Thursday, July 5, 2018

on death, love and great fires

Love affairs with a significant age gap have featured in several recent novels.  There was The Only Story by Julian Barnes, then Asymmetry,  an extraordinary debut by Lisa Halliday- about which I need to think more.   But what's on my mind right now is Shirley Hazzard's exquisite novel The Great Fire, which I just reread for my Winner Is... book group.

 The fire in the title might refer to Hiroshima, for the novel begins in 1947 Japan where Aldred Leith, a war hero, is writing about the atrocities.  Only, what he writes, as well as most of his wartime experience, is left out of the narrative.  The fire at the center of this novel must therefore be the love story between Leith and Helen Driscoll.  He is thirty two and she seventeen when they meet. "Having expected repeatedly to die from the great fires into which his times had pitched him," Hazzard writes, "he had discovered a desire to live completely; by which he meant, with her."

Helen is "a changeling" who seems out of reach because of her age and circumstances. She's the close companion to a dying brother Benedict, and daughter of angry tyrannical parents. Leith seeks out their company in the rooms where Helen reads to Benedict, and the friendship that blossoms between these three is full of books and deep conversation.

But loss and longing are threaded through the novel and sometimes indistinguishable. Benedict is dying of a rare disease. Many others have already died in the war.  Significant separations are also imposed in a world connected by telegrams, weeks'  long ship passages and long distance phone calls that take place only when booked ahead.

The interconnection of life and death, fertility and deterioration is palpable in the Japanese setting, and in the green smell which they mistake for freshness and soon recognize as decay -  "everywhere, the breath of mould."  In London the bombed ruins have all been cleared away, leaving enormous gaps in the cityscape. While in Hiroshima a layer of the earth has been stripped off to reveal something worse, festering beneath.
The Great Fire is spare and poetic, still and distilled, with incidental sentences that stop you in your tracks. As Aldred Leith climbs down an overgrown path towards a Japanese temple,  "his foot slid on toadstools - digital, clothy, yellowed as fingers stained with nicotine."  I am in awe of such writing.  And what to make of this description of his father - "not a great man, but interesting and singular.  Not loving, but seized, even grandly, with the phenomenon of love."

In a post war world of love and loss there are also "so many Penelopes" - that is, women left behind. There's Aurora in London, Mrs and Miss Fry in Wellington and, of course, Helen herself.  I love the description of Miss Fry who lost her lover to the war in France, she for whom "beauty long since drained of erotic appeal had remained a habit." Her home is impeccably cared for, with its carpets and china, its upholstered chairs. When Helen visits, the tea tray is carried in...

Reading this, I recalled my mother's aunts in London - elderly sisters living together, inviting us over for afternoon tea.  Their husbands were long since dead.  But they had survived the Blitz lost a beloved nephew (my mother's brother Bob) to the war and though they were beautiful, strong survivors, loss hung over their generation.  The war.  There was always, always reference to the war.

So, the awakening love between Aldred Leith and Helen Driscoll  is infused with restraint and a sense of impending death. There's the imminent death of her brother. Also, the possible death of love itself. Helen writes in the early stages "We fear to weary you with our high feelings, but they don't change."  Later she refers to "the cold process of what men call coming to their senses."

 The aftermath of war and Benedict's illness remind us that things must somehow go on, even after death.  The mundane survives even (and particularly) after the momentous has passed.   "We're told that possessions are ephemeral," Leith says, "yet my God how they outlast us, the clock on the beside table, the cough drops, the diary with appointments for that very day. And the meaning ebbing out of them visibly." I'm reminded here of  W H Auden's Musee Des Beaux Arts and Jorge Luis Borges' Cosas.

Leith recalls boxing up his things before the war, and how unpacking them he realized,  "the owner of those oddments was dead, I was my own survivor."

There's a passage where Helen reads aloud to her brother. The excerpt is too affecting for her, and being moved, she stops. "I'll take it up again when I've hardened my heart," she says.

How does Shirley Hazzard write like this? How does she focus so tenderly on incidental moments and incidental objects while still suggesting the vastness of a world in recovery?  The world must move beyond war, beyond the immediate moment. Hazzard's frequent use of the passive voice lends a sense of quiet, stillness and distillation to her writing.  It balances her aphorisms, lending them dignity. "Good fortune is a prodigy whose occasion one must rise to," she writes. "Fate has no sense of timing, or good taste."   And, powerfully,  heartbreakingly... "In their thoughts, most men are conquerors."   Yes, even those who are gone.

The character of Helen Driscoll is said to be closely autobiographical.  In photographs, Shirley Hazzard is small, spare and delicately proportioned, just like Helen.  In her later years she lived in Naples. A more chaotic or passionate city you couldn't hope to find. She was living there when Ben and I were living in Rome. At a reception for a New York Times  Best Travel Writing from Italy  one of the editors told me he'd just returned from visiting her in Naples.  "How is Shirley?" I asked rather cheekily - I, who had just read The Great Fire for the first time.  "She's fine," he said with surprise.  "Do you know her?"  "No," I said.

