Saturday, December 8, 2018

the savage beauty of edna st vincent millay

What a bewitching figure was Edna St Vincent Millay -  known to her family simply as Vincent. I knew hardly anything about her when I picked up Nancy Mitford's biography Savage Beauty last week. But in 1938 she was one of the ten most famous women in America.  She lived near Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and although for several years we visited Great Barrington frequently while my daughter Rozzie was in college there, I never visited Millay's home, Steepletop, and never thought to.

But apart from her life, her manner, and her example I have now discovered her sonnets - and I can see how they gave a whole generation of women completely new ways of thinking about passion, sex and themselves. 

So much has changed for women in the last one hundred years that you wonder what Edna St Vincent Millay can possibly say to us today.  But in reading about her,  I now understand that she was a bridge from Victorian notions of femininity to a modern understanding of female sexual empowerment.  I find myself identifying with her even more than with some of today's female role models.

Such fresh openness.  No wonder the world was in love with her.
Vincent Millay was never intimidated by authority.  At Vassar, where she went on full scholarship, she often skipped classes and disobeyed rules.  At the same time, she was completely comfortable in her body and her self. An early anecdote recounted by Vincent's sister Norma in Mitford's biography gives you a taste of her style.

"One afternoon we'd gone for a walk up Mount Overlook, and on our return two boys were  following us.  At first we paid no attention to  them.  We'd always liked to walk and there we were two - I daresay pretty - girls striding along enjoying ourselves.  And these two callow youths, calling out to us, trailing behind, but trailing, still, if you follow me, threateningly.  Suddenly Vincent turned around and, crooking her finger, beckoned them.  Well, they came right up pretty quick.  And she said, looking them directly in the eye, 'it is true that we have vaginas and breasts, but we are walking alone together because it pleases us to and that is our right.  We have selected to be alone, and we intend to so remain.' The boys just stood there, bug-eyed, truly stricken. "

 Vincent Millay was confident and she was defiant and she was fiercely intelligent, but these qualities didn't come with the hard edge of bitterness that so often accompanies them today.  Perhaps that's why she was able to thrive in the early 1900's.  Everyone fell in love with her - including the rather stodgy Edmond Wilson.  She struck a kind of elfin figure - nonthreatening but highly seductive. She was openly bisexual, liked to swim in the nude and smoked cigarettes in public. During her long marriage,  she conducted several intensely passionate love affairs - one in particular with a much younger man.  Her husband was a Dutch businessman who adored and thoroughly understood her.  Incredibly he kept on writing to her during this period  (while also conducting a few affairs of his own), as she ran off to Paris with poet George Dillon, for whom she had arranged a Guggenheim fellowship.  Her husband's letters are full of love, longing, understanding and patience.

During her heyday,  Millay sold thousands of volumes of poetry, which is extraordinary for a poet of any epoch.  She was also a compelling presence on stage - draped in long velvet robes. She was small with red hair and the power of her voice brought large audiences under her spell. With a quick google search you can find several recordings of her recitations.   But if you're anything like me, you'll be struck immediately by the quaint and dated style of her delivery.  It was the gay nineties  and then the roaring twenties,  so Millay's voice, timbre and delivery brings to mind Glinda the Good Witch in the Wizard of Oz!

We are all products of the age in which we live, of course. Our ideas of beauty, of strength and seduction are informed by the fashion of the day.  But listening to Millay's recitations, I am struck by how quickly the times have moved on - how we women have moved from one phase to another, and are hopefully moving towards a clearer less apologetic sense of womanhood. Vincent Millay's particular brand of femininity was very quickly left behind.

I mean, just take a look at  this photograph - and notice how posed it is - how it conforms to twee notions of Victorian femininity: the hem of her dress caught up in one hand - the coy dip of her body as she peers beyond the gate. 
So posed. So coy. So dated.

In reading Savage Beauty  you learn what a struggle it was for Millay to come to terms with aging and the loss of sex appeal.  It was hard for her to give up what she'd been and to become a new version of herself.  It's something women often struggle with, it seems. But far worse than this for her,  was how increasingly difficult she found it to write, especially after the war.  She had tried to write polemically and after the war she felt she'd lost her touch.

The end of her life was tragic, but one of the oldest stories in the book.  After a fall, she damaged some nerves in her back - and was prescribed morphine injections.  She then became addicted to morphine and also became a raging alcoholic. Her devoted husband succumbed to the allure of morphine too, and died a year before she did. When she died,  at the age of fifty eight, she was alone in their house. She fell downstairs in her nightgown and broke her neck. 

But my goodness - all that passion -  all that life and experience!  I became completely enthralled in reading about her life,  and I've enjoyed going through her sonnets.  In her sonnets, she's always mindful of the temporal nature of love.  She knew it didn't last.  But her sonnets did.  I admire so much the tone she strikes, her clever use of language, her purity and passion, her light and witty touch.  This one is particularly poignant - written to her lover George Dillon, but evidently never sent to him.  It shows her vulnerability, but also her kindness, even as she has the final word.  

