Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours, the Soul

15 09 2014

This spring, after years of procrastination, I finally got around to reading Virginia Wolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. I say this with some satisfaction, because I tackled it several times in the past and had always given up after a few pages. I just couldn’t fall into the rhythm of Clarissa Dalloway’s musings as she goes out to buy flowers for her party. I found her “What a lark! What a plunge!” exclamations off- putting, and I kept hoping for a flash of irony, which would enable me to laugh along with Virginia Wolf at her unremarkable character. The irony never quite came, but once I made up my mind to stop looking for it, I was able to settle into Wolf’s portrayal of 1920s London’s manners and values.

As for The Hours, I had seen the movie, and as I read Mrs. Dalloway, I kept remembering scenes from the movie, based on Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel; Virginia Wolf writing the book, Laura Brown reading it, Clarissa Vaughn enacting it. I’ve been interested lately in books that are structured as stories that speak to each other, and so I decided, in spite of my skepticism of books that achieve hysterical popularity, to give it a go.

With The Hours, Michael Cunningham is doing something extremely ambitious – he is simultaneously portraying the author (that is, Virginia Wolf) writing the book, a character (Clarissa Vaughn) enacting a modern version of Wolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, and a reader (Laura Brown) reading Mrs. Dalloway. In this way, Cunningham sets up a triangle connecting author, character and reader that looks like this:

The Hours diagram

What is so compelling about this triangle is that it is a sort of archetype representing the relationships that play out in an unwritten pact inherent in all novels, a pact between writers, their characters and readers. Fact and fiction meet in a space where there is essentially no difference between them. Wolf, playing herself in the role of “the author”, has become Cunningham’s character. Wolf’s own character, Clarissa Dalloway, has metamorphasized into Clarissa Vaughan, who is both an modern manifestation of Wolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and an entirely new creation. Laura Brown, the reader, attempts to escape her own life by reading Wolf’s novel. At the end of The Hours, Laura Brown (the reader) and Clarissa Vaughan (Cunningham’s, but also Wolf’s character) meet, closing the triangle in a sort of Gordian knot.

Where, one might ask after completing The Hours, is the locus of this knot? Who or what is at its center? For not only is The Hours a tribute to Mrs. Dalloway, it is a metaphysical expansion of the novel through time and space. It envisions its creator, its creation, and its readers. It takes Wolf’s protagonist and transforms her into an entirely different woman who nonetheless shares with her an identical soul. It offers us a vision of all three sides of the triangle, the reader, the writer, the character, as they converse with each other, each struggling to wrest from this story its themes of sanity/insanity, celebration of life/rejection of life, and the singular enchanting power of the moment, or as Cunningham calls it, the Hour.

You might be a writer living in a London suburb in 1923, or a depressed, unfulfilled housewife in Los Angeles in 1949, or a lesbian intellectual in New York at the end of the 20th century, yet there is something in which we all, by virtue of being alive , partake. “There’s just this for consolation,” Clarissa Vaughan reflects at the end of The Hours, “an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectation, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows that these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.”

And voila! We are all here together. Virgina Wolf, Clarrissa Daloway, Laura Brown, Clarissa Vaughan, Michael Cunningham, and you, the reader of The Hours. All of us are here, together, nodding in recognition.


Aleksander Hemon’s Heart of Darkness

29 01 2014

When I finished Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, I felt a strong impulse to write to him.  I had so many questions, so many things I wanted to understand about him.  Though I am sure our paths have never crossed, he seemed to me, at that moment, a brother – not exactly a spiritual brother – more like a brother in consciousness.  Somehow, by some inexplicable, arcane map, we have both visited the threshold of the same landscape, seen the same view, and asked the same questions.  It seemed to me that this Aleksandar Hemon, roughly the same age as I am, but with a cultural legacy that is very different than my own, had for a brief moment partaken in the same weighted mystery that engages much of my thought.

The Lazarus Project is the story of a journey that began when Hemon (or rather, Hemon’s alter-ego- character, but I’m just going to call him Hemon), came across the story of Lazarus Averbuch, a young Russian Jewish immigrant who was shot dead by the Chief of the Police in Chicago in 1908.  Apparently the assailant took one look at the disheveled Jew who had appeared at his doorstep and assumed that he was a violent anarchist.  By some form of cryptic alchemy, the story resonated with Hemon, a Christian Bosnian who had inadvertently found himself in the US at the onset of the war in Yugoslavia.

Perhaps Hemon, a Chicago-based immigrant himself, identified with Averbuch.  Perhaps he felt as misunderstood and misplaced and out of synch.  Perhaps the tale, with its racism and fear and violence and inane murder, reminded him of what was going on in his hometown, Sarjevo.  For some reason, this long-forgotten and now irrelevant story angered him, ignited his imagination, drew him inside of it.  To me, it feels like it cast a spell over him, no less, and compelled him to take a flight to regions once near and dear, but now happily forgotten, to Jewish hearts, beginning with that old favorite, Lvov, (or as it is now called Lviv) and then on to Czernowitz, or as it is known today, Chernivtsi, Chisinau (otherwise known as Kishenev, the famous pogrom town) Bucharest, and Sarajevo.