Through her book, though.

Shirley Hazzard died two years ago.  I wonder how her own marriage to a man much older than herself panned out? We don't know at the end of The Great Fire how Aldred Leith and Helen Driscoll pan out. We leave them before they consummate their relationship.  It's the most passionate and intense moment of the book, and that's a good thing.  After all, the poor girl will soon have to move to Norfolk and live in an old stone house with an aging husband. Leith's mother points out that when he is 42 she will be 28, and might perhaps look elsewhere.  But we are left at the end of this novel, with the feeling that love has saved them - for now.   "Many had died. But not she, not he; not yet."

It's the yet that moves me to tears.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

the call and response of the universe

The story of this week's reading begins with my dermatologist, an elderly Vietnamese man whose office is in a little vine covered house in my town.  I've been going to him for years and apart from the excellent treatment he provides, we often have good conversations.  We talk about the passage of time, or the necessity of living in the now. We've talked about a friend of his whose writing received international acclaim.  Once he told me he was completing a memoir and asked if I could help with proofreading or copy-editing.  Of course I said yes, but a year went by and I heard nothing more.

Then, a few weeks ago I went in for a check up and afterwards as we sat in his office I reminded him that he was going to send me his manuscript. He smiled and replied with his usual modesty, thanking me for my interest. Then we said goodbye.

I went to New York the following weekend, and when I returned I was surprised to discover that Dr Nguyen had at last sent me his book. "Thank you so much for accepting to review my manuscript," he wrote. "At your urging I was finally able to finish it and submit it to you."

Thus I began an amazing journey into the heart of an astonishing book.  It turns out Dr Nguyen's manuscript is not a memoir as such. It isn't about his life in Saigon or his passage to America. Nor does it concern his medical career.  Rather it is a survey of his spiritual journey - a journey touched by Hindu sayings,  Chinese medicine, physics and metaphysics, his knowledge of the nervous system and the Chakras, Love and a sense of awe.  He writes in detail about his daily meditations, the yin and the yang, the Bagua or the Eight Triagrams, the five elements of fire earth metal water and wood, his daily breathing techniques and how they correspond to these elements and to acupuncture points.

"One of the biggest impediments in the search to finding oneself," he writes "is the human need to be recognized, in the hope of finding acclaim, as this would give validation, confirm our existence and exalt that narrow concept of the self.  We need others as reference points to exist, but we also need to come to terms with a certain solitude if we want to find ourself."

I should mention here that for the last several years I have been going regularly to an acupuncturist as my primary care physician, and have been practicing Bikram yoga three or four times a week.  And over the past month, I've been meditating daily with Sacred Acoustics.  I have been on a kind of journey - and yes, coming to terms with a certain solitude.  So the idea that Dr Nguyen, who has been in my life for more than a decade would choose this moment to send me his manuscript rather than say, a year ago - tells me a lot about the call and response of the Universe.  It tells me that while growth and transitions are sometimes painful, if you listen, things can fall into place with astonishing synchronicity.

In talking with a friend I was recently using the analogy of a chrysalis - and how the larvae must enter a cocoon - there to transform into a butterfly. I was thinking that no matter how hard we might hold onto a chrysalis, the butterfly inside is going to develop, whether we want it to nor not.  My friend sent me a quotation from Anais Nin "Then the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."  As I finished Dr Nguyen's manuscript this evening, I found myself reading the following passage:

"Qi Gong is not a temporary or occasional intellectual exercise, but a complete and permanent change of behavior and mind set.  It is the deconstruction of all our previous conditioning.  A point to stress is that I do not view the early conditioning as harmful or something to look down upon.  It comes naturally with life, as a necessity and means of survival.  It gives us our roots, our strength and our culture.  However, one needs to move on.  Deconstructing it is like the larva breaking out of the cocoon to be free and fulfill its potential.  It is about building and destroying, again and again, to be in sync with the eternal dance."

Here came a message to sustain me with my challenges.  I've noticed that messages from the Universe can often come in unexpected ways. But if we keep our hearts open, they can bless us on our journeys and through our transitions, helping us let go of even the most cherished expectations and teaching us how to trust.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

visiting the tolstoys

Our Classic Book Discussion group has decided to tackle War and Peace.  I've arranged the reading schedule so that we'll have time to read over the next several months, since the books we're discussing in between will be shorter and less demanding.  I have attempted War and Peace before - but admittedly never got far, even though Anna Karenina is one of my favorite novels.   In my defense, I've heard it said that War and Peace is the kind of novel you appreciate most in middle age. So far so good because this time around I immersed myself in Part I, hardly coming up for air.

While reading, I found myself reflecting on the year I lived in Moscow. I was somehow back in that atmosphere - back in the Tolstoy houses which I had visited.