Well, I have lost you, and I lost you fairly;
In my own way, and with my full consent.
Say what you will, kings in a tumbrel rarely
Went to their deaths more proud than this one went.
Some nights of apprehension and hot weeping
I will confess; but that's permitted me;
Day dried my eyes; I was not one for keeping
Rubbed in a cage a wing that would be free.
If I had loved you less or played you slyly
I might have held you for a summer more,
But at the cost of words I value highly,
And no such summer as the one before.
Should I outlive this anguish - and men do -
I shall have only good to say of you.

#savagebeauty #ednastvincentmillay

Thursday, November 29, 2018

the year I found philip larkin

an ordinary looking man. a great poet

This week I read a poem by Philip Larkin for The American Scholar  Read Me a Poem. And while I walked my dogs this morning, I found myself reflecting on the year I first encountered him - not in person, of course, but in his poetry.  I was on a semester abroad at Wroxton College in Oxfordshire.  And that does sound odd - since England has never been abroad for me. Rather, it was returning home.

I had finished high school in the United States and went to Emerson College in Boston through their early admissions program.  Two years later, attending Wroxton as a study abroad student was my chance to go back home, while still working on my American BA degree.  Wroxton Abbey was a Jacobean mansion with sweeping lawns and sprawling wooded acres, in a tiny village near Banbury.

When I first arrived, and seeing that I was British, one of the professors asked, "Are you one of us or are you one of them?" I explained that my family returned to England every year, but I'd been a resident of Massachusetts for seven years.  "Oh," he said, "then you're not one of us.  You're tainted."

 My bedroom at Wroxton was enormous. If you happen to see a photograph of the abbey, my room is the one on the second floor, the tall windowed one, on the right.  I shared it with one person.  We had a view across the lawns. Our desks looked over the drive and the pine trees. Every morning I woke to the sound of wood pigeons.

All our professors were Oxbridge types and the courses were run in the British tradition with seminars, tutorials and frequent guest lecturers, including Shakespearean scholar Stanley Wells.  We were able to take in many productions at Stratford too. I saw the Henry plays - parts I and II and Henry V, as well as The Merry Wives of Windsor.

I was nineteen years old. Back in America I had just ended a disastrous love affair with a much older man. So I was wiser but also sadder.  This was my chance, not just to spread my wings, but to reconnect with my heritage, with grandparents and British friends.  I occasionally went to London to see my best friend Lucy and her circle in Earls Court. I shopped for clothes on Oxford Street and Portobello Road. I bought a pair of platform shoes in blue and green leather.  I went to the Hayward Gallery to see an exhibit of Sir Edward Burne Jones with a sculptor who used to live across the street from us in Surbiton.  We had lunch in her club.  This was the year the band Queen released their single Bohemian Rhapsody.  I bought the 45 and played it repeatedly in my grandparent's living room in Iver. 

During this era my blessing and my curse was to be pretty, intelligent and intellectually curious. And because I was nineteen and a sexual person, I longed for a man to take me on. The trouble was that the one who had recently taken me on spelled trouble. And this was why I had left the man in America - an Iranian who'd lived in England for many years.  His range of experience as well as his connection to England had all been part of the attraction.

My mother used to tell me about her girlhood cat Tinky- who gave birth to forty kittens. Mummy said she always mated with the roughest tomcats in the alley.  Well, that had been me.  Looking for experience - looking to be seduced and educated, looking for somebody to take me on.  I went for an older man since he  had experience, the intellectual and artistic chops to draw me.

But never mind all that, because I started out intending to write about Philip Larkin.  It's just that here I was - in a college where most of the students were female.  There were no boys I wanted to kiss.  No boys to flirt with.  For  recreation, I played the piano. There was a room in the abbey called the Gold Room with a beautiful grand piano.  Strangely, nobody went in there but me.  It was a massive concert sized room with tall ceilings and gilded chairs which matched the gilded rococo paneled walls.  I'd sit at the piano for hours and fumble my way through Beethoven's Pathetique.  It was quite extraordinary.  The room was so grand and I felt grand to be inside it, left to my own devices.  Once, my Shakespeare professor joined me there, and played a few improvisations of his own.  A romance was kindled - but not a very interesting one. 

So I took long walks by myself in the shrubbery. It was full of rhododendron bushes. One afternoon, I finished my shrubbery walk by peering through the library windows.  There I  saw my classmates with open books, cramming for exams. They looked up, perplexed.  Why was I outside when exams were next week?  Only, I was even more perplexed. What were they doing studying - on a beautiful day like this?  I couldn't understand it. 

I too spent time in the library - not cramming for exams, but reading poetry.  I should also add here that the abbey contained a private collection: The full library of C S Lewis.  I was in there only once. Why I didn't take the opportunity and visit that room again and again is beyond me. But I was young and foolish.  I should have been there for hours. But sadly, I wasn't. 

