was easy for her to divide men into two distinct categories, on the one hand the brutes and ogres, on the other idealized distant figures, her lost father among them. In the audience and in the streets she faced ogres every night, while the ideal replacement for her father had yet to materialize.
Dickens himself battled with hypocrisy --  he was a close friend of novelist Wilkie Collins, a bit of a
Charles Dickens
rake who kept multiple mistresses in households here and there, yet he (Dickens) consistently took a high moral tone in his novels.
Wilkie Collins was a new favourite from a younger generation. Collins appeared on the scene in 1850. He was a bachelor and regarded himself as a connoisseur where pleasure was concerned; and he seems to have acted as Mephistopheles to Dickens's Faust, organizing sybaritic nights out and accompanying him on trips to Paris for a taste of its sophisticated "diableries".
To his credit, Dickens seemed drawn to young women and girls in a truly charitable capacity, helping the victims of the Victorian hypocrisy under which he himself struggled, but he never brought this side of his life into his fiction. For the most part, his heroines are one-dimensional characters.
Dickens expended an enormous amount of time and energy working with the delinquents -- or more properly the victims -- of the Victorian sexual system, and he went out of his way to be understanding and helpful to them. The interest began early. As a young man serving on the jury at a coroner's inquest, he helped to get the sentence on an unmarried girl accused of killing her baby lightened. He sent comforts round to the prison during the trial and insisted that medical evidence suggesting the child could have died naturally should be properly attended to; and he appears to have followed up the fate of the girl. He was still concerning himself with this sort of problem in the last years of his life: on his visit to America in 1867 he gave money to a chambermaid in his New York hotel to enable her to leave for the West with her illegitimate child. Between those two cases there were many more.
Likewise, he was very generous to the Ternan family in many regards -- helping them find lucrative theatre roles and, later, sending Mrs. Ternan with Fanny to Italy so Fanny might study singing. Although he was obviously pursuing Ellen, his pattern of kindness suggests his motives were not entirely impure.