What did Hemon know about the places he was visiting?  Was he aware, for example,  that Martin Buber grew up in Lviv?  That Joseph Roth went to university there?  Was he aware that Paul Celan and Aharon Appelfeld weres born in Chernovitz?  That Czernowitz was the site of the first international Yiddish conference, which was co-incidentally held in the same year as the Averbuch murder? Probably not.  Or perhaps he knew, but they were not part of his trajectory. What was part of his trajectory was the Jewish Center in Chernivtsi, where he searched, in vain, for someone who could give him some first or second hand information about the 1903 Kishinev pogrom.

The book that came to mind as I read was Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Hemon begins in the (figuratively) white sepulchral city of Chicago, lands in Lvov, and proceeds deeper and deeper into Averbuch’s story, moving backwards along his route in space and time.  Of course, one hundred years separate Averbuch’s journey west and Hemon’s journey east, and the world he encounters as he makes his way is vastly different from the one that Averbuch left.   Or perhaps it is just weary and ravaged and devoid of hope.  And devoid of the Jews, or the vestiges of the Jews, that Hemon is looking for.

Like Charles Marlow, Hemon heads deep into the hidden heart of what is lost and concealed.  Where Marlow journeyed through the comparatively wholesome jungles of Africa, Hemon’s odyssey involves disgusting hotels, reckless cab rides, and all the rampant corruption, decrepitness and faded Austro-Hungarian kitsch that the region has to offer, as he is all the while kept company by Rora, an ex-schoolmate/photographer who entertains him with tales of lawlessness, vice and murder amongst the warlords of Sarajevo.

I am intrigued, and impressed, that Hemon found it in himself not only to research, but to write a detailed fictional re-enactment of a pogrom.  What is it about this quintessential  Jewish catastrophe that lead him to invest his writing self its horror?  What wells of empathy has he called up in order convey this particular moment in Jewish history?  And why?  After all, as the old Jew in Chernivtsi explains to him, “There were many pogroms in Russia before the Shoah, and then there was the Shoah”.

The book’s most powerful moment comes when he finds the Jews.  Or rather, he finds their cemetery in Kishinev.  “The leaves did not move as we brushed past them; the twigs did not break under our feet; there was not sun, though there was light, heavy and viscous. This was all, the world of the dead: Rozenberg, Mandelbaum, Berer, Mandelstam, Rosenfeld, Spivak, Urrman, Weinstien.”   And then he comes upon the grave of Isaac Averbuch  1901-1913. He has finally found the key, the source, the undeniable proof that everyone, even a wretched, victimized immigrant, comes from somewhere.

“Tell me Iuliana,” Hemov says to his guide as they make their way out of the overgrown, crumbling, desecrated cemetery, “what is this world about –life or death?”  It is a question that belongs to victims.  To the broken. To the lost.  Hemon has travelled down his river and arrived at this moment in order to ask it. He has come looking for the heart of the darkness in his soul and found it in a forgotten corner of Eastern Europe.

He, and his view of his sepulchral city, will never be the same.

Ignoring the Elephant – Ellen Ullman’s Jewish Question

17 08 2013

I’m going to talk here about Ellen Ullman’s By Blood.  If you haven’t read it, you should stop right here, because I’m going to raise some reflections that could spoil the experience of discovering this book for yourself. 

If, however, you’ve read it, or know that you won’t be reading it, than feel free to keep going.

So, now that it’s just us, I want to share some thoughts.  By Blood deals, with many things, (San Francisco in the 70’s, the Lesbian community, psychoanalysis, to name a few), but at heart, I think it’s about the problem of identity.  Living as we are in these post-modern times, our identity need not be imposed on us by others.  On the contrary, we enjoy a stunning freedom and legitimacy to define ourselves, regardless of where or to whom we are born.  We can each, at least in theory, declare who we are, and the world will accept it.  You’re gay?  No problem.  You want to be a Zen Buddist?  Totally fine.  You want to change your sex?  Also fine.  Change your religion?  We can respect that. You’re a guy and you want to be a kindergarten teacher, or you’re a woman and you want to be a construction worker?  Not an issue. Tell us who you are, and we will admire the you that you’ve created.


The problem arises when, in spite of your bold, iconoclastic, unapologetic work of self-definition, you begin to wonder about the part of yourself that cannot be altered.  You cannot shake the sense that there is a certain aspect to who you are which is indelibly written on your genes.  Or as Ellen Ullman might say, in your blood. 