It was 1993, and my husband, a cultural attache at the American Embassy,  had been there for almost a year when I joined him, with three children in tow - including a six week old baby.  I struggled upon arrival - wondering how I'd make a life for myself beyond the American Embassy compound where we lived and the various embassy receptions.

The city beyond the compound seemed forbidding and another world entirely.  I needed to become confident enough to take myself into it and explore.  So I took more Russian lessons, got involved in charity work at a Russian Orphanage and also in a church and I made frequent tours with my baby in a Snugli, around the various historical sites.

Top on my list were several residences of Russian writers - Chekhov, Tolstoy, Pushkin.  I remember Tolstoy's house in Moscow very well.  I also went to his estate Yasnaya Polyana, which was four hours drive from Moscow.

The Tolstoy home in Moscow was large and wooden with a huge garden behind it.  It was winter when I visited, again with my baby in a Snugli, meeting my tour guide at the gate and looking out onto the garden behind the house where the Tolstoy skating rink had once been, and also onto the trees where Tolstoy used to chop wood.

 We entered the house through the breakfast room with its old cuckoo clock, its table and chairs and  mahogany chest crammed with blue and white Ghell china.  It felt as though we were trespassing in a family home, because historical houses and museums in Moscow in 1993 didn't conform to western notions  - which is to say there were no roped off areas; there was little in the home that I could not touch; nor were there any other visitors that day.

I remember standing in the bedroom where Tolstoy's favorite son had died at the age of seven - the religious icons hanging in the corners. After that loss the Tostoys were never the same, I was told. A two day illness and then their perfect child was gone.

I was told a story about how Tolstoy got his character Anna Karenina.  It was when he saw Pushkin's daughter and she had a dark hair curling at the nape of her neck.  He saw that curl and said to himself, that will be my character,

Tolstoy's study was in the back of the house.  I also saw the boots he had made when he decided he wanted to be a shoemaker.  I saw his bicycle and his woolen socks.

There was an enormous taxidermy bear on the landing of the important front staircase (or was it a wooden bear - I can't remember - anyway - a bear!) , and upstairs a lavishly decorated living room - crammed with Victorian brick a brack - plush upholstered chairs and divans, heavy brocade curtains.  Two bored looking women in grey tunics sat on wooden chairs against the wall.  That was their job.  But they brightened like school girls when they saw they had visitors and then one of them went to the mantle piece and turned on a tape recorder.

Tolstoy's voice filled the room -  deep, clear and old fashioned. He was talking to children and warning them to do their studies and not to waste time in idleness.

Several months later, I went on a day trip, traveling out beyond Tula to the Tolstoy estate Yasnaya Polyana.  I brought along my eight  year old daughter and now one year old son - out of necessity more than anything else - for it was a four hour bus ride to get there and I didn't have anyone to watch them.  I remember we broke the journey in Tula for some rock hard cake that was evidently the specialty, a confection not to be missed!

Then at last we went on to the estate. It was only on the last leg of the journey that the tour guide informed us that the house itself was closed.  We would only be permitted to walk around the grounds that afternoon.

At first I was infuriated, although most of the other tourists seemed to take this news in stride. This was Moscow after all.  But, it had been a long journey with a little girl and infant son on my lap. Once we were out of the bus, however, we couldn't help our amazement  as we walked up the sweeping drive lined with silver birch trees and lakes.

Yasnaya Polyana with my children

We saw various farm laborers working the land - and I realized they were descended from the very workers who had cultivated Tolstoy's property. These were descendants of the ones he had so admired for their closeness to the land and nature.

We  wandered round the grounds for a couple of  hours, and even went onto the veranda of the house.  At Chekhov's Moscow residence, I had seen photographs of Tolstoy and Chekhov on this very veranda having tea.  In the photograph, Chekhov was laughing at some private story he was being told by Tolstoy.  And here I was, with my children on the same veranda and nobody else was around.  We were free to wander as we wished.

my children going up to Tolstoy's veranda
We walked down the paths - down to where Tolstoy was buried in a pauper's grave - a mound covered in grass.  I took a photograph there for Jim Randall - my mentor back at Emerson College, who had a collection of young writers at the graves of their favorite authors.

One of my favorite books about Tolstoy is William L Shirer's  Love and Hatred: The Troubled Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy.  It was his last book and he wrote it well into his eighties.  It details the excruciating jealousy that plagued the Tolstoy marriage. Sonya transcribed all  of Tolstoy's work for him, but their marriage was tempestuous to say the least. It had been damaged beyond repair at the outset, when on their wedding night Lev insisted she read his private diaries which detailed his sexual transgressions and pecadillos.  The poor girl, who was only nineteen at the time, never quite recovered.

That book also tells the story of Tolstoy's final days-  and Sonya's jealous rage, how he tried to escape her by running away to the train station, how she begged to see him and was not permitted - and how he died there.    So much passion and intellectual richness.  So much life lived and suffered in these incredible homes.

Saturday, June 9, 2018


For your reading pleasure, my short story Scorched which first appeared in the now defunct Our Stories magazine several years ago. I wrote about loss. 