Nevertheless,  it was in the Wroxton library that I found a shelf of contemporary poetry - and discovered Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn and Philip Larkin.   I pored over their work - over Crow by Ted Hughes  in particular, but also over Philip Larkin's irreverent and beautifully structured poems.  It was the off hand tone of his work that drew me.  Wow.  You could write like this?  But how did he incorporate his command of language and form so effortlessly,  while maintaining such irreverence in his tone - such humor and ordinariness - questioning the standards and benchmarks of greatness.  As it turned out, he worked in a library in Hull.  He was an outsider who shunned the spotlight, but he was every bit as good as those in the spotlight.  In fact, he was one of the greats.  When I read Larkin, I entered a whole new world.

After my time at Wroxton, I returned to Emerson College feeling empowered, not just to study literature, but to try my hand at writing some stories of my own.   I published in The Emerson Review and later on in Ploughshares.  A few years after teaching creative writing at Emerson, I moved to New York City and worked for The New Yorker.

But I'll never forget that corner of the Wroxton College library - down near the front windows, overlooking the beautiful gardens in the back.  Church Going - the poem by Philip Larkin which I read for The American Scholar, will always be one of my favorites.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

unrecovered moments that we know existed - on reading madeleine thien

This was one powerful book to read during Thanksgiving - a holiday where we heard that our president was grateful for himself, as troops were deployed to the border to keep away a caravan of asylum seekers and where the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade featured synchronized pom pom girls with plastic grins, a grotesque Sponge Bob hung suspended over laughing crowds.  How many tweaks would turn this into satire?  What have we turned ourselves into, I wondered, as my husband watched, and I turned away, to prepare with my son our thanksgiving meal. 

What is real?  What is true?  What is worth something and what is worth nothing? "Revolutionary music hurts the ears after awhile," Madeleine Thien writes. "There's no nostalgia in it, no place for people to share their sorrows."

What sorrows - the Macy's Parade seems to ask.  Everything is WONDERFUL!

But  "Beauty leaves its imprints on the mind. Throughout history, there have been many moments that can never be recovered, but you and I know that they existed."  These words are written at the top of a score by Sparrow, a gifted Chinese composer, and his daughter finds them when he is gone.  They come towards the end of  Madeleine Thien's epic novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing.  As I immersed myself in this incredible book over the holiday, it seemed to me the best I had read all year.

It's about the Cultural Revolution in China and the fallout across generations, including the 1989 student protests and massacre in Tienanmen Square.  It's also about music and the influence of Western composers on a circle of Chinese musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory.  It's a novel about friendship, love and loss, about the power of music written and practiced, but never heard.  Most significantly, it's about a secret Book Of Records, copied and recopied, each time newly encoded with Chinese characters holding hidden meanings, so as to record their stories.

Chinese characters figure strongly in the novel, right from its opening, when Ai-Ming, a young Chinese refugee, arrives at the home of Li-ling (Marie is her western name) in Vancouver, Canada.  Marie asks the meaning of Ai-Ming's name. "My parents wanted the idea of mi ming - she said - to cherish wisdom. But you're right, there's a misgiving in it.  An idea that is... mmm, not cherishing fate but not quite accepting it."

Later, Ai-Ming explains how her grandmother's stories, inscribed in the Book of Records, got longer and longer - and "I got smaller and smaller. When I told my grandmother this, she laughed her head off. She said, 'But that's how the world is, isn't it? Or did you think you were bigger than the world?'"

As I read, I began to understand how the world could swallow you whole. Ai-Ming's father Sparrow is a composer and his gifted student Kai (Marie's father) is a pianist.  Their love and connection carries much of the narrative forward,  as does the narrative of Sparrow's cousin Khuli, a violinist.  Their stories are unseen and hidden from the world,  but they are powerful and true, and once you get caught up in the stories of Swirl, Sparrow, Kai and Khuli - you all but forget the narrator. Marie's ancestral stories are bigger than she is.

Another important character, Wen the Dreamer, is sent to labor camp and when he escapes he must keep his whereabouts secret.  He makes it his mission to keep track of those who died in the labor camps. He keeps a record of dates in the lining of his suitcase and records them in the Book of Records - subtly changing the Chinese characters so as to preserve their histories. "When he finished copying," Big Mother Knife wonders of her husband, "did he go back to being himself or were the very structures of his thoughts, their hue and rhythm subtly changed?"

Because they are from the intellectual and educated classes, these characters are oppressed and tortured during Chairman Mao's regime. Each must make a different and very painful choice. One escapes to the west.  Most do not. As Kai tells Zhuli, "one day soon we'll arrive at the exits but all the doors will be locked."

As you read, you see how a whole generation is destroyed. The characters watch as fellow musicians and faculty members at the conservatory are mocked, tortured and killed. Sparrow must burn his glorious symphony, so that it survives just in memory - before he becomes a factory worker in a labor camp.  Much later, when Marie listens to his music  she wonders if music could record a time that otherwise left no trace.

Then there's the story of Swirl, Zhuli's mother,  taken to prison camp to be reeducated. When Sparrow finally finds her, after years of looking, he tells her he's been thinking about the quality of sunshine.    Let me just say that I read this part while I was at work, on my lunch break, and it moved me so much that I had to read it aloud for one of my colleagues.