I was horrified, however, at the cruelty with which Dickens dispensed with his wife, the mother of his nine children, in the film. Could that have been accurate? It seemed so at odds with my image of him as a loving family man. The book confirmed it: Dickens handled Catherine, his wife, with abject callousness after he'd met and fallen in love with Nelly. Tomalin marvels that this treatment did little to tarnish his public reputation.
Amazing as it now seems, the break-up of his family left it unaffected; Dickens preserved his renown as the jovial keeper of hearth, home, children and dogs at Gad's Hill even as he was ridding himself of wife and children...
He found relief in more prosaic gestures. One was to order the blocking of the door between his dressing room and what had been the marital bedroom at Tavistock House, and now became Catherine's alone. This is the action of a romantic, not a worldly man, who would see no harm in continuing to sleep alongside his wife, however many mistresses he might pursue or take. It was also exquisitely hurtful to Catherine, being done without prior consultation or discreet agreement with her, so that she was humiliated in front of her servants. The cruelty is also romantic, suggesting a man in the grip of a force he can't and doesn't want to control. 
Traits that shine through again and again, though, are the man's sheer, stubborn determination and his charm. He was no predator, but an 18 year-old girl would have found it all but impossible to resist his advances. Even Queen Victoria conceded to his wishes.
The Queen herself asked to see The Frozen Deep and was persuaded to come to the Gallery of Illustrations by Dickens, who said he preferred not to take his ladies to the palace "in the quality of actresses". She came accompanied by Prince Leopold of Belgium and Prince Frederick of Prussia, and they all expressed themselves delighted. Dickens, summoned for a private word, refused the Queen not once but twice, on the grounds that he did not want to appear before her in his costume: a further triumph of his will over hers, for which she graciously and, under the circumstances, very sensibly forgave him. When Dickens chose to be unbudgeable, not even a queen could move him.
Just as he felt that his wife didn't share his intellectual passions, Dickens was often disappointed in his children.
Dickens was puzzled by his boys' shortcomings and pleased by any effort to put them right. He went to considerable lengths to cure Frank of a stammer by reading Shakespeare with him every morning. He also taught Henry, the brightest, shorthand. Yet as one son after another failed to measure up to his own strength of character, he grew more irritable with them. The girls were pretty well exempt from criticism, being girls, and only two in number, and Katey certainly intelligent. Charley, the eldest boy, was also bolstered against his father by being put through Eton at the insistence of his godmother, Angela Coutts; he did not do well enough to go to a university, but in 1857, when he was twenty, he was at least keeping afloat at Baring's Bank. Dickens was fond of him; but a grown-up son at home was also a perpetual reminder that time was passing and that his own youth was irretrievable; and behind this thought another nagged, of how his huge family had failed him, of the "one happiness I have missed in life, and one friend and companion I have never made".
Ellen Lawless Ternan -- Nelly -- became that elusive one "friend and companion". She was his mistress, living in various houses that he provided for her, for the next ten years until his death. Writing about her life during this time is a biographer's nightmare -- the record consists of expense receipts, a few letters and recollections of Dickens' friends and daughters. She had indeed vanished from view.
For Dickens, Nelly may have been the flawless embodiment of his fantasies, so much so that her image had emerged from the Doncaster episode not only undamaged but enhanced. But fantasy does not convey much about the hard centre of truth, the real person inside the image; whether she was a mercenary minx or a doll-like victim, installed in her doll's house in Mornington Crescent. Is it possible to tell what she was really like? No surviving accounts from this period contain anything more than the bare professional and physical description -- a young actress, small, pretty and well developed (a phrase which meant, then as now, that she had noticeable breasts); moderately competent as a performer but not outstanding. She had been admired as a sweet child performer, though without the formidable talents of her sister Fanny; and it's safe to say she enjoyed acting for its own sake, or she would not have returned to it as she did, as an enthusiastic amateur, later in her life. But no friend or observer has ever stepped forward from these early years to speak on her behalf and say, I remember her well, a nice girl; or I hated her, we acted together at the Haymarket; nor does a single scrap of writing in her hand survive from this period.
Dickens, unlike his friend Wilkie Collins, did not openly flaunt social convention. He made a press statement early in their relationship insisting upon Nelly's innocence, and later they assumed various pseudonyms, such as Mr. and Mrs. Tringham. He alone mixed with Collins and his mistresses; his life with Nelly was separate and secret.
As far as we know Dickens did not introduce Nelly to Wilkie's women, let alone take her along to participate in those unbuttoned evenings chez Caroline. Later he wrote that his "magic circle" consisted of one member only. She was one whose dignity increasingly demanded the protection of isolation and silence.
For a period of four years, there is no record of Nelly at all, and Tomalin and others propose that she may have borne Dickens a child, or perhaps more, although none would have survived infancy, and quite possibly in France. The chapter, aptly titled "Vanishing into Space", covers the years 1862-1865.
Nelly now disappears from view completely, conjured into thin air. For four years she remains invisible. Her name does not figure in any surviving letters. She and her mother are not even at Maria's London wedding in June 1863: a striking absence in a small, mutually devoted family. She has become a perfect blank. ... 
At a guess, she has been living in France. It is only a guess. This is to be a chapter of guesses and conjectures, and those who don't like them are warned. No one has come up with any proof of her residence in or near Boulogne, or Paris, or anywhere else on the Continent. Arrivals and departures were not recorded by the boat companies or at the Channel ports. She herself never referred to this period of her life but abolished it altogether; though the fact that she chose to go to Paris, where she appears to have had friends, in the aftermath of Dickens's death, could indicate that she had lived there earlier.
Dickens, one of England's best-known personalities of the time, also disappeared from public view.
After finishing Great Expectations in the summer of 1861, he remained singularly idle and unproductive, giving very few readings or public speeches and writing very little until he started on a new novel in the autumn of 1863. Something was happening during those carefully blotted out years; and it was happening somewhere discreetly distanced from prying eyes.
Following these years, we know that Nelly returned to England, because she and her mother were in Dickens's rail carriage with him when the train derailed. (He publicly denied knowing them, but the evidence and Nelly's resulting arm injuries suggest that they were in fact with him on the train.) After this, he appears to have rented a house for her in Slough, where he came to see her 2-3 times every week. Tomalin writes poignantly of the life of a hidden mistress. It was not an easy nor an enviable existence, even if your lover happens to be Charles Dickens.
It's unlikely that it was all ease and pleasure for the man of fifty-four and the girl of twenty-seven. Long after his death she said she loathed the memory of his attentions; it's not possible to know whether she found them loathsome at the time. There was always the fear of pregnancy. There was also the matter of how she saw herself mirrored in his eyes. In a society which divided women into the good and the bad, even the most cherished mistress could only be bad; it was her very badness that made her desirable to the man. Good women, it was widely agreed, were not sexually enthusiastic; coldness could thus become an assertion of virtue, a demand to be loved for something other, and better, than sex. If Nelly wished to see herself elevated into a platonic muse, and Dickens longed for the release of her embraces, it was a recipe for some miserable days and nights for them both. Yet whatever she felt about her position, her life was now bound to his in a permanent arrangement from which she could scarcely escape -- for where was she to go, and what was she to do but wait on him?
After Dickens's death in 1870, Nelly met and married George Wharton Robinson, an Oxford graduate 12 years her junior (though she concealed that fact, as well as everything else about her past, from him). They established a school for boys in Margate, and in her late 30s, Nelly bore two children: Geoffrey and Gladys. As Geoffrey reached adulthood, his parents' school had failed and they had left Margate. To my astonishment, British army officers at that time were expected to be self-funded!
Her pride in Geoffrey increased from year to year. He grew tall; he did well in his preparation for the army; and in 1898 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was given a colonial posting and went straight off to Malta with an infantry regiment, the Lancashire Fusiliers. It was the best they could afford, with no pretensions to smartness, but money still had to be found. In those days young men did not beome officers in the expectation of earning a living; they were paid a purely nominal amount and relied on private income to settle their mess bills and pay a servant, keep a polo pony, and have their many elaborate uniforms made. In Geoffrey's case this income had to come from parents already hard pressed themselves.
It was many years after Nelly's death before the topic of her affair with Dickens started coming to light. For one thing, few wanted to despoil the beloved author's reputation with such a scandal.
No writer since Shakespeare had conquered the public so absolutely. Its view of Dickens was firmly established in the form expressed by his daughter Katey in her private dissenting cry to Bernard Shaw: "If you could make the public understand that my father was not a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch, you would greatly oblige me." But this is how the public obstinately saw Dickens, as a Father Christmas figure, master of pathos and laughter, and celebrant of cheery and innocent domesticity.
In her later years, following her husband's death, Ellen shared a home in Southsea with her sister Fanny, the widow of Thomas Trollope (brother of Anthony, the novelist). They certainly had no interest in entertaining those who wanted to dig up the past, so they too colluded in obscuring a decade of Ellen's life.
The gap between what the Dickens people wanted to believe in, the tender-hearted icon of the Victorian age, and the actual man who had intervened so forcibly in the lives of three young working women was too wide to be bridged. If anyone did try to talk to the Southsea ladies, they were no doubt repulsed; Mrs Trollope and Mrs Wharton Robinson had come to accept long since the impossibility of their version. Their self-suppression, their fear of the damage they might cause themselves and others if they spoke or wrote of their experiences and knowledge, is one of the saddest parts of the whole story.
Actually, the fact that self-righteous Victorians were so ready to pass moral judgement on others and relegate them to lives of penury, invisibility, or both is the saddest part of this story. I'm glad Claire Tomalin and other Dickensian scholars have brought Ellen Ternan's story into the light -- a dim and flickering light, it's true, but better that than her life and love be erased from history altogether.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Dinner, by Herman Koch

I hastily downloaded The Dinner because I wanted to read it before I see the film version at The
Flicks. As it turns out, I needn't have rushed to finish it, because the cinema has been closed -- first for the three days of Khmer New Year, and afterward because a piece of their equipment needed maintenance. Regardless, I did read this book with uncharacteristic speed for the simple if hackneyed reason that I couldn't put it down.