After the accident, Carla wanted a menial task in a place she’d never lived before; to be left alone and surrounded by people who didn’t expect too much of her. This is what you want when something terrible happens, Carla thought, because the accident that took Geoff away had taken everything from her, except for an odd kind of recklessness.
So when her friend Fiammetta, who worked for a small opera company in Florence, suggested a job ironing and altering costumes, nothing could stop her from taking the chance. She caught a train from Brussels Gare du Nord. There were rooms near the theatre she could use for a few months, overlooking a courtyard with a lemon tree. Schoolgirls in the courtyard below her window played hopscotch. Their voices rose up with the soothing illusion of eternity.
 As for the ironing, there was, quite literally, loads of it. There was something reassuring in a never-ending task, standing at the window pressing out the creases of other people’s lives. There was also an art to the collar and cuffs of a ruffled shirt, the band across the shoulders, the wide skirted pleats of a satin dress. 
Carla discovered another peculiar truth. Nobody bothers you when you are ironing. She could unravel and ravel up again those last moments in the car with Geoff, when the driver hit them on the Chaussee de Waterloo. Geoff in a split second change: a crunch of metal and glass, semi conscious moments in a crumpled car; paramedics shining flashlights into windows and police waving on a never-ending procession of traffic, as if there could be a destination beyond this. But there was a destination, because sure enough, here she was.
Some days she did nothing but watch Italian soap operas. The exaggerated stories took her out of herself. Afterwards, gazing down at the children in the courtyard, she found herself startled, almost appreciative.
She walked into shops on the Ponte Vecchio on her way to a wine bar. The streets had a faintly botanical smell, mingled with the aroma of garlic and coffee. People drove up on scooters and kissed the air at the side of each other’s faces.
She sat at the counter. Next to her a young man ordered a plate of cheese and sliced prosciutto.  And when she ordered the same, he turned towards her. “Where are you from?” he asked in English.
His name was Hamid, and he came from Palestine. He was in a summer art program, three weeks remaining.  She told him about her work at the opera company – how lucky she was to have such a job, and then he said he had an extra ticket to see the Boboli Gardens. “Perhaps you would like to join me.”
 His English was precise and pleasing. He had refined features and a straight narrow nose and the shaven skin of his face was the texture of fine sandpaper.
So they walked to the Medici palace and strolled in the Boboli Gardens, and sat underneath the orange blossoms between hedges. Conversation was stilted, until they walked back to the theatre. She showed him the collection of paper masks she’d found on a dusty shelf in the prop room. She tried them on, one after the other – the Marshall, the Prioress, King Ludwig and the Professor. They had tiny eyeholes and Hamid laughed freely before tucking his smile away, with what she thought of as charming and forced sobriety.
The following day at the Uffizi they stood together in front of a triptych of Adam and Eve, depicted like two spoiled courtiers, with childish, inexperienced faces.
“You see,” he said, “Their life was not perfect. It’s better to live by the sweat of your brow.”
They went to a rooftop café, with its view of the Duomo. Hamid reached for her hand, and before she could pull away she noticed the skin of his hand was very soft, nothing at all like Geoff’s. “I still cannot understand the full beauty of this town,” he continued. “It is all too squashed together. This cathedral, for example. It doesn’t have breathing room. It needs the space to breathe.”

A few days later, they took a bus to Fiesole in the shimmering heat. He wanted to see the ruins. Carla took off her shoes and felt the grass on the soles of her feet while Hamid stood by himself, looking at the view. “Here I feel more comfortable,” he said.
 “Do the hills remind you of home?”
“They remind me of the Palestine I carry in my soul.”
“In your soul?” she repeated, smiling. Then she realized he was serious.
“Many of our villages are gone forever,” he explained. “Now they exist only in memory.  So we tell the stories of our villages over and over again. And thus, Palestine, for the next generation, has become not a memory but a wish. A dream, perhaps. A story that we tell.”
They got onto politics, and his view of suicide bombers, and an experience that altered him forever: how he’d locked eyes with a suicide bomber seconds before he blew himself up. “That is how we live,” he said. “I am not a religious person.  And I don’t agree in principle, with violence. But I’ve heard it said that the suicides are cowardly. What is cowardly about dying for your beliefs?” he asked. “Only a lover would do such a thing. ‘I would die for you.’ Only a lover could utter such a phrase.”
 Carla thought of telling about Geoff. Then she changed her mind.
 “So,” he said. “How long did Adam and Eve stare at that apple before they took a bite?”  He leaned towards her, looking at her mouth.