By Blood involves three main characters: A psychotherapist, her patient – a young woman exploring the meaning of her being adopted, and the narrator who eavesdrops on their sessions.   The narrator, who has himself broken with his family and re-invented himself, is enraptured by the notion that as an adoptee, the patient is free to re-invent herself, unencumbered by  any knowledge about her biological parents.  “Mysterious origins” is the way she defines her cryptic beginnings, and the narrator is eager to listen in on the way she might explore and affirm this notion.  “How I wished she could see herself as made from whole cloth- as the self-created creature I’d hoped to follow into my own release from ancestry,” he explains.

But for the patient, it’s the not knowing that has become a burden.  She can no longer bear to be a blank slate.  She longs for the unassailable decree of ancestry, of blood-ties, of an irrefutable identity that is imposed on one’s consciousness.  And so, unlike most psychotherapy cases, the journey this patient makes is not toward liberation and transcendence, but into the difficult, messy, confining truth of genetic fact.  She is seeking not the light, but the darkness.  Not ease, but struggle.  

This woman, whose adoption bequeathed her a simple, uncomplicated existence, has chosen to exchange a comfortable fiction for a far more complex truth.  And that truth is not what she bargained for. For, in the course of the book’s remarkable narrative, it transpires that she is not a protestant, the fortunate child of American Wasps.  Rather, she is a Jew, conceived in a concentration camp, the unwitting bearer of a legacy of – of what?  What does it mean to find out that you are a Jew?  What does it mean to find yourself written into a chapter of their outrageous, turbulent history?  Where does one even begin to deal with that?

All of these might be interesting questions, but the author of By Blood has not chosen to explore them.  Naturally, I was curious about this.  To come so close to these issues and then to drop them is, in my opinion, an unusual authorial choice, a sort of ignoring the elephant one has brought into the living room.  Not surprisingly, I wanted very much to know more about Ellen Ullman.  After some internet research, I came to the conclusion that these questions are simply not the focus of her writing.  Though she is obviously knowledgeable about Jewish history and impressed with the phenomenon of Jewish resilience, she isn’t particularly interested in exploring the implications of discovering that one might partake of them.  It is, after all, the narrator’s story, and she artfully cuts if off in a way that is right for this work. 

Nonetheless, perhaps because of this omission, this willful decision to steer clear, it is these questions, more than any of the others that the book presents, that have stayed with me.







Ghostwriter and Ghost

12 02 2012

Anyone who has made an earnest attempt at creating art is familiar with the problem: if you are to focus on the work of creating, you need to go deep inside your head.  And if you are gallivanting around in your head, you are more or less on vacation from the unrelenting  demands of life.  You might tell yourself that you can do it, that you can be in both places at once, and maybe you can pull it off, doing whatever needs to get done.  But you will never be fully present in either your art, or your life;  your consciousness, your essential way of being, will always feel compromised.

A compelling exploration of the life/art problem can be found in the writings of Philip Roth, or more specifically, in two of his novels read in the following sequence: First, The Ghostwriter (1979), and then, immediately afterward, skip the next six Nathan Zukerman novels and go directly to Exit Ghost(2007).  Though the books are written 28 years apart, reading them as a pair is an uncanny and troubling endeavor.   Roth could not have originally (that is, in 1979) intended it,  and yet they go together so well;  The Ghostwriter as a question, Exit Ghost as an answer.  The Ghostwriter as a hope, a vision, a promise.  And then Exit Ghost as a sobering, merciless response.   And the authenticity of the response is oddly powerful, because not only has their narrator, Nathan Zukerman, aged in the long years between these two books, but their author has as well.

The Ghostwriter was Roth’s first engagement with Nathan Zuckerman.  How much of Roth was distilled into this character we’ll never know.  What we do know is that it’s 1956, and Zuckerman, an emerging (and promising) writer of 23 has been invited to the home of acclaimed author, E.I Lonoff and his wife Hope for dinner.  Roth’s depiction of Zuckerman, his mixture of self-effacement and arrogance, of doubt and optimism, of obsessive ambition and painful self-consciousness is authentic as only a once young  up-and-coming Jewish writer can write about another young up-and-coming Jewish writer.

Lonoff welcomes Zuckerman into the brotherhood of writers, speaking to him, as an equal, of his reading and writing routines, his difficulties, and even his fantasies about how he would like to live.  He takes great interest in Zuckerman’s job as a door-to-door magazine salesman.

Did I sell any other magazines other than Photoplay and Silver Screen?  Did I use the same line at every door or adapt my sales pitch to the customer?  How did I account for my success as a salesman?  What did I think people were after who subscribed to these insipid magazines?  Was the work boring? Did anything unusual ever happen while I was prowling neighborhoods I knew nothing about? ….Had I ever been to Hackensack?  What was it like? ….I wish I knew that much about selling magazines. I wish, he said, I knew that much about anything.  I’ve written fantasy for thirty years.  Nothing happens to me.” 

