Ringworld

By Larry Niven

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As I’ve said before, I have different standards for different kinds of fiction. Literarily, my standards are lowest for science fiction and fantasy: those books are about plot, about ideas – I don’t expect them to exhibit Jane Austen’s prose.

My standard for the prose of science fiction is merely this: I need the writing to not be so bad that it distracts me.

That’s it! I think that’s a pretty low, pretty reasonable bar: just don’t write so badly that your garbage writing distracts me from your story.

Here is an example of writing that is so bad that it is distracting:

“”Aren’t you going to let me out of here?”

The puppeteer