 Her room was flooded with the odor of honeysuckle.  She felt nothing so much as gratitude, sliding across the sheets. He knelt before her, proudly as a god. It had been such a very long time. He held her ankles to one of his shoulders, pressing, pressing as she drew him further in. She shifted position, wrapping her legs around his waist. She looked at the lattice of the windows, at the vines of honeysuckle clinging and blooming at once.  Is this what you want, closing her eyes. Until, at last he fell onto the sheets, laughing, exhausted.
He pulled on a pair of boxer shorts and she watched the shadow of her naked legs against the wall. How strange the distance between chaste and chastened.  She was chastened by his fervor, doused by it.
 He sat at her table smoking a cigarette, watching her wisely. “Come,” he said. “Let’s go out for dinner.”
 The banister rail smelled of furniture polish. The particles of dust spun in shafts of golden light, streaming between the window slats. The dust of Florence felt suddenly terminal, and the scooters outside were too noisy.
They wasted time looking for a restaurant she couldn’t find. “I’m sure it was here,”  as they walked the narrow streets. “Fiammetta brought me. And it was here. I know it was.”
At last they settled for a different cafe. A man played guitar, and for reasons she couldn’t explain Carla couldn’t stop laughing. She decided she must be happy, shockingly and amazingly happy.

The following afternoon, she spent time ironing costumes and then delivered them to the theatre. Hamid went down to the courtyard where boys were filling surgical gloves with water, and exploding them against a wall. He sat on a wrought iron chair, smoking. When Carla came back with another bag of wrinkled costumes, most of the children were gone. Hamid was helping a little boy make a funnel from paper. They were pouring sand into a rubber glove. She stood at the door watching, and something slipped inside her.  The sand-filled glove was heavy, a dead hand made of dust.  They had several already, piled like sandbags at the foot of his chair.  Hamid looked up and smiled, all his features softening.  She turned. The corners of her consciousness, plastered over with harmony, seemed to be flaking, lifting up from the surface of her mind.
They sat in the courtyard with a bottle of wine, as evening came down. The courtyard was empty and they ran out of words. Hamid walked across the terrace underneath the lemon tree, and looked back to where Carla sat in the twilight with her feet up. Their gaze strung between them like a ribbon of birds. “We are a danger to each other,” he said.  “Now I have this image of you I can’t get out of my mind. I play it in my mind, over and over again.”
He must have a woman, she thought to herself, another story, something like mine, that he never tells.

On their final night, Hamid lay with Carla scooped inside him, hollow and withdrawn. When they made love she cried. “I don’t know this one,” he said, stroking away her tears. “This weepy one,” as he held her close. She turned and touched the scar on his chest, a scar like an assault, thicker and creamier than the rest of his skin.  “Barbed wire,” he told her. “Once in Tel Aviv, several years ago, there was a barbed wire fence. I was crazy then. I could have died,” he said. “They were hunting me down like an animal. But fortunately, I escaped.”
They fell asleep. Carla woke to see him, without any pants on, in the thin light ironing his shirt. “I only wanted to try it,” he said, trying to press out wrinkles. 
His buttocks had a map shaped birthmark – a darkness under the skin. He was peaceful ironing his shirt. “This is a good iron,” he said. “It is very light, but it does the job.”
            She prepared coffee, then sat on a divan with her cup, underneath the window. His skin was brown and his bones were beautiful. She looked at his birthmark, his distinguishing characteristic, realizing she could make him hers if she wanted. I know his birthmark, she’d tell his woman. If there was a woman. If she really wanted him.

They walked to the train station. A distance and withdrawal sprouted between them. “Thank you,” he said, and when he kissed her she became a stranger.  Then she returned, to iron costumes and sew a few buttons. The smell of his aftershave lingered in the sheets of her bed. The courtyard below filled with the din of children let out from school. She finished a collar, pushing with her arm angrily backwards and forwards.
She crossed the room and turned on the television intending to watch an Italian soap opera but instead it was the news.  Confused people were running from the rubble with bloody hands covering their faces. The ruins of a pizza shop loomed in the background where someone had purposely blown himself up. “In diretta da Gerusalemme,” the caption said. Live from Jerusalem.
Carla sunk to the bed. Everything plummeted. All the resolve erected inside her crumbled like sand, leaving nothing but heaviness and a huge great emptiness above it. She wrapped her arms around her belly and rocked herself, sobbing as if she’d never stop. Then from beneath the abandoned iron behind her, the stench of scorching fabric filled the room.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

discovery and loss in the stories of andrea barrett

I've decided to repost my book review of Andrea Barrett's Archangel, which originally appeared in The Washington Independent Review of Books five years ago.  This collection came to mind when my colleagues and I at the bookstore decided to list our ten or twelve most favorite books. Archangel impacted me profoundly, and yet we never carry more than one or two copies in the store at a time.  How it managed to slip through the cracks is a mystery to me. Only Andrea Barrett could have written these stories - and in my opinion, they are among her finest.

 The five stories composing Andrea Barrett’s stunning collection, Archangel, are set in different periods of scientific breakthrough. In a previous collection, Ship Fever, for which she won the National Book Award, Barrett wrote about the wonders of science. But these stories are considerably longer and go further, often focusing on the clash between scientific discoveries and old worldviews, as well as the tensions between colleagues and their protégées. An epigraph from the essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson explains her concept perfectly: “We cannot part with our friends. We cannot let our angels go. We do not see that they only go out that archangels may come in. We are idolaters of the old.”