His genius notwithstanding, nothing happens to him because he has moved to remote farmhouse in the country, with only his wife for company.  Lonoff gives Zuckerman a rudimentary description of what might be described as his creative process.

Meanwhile, I turn sentences around.  That’s my life.  I write a sentence and then I turn it around.  Then I look at it and I turn it around again.  Then I have lunch.  Then I come back in and write another sentence.  Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around.  Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around.  Then I lie down on my sofa and think.  Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning. And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day, I’m frantic with boredom and a sense of waste.

His only relief from this routine, he explains, is his teaching job at a local college.

 his way, at least two afternoons a week, I have to stop, no questions asked.  Besides, going to the college is the high point of my week.  I carry a briefcase.  I wear a hat.  I nod hello to people on the stairway.  I use the public toilet.  Ask Hope.  I come home reeling from the pandemonium.

Hope, it becomes clear, is the one who has had to bear the burden of Lonoff’s yielding, however ambivalently, to the demands of art over those of lived life.  Her frustration is compounded by the presence that evening of yet another visitor to the Lonoff household, the “fetching” and clever Amy Bellete, a former student and assistant of Lonoff’s.  Amy is dark haired and bright eyed with an enigmatic European accent.  Does the Zuckerman character fall for her?  Yes he does.  And it is this infatuation, more than the dimensions of Lonoff’s conundrum, that spike this tale with metaphysical dynamite.  For Zuckerman begins to entertain the idea that he young woman is none other than Anne Frank.

The novel draws to a close.  Lonoff confesses to Zuckerman his fantasy of moving to Florence with a younger woman.  Zuckerman overhears Amy proposition Lonoff, and Lonoff reject her advances.  Hope has a fit of rage.  The two youngsters, Amy and Zuckerman, depart leaving Lonoff to his raging wife and his long days of playing with words.

It’s a great book.  But don’t stop there.  Go now to Exit Ghost.  The characters of The Ghostwriter have lived entire lives.  Roth has lived an entire life.  But you, lucky reader, can enjoy the luxury of time travel, garnering wisdom and insight without having to pay the price in time.

 So.  It’s 2004. The once randy Zuckerman, now both incontinent (he wears pads) and impotent, and suffers from lapses of memory which are starting to impair his functioning.  Amy Bellete, the European beauty who, in The Ghostwriter, inspires Zuckerman to masturbate on Lonoff’s day bed, is an impoverished, decrepit old woman dying of brain cancer.  When Zuckerman first recognizes Amy in a cafeteria, he avoids her.  Like Lonoff, Zuckerman, we immediately learn, has also chosen art over life.  Having indeed fulfilled his promise as a writer, Zuckerman has moved, like Lonoff, to the country, to live a solitary, isolated existence.  As he tells it:

 I don’t give readings or lectures or teach at a college or appear on TV.  When my books are published, I keep to myself.  I write every day of the week- otherwise I’m silent. I am tempted by the thought of not publishing at all – isn’t the work all I need, the work and the working?  What does it matter any longer if I’m incontinent and impotent?” 

Though the last line here makes the rest seem like an elaborate rationalization, the question that Roth is posing is a weighty one; if the point of the writer’s effort is to produce writing, having done that, does it even matter if it is ever read?  On a certain level, it doesn’t.   But having unequivocally chosen art, what is one to do about the remorseless presence of life?

After succumbing to a momentary temptation, Zuckerman answers an ad for a house swap – his country home for the West side apartment of David and Jamie, a young couple, both of them writers. To his own great surprise, Zuckerman is drawn to the Jamie, the wife, who awakens feelings that the impotent Zuckerman thought were dead and gone.

Through the couple, Zuckerman is pursued by Richard Kliman, a 28 year old freelance journalist.  Kliman who is writing Lonoff’s biography, has uncovered a scandalous secret regarding Lonoff’s personal life, about which he wants to questions Zuckerman.   Zuckerman is outraged at the sensational violation of his mentor’s reputation.  He then seeks out Amy Bellette, with the hope of warning her about Kliman, and finding out the truth about Lonoff.   Zuckerman’s obsession with Jamie, and his quest to vanquish Kliman’s plans, fills him with a new hunger for real, lived life.

Back in the drama, back in the moment, back into the turmoil of events!  When I heard my voice rising, I did not rein it in.  There is the pain of being in the world, but there is also the robustness.  When was the last time I had felt the excitement of taking someone on?   

Zuckerman, in this novel is 71, and we know before he does that his struggles are doomed.  He comes to understand that Jamie has no physical interest in him, and that in the face of Richard’s determination, he is powerless.  Powerless to stop him, and powerless to influence what will happen to Lonoff’s reputation.