When I first read in a review that the novel takes place at one dinner in a very trendy, exclusive Amsterdam restaurant, each course constituting a chapter, I remembered the three times I've seen the beginning of "My Dinner with Andre" -- a dialogue spanning one meal. I've never seen the end of the film, because all three times I fell asleep before the main course arrived. (I don't understand this, really, since I love art films and manage to stay awake through the most monotonous documentaries -- Is "My Dinner with Andre" really that soporific?)

As I read The Dinner, though, any likeness to "My Dinner with Andre" quickly gave way to comparisons to We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Two couples are meeting at the dinner table: The men are brothers, Paul and Serge Lohman. Serge is a well-known politician with his eye on the Prime Minister's office. Paul is the novel's narrator. Paul's wife is Claire, and Serge's wife is Babette. They are meeting to discuss some trouble that their sons have got into, and what, if anything, they should do about it.

Koch reveals fairly early in the book what the boys have done, so that's not a factor in the suspense. Just as Lionel Shriver discloses early in her novel that Kevin, the narrator's son, has gone on a murderous rampage with a crossbow at his high school, Koch tells us that the teen-aged cousins, upon finding a smelly, homeless woman camped out in an ATM cubicle late one night, proceed to harrass, then to assault, and finally -- perhaps inadvertently, perhaps not -- to kill her. CCTV cameras captured the whole incident, and it's being broadcast to an outraged Dutch television audience, but whether the boys can be identified from the surveillance tape remains to be seen.

The person at the dinner table with the most to lose, of course, is Serge. His son's involvement, should it become public knowledge, will most certainly wreak  havoc with his political career. We're predisposed to dislike Serge, and it's almost immediately plain that Paul can't abide him, either. In one of his early flashbacks, Paul recounts the time that he took his wife and son to spend some time with Serge's family at their holiday home in France. The Dordogne, it seems, has become a popular destination for the Dutch.
Every year Serge and Babette went to their house in the Dordogne with the children. They belonged to that class of Dutch people who think everything French is "great": from croissants to French bread with Camembert, from French cars (they themselves drove one of the top-end Peugeots) to French chansons and French films. At the same time, they failed to see that the local French population of the Dordogne fairly retched at the sight of Dutch people.
Paul and Claire note the hostile graffiti on walls, and Serge quickly dismisses it as the work of some bored or disenfranchised teen-agers. It doesn't represent the overall atmosphere, he insists. Paul sees through his brother's self-serving, rose-coloured platitudes. I was impressed with Paul's clear vision of the real economic impact of the Dutch property grab.
But what if the slogan-scrawlers didn't stop at mere slogans? I asked myself. It probably wouldn't take much to scare off this band of cowards. The Dutch had a tendency to shit in their pants at the mere threat of real violence. You could start off by throwing rocks through windows, and if that didn't work you could burn down a couple of résidences secondaires. Not too many, because the real objective was to let those houses pass back into the hands of people who had first claim on them: the young French newly-weds who for years now had been forced by skyrocketing property prices to live with their parents. The Dutch had ruined the housing market for the local people; astronomical sums were being paid even for ruins. With the help of relatively inexpensive French masons, the ruin was then rebuilt, only to remain uninhabited for most of the year.
How can such a self-absorbed, emotionally unintelligent clod succeed as a politician, one wonders? It's as if someone flips a switch:  Serge changes.
Every time I've seen it, it has surprised me, it is surprising and amazing to behold: how my brother, the oaf, the lumpen boor who "has to eat now" and scarfs down his tournedos joylessly in three bites, the easily bored dullard whose eyes start to wander at every subject that doesn't have to do with him, how this brother of mine on a podium and in the spotlights and on TV literally begins to shine -- how, in other words, he becomes a politician with charisma.
Koch skillfully prepares the reader for whatever slick cover-up Serge might propose. But well before the main course arrives, he offers the first clues that Paul, who had previously sounded very rational, may not be the most reliable narrator. What is this? Is he edging toward blaming the victim...?
And then there was something else. This was the Netherlands. This was not the Bronx, we were not in the slums of Johannesburg or Rio de Janeiro. In Holland you had a social safety net. No one had to lie around and get in the way in an ATM cubicle. 
Given the fraught relationship between the two brothers, one would expect each of them to blame the other's son as the instigator. Serge is too shrewd to say as much directly, and even his hints that his nephew Michel may have led the way in this violent attack elicit a somewhat surprising reaction from Paul.
Serge had always insinuated, and would doubtless repeat tonight: that Michel was a bad influence on Rick. I had always denied that; I had always thought it an easy way for my brother to duck his own responsibility for his son's actions. But since a few hours ago -- in fact, since much longer ago than that, of course -- I knew it was true. Michel was the leader of the two: Michel called the shots, Rick was the subservient goon. And, deep in my heart, that division of roles pleased me. Better that than the other way around, I thought.
Then Paul discloses that he has been on administrative leave from his teaching position for quite some time. He had told his high school history students that the Jewish victims of Nazi Germany had, for the most part, got what they deserved. At this point, as he relates the final discussion with the school principal, I lost all sense of having a grasp on the dynamics at the dinner table.
"Paul, what this is really about is something you said about victims. Please correct me if I'm wrong. About victims of the Second World War?" I leaned back, or at least I tried to lean back, but it was a hard, straight-backed chair that didn't give."It has been said that you have expressed yourself in rather belittling terms about those victims," the principal said. "You supposedly said that they had only themselves to blame for being victims."
"I never put it that way. I only said that not all victims are automatically innocent victims." ...
"But why don't you tell me yourself? What exactly did you say, Paul?"
"Nothing special. I let them do some simple arithmetic. In a group of one hundred people, how many assholes are there? How many fathers who humiliate their children? How many morons whose breath stinks like rotten meat but who refuse to do anything about it? How many hopeless cases who go on complaining all their lives about the non-existent injustices they've had to suffer? Look around you, I said. How many of your classmates would you be pleased not to see return to their desks tomorrow morning? Think about that one member of your own family, that irritating uncle with his pointless, horseshit stories at birthday parties, that ugly cousin who mistreats his cat. Think about how relieved you would be -- and not only you, but virtually the entire family -- if that uncle or cousin would step on a landmine or be hit by a five-hundred-pounder dropped from a high altitude. If that member of the family were to be wiped off the face of the earth. And now think about all those millions of victims of all the wars there have been in the past -- I never specifically mentioned the Second World War, I only used it as an example because it's the one that most appeals to their imaginations -- and think about the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of victims who we need to have around like we need a hole in the head. Even from a purely statistical standpoint, it's impossible that all those victims were good people, whatever kind of people that may be. The injustice is found more in the fact that the assholes are also put on the list of innocent victims..."
The advertisement for the film poses the question, "How far will you go to protect your family?" I would add to that, "...and why?"  The Dinner is a five-course portrayal of family dynamics gone amok, in a country, in a city, in a restaurant where these things just aren't supposed to happen.  Let's see if the film is as incendiary as the book.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Thanatos Syndrome, by Walker Percy