Barrett’s characters devote their lives to scientific research. They are methodical, thoughtful and hard working. But new findings stand to undermine their efforts. This, Barrett seems to suggest, is intrinsic to the scientific process, and although it is often painful, a rich sense of inner life, as well as connectedness, prevails.

The cross-pollination between her stories underscores the point. In the first story, “The Investigators,” we meet Constantine Boyd, who during the summer of 1908 works on his uncle’s farm in Hammondsport, N.Y., and witnesses the flight of the biplane June Bug. We encounter him again in the final story, “Archangel,” set in northern Russia, where he meets Eudora MacEachern, an X-ray technician. Readers may remember Eudora from Barrett’s 2007 novel, The Air We Breathe.

Barrett also gives us a legacy passed from one scientist to another. Phoebe Wells Cornelius, the protagonist in “The Ether of Space,” is the mother of Sam Cornelius, the protagonist in “The Particles.” His mentor Axel reminds Sam of his scientific pedigree, from teacher to student, which goes back to the naturalist Louis Agassiz. Then Agassiz crops up again in “The Island,” where he is the hero of protagonist Henrietta Atkins.

Many stories concern the human yearning to see a divine hand in the natural order of the world — and the painful difficulty of relinquishing this notion. “The Ether of Space” is set in 1920. Here a young widow, Phoebe Wells Cornelius, attends a lecture by Sir Oliver Lodge, who notwithstanding Einstein’s theory of relativity, hypothesizes that the ether is a universal link between different states of consciousness. Phoebe is a scientist, torn between the findings in her own work and the sentiments in Lodge’s lecture. In spite of herself, she longs to feel that her dead husband is somewhere in the ether “hovering, just out of sight, in some gaseous form.”

Barrett explores a similar tension between the science we once believed and new advances that overthrow them in “The Island.” Professor Louis Agassiz explains that “Nature is the work of thought,” and that in studying natural objects, “we are approaching the thoughts of the Creator, reading his conceptions, interpreting a system that is his and not ours.” Agassiz concedes that Darwin is “an important British naturalist,” but thinks it’s a shame that he has thrown away his standing “to chase such a wrongheaded theory” as the theory of evolution.

Meanwhile, his protégé Henrietta Atkins comes to think differently. Attending his course on Penikese Island, she befriends another student, who lends her Darwin’s books. Henrietta struggles with her realization that evolution has nothing to do with divine plan. On a particular expedition, as students row through a shoal of jellyfish, she thrusts her hand into the water and is badly stung. It’s a beautiful metaphor for the initial effect of her struggle to assimilate Darwin’s theory. It is very painful, but the pain isn’t lasting.

But my favorite story in the collection is “The Particles,” set in 1939 at the beginning of World War II. Geneticist Sam Cornelius escapes from a torpedoed British ship and is picked up by another vessel on which he confronts a rival who is also a fellow student of his mentor. Before the war interrupted their lives, they had participated at a scientific conference in Edinburgh (all based, by the way, on historical events). Like his mother Phoebe, from “The Ether of Space,” Sam feels underappreciated and misconstrued. His rival has publicly attacked Sam’s presentation in Edinburgh. The story explores the relationship between student and mentor and “what happens when the passion required to define a new set of ideals went too far” against the backdrop of war. Barrett deftly slows down to describe scenes of chaos on board the ship. When she picks up the pace, breaking conventional “show, don’t tell” rules, the story works brilliantly, because Barrett plucks out the clean narrative thread of Sam’s inner life. The deeper, private concerns here are not so much about physical survival as they are about emotional and professional survival.

At the end of this story, as at the end of “The Island” and “The Investigators,” I experienced something rather like Henrietta with her jellyfish sting: almost a physical sensation at having been stunned. It was the emotional impact of a masterfully resonant story. Barrett’s insights into the legacy of serious work are highly intelligent and profoundly moving. She implies that although good work may sometimes be misguided in its conclusions, dashed hopes are never entirely futile. The high-minded must often relinquish the superficial accolades of personal credit. And however well done, work along the path of scientific progress is often overthrown. It is an honorable and paradoxical legacy.

Monday, May 21, 2018

on bad marriages

In his novel The Spoils of Poynton Henry James writes about "the impression, somehow of something dreamed and missed, something reduced, relinquished, resigned: the poetry, as it were, of something sensibly gone."  Henry James found poignancy again and again in the subject of missed opportunity.  He wrote about it in Portrait of a Lady, in The Wings of a Dove, The Golden Bowl, The Ambassadors. And in Washington Square, he  writes with deep psychological insight about the painful legacy of a love relinquished.