"Daylight wipes away the stars and the planets, making them invisible to human eyes.  If one needed the darkness in order to see the heavens, might daylight be a form of blindness? Could it be that sound was also a form of deafness? if so what was silence?"

 For me, Zhuli is the most tragic and noble of all the characters in this novel.  As a young and gifted violinist, her love and understanding of Prokofiev and Bach carries her through the troubled times, even as she writes essays on discarded newspaper and butcher paper: "'Are we gifted?' the essays asked.  'If so, who cares? What good is this music, these empty enchantments that only entrench the bourgeoisie and isolate the poor?'"

At the end of her life, Zhuli asks her cousin Sparrow, "Haven't you understood yet Sparrow?.... the only life that matters is in your mind.  The only truth is the one that lives invisibly, that waits even after you close the book.  Silence too, is a kind of music.  Silence will last."

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is extraordinary beautiful, painful and complex.  If you want to know what it was like in Tienanmen Square during the 1989 massacre, you will find no more heartbreaking account than in the final pages of this book.

"The present is all we have," writes Madeleine Thien, "yet it is the one thing we will never learn to hold in our hands."  Or as Marie, a mathematician observes at the end of the novel
  "... to put it another way, dividing by zero equals infinity: you can take nothing out of something an infinite number of times."

#madeleinethien #donotsaywehavenothing

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

the beautiful life is empty

the beach this summer in Bidart, France

The distillation and beauty of James Salter's sentences has always blown me away.  I've just finished reading Light Years for the third time - I picked it for one of my book clubs, and I believe it's his best.   I've read A Sport and a Pastime and his final All That Is - and was grateful to hear him read a short story for Pen Faulkner a few years before he died.  Even so, Light Years this time around felt a little different.  The writing was as glorious as ever, but I related to the characters differently. 

It's the portrait of a marriage between Viri and Nedra, a privileged couple who raise two daughters in the Hudson Valley. The novel follows the break up of their marriage even while domestic intimacies hold it together.

Early on, Viri has an affair with a coworker.   You get the sense it's more out of entitlement than any intrinsic weakness in his marriage.  He feels he has a right to two lives, that he can do this,  So after having amazing sex with his mistress, he comes home to Nedra who has been drawing eels and writing a book about them for their children. It's a beautifully crafted scene, written heartbreakingly. I have never forgotten it.

But soon Nedra also has an affair, with their good friend Jivan. It is described as a relationship of more depth.  In a scene where Jivan visits the family, Salter intersperses descriptions of their love making with domestic scenes, all of them happily together.  The effect is extraordinary.

The relationship between Jivan and Nedra seems to me the most heartfelt in the novel - apart from the mother daughter relationship between Nedra and her daughter  Franca.  "You think when you have love that love is easy to find," Jivan tells her at one point,  "that everyone has it.  It's not true.  It's very hard to find." 

But Nedra throws it over anyway. She is a beautiful woman who lets go only in sex but who never reveals her deepest heartfelt selfhood to anybody.  What she wants is money, and she doesn't think Viri will ever earn enough.  We are told she shows her generosity in how she sets the table.  She is described, as all Salter's women are described, in terms of aesthetics. Women for Salter are beautiful ornaments in the lives of men who accomplish great things: writing, architecture, painting.

He describes Nedra in the rings she leaves on the bedside table, in her wrists while she is cooking, in her camel colored skirt and the back of her neck.  But who would she be, I find myself wondering, if she didn't have money?

Nedra and Viri have plenty of money and leisure time, to spend on the best wines, long weekends of theater, and dinner parties by the fire in their beautiful home, and ultimately to travel.   "'Getting what we want --- is that happiness?"  Viri asks.  " 'I don't know. I know that not getting what you want is certainly unhappiness.'"

When they drift apart, how or why is never spoken of.  But Nedra has never cultivated the wealth of her soul.  Viri, we are told, believes in greatness and wants to be famous, and although Salter never says it overtly, his craving for external accolades won't allow him to cultivate vulnerability.  And isn't the key to happiness finding connection with others, and sharing your inner life with your lover from a vulnerable place?

Viri is hollowed out when his love affair ends....  "it was true," Salter writes, "he seemed the same, precisely the same, but that is often all one sees.  Collapse is hidden, it must reach a certain stage before it breaks the surface, the pillars begin to yield, facades pour down..."  Salter masterfully describes Viri's agony. His heart is somewhere else, even as he engages his children in amusing conversation about the chickens they've acquired.  The conversation is charming but we know that he is gutted.

taken in Rodin's sculpture garden in Paris

Other couples in the novel also drift apart.  They are always in beautiful surroundings, where they drink kirs together and talk about art, in houses that will stand long after they've gone.   But the fear of aging, and the fear of death hangs over everything.  You can hardly believe that Nedra is only in her forties when she feels washed up and undesirable.  Death comes into several passages - the long timing of Nedra's father's death - whose "breaths came faster as if he were fleeing"; then later in the terrible death of their friend Peter, and finally in Nedra's own death.  "Death takes the last steps quickly, in a rush," Salter writes.