Christina's World,
by Andrew Wyeth
This was the last of Walker Percy's novels, published in 1987, three years before his death. I've had his first book, The Moviegoer, on my to-read list for years, but this one crossed my path sooner.

This book reminds me of a pot-luck supper tossed together by a group of fine chefs -- each dish is outstanding, but the menu lacks a certain cohesion. Likewise, Mr. Percy tackles a number of interesting themes -- as I read, I felt like a diner who samples everything on the buffet table and enjoys each dish on its own merits but comes away feeling that it wasn't exactly a meal.

The story's narrator, Dr. Tom More, is a psychiatrist who has just returned to his home in Louisiana after serving a prison term for selling pharmaceuticals. He discovers that some of his former patients' behaviours are now radically different than before, but with a similar pattern of aberration. It doesn't take him long to determine that a small cabal of powerful local men has begun to introduce heavy sodium -- Na-24 -- into the tap water.  They argue that the social benefits outweigh any other concerns:  crime is down; academic performance is up. Of course, there is the odd side effect or adverse reaction here and there, but when compared to the almost miraculous improvements in quality of life, those are negligible.  Right?

Percy gives that question its due consideration.  He notices that one of his former patients no longer shows signs of depression and anxiety; in fact, she seems not only more confident, but downright sexually aggressive. Whether it's something that has been slipped into the water supply without the consumer's knowledge, or whether it's a prescription drug that radically alters personality, he seems to ask, is that really better than learning to live companionably with one's gremlins?
There are names for her disorder, of course -- agoraphobia, free-floating anxiety -- but they don't help much. What to do with herself? She did some painting, not very good, of swamps, cypresses, bayous, Spanish moss, egrets, and such. I thought of her as a housebound Emily Dickinson, but when I saw her on the couch in my office -- she had made the supreme effort, gotten in her car, and driven to town -- she looked more like Christina in Wyeth's painting, facing the window, back turned to me, hip making an angle, thin arm raised in a gesture of longing, a yearning toward -- toward what? In her case, the yearning was simple, deceptively simple. If only she could be back at her grandmother's farm in Vermont, where as a young girl she had been happy...
I contrived that it crossed her mind that her terror might not be altogether bad. What if it might be trying to tell her something, like the mysterious visitor in her dream? I seldom give anxious people drugs. If you do, they may feel better for a while, but they'll never find out what the terror is trying to tell them. At any rate, it set her wondering and made her life more tolerable. She wasn't afraid of being afraid. We were getting somewhere.
I loved Percy's reference to 'Christina's World' in this passage.  I know this painting well -- it's set in Cushing, Maine, not far from my own childhood home (and a print always hung in our own living room).  Christina was paraplegic, and the image of her lying in the field so far from the sanctuary of the house captures perfectly the longing and anxiety of a woman who is perhaps not physically but emotionally debilitated. Dr More's descriptions of the work he had done with his various patients before the water supply obliterated their symptoms spoke of a thoughtful, humane and highly individualised mode of treatment. Yes, he had a lapse in his medical ethics, but what about drugging an entire population without their knowledge and consent, even if the overall effect is for the better?