Heiress Catherine Sloper falls in love with Morris Townsend, who hasn't much to show for himself but a pretty face.  In fact, Morris has already blown through a large sum of money when we meet him, and we learn as the novel progresses, that he's recently been sponging off his sister.

Naturally, Catherine's father doesn't approve. "The position of husband to a weak minded woman of great fortune would suit him to perfection," Dr Sloper tells his sister.  And so he puts his foot down. If Catherine accepts Townsend's proposal, she must give up her fortune as well as her father's love.

In the end, we realize Dr Sloper's assessment was correct. Morris Townsend is certainly after Catherine's money, and had they married, he would definitely have blown through her fortune.  This would have made her deeply unhappy.

Or would it?

Was Dr Sloper right to press his point?  He was logically correct, yes.  But was he emotionally correct? 

Had they married, Catherine might have helped Morris grow up.  Maybe they would have grown together.  Had they married, Catherine would have experienced the joy of marrying the man she loved, however flawed. They might have had children.  Her life would have expanded. And who is to say that her calculation would have been wrong? She knew she wasn't charming or clever (in her own eyes, as well as in the eyes of her father), but at least she had money.  Was that so bad?  And she loved Morris Townsend in spite of his weaknesses.  Just because it might have ended badly, would their marriage have been bad altogether?

Maybe all marriages, however good in the beginning, eventually wind up as compromises.  Some end up bad and some end up mediocre.  Others end up not so bad.  But how long is a marriage expected to bless both husband and wife?  Some answers might be found in our And the Winner Is... Book Club selection this month - Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge.  In this novel, marriages start out as one thing, but end up as something quite different. Life is very long and people are always complicated.

 In the first story 'The Pharmacy' Olive's husband Henry becomes enamored of his coworker Denise,  and he's particularly protective and tender with her when her husband dies.  But right from the beginning, Olive doesn't like Denise. She is jealous and annoyed at the prospect of entertaining Denise and her husband, and whenever Henry shows tenderness for Denise, Olive reacts with impatience.

But Olive's close observation of Henry and the habits of their domestic life have, over a long marriage, come to stand in for love. We are introduced to Olive as an unpleasant woman who never apologizes for anything. Olive has no patience for good people, least of all for Henry - but meanwhile she has endless insights into and sympathy for the underdogs of the world.

 In a later story, Olive looks at childhood photographs of her son and thinks to herself, "you will marry a beast and she will leave you."  She then looks at a picture of Henry as a young man and thinks,  "You will marry a beast and love her."  Yes, she, Olive, is the beast that Henry will love.

In 'Tulips' the most complex story in the collection, Henry gives Olive an ugly bunch of daisies and when he embraces her, Olive is annoyed. She endures his embrace, waiting for it to end.  In a later story, she wonders why she feels such deep loneliness with Henry, even though he is such a loving man.   We as readers also wonder why Henry puts up with Olive.  When they are observed coming into a church at one point, one character remarks to another, "I don't know how he can stand her."

All marriages, Elizabeth Strout seems to say, deepen and sour over time.  When Olive observes young girls in a sundae shop she thinks how there loomed "... great earnestness great desires and great disappointments; such confusion lay ahead of them and (more wearisome) anger; oh, before they were through, they would blame and blame and blame, and then get tired too."

We are left, after reading both these very different novels, with the sense of people who forgo their deepest passions for the sake of something else.  For something supposedly more endurable - and longer lasting. Maybe that something else is familiarity and comfort in one's own discomfort with the smallness of life.  Elizabeth Strout seems to suggest that it is more intrinsically human to stick with each other's flaws, madnesses and mistakes than to break free of them, and that perhaps there is something ennobling in such steadfastness.

Except at the end of Olive Kitteridge when Olive's life is all but over, she finds a new and very surprising lover. She begins to understand what she misunderstood about love in her youth, how she had taken it for granted and how it could transform her.

Not so for Catherine Sloper in Washington Square. One of our regular participants in the Classic Books Discussion group said he was sorry that Washington Square hadn't ended like its film adaptation The Heiress - with Catherine empowered, resisting Morris Townsend as he pounds on her door begging for her hand in marriage.  Because in the novel, Catherine Sloper does something sadder and more predictable.  She is left alone in the parlor and she's broken. She has had it with love. When Townsend leaves, she settles down to her needlepoint, "for life, as it were."

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

embracing the panic

In Julian Barnes' new novel The Only Story, a young man has a love affair with a much older woman and tries for decades to save her from alcoholism.  It becomes the love story that defines his life.  He asks at several stages whether strength of feeling makes for a greater degree of happiness, and ultimately he decides that it doesn't. "You might as well say the more you ate, the better your digestion; or the faster you drove, the quicker you got there."  The Danes are considered among the happiest people on earth, he reasons, but mostly that's because they've lowered their expectations. 

He remembers a time when he was gunning uphill in a car with his lover, and the accelerator jammed, nearly causing a crash.  "He'd been doing two things at the same time: panicking and thinking clearly.  That's how his life had been, back then," he reflects. "Nowadays, he always thought clearly; but occasionally, he found he missed the panic."