Lonoff tried to run from life and take refuge in art, but even in death, his life is about to catch up with him.  Zuckerman too, tried to escape the irritations and demands of life for his art, only to find that time has barred him from all he thought he wanted to escape.  It would appear that in the artist’s struggle between life and art, life is the stronger element.

In the face of the impossibility of an affair with Jamie, Zuckerman is inspire to compose, on his hotel notepaper, long scenes of dialogue between them.  It is all fantasy; mere art.  But then, what are we to make of this:

But isn’t one’s pain quotient shocking enough without fictional amplification, without giving things an intensity that is ephemeral in life, and sometime even unseen?  Not for some.  For some very, very few that amplification, evolving uncertainly out of nothing, constitutes their only assurance, and the unlived, the surmise, fully drawn in print on paper, is the life whose meaning comes to matter most. 

My Love Affair with Kundera

8 11 2011

I was twenty. I wandered into a bookstore in Jerusalem, and saw it on the New Books table– The Joke. The title was intriguing. The blurbs were enthusiastic. The surrealist/modern- angst cover hinted that the humor of The Joke would be cynical and ironic. I didn’t have much money in those days; reader, I bought it for love. Or rather, a hope that it would live up to its promise. And that, my friends, was how I met Milan Kundera.
It was one of those instances where a book takes you by the hand and shows you something you’ve suspected must exist, but never seen. The writing was witty and accessible. The project was political satire, where the distinction between the good guys and the bad was thrillingly obvious, and the tone was an appealing mixture of earnest and sardonic. Kundera’s characters, Czech citizens living in a regime that both terrorized and infantilized them, were foreign to me, but at the same time, as intriguing as fascinating new friends. The predicament of people struggling to create a life under the stifling rule of communism struck me as beautiful and heroic.
But rather that talk about The Joke , I’m going to move on to the book that is considered Kundera’s masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Whenever I’m asked to think of a book that influenced me as a writer , this is what comes to mind. I’ve heard it said that with the end of Communism in Eastern Europe, this work has lost its relevance. That might be true if one approaches it as protest literature, but otherwise, I disagree. What Kundera has shown here is how one might successfully invest a book with philosophical discourse, politics, psychology, sociology, history, and one’s own digressive musings, while never losing sight of the main business of fiction – which, hopefully we agree, is a good story. This all sounds heavy and unpleasant to digest. It isn’t. It’s more like a meal where the various ingredients have combined to produce an unusual sense of satisfaction.
Why is this so? I think it’s precisely because The Unbearable Lightness of Being offers us so much more than just another story. It opens in (what was once) Czechoslovakia, at the time immediately before the Prague spring, and tells of a couple, Tomas, a surgeon, and Tereza, a waitress in a provincial hotel. Following a brief, chance meeting between the two, Tereza leaves her home and travels to Tomas in Prague. A love story ensues, but Tomas has a habit for philandering which he cannot and does not want to curb. Tereza tries to be accommodating, but feelings of unworthiness, jealousy, and self-hatred nonetheless make themselves known in anxieties and bizarre, violent dreams. The couple moves to Zurich, where they enjoy the freedom and prosperity of the West, but when Tereza decides that she can no longer stand living in the shadow of Tomas’s affairs, she returns to Russian-occupied Prague, alone. Tomas realizes that she is the love of his life and followers her. Like many of the Czech intelligentsia, he eventually loses his job and takes on menial work, in his case, as a window washer. Ultimately the two leave Prague for the country to live out their lives amongst simple farmers.
This story, a romantic tale at heart, is compelling enough. But what Kundera does with it is both daring and original: he frames this story in philosophical notions and dichotomies. Like a Sonata (Beethoven is clearly a favorite, and his work also figures in the book) the book is structured in seven “movements”, which bear names like “Light and Darkness” and “Body and Soul”. This directs our attention to the philosophical problems that Kundera wants to explore through the fates of his characters. But Kundera, though painfully alive to the great post-modern questions, does not go in for post-modern tricks and obfuscation. He simply interrupts the narrative and explains what’s on his mind. He doesn’t show what he’s thinking, he tells you. Like a warm, chatty professor digressing to his class, he discusses the narrative action, brings in relevant examples to highlight his case, quotes renown but unconnected figures, calls up historical anecdotes, and holds forth in discourses on the nature and motivations of the erotic (a pet subject of his, to which he gives a good deal of consideration).
For me, this work offers a model of how an artist might integrate all the various, and unrelated, musings, ideas, associations, and insights that flow through one’s mind into a clear, stable story line, deeply developed characters, and intensely felt themes. This sort of integration is not easy to achieve, even when done badly. But when the attempt is successful, it is exhilarating.
The result is such that in this novel, Kundera has described one of the principal dilemmas of our time: How to find meaning in a world where the post-modern sensibility has made everything meaningless. What is weighty for us? What is weightless? Is there anything that can comfort us in the wake of meaninglessness? How can we live with the knowledge that even if others understand our words, they don’t really understand what we mean?
Did Kundera create Tomas and Tereza and the rest of his characters in order to share his philosophical ponderings? Or did he begin with his inquiries, and then create characters and situations in which they could play out? One only need turn to the writing to see the answer. I have been thinking about Tomas for many years….Kundera tells us right at the beginning of the book, after a few pages of musings on the meaning of Nietzsche’s concept of Eternal Return. I saw him standing at the window of his flat and looking at the courtyard at the opposite walls, not knowing what to do.
It is images like this one that suggest that in the world of Kundera’s vision, the most troubling of philosophical questions play themselves out not in books and treatises, but in every moment of our waking, and sleeping, lives.