And yet, all along, these characters have been living at a peak, hungry for new chapters and more of life to live.  When Nedra leaves him, she asks Viri, "isn't it better to be someone who follows her true life and is happy and generous, than an embittered woman who is loyal?"

You want so much for this decision to be right.  Without him,  she lives a more bohemian life with various lovers and access to cutting edge theatrical productions.  Except that James Salter's women have no central creative or ideological urges. They are merely decorative. All Nedra can really be is some man's lover, a beauty on the fringes. She fails at her attempt to train with a theater group that captivates her, but of course the troupe's central actor stops by  - and yes, dear reader, he fucks her, as though this is all she is good for.

I felt like hurling the book across the room at that point, so irritated was I  by the men in these women's lives.  Even Viri with his mistress at the beginning will drive you nuts with all his mansplaining: there's just so much he wants to teach her!

But oh, there are devastating moments.  "One of the last great realizations is that life will not be what you dreamed."  Then there's Peter, arguing with his wife Catherine.  He's sure Nedra is happy now that she has left Viri. Why? Because he watched her arranging flowers and, well, he thinks this shows she's happy.

Franca, Viri and Nedra's eldest daughter seems to be the torch bearer for a future generation, she who has also only been described  in terms of physical appeal.  Towards the end, Nedra tells her she must live a bigger life.  This is followed by a pretty amazing statement. "The freedom she meant was self conquest.  It was not the natural state.  It was meant only for those who would risk everything for it, who were aware that without it life is only appetites..."

And yet the advice Nedra offers other younger women in her orbit when she is finally free,  living in a spectacular garden flat, makes you want to slap her.  What does she do for the heartbroken girl who comes for advice?   She paints her eyes!  No, I'm not kidding, my friends...  so that she "transformed a plain defeated face into a kind of Nefertiti able to smile."

In the end, Viri for all his desire to be famous and great, makes a bad second marriage to a woman who sucks up all his energy.  There he is in Rome, living a beautiful aesthetic life with a woman who adores him, and yet he realizes "He had achieved nothing. He had his life --  it was not worth much - not like a life that though ended had truly been something.  If I had had courage, he thought, if I had had faith, .  We preserve ourselves as if that were important, and always at the expense of others.  We hoard ourselves...." he says.

Strangely, none of these things struck me in my first two readings of Light Years.  I thought it was all so beautiful.  As I read it now, I find myself disappointed at the surface of these lives, described so exquisitely, but ultimately as so empty.  The inability of Salter's characters to yield to each other in more than sexual ways, to collapse in their vulnerability and into who they are at rock bottom, and to ask and expect this of each other, is what makes Light Years such a powerful commentary on the fleeting nature of life.
the beautiful view in Bidart, France.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

your story my story

My mother Judy, walking on the headlands with her dog Gerty in Sausalito.
Who am I? And how may I become myself? Paul Beatty poses these questions in his novel The Sellout,  a biting satire on 'post-racial' America. The narrator, raised by his father on a farm as a kind of racial/social experiment, decides to reinstate  the boundaries of a disappeared black township called Dickens, and later enslaves Hominy Jenkins, the last remaining survivor of the Little Rascals television series. Hominy is a national embarrassment, who belongs in the category of things to be eradicated -  "stricken from the racial record, like the hambone, Amos n Andy, Dave Chappelle's meltdown and people who say 'Valentimes Day.'"

I read the first third of The Sellout on the plane from Sydney to San Francisco.  The acerbic commentary just pours out in an endless stream. "The difference between most oppressed peoples of the world and American Blacks," Beatty writes, "is that they vow never to forget and we want everything expunged from our record, sealed and filed away for eternity."  As I read, I felt there was much I wasn't fully getting. So I couldn't stop jotting down notes.

My sister  Stephanie and I arrived in San Francisco several hours before we had left Sydney.  Also, it was spring in Sydney, summer in San Francisco, and soon I'd be back in autumnal Virginia.  But for the next several nights, I slept in my nephew Emmett's room.  He has a suit of medieval armor displayed on a mannequin in front of the window.  It was the first thing impinging on my consciousness when I woke up in the middle of the night.  That, and Noel Coward, Stephanie's  mangy old cat who had decided to sleep on my bed.   Jet lagged, I read a bit more of The Sellout  and when I got up to pee, mangy Noel escorted me down to the bathroom, waited, and followed me back to bed.

Stephanie's home is lively and colorful and not a corner of space there is wasted. It's decorated with masks and plumes, shawls, lanterns, cushions. Her husband Dylan and sons Oliver and Emmett all share the space, along with several animals.

Oh, didn't I mention the guinea pig in Emmett's bedroom, the cat with paralyzed back legs named Clara, or Nessa the pit bull? Jazz plays in the background while Stephanie, dressed in a gorgeous Sarah Bernhardt outfit  - usually hand dyed and adorned with fringe, produces an amazing meal out of her tiny kitchen. There's no counter space. Dishes pile in the sink.  