Another theme that I admired greatly is Percy's portrayal of social strata in Louisiana. I grew up in the northeast. When I first came to the deep south, I felt -- quite correctly -- that I'd come to a different country, and Louisiana is a world in and of itself, distinct from its neighbours, Texas and Mississippi. One of the first things I noticed as a Yankee in the south was that well wishes were ubiquitous but felt utterly insincere. The relations between the races at first glance seemed unchanged from the Jim Crow days, but surely there were layers of meaning that were lost on me?  Yes, indeed, there were. Dr. More greets Frank, the black hospital custodian, and Percy makes it clear that there are entire books to be read between the lines of their conversation.
One would have to be a Southerner, white or black, to understand the complexities of this little exchange. Seemingly pleasant, it was not quite. Seemingly a friend in the old style, Frank was not quite. The glint of eye, seemingly a smile of greeting, was not. It was actually malignant. Frank was having a bit of fun with me, I knew, and he knew that I knew, using the old forms of civility to say what he pleased.
I value his honesty -- even his jeering. He knew this and we parted amiably. We understand each other. He reminds me of the Russian serfs Tolstoy wrote about, who spoke bluntly to their masters, using the very infirmity of their serfdom as a warrant to scold: That was my encounter with Frank Macon a week ago, a six-layered exchange beyond the compass of any known science of communication but plain as day to Frank and me.
To his credit, Dr. More patiently and methodically considers the pros and cons of adding heavy sodium to the water supply. Yes, he concludes, a lower violent crime rate can only be a good thing, but if the cost is an overall deadening of passion, is it a good trade-off?
What's going on? What do they have in common? Are they better or worse? Well, better in the sense that they do not have the old symptoms, as we shrinks called them, the ancient anxiety, guilt, obsessions, rage repressed, sex suppressed. Happy is better than unhappy, right? But, but -- what? They're somehow -- diminished. Diminished how? Well, in language, for one thing. They sound like Gardner's chimps in Oklahoma: Mickey like -- Donna want --Touch me -- Ask them anything out of context as you would ask chimp Washoe or chimp Lana: Where's stick? and they'll tell you, get it, point it out. Then: Tickle me, hug me. Okay, Doc? Then there's the loss of something. What? A certain sort of self-awareness? the old ache of self? Ella doesn't even bother to look at her own photograph, doesn't care. Bad or good? For another thing, a certain curious disinterest. Example: Take the current news item: Soviets invited to occupy Baluchistan, their client state in southern Iran to restore order, reported advancing on Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf. What to do? Let them have it? Confront them? Ultimatum? Two years ago people would be huddled around the tube listening to Rather and Brokaw. My patients? My acquaintances? No arguments, no fright, no rage, no cursing the Communists, no blaming the networks, no interest. Enrique doesn't mention liberals anymore. Debbie does not revile Jerry Falwell anymore. There's a sameness here, a flatness of affect. There was more excitement in prison...
In one of the thematic threads that I struggled to integrate with the others, Dr. More climbs a fire watch-tower where a priest has secluded himself.  He now babbles like a madman, a visionary, or both. The comparison to the desert mystics who removed themselves to the tops of high pillars -- the Stylites -- was unavoidable (and Percy later spells it out specifically). Clearly Fr. Smith disapproves of what he sees going on in the parish, and just as clearly Dr. More (who bears the name of a martyred saint) makes a few pilgrimages to the tower to seek the wisdom of the recluse, but he invariably rejects the priest's ramblings as senile, psychotic, or both. Still, even in these days of modern chemistry, there seems to be a place for faith, mystery and miracles...
I can tell you this on good authority because I know the people it happened to. Both desperate cases. One had a tumor of the womb which was diagnosed as malignant. The other, a close friend of mine, had a son working for Texaco who fell off a rig during a hurricane. After three days the Coast Guard gave up on him. Both of these people had the same impulse the same night, the exact same time, to get up and go for help from Father Smith. They did. Of course they couldn't get up the tower, so they both wrote their intentions on notes and pinned the notes to the steps of the tower. The very next day the first person's tumor had gone down -- the doctors could not find a trace of it -- and the other person's son was found clinging to a board for three days and three nights.
I've struggled to understand why, although I admired this novel in some ways, I don't love it. I come back to the lack of cohesion, and Percy's own mention of Tolstoy brought another comparison to mind. When I was reading Anna Karenina, I rolled my eyes as the author went off on his enormous sidebars about the lives of serfs and duck hunts, but I knew that in a mere hundred pages or so, he would eventually come back to Anna and Vronsky and the central plot of his novel. Walker Percy also has some other messages to get across, but instead of veering off on Tolstoyan tangents, he tries to integrate them with the main story line.  And it doesn't work well. As with Tolstoy, I'd rather he wrote separate novels about the Stylite priest in his fire tower and about the relations between the sexes and races in Louisiana. The main theme -- social engineering by tampering with the water supply -- was engrossing and horrifying enough on its own.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

How It All Began, by Penelope Lively


This image originally appeared in the NY
Times book review. Kudos to the artist -- it
couldn't be more apt.
This is the first of Penelope Lively's books that I've read. She's an author whose name has floated in my field of vision for years, and now I wish I'd gotten round to reading her sooner.  I adored How It All Began -- for me, it was a well-timed bit of escapist fiction, inviting me to lose myself in her characters to a degree that I rarely do. It was also an excellent continuation on the life vs. story discussion that Sam Shepard started with the Beckett epigraph at the start of his novel.