Midnight in Tuppertown

27 07 2011

When I was growing up in Toronto, our family owned a cottage. Almost every summer weekend we would pack up the car and drive two hours north. We’d speed past cows grazing in empty fields, lonely gas stations with signs unchanged since the 1950s, and small, dreary, towns. The towns inevitably had a general store, a lumber yard, the odd coffee shop, maybe a church, but that was about it. And I would wonder: What did one do in a place where there were no enticing store windows, no malls, no movie theaters, no skating rinks, no libraries, no city? How did people live in these places where the view from your window was of nothing but empty fields and a cold, limitless sky? Just the thought of it all sent a chill of horror through me, and I could only be grateful that no matter what seemed dissatisfactory about my own life, at least had the great good fortune not to live in one of those places. I think it was this sense of despair that inspired a deep appreciation, or rather, an awe, for the writing of Alice Munro, whose essential view of the world was shaped by the dimensions of those small towns.

Though I knew of Alice Munro when I still lived in Canada, it took me many years to read her work. As a girl growing up in the suburbs, the last thing I wanted to read about was the alarmingly similar predicament of other girls living in what we sophisticated city-folk referred to as “the boonies”. I was afraid that I would be bored to death, and that that boredom would feel uncomfortably close to home.

And so I read about people who lived in “interesting” places: Holden Caulfied’s adventures with the seamy side of life in NYC. Garp’s consorting with bears and prostitutes in Vienna. Garcia Marquez’s Buendía family in brilliant and doomed Macondo. Hanif Kureishi’s Karim negotiating his identity in South London. I could read about anything, it seems, except the lives of girls with whom I shared a language, a landscape, and a birthplace.

When, many years later, I did approach Alice Munro, it was with a skeptical curiosity about what she had done with her subject matter. Unlike Munro’s heroines, I had left Canada for the Middle East. It was no longer troubling for me to read about girls stuck in places where the monotony was broken only by bake sales and gossip. I found her very first collection of stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, in my local library. And then, with my hard earned worldliness I re-entered the world I had so happily left behind.  This is the setting of the very first story in the collection, her debut, as it were:

Then my father and I walk gradually down a long, shabby sort of street, with Silverwoods Ice Cream signs standing on the sidewalk outside tiny, lighted stores. This is Tuppertown, an old town on Lake Huron, an old grain port….Presently we leave these yards and houses behind, we pass a factory with boarded up windows, a lumberyard whose gates are locked for the night. Then the town falls away in a defeated jumble of sheds and small junkyards…

Are you asleep yet? Or just yawning through the gloom? What could possibly happen in this place that would interest a reader?

Here’s another description, from another story in the collection, The Peace of Utrecht. But be assured: the characters in this story are as close to Utrecht as I am to Teheran.

the whole town, its rudimentary pattern of streets and its bare trees and muddy yards just free of the snow… dirt roads where the lights of cars appeared, jolting towards the town, under an immense pale wash of sky.

I know these streets, those bare trees and muddy yards, that immense sky. And every time I read an Alice Munro story, I wonder anew at how she is able to create something from what seems to me to be… nothing.

I’m not going to explore here how that Munro takes these settings, where life is quiet and local color is pale and muted, and turns them into a backdrop for stories that are compelling, powerful, and in their own unique way, full of tragedy, horror, moral dilemma, social critique, and drama; in other words, that span the infinite and ancient spectrum of human endeavor. But I would be happy to provide and example.

Take The Shining Houses, also from Dance of the Happy Shades. The plot is oh so simple. You’ve heard the story about the community that is eagerly awaiting the construction of new, modern apartments, and the only thing stopping the project is some crazy old lady who, though she’s been offered more than fair compensation, insists on remaining in her dilapidated old eyesore of a cabin/cottage/shack/house, thereby putting the entire plan on indefinite hold? What, you may ask, can possibly be done with this situation that is new, fresh, or surprising?

Well, how about this: Mary, a young wife and mother, and part of the community of energetic young couples perceives that she, out of the whole self-righteous lot of her peers, is the only one who can see crazy old Mrs. Fullerton’s dump of a house as something rich, layered, and complex.