 Our friend Walter flew in the night we arrived, having just finished a production of Shakespeare in Love at the Fugard Theater in Capetown.  His partner Anthony, a violinist, was arriving a few days after us, to play a concert series.  Meeting them here had all been part of the plan.  I could write more - and probably will at some stage - about my mother's Shakespeare group and all the other animals and family members I have in San Francisco.  But for now let's stay in Stephanie's living room where Walter and my mother are talking about theater with Stephie and me chiming in.  (Actually, I'm combining things here, to make the writing more interesting.  In real life,  some of this conversation took place at a harborside restaurant in Sausalito.)

The topic was interracial and cross-gender casting, now standard practice in the British theater. But does it make sense for Laertes to be black when Ophelia is white? Does it  really matter?  Will a white actor ever get to play a part in A Raisin in the Sun?  Should not actors of all races and genders get a crack at the greatest roles in the literary canon? What about suspension of disbelief? What about consistency?

In The Sellout. Beatty does this hilarious write up of Hominy Jenkins' theatrical bio - listing his uncredited roles as busboy, shoeshine boy, toy boy,  and so forth.  I laughed out loud when I read it, but at the same time, felt a bit like the white characters towards the end of the novel, at a black comedy show. They are finally shooed from the theater : "Get out. This is our thing!"

The overarching question here seems to be what is my story and what is your story?

Walter sits on the sofa and mangy Noel Coward jumps onto his lap. At some stage Noel became so matted that Steph decided she was going to trim his fur– but unfortunately it never grew back so his coat now has these huge bald spots.  His thin pink body is visible in places, underneath the oily coat. Also, he scratches people. Walter pushes him back to the floor. "Sorry darling, but I loathe you."

I'm interested in the question of appropriation. A year ago, I finished writing a novel which features an important transgender character.  I did a lot of research - gleaning a lot of wonderful material from generous transgender people which informed my character.  The novel has done the rounds but has now been shelved by one agent and rejected by several others.  I doubt it will see the light of day, any time soon, not because it isn't good, but because I, the author, am not transgender.  There's the notion of "own story" afoot in the literary world these days.  If publishers are going to publish, let's say, one novel with a transgender main character, it will probably be a book written by a transgender author.

Then Stephanie told us about Scarlett Johansson, cast to play a trans male. She ultimately withdrew from the production after public outcry.  Why had not a trans male been cast instead of a cis female?

It all gets so complicated. And as a culture,  I believe we are working our way as sincerely as we can through thickets of identity.  In the end, we need to express empathy in our work- because that is what writing and performing is all about.  And we need as performers and writers to have the opportunity of range.  There again, aren't some of the most memorable female characters in classic literature written by white men?  Rosalind, Isabel Archer,  Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina. We cannot now dismiss them.

While I've been writing this, I've realized that the most enjoyable part was writing about my family and their animals.  I'm going to keep doing that.  In fact, while I was in San Francisco my daughter Rozzie called from Paris: "When are you going to start your memoir, Mama," she asked.  "My Animals and other Family?"

So yes, I've been writing it.  That is what I've been writing, apart from this blog.

I'm back on the east coast now.  We've had our book club discussion on Paul Beatty and touched on  many issues I raised here.  Bottom line: we recommend you read it.

Also I'm now back at work. Last night, at Politics and Prose, Lisa Halliday read from her novel Asymmetry - a book whose first half I thoroughly enjoyed. Second half, not so much.  It was interesting to hear her thoughts on cultural appropriation, though.  Readers have assumed the first part of Asymmetry is purely autobiographical, she said, while the second part, concerning an Iraqi American family, they assume to be fictional.  In fact, both story lines in the novel have truths as well as fiction woven through them.  If not for the ability to put ourselves as writers and creative artists into the shoes of others,  Halliday pointed out, the only available material would be autobiography. And surely that's far too limiting.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

a very peculiar education

The day after Fall for the Book Festival, I left for Australia with my sister Stephanie.  We were going to see my first grandchild, James Horatio, who was born in Sydney on September 1.

We stayed at an airbnb in Paddington and began each morning at the Ampersand bookshop cafe,  drinking flat whites, and surrounded by secondhand books.

My sister Steph with her morning coffee

Then we picked up pastries at the Trinity bakery further along Oxford Street, and took them to Alex and Katie's apartment where we had breakfast and worshiped the newborn baby.  Sometimes we held him and sometimes we watched him and sometimes we provided a little back up.  Sometimes all of us, baby included, ventured out to a pub for lunch or to a street festival or to take in the Sculpture by the Sea along the walk from Bondi to Tamarama Beach.  We walked through Centennial Park and into an Aboriginal sanctuary of flying foxes (the largest bats on the planet - they were up in the trees in the thousands, hanging there like enormous pods).

Alex walking the baby in Centennial Park

 My cup was running over, except that meanwhile I had a deadline approaching. The holiday newsletter at Politics and Prose back home was going to press, and as a result I was furiously reading and writing reviews for Karl Ove Knausgaard's Intermittent - Anne Tyler's Clock Dance -  and Tara Westover's Educated.