As the book opens, Charlotte lies dazed on the pavement after a thief snatched her handbag.  She can't get up, and a small crowd gathers round her. I love the clipped, terse inner monologue, so true to the circumstances. Oh, and the siren transcription, too, though it took me a moment to catch onto that.
Voices discuss. She is not much interested. Nee-naw, nee-naw, nee-naw. Here it is. Know for whom the bell tolls. Expert hands: lifting, bundling. In the ambulance, she is on her side, in some sort of rigid tube. She hurts. Where is hurt? Don't know. Anywhere. May as well try to sleep for a bit."Keep your eyes open, please. We'll be there in a few minutes." Trolley ride. On and on. Corridors. People passing. Right turn. Halt. More lifting. They take the tube away. She is on her back now. Nurse. Smiling but businesslike. Name? Address? Those she can do. No problem. Date of birth? That too. Not a good date of birth. Rather a long time ago. Next of kin? Rose is not going to like this. It's morning, isn't it? Rose will be with his lordship. Next of kin will be at work. Not bother her. Yet.
Rose is Charlotte's daughter, the next in line to feel the impact of the snatch thief's action. And there begins the thread that binds together eight people whose lives shift course as a result of Charlotte's mugging, though most of them are barely aware of the connection, if at all. When the call came from the hospital, Rose was indeed at work, tending to the needs and copious paperwork of Lord Henry Peters, a pompous, aged, self-absorbed historian of the 18th century. Actually, Henry's position in the academic world is slipping, but he is loath to acknowledge this as he toils away on his memoirs. It's a bit of a bother to Sir Henry that Rose must take a few days off to look after her mother, as his important work is likely to suffer in the absence of his assistant. Or so he believes.  One has a consistently high opinion of one's own worth, as he himself would be likely to put it.
Henry is in fact out of touch with the eighteenth century. He stopped thinking much about it a number of years ago; he has not kept up with new publications. The eighteenth century has moved on, leaving him behind. History is a slippery business; the past is not a constant, but a landscape that mutates according to argument and opinion. Henry is well aware of this, and aware that the eighteenth century has disappeared over the horizon so far as he is concerned, reconstructed, reinterpreted. No, better not stick his neck out. Could be cut up by some young turk. Not that one's own work does not remain the basis of Augustan studies, in the opinion of any reputable scholar. Most reputable scholars, anyway.
While Rose is absent, Henry calls upon his niece, Marion, a well-heeled interior designer, to accompany him to deliver a lecture in Manchester. It is a fiasco -- Marion neglects to bring the lecture notes, and Henry finds himself at the podium gesticulating madly about ... the Elder and ... the Younger, completely unable to call the name of Pitt to mind.  This mortifying event sends Henry off on a mad mission to make historical documentaries for TV. At the post-lecture luncheon, Marion sits next to a wealthy banker with investment properties in need of decoration, which at the time seems a heaven-sent coincidence.

Going to Manchester with Uncle Henry meant having to cancel a date with her married lover, so Marion sent him an SMS. Which Jeremy's wife spotted, occasioning yet another of her nervous breakdowns. Jeremy is a charming cad -- he continues to pursue Marion whilst simultaneously trying to win Stella back, filling his rubbish bin with menacing letters from her divorce solicitor. Jeremy wallows in shameless self-absorption and self-pity, unaware that he might be at least partially responsible for the mess he's in, yet not entirely clear on how others caused it, either.
Sometimes Jeremy cannot remember how the hell all this began. How and why did his life fall apart? Oh yes, the wretched text from Marion. What on earth was it about? Nothing much. She couldn't meet up, for some reason. Something to do with that uncle of hers. What the devil has her uncle got to do with Jeremy? Why should he be persecuted by a solicitor because of someone he doesn't even know? It is so wrong.
When Charlotte imagines that the thief might have been a starving artist who swiped her purse in order to buy opera tickets, Rose retorts that he or she probably just needed a drug fix. Either way, the thief stays resolutely out of the picture, unaware of the chain of reaction he's unleashed.

Meanwhile, trying desperately to achieve as much independence as possible and to impose as little as possible on Rose and Gerry, Charlotte -- a former English literature teacher -- agrees to tutor an eastern European immigrant "with forests in his eyes" at the apartment.  Anton can speak passably good English but has made no progress in learning to read the new language in the new script. He would like to find work in his field, accountancy, but his illiteracy keeps him working on a construction site. Charlotte is surprised to come home one afternoon to find her mother and Anton hunched over a copy of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, Anton engrossed. (If anyone knows about keeping readers involved in stories, it's Penelope Lively.)
"Isn't this rather unorthodox, Mum?"
"Possibly. Anton isn't complaining."
"I am like child," said Anton cheerfully. "Child learn when he is interested. When he want to know what come next in the story. Nothing come next with 'I go to the shop' and 'This is our house'."
When she goes back to the clinic for a follow-up visit, Charlotte hastily grabs a paperback off Rose's bookshelf as she heads out to the waiting minicab. She expects the NHS to give her a good long time to read before she sees a doctor. Like most bookworms, Charlotte has a look around the waiting room to see what others are reading, and what she might deduce about them as a result.
One girl was immersed in a paperback with candy-pink raised lettering on the cover. An elderly man had a battered hardback library book. She wanted to know what it was, but could not see -- unforgivable inquisitiveness, but the habit of a lifetime. A few pages of The Da Vinci Code, and she knew that she could go no further with this. Moreover, she felt that her reading matter nailed her: the woman beside her had glanced at the book before Charlotte opened it, and given her a complicit smile and nod. I am seen as a Da Vinci Code person, thought Charlotte. Well, there would be a certain affectation in being someone who sat in a hospital waiting room reading Dostoevsky.
Ms. Lively gracefully ends the book without any pat conclusions (earlier in the book one of the characters had railed about the newly vogue idea of "closure" -- as if there were any such thing!). Instead, she puts down a variation on a phrase typical of English novels of earlier centuries, "We leave them here...", and, much as I revelled in each character's company, I was content to let them all go on their ways. They gave me a lot during the time we were together.




Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Day Out of Days, by Sam Shepard

The mention of Sam Shepard brings these images to my mind, in no particular order:  cowboy, astronaut, playwright. A rugged, outdoorsy sort of literati.  Day Out of Days is a collection of stories, snippets, poems and dialogues, loosely strung together along themes of memory, wandering America's vast highway system, desolation and decapitation.  It fits quite well, actually, with my vague preconceptions of Sam Shepard.