Here was no open or straightforward plan, no order that an outsider could understand; yet what was haphazard time had made final. The place had become fixed, impregnable, all its accumulations necessary, until it seemed that even the washtubs, mops, couch springs and stacks of old police magazines on the back porch were there to stay.

Mary senses the violence in the plan to force Mrs. Fullerton out of her house. The problem is that she can’t find the language to describe what she sees. The scene is played out at a child’s birthday party, where the parents have assembled for coffee and birthday cake.

Mary set her coffee cup down before she spoke and hoped her voice would sound all right, not emotional or scared. “But remember she’s been here a long time,” she said. “She was here before most of us were born.” She was trying desperately to think of other words, words more sound and reasonable than these; she could not expose to this positive tide any notion that they might think flimsy and romantic, or she would destroy her argument. But she had no argument. She could try all night and never find any words to stand up to their words, which came at her now invincibly from all sides: shack, eyesore, filthy, property, value.

Mary can’t find the words, and it wouldn’t make a difference if she could, because she’s up against something much more dark and primal than a neighborly disagreement.

And these were joined by other voices; it did not matter much what they said as long as they were full of self-assertion and anger. That was their strength, proof of their adulthood, of themselves and their seriousness. The spirit of anger rose among them, bearing up their young voices, sweeping them together as on a flood of intoxication, and they admired each other in this new behavior as property-owners as people who admire each other for being drunk.

In that brief lacuna between what the writer puts on the page and what the reader enacts in her mind, the shining houses and their smug, sanctimonious young owners have slipped over the line that differentiates a group from a mob.

Munro concludes the story with a final, compassionate glance at the town:

She saw the curtains being drawn across living room windows; cascades of flowers, of leaves, of geometrical designs, shut off these rooms from the night. Outside it was quite dark, the white houses were growing dim, the clouds breaking and breaking, and smoke blowing from Mrs. Fullerton’s chimney. The pattern of Garden Place, so assertive in the daytime, seemed to shrink at night into the raw black mountainside.

And that’s the thing about Alice Munro. We’re still in some dull town in Ontario, still with characters who seem limited in scope and experience. So why does this story, like much of Munro’s work seem to partake of the finest, the most subtle truth and beauty?


Freedom and Revolution

28 02 2011

Freedom and Revolution. There are still some places in the world where these words evoke drama and idealism. But when we use them with reference to ourselves, what they mostly elicit is cynicism and irony, as in the titles of two books I’ve read recently, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road. These titles suggest something stirring and political, but what they in fact address is the more prosaic problem of how might live in a place where freedom is a given and the revolution is over.

Reading the two back to back, they provoke an urge compare and contrast. Both books are set in Middle-class America. Both feature the story of a couple, while simultaneously attempting to convey the spirit, feel, and tone of an era. What makes the comparison interesting is the fifty-year time lapse between them. Revolutionary Road was published in 1961. Freedom came out just last year. Chronologically speaking, Patty and Walter Berglund could be the children of Frank and April Wheeler.

You want to believe that given the fifty year gap, the books will be very different, and they are in many ways. Revolutionary Road unfolds in what we might now call the times of Mad Men, where people conduct themselves according to stringently coded norms of style and behavior, and difference of any kind is scarcely tolerated. The men and women of Freedom, on the other hand, happily disregard the expectations of others, and blaze their own trail on their own terms.

What struck me, however, is how in several ways, they’re actually quite similar.

Why not start with the women? Both Jonathan Franzen in 2010 and Richard Yates in 1961, have created female protagonists who have effectively lost themselves. These writers, both exquisitely sensitive to nuances of character, time and place, have given their heroines the same sense of a dead end. It’s interesting to notice just how it plays out: Patty Berglund’s best years are when she becomes a “stay-at-home” mom (Then term, and its notion of electivity, didn’t exist in 1961, yet the core situation that it conveys hasn’t changed). Franzen describes her as enthusiastically living out the role of the “enviably perfect mother”, and her crises doesn’t occur until her children grow up and leave the house, at which point she descends into drinking and depression. April, living as she is in the late fifties, lacks the language and societal affirmation for her sense of emptiness and ennui in her housewife role (and it is in fact not merely a role, but a complete identity, bestowed on her by the world). It’s painful to watch April try, like a trapped fly, to solve the conundrum of how she ought to live. When the book opens, she is trying to realize her dream of becoming an actress by taking part in a local play. When that fails, she devises an escape plan – her and Frank will pack up their two young children and go to Europe, where Frank will finally be able “find himself” while she supports the family. (Her need, practically bleeding off the page, to find herself, is a subject which doesn’t occur to her. Did Yates purposely write it this way, or did it simply never occur to him?). This too, doesn’t pan out, ostensibly because April gets pregnant.