The kind of wide awake feeling of panic Barnes is describing here is common at the outset of a love affair.  But it is equally common in creative work, when you've embraced the idea that something great is possible. You have glimpsed an extraordinary dream or goal or higher bar, and working on your project, day by day feels scary as hell, but also it's ennobling. You have taken a risk and stepped out of your comfort zone into the presence of something you cannot entirely control.

I want to talk about this kind of panic in terms of creative work - like writing a book, for instance. When we devote ourselves to serious creative work we do it on behalf of a hunger inside.  We cannot let it go, even though the endeavor can be difficult and maddening.  We might slog away for months or years in obscurity,  but the urgency and panic is what keeps us going.  We are thinking clearly - yes, but also we are terrified because we want to believe it is possible to do this.  Maybe it's what wild animals experience when their survival is at stake. We do our creative work because we are fighting to keep our hearts and souls alive.

 Another book, Patsy Rodenburg's The Second Circle comes to mind here.  In this book she talks about different circles of energy in performance, the second circle being the one where you are absolutely engaged in the present moment. Animals and children are always in second circle, she says.  First circle is cooler; it's more about the past.  Third circle though impressive, is bombastic and takes up too much oxygen in the room; it's more about the future. But in second circle you are in the pocket - fully present, fully engaged and fully yourself.

So no,  it isn't really a question of finding a greater degree of happiness, if by happiness we mean contentment.  In many ways, it makes you discontented because when you focus your best energies on writing, music, art, you cannot invest so much in your day job.  Therefore, you don't advance in the usual ways.  It's more of a scramble to pay bills while you channel your better self somewhere different and more important to you.

All this can sometimes make you doubt yourself.  There are fewer visible signs to the outside world that you are valuable and "doing a good job".  You might look at others who don't feel the same urgent artistic drive and watch them advance up their chosen ladders, earning more money and more respect, while you face endless rejections for something that seems unattainable at worst and tenuous at best.

Sometimes, your loved ones may suggest that it's time to give up. A friend observed to me this week that often people try to put their spin on things, and talk you down from your artistic ambitions. "They might think they are being helpful," he said, "But they only stir the rage and make you work harder."

Because if you were to give up on your art, if you were to lower your expectations and find reward in promotions, money and accolades, you would no longer feel any urgency.  Like Barnes' character you would miss the panic.

The panic doesn't make you happy.  It makes you feel alive. It makes your vibrations stronger. And the only way to cope on a daily basis is to find a tribe of friends who are also artists and writers, people you can be sincere with, people who speak the same language and don't question what you are trying to do.

I used to work in an environment where there was no feeling that I was understood at this deeper level.  We didn't talk about books or creative work.  Instead, at office parties, we talked about cupcakes.  Where could you get good cupcakes in the neighborhood? Ah yes, in Alexandria those red velvet cupcakes are sublime.  And if I tried to turn the conversation towards books or writing, my colleagues looked at me sideways.  I was definitely held at arm's length.  I was the eccentric in the room. Hey, probably they sensed the panic and it put them off!

But I've felt much better about my life as a writer, with all its failures and struggles now that I work in a bookstore. I'm with my tribe. I can talk about books and be myself.  I don't have to put on a conventional mask.  I don't have to make chit chat about cupcakes whilst bottling up other more important conversations I want to have.  I don't worry that people will find me eccentric, because they embrace my eccentricity, and I embrace theirs. 

Another way I've found of harnessing the panic, is to practice Bikram yoga.  It's a 90 minute moving meditation of 26 postures done in a heated studio.  I hardly ever go in looking forward to the practice.  My heart pounds, I feel uncomfortable and I wish at times that it was over.  But the whole point of the practice is to make friends with panic and keep breathing through the discomfort. You learn to understand that it is just a posture and it will pass.  As Scott (the studio owner) always tells us - the hard way is the easy way.

Getting back to Julian Barnes, though.  His protagonist keeps a notebook where he jots down various things about love. Love means never having to say you're sorry; Love is blind, and so on, and he crosses off these aphorisms when he thinks they no longer make sense. At the end of the novel there is one sentence he hasn't yet crossed out.  It reads:  "In my opinion, every love, happy or unhappy, is a real disaster once you give over to it entirely."  

Well, that's a tricky one to absorb,  especially in the light of creative endeavor.   Maybe it means you should hold a little bit of yourself at bay - keep a reserve -  or not take things too terribly seriously?  I'll have to think about that one for a while.

On the other hand, finding a way of living with panic makes you less like a cow in the pasture and more like that hungry fox prowling round the edges of the property for her next meal.  You are fully alive inside and alert - but not necessarily carefree or untroubled by your choices. In fact, maybe you will feel downright pissed off at times.   But in my experience, people don't usually register the self doubt when you live your life according to these rules. Yes, you can be a little bit intense, but more often people tell you how ALIVE you are!