 I'm sure that by now you've heard quite enough on the subject of Karl Ove from me (and Anne Tyler too for that matter).  But it's the last book I want to tell you about now : Tara Westover's memoir Educated about growing up in Bucks Peak Idaho as the daughter of Mormon Survivalists.  This is the book that took up so much mental space while I held my beautiful grandchild in my arms. It made for a strange juxtaposition.

First of all, Westover's father was barking mad. He never sent her or any of her siblings to school or to the doctors, and she didn't even have a birth certificate until she was eleven. His world was his land, the church and his scrap metal yard. And in that scrap metal yard Tara Westover worked as a child,  all the while listening to her father ranting about the imposition of “west coast socialism on the good people of Idaho.”   She also helped her mother deliver babies across the county, and prepared her "head for the hills" backpack, full of supplies in case the End of the World came - that, or Y2K.    I mean, I've read Hillbilly Elegy - but this book goes way further in describing  the forgotten ones who live off the grid on the fringes of American society.

As I read Educated I found myself repeatedly drawing my breath in horror.  The odds were stacked so deeply against this woman - whose older brother liked to shove her face into the toilet and call her a whore, because her dance classes were part of Satan’s deception. They claimed to teach dance but actually taught promiscuity.  It wasn’t that she had done something wrong.  “so much," she writes, "as that I existed in the wrong way. There was something impure in the fact of my being.”

So while I held my six week old grandson in my arms, this pure little person with a lifetime ahead of him,  I couldn't help reflecting on human frailty.  How do so many of us make it out of childhood and into adulthood, I wondered, when we depend so entirely on others, not just for comfort, but for our survival. For mental and emotional health and balance. 

And yet, against all odds, Tara Westover turned her back on the life that was mapped out for her.  When she began her studies at Brigham Young University she was woefully unprepared.  She had never heard of the Holocaust and thought that Europe was a country. She had only vaguely heard the word Shakespeare.  But she wanted to learn “how the gatekeepers of history had come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality.”   This hunger for knowledge and understanding led her to study at Cambridge University and from there to earn a PhD from Harvard - drawn to such “unwomanly” subjects as law, politics and Jewish History.

"Gosh Mand," said my sister Steph  as I gasped in horror at what I was reading, as Katie nursed James, and Alex prepared a risotto for our dinner.   "What's going on now?"  she asked.  Usually somebody was being abused - Tara was being beaten up by her older brother Shawn - or somebody had been severely burned at the scrap yard or had their teeth knocked out. Nobody cared. This was just life, and sucking it up was how you got by.

Let me just say here that Educated isn't the sort of thing you should read if you've just had a new baby.  I told Katie she couldn't possibly read it.  When you have a new baby you feel too tender for material like this.  I remember renting the film Nicolas and Alexandra  after giving birth to my daughter Rosalind. We were watching it on VHS in Caracas Venezuela where we lived, and when the part about Alexei having hemophilia came up, my mother asked, "Are you sure you want to watch this, darling?"

No - I didn't want to watch it.  I couldn't.  Couldn't bear to hear about children in danger, being neglected or abused. Such material was all but off limits for at least another decade.

Nevertheless, when I finished Educated I dearly wanted someone else to read it.  So I left my copy in Katie and Alex's apartment.  Perhaps Alex will pick it up at some point - or better yet,  maybe he will donate it to the Ampersand bookshop. That would make me very happy.

Ampersand Bookshop in Paddington

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

christian science and emily fridlund's history of wolves

 Emily Fridlund's History of Wolves poses some interesting questions.  What's the difference between what you want to believe and what you do? And what's the difference between what you think and what you end up doing?  I need to ponder these questions seriously. But when I chose History of Wolves for one of my book discussion groups this month, I had no idea it had anything to do with Christian Science.

You see, I was raised as a Christian Scientist, and was actively involved in the church for years. I know a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of the religion, and although I left it definitively about fifteen years ago, I can see it from both sides.

Muslims feel that others just don't get it, when they judge the faith by extremists. Catholics  looking at the extent of sexual abuse in the priesthood, must wonder how the faith that guided their lives became so twisted and contorted.  There are terrible and tragic flaws in fundamentalism of any kind. I feel the same when I think about Christian Science.

Emily Fridland's description of the Wednesday evening testimony meetings really made me laugh. The old fashioned colors in the church sanctuary, the little old ladies, the long silences.  In other descriptions of how her characters follow their faith, she does use a lot of buzz words. But she uses them like a foreign language, in a way that tells me her understanding of Christian Science is superficial.   She cannot possibly know what it has meant for those who have grown up in it and been transformed by its precepts.  I have been on my knees in gratitude for many a healing - physical healing but mostly metal, psychological and emotional healing.

There are universal truths in all religions, I find. And I recognize the universal truths I loved in Christian Science when I read such books as Letting Go by David Hawkins, or The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer,  The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle or The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. In these books - not to mention in the Bible and the Koran - I have found spiritual guidance and buoyancy which has directed my life. 