It is perhaps the great change in women’s lives in the last 50 years that makes Patty, as opposed to April, seem so pathetic. Patty is free in exactly the place where April is trapped. Of course Franzen was making a statement here about the titular freedom he is questioning. What does seem noteworthy is that both women instinctively try to escape their existential predicament through men, or more specifically, through affairs with their husband’s best friend. Patty’s coy pursuit of Richard Katz leads to divorce and emotional oblivion. For April, the nihilistic misery of her encounter with Shep Campbell ends in death. It seems that fifty years, and a revolution in our understanding of women and their lives, has not made much of a difference. (Some might point out that both of these stories, and their women, were written by men. Yet I have yet to hear anyone say that this aspect of the plot is unauthentic.) The extramarital affair with the closest available man is still the escape route of choice, through which a woman might break out of her life in a desperate, but doomed grasp at self-realization.

Moving on to the men, both Frank and Walter are trying to make their peace with the American Dream. While Frank regards it with disdain and irony, Walter prides himself on defining himself in opposition to it. Funnily enough however, it turns out that the joke is on them. On both of them. Frank is seduced into the Dream with promises of promotion and money, while Walter, clever, noble, and naïve, is tricked into engineering his spiritual and professional downfall with his own two hands. The Dream really is just a dream, and truth, cold and lacking in glamour as it turns out to be, lies only in the personal/familiar sphere. It is in this sense that Freedom is, in spite of everything, the more optimistic work. Walter and Patty eventually reclaim each other, but for Frank there is no redemption; just as there was no redemption for the stifling mindset of his times.

Interestingly, the male protagonists in these novels cheat too, both with women from their work places. It’s nice to note that while Frank’s partner of choice is a secretary (Did anybody say Mad Men?), Walter’s affair is with a woman not only his professional equal, but of different race. It is perhaps in this detail that we feel the effect of those fifty years at its strongest.

Somewhat less obvious, but definitely thought provoking is the role of the rebellious “outsider” in these tales. In Revolutionary Road, this is clearly John Givings, the son of the local real-estate agent – and a certified resident of the local mental hospital. Freedom, with its 2010 ideas of what constitutes otherness has Richard Katz – the inadvertent rock star. Both these characters enact the age old part of the fool who tells the truth. John Givings comes across as rude, obnoxious, and lacking in all sense of propriety, but he also has a quality of cutting though every decorous nicety that dictates the prevailing social behavior of the sane. Oddly enough, it is with him, and only with him, that Frank and April have social exchanges that feel honest. Richard Katz’s otherness works in a very different way: blunt, cynical, and smug, he’s the man Walter could never be, and the guy Patti could never have. His very presence has an aura of both coolness and authenticity that torments Walter and Patti even as they fall under its spell. Obviously, the concept of otherness has changed to become less threatening and more accessible, such that its attraction feels potent and powerful, drawing us in rather than frightening us. What doesn’t seem to have changed is the fact that both of these so-called successful couples are in need of a truth-teller who says what everyone knows but cannot speak.

Finally, the two novels invite a literary comparison. Franzen’s seems to spread out, replete as it is with detailed descriptions of not only relationships, characters and situations, but memorabilia of the times – our times. It is entirely and constantly self aware – as if writing a record for future generations. Yates’s, on the other hand is nuanced, focused and sharp. There are far few characters, and we know far less about them than we do about Franzen’s, yet we end up knowing everything we need to know about who they are and the world they inhabit. Without long lists that characterize the era, or wordy portrayals of overly imagined characters, Yates manages to convey a powerful sense of what limits the Wheelers, what shapes them and delineates the borders of their world.

As a reader, I loved Freedom, but I am in awe of Revolutionary Road. Franzen appears to me a juggler, frantically doing jigs in the air to please the crowd, while Yates seems as coolly knowing as a prophet. At the ending of Freedom, Patty and Walter return to each other. It is an ending of hope, one that warms the heart, but makes you wonder what all the fuss was about. But in Revolutionary Road, with April dead and Frank estranged from his children, (because in 1961, the notion of a father raising his children alone was, well, revolutionary) the focus turns to Shep Campbell, and his unsophisticated, dumpy , wife Milly. It was perhaps her lack of sophistication, her innate dumpiness that made him dream of the beautiful and sophisticated April Wheeler, but if April represents fantasy and Milly reality, Shep knows, by the end of the book, where he’ll be making his bed.

Looking at her now in the lamplight, this small, rumpled, foolish woman, he knew he had told the truth. Because god damn it, she was alive wasn’t she? If he walked over to her chair right now, and touched the back of her neck, she would close her eyes and smile, wouldn’t she? Damn right she would.

I have to admit that I had a lot of fun reading Freedom; I loved the familiarity of it, and the gratifying shock of recognition that its chatty narratives bestowed. But it is this ending, earned in the wake of Yates’s tragic story, that will stay with me longer.