The book opens with an epigraph:  "That's the mistake I made-- to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough." --BECKETT

I sat and stared at this quote for a good long time.  It's an interesting choice for the beginning of a book of stories. I remember a friend once told me that she was aware of wanting a narrative for her life and living accordingly. I suppose any of us with the inclination to write do the same, and I can only presume that includes playwrights Shepard and Beckett. Is it in fact a mistake to want a life story? And to what extent does that yearning shape our actual lives? I agree, life alone is plenty interesting without moulding it into a cohesive narrative.  Maybe that's the point -- life gives us scenes, not often stories, novels or plays. And if you string a bunch of those scenes together, slowly the connective themes start to show through.

In one of the first stories, a man is walking down a road in Arkansas when he spots a severed head in a ditch. The head addresses him. In a matter-of-fact, polite manner, the head asks if he wouldn't mind carrying it to a nearby lake and tossing it in.  Nothing about this story is surreal or fantastic, apart from the conversation with the disembodied head, which comes across as just one of those things you'd rather didn't happen when you're walking down a road minding your own business.

We all have an especial horror of decapitation, I think, and Shepard plays on this in "These Recent Beheadings".  Whether his beheadings are allegorical -- people feeling detached as the world goes mad -- or physical, we just don't like to think about having our necks severed.
These recent beheadings are just what we've always dreaded. We knew it was coming sooner or later and now it's here. Ancient gleaming steel coming down like a message from the heavens on our exposed white necks. The kind of separation that terrifies us the most -- losing our heads. The absolute shock of sudden separation. The body here, the head over there. And the mind desperately darting between them, trying to pull them back together. How did this happen? From out of nowhere. Seemingly. Nobody saw it coming. Nobody could predict this.
One of the voices in the book is that of a hired killer who is not happy with the way things are going nowadays in his profession. He expresses nostalgia for the days when a simple photo of the done deed was adequate proof, and payment was forthcoming.  But in "Pity the Poor Mercenary", he describes his latest employers' demand, which strikes him as unprofessional and dishonourable. He is after all a man of his word:  "I cut his face off meticulously. That's all I have to say. Just doing my job."

Many of the stories' titles include highway numbers, their narrators being peripatetic observers who roam from one side of America to the other, with a lot of time spent in the small towns in the middle. There's not much of a story in these towns -- just life.
I am stuck now in a town of backyards. This is not a dream. There are no houses to speak of so it can't really be called a town, certainly not "Our Town" or downtown Milwaukee or something identifiable like that. There is no center; no Main Street but the people stroll along as though they had somewhere to go; some destination or another -- purposefully but without any urgency like they would in a Big City, hustling and bustling just because everyone else is, as though caught up in a fever they can't escape. More like a walk in the park; meandering but not really wandering so much; not really lost like me who seems to be the only one the least bit bewildered.
Our heads are, of course, a repository for memories and the studio where we create our personae.  "Orange Grove in My Past" is a brilliant mosaic of identity -- what we see in others and how we define ourselves.
I thought I had done my level best, done everything I possibly could, not to become my father. Gone out of my way in every department: changed my name, first and last, falsified my birth certificate, deliberately walked and swung my arms in exact counterpoint to the way he had; picked out clothing the opposite of what he would have worn, right down to the underwear; spoke without any trace of a Midwestern twang, never kicked a dog in the ribs, never lost my temper over inanimate objects, never again listened to Bing Crosby after Christmas of 1959, and never ever hit a woman in the face.

Desolate.  The landscapes, the recollections, the tone of these stories... In "Van Horn, Texas (Highway 10)", the narrator stops at a diner where the waitress and the cook look at him with suspicion. The cook, clearly wanting the stranger out of his place, tells him that the pies won't be ready for hours. The traveller says he'll come back later, after taking a walk around the town.
I'll stroll around the town and take in the sights. He says there are no sights; there is no town. But I tell him I'm a big fan of desolation. I'm fascinated by the way things disintegrate; appear and disappear. The way something very prosperous and promising turns out to be disappointing and sad. The way people hang on in the middle of such obliteration and don't think twice about it. The way people just keep living their lives because they don't know what else to do. He says he has no time for small talk and leaves me staring at the sugar.
Just as the residents of Van Horn, Texas keep living their lives because they don't know what else to do, the travellers themselves struggle with direction and purpose.
But what do you do with yourself now?
I wander around from place to place.
Aimlessly?
What's there to aim for?
That must get old after a while.
I don't know what else to do.

Near the end of the book, the walker finally reaches the lake into which the head has asked him to throw it. Feeling that they've developed a bond of sorts, the passer-by asks the head if it would open its eyes, just for a moment, but the head declines:  "You couldn't handle it," it says, just before the man heaves it into the water. In "Regrets of the Head", it seems that the head is not all that is severed -- he is as detached from other people as he is from his own body. Absolute, total disconnection.
I do regret not opening up my eyes and allowing him to see into me, just that once. I do regret that now. I should have been more generous. What in the world did I have to lose? I'd already lost my entire body. What was left? Fear, I guess. Of what? Of him seeing me? I guess. 
Who (other than Sam Shepard) would have guessed that a disembodied head would have anything left to fear? It seems the fear of revealing ourselves runs very, very deep. Regrettably.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Interlude

There's been precious little reading in the past couple of weeks, because I am in the process of moving
myself, my two cats, and all our earthly possessions from Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh.  Although things have gone more or less to plan so far, my inner neurotic constantly reminds me that they could go amok at any moment.

I'm making my way through Karen Armstrong's The Case for God on the Kindle, a paragraph here or two there. Although superb, it's not the best choice of a book for these distracted and anxious days. Some escapist fiction might be more suitable.

An almost laughably bad decision was to begin Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel on the audio player.  Yes, it's a classic, and yes, it's a fine bit of fiction, but it's also dark and pessimistic and best known for its iconic statement, "You can't go home again."  This is hardly the message I want to dwell on as I prepare to leave a home that I've dearly loved.