Emily Fridlund writes about a child who dies as a result of Christian Science treatment - or rather - who dies because the parents don't recognize his symptoms as serious enough to take him to the doctors.  I know there are such cases, they've been highly publicized, and they are terrible, unnecessary tragedies.  But the pat dismissal of pain as unreal is a gross oversimplification of Christian Science treatment.

Not to get too far into it, I will say this.  In England where I was brought up, the law mandates that children be taken to doctors if a sickness continues for more than a short period of time. Thus, Dr Morgan treated me for ear ache,  and when I had the chickenpox, and once when I had an infected finger. Those were the days when doctors made house calls.  Christian Science practitioners still make house calls today.

I would also like to mention a little known fact. There's a whole branch of the Christian Science church devoted to nursing.  Christian Science nurses delivered all my siblings and cared for my father in a Christian Science nursing home when he was in the final stages of dementia.  I cannot imagine more practical, loving and solicitous care than what he received.  He even had a private nurse!  And when he died, I will never forget those in attendance. The genuine love and care he received couldn't have been better.

So why did I leave the faith, you may wonder?  Well frankly - it was the church I left, not so much the spirit of Christian Science teachings.  I became fed up with the busy work of church organization in sparsely attended services that sucked up hours of my time and ultimately was neither spiritually uplifting nor rewarding as a community activity.   Even so, it was another member of the church who had herself left for many years who gave me a copy of Autobiography of a Yogi. In that book we both found echoes of Christian Science - in the Hindu concept of a causal, astral and physical plane of experience, for instance. He uses different terminology, but the essence is the same.

"The tender word and Christian encouragement of an invalid, pitiful patience with his fears and the removal of them, are better than hecatombs of gushing theories, stereotyped borrowed speeches and the doling of arguments, which are but so many parodies on legitimate Christian Science, aflame with Divine Love," writes Mary Baker Eddy. Elsewhere in her book she explains that the Spirit comes only in small degrees, and that without Love,  "the letter is but the dead body of Science, pulseless, cold, inanimate."  

So, only those who misinterpret her message (and yes, I acknowledge that many do seem to get the wrong end of the stick) would behave like the characters in History of Wolves.  And I have to say here, that although it might seem clever to call the first part of her novel Science and the second part Health, I didn't see a connection between the narrative and these subheadings in History of Wolves.

Of course there are funny and sometimes quaint practices which Fridlund alludes to, connected with the church. They make me smile when I recall them now. The many little old ladies with benign smiles, the phrases like "animal magnetism" and "knowing the truth" and all the references trotted out to Mrs Eddy's church manual. Even the fact that we always called her "Mrs" Eddy makes me smile. It's so Victorian!

 I do have tender memories though.  Every Sunday afternoon after church, my father would sit with his books - his Bible and his Science and Health - and he would clean out the markings from last week's lesson and mark his books with blue chalk - outlining citations in next week's lesson -which comprised six sections - Bible verses and correlative passages from Science and Health.  Many a weekend my father visited prisoners in various correctional facilities.  He also spent hours ministering to people in nursing homes. Nobody could have known the Bible better than he - and he made it come alive for me. He made me think about it every week - and put Jesus's Sermon on the Mount into practice.

And this brings me to another point.  The Bible (King James translation) was the most important book of my childhood.  I know it inside out.  I read it not only weekly in the Bible lessons we studied but from cover to cover twice!  Yes  - all those rules in Leviticus - all the wars in Joshua - all the begats....who begat whom ad infinitum. But I also read the book of Ruth, Song of Solomon, the Psalms, Isaiah and the gospels... and the inspired passages in those books are living and breathing in my heart today. I can call them up any time I need them.  They offer comfort, guidance and support.  I have Christian Science to thank for my knowledge of the Bible. I firmly believe that most people who follow a faith - any faith really - are simply trying to lead good lives. 

Did the practice of Christian Science leave me with any lasting damage?  Maybe I'm too tender hearted with those who behave badly or have been unkind.  I'm too susceptible to charm.  Too willing to see the good in people. I can be naive. But hey, maybe that's also just my personality.

These days I practice Bikram yoga several times a week.  Like Christian Science it is always challenging.  Often when I go into the studio and lie on my mat, I'm reminded of going into church because I have that same sense of community at my yoga studio. It's a gathering of people who have little in common except for the practice and yet because of the practice they share what matters most.  We used to call it a practice in Christian Science as well. 

Am I aware that Bikram Choudhury has been charged with sexual misconduct? Indeed I am.  Am I appalled by his behavior?  Of course.  But am I put off the practice of Bikram yoga because of  these allegations? I believe that whatever his personal shortcomings,  Bikram Choudhury founded a practice which touches every part of my body and spirit.  And like Christian Science it is a practice which helps me grow, so long as I follow it with humility, and so long as I practice it honestly. So long as I don't try to walk on water before I am sure I can swim.

I just discovered I still have a Bible with chalk markings in my library!