I think it's time to be sensible and to put both these books on hold until I'm in my new place with the bags unpacked. Until then, I'll switch to medicinal fiction.  Back in a bit!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

Wallowing: Reading this book at this moment in my life is an act of pure, masochistic nostalgia. It's part of my farewell to Malaysia, which is painful enough. It's also a tribute to the historical Malaya that I've come to know and love through books, stories and spirits. The Malaya of the '40s and '50s had its horrors -- the war, the Emergency -- but I've so often  thought I should have been here then.

Like Tan's earlier novel, The Gift of Rain, this one takes place primarily during the years of the war, with occasional shifts forward to the post-war Emergency period, when the British, returned to power, battled the guerrillas whom they termed "Communist terrorists" or CTs.  The first book was set in Penang, and this one in the Cameron Highlands, but both feature a Chinese protagonist who forms a deep, complex relationship with a Japanese teacher.  'Atmospheric' is an overused description of novels, but an understatement when applied to Tan's fiction:  the misty horizons, the scent of freshly picked tea leaves, the crackling of rice paper lanterns set alight. And, of course, the bellows of the Japanese internment camp commandant and the hungry depredations of the marauding Communists.

The narrator, Judge Teoh Yun Ling, upon retiring from her bench, returns to the Cameron Highlands, where she lived for several years following the war, learning the art of Japanese gardening.  Her teacher was Aritomo, who had once been the Emperor's gardener but who had retreated to his house on a ridge in Malaya to develop his own garden. Yun Ling had grudgingly asked him to design a memorial garden for her sister who adored Japanese gardens and perished in the slave labour camp where both girls were imprisoned during the war. Aritomo refused to design the garden but offered Yun Ling an apprenticeship, through which she would learn to create her own garden.
A garden is composed of a variety of clocks, Aritomo had once told me. Some of them run faster than the others, and some of them move slower than we can ever perceive. I only understood this fully long after I had been his apprentice. Every single plant and tree at Yugiri grew, flowered and died at its own rate. Yet there was also a feeling of timelessness around it. The trees from a colder world -- the oaks, the maples and the cedars -- had adjusted to the constant rains and mists, to the seasonless passing of time in the mountains. The turning of their colours was muted. Only the maple growing by the house remembered the changing seasons in the expanding circles of its memory; its leaves had turned completely red, flaking away from the branches to drift across the garden: I would often find the leaves plastered to the wet rocks on the banks of Usugumo Pond, like starfish stranded by the tide.  
I found myself re-reading this paragraph again and again, and with more admiration each time. It's a fine example of Tan's descriptive powers, but it also touches on a couple of themes that run throughout the book. The Cameron Highlands is famous for its tea plantations, and the novel's leading tea planter is Magnus Pretorius, a Boer from South Africa. Although Magnus and his son, Frederik, are on friendly terms with their neighbour, Aritomo, they challenge his gardening philosophy. They say his gardens are artificial, contrived, overly planned.  They favour 'indigenous gardens'.  Aritomo, and later Yun Ling reply that the Japanese gardens do mirror nature, but in a way that makes visitors feel integrally connected to it.

Memory: Yun Ling has been diagnosed with a progressive neurological disorder that will gradually render her aphasic.  As time passes, she will no longer recognise words that she hears or sees, so she scrambles to record her life, especially the time with Aritomo, while she still can. The garden was to be a memoriam to her sister, and yet she simultaneously tries to forget the horrors of their incarceration.

I don't think I could have appreciated the feeling of timelessness that Tan describes when I still lived in a place with four distinct seasons. My decade in Malaysia is a decade-long temporal blur -- did something happen one December, or was it July, and if I didn't write it down, how could I possibly remember? There are no seasonal clues, one day being very much like any other, so near the equator. I think we all run on a variety of clocks which run at different speeds. Perhaps some are in sync with the natural seasons (where they exist), and others creep at geological rates. Aritomo's garden is one means of transcending time, of putting us in contact with times we can only remember at a cellular or genetic or instinctual level.

For those who cherish Malaysian history, The Garden of Evening Mists is historical fiction at its best. Tan's fictional characters cross paths with British High Commissioners Gurney and Templer, with Communist leader Chin Peng and some of his cohorts, with Japanese officers and murdered planters and elusive orang asli who are trying to survive the different wars being waged around them. They ramble from the Cameron Highlands to the grand old Moorish courthouse in Kuala Lumpur, into limestone caves to collect swiftlets' nests and into the thick jungle where the Japanese have hidden a secret internment camp.

I feel more deeply connected to the Malaya of this period than I do to either the country of my birth or, indeed, to the Malaysia of the present. The friend who gave me this book is an Englishman who lived in Malaysia for over twenty years. I told him that reading it on the eve of my own departure may have been a bad bit of timing, because I'm woefully susceptible to bouts of nostalgia now. We both thought about this for a few moments and then shook our heads, realising that we are both nostalgic for the Malaya that is no longer. I can't say I'll miss KL's fertile crop of high-rise condos and shopping malls.

But this country -- its customs and history, and most certainly its people -- has touched me more deeply than I can explain. Countless Malaysians have asked why I'm here, seeming a bit surprised when I either shrug or tell them that I love the place. "It must be the food," they say. Aritomo answered the same question with far more eloquence.
Invariably, someone would enquire as to why he had given it all up to come to Malaya. A puzzled look would spread across Aritomo's face, as though he had never been asked that particular question before. I would catch the flit of pain in his eyes and, for a few moments, we would hear nothing except the birds calling out in the trees. Then he would give a short laugh and say, 'Perhaps someday, before I cross the floating bridge of dreams, I will discover the reason. I will tell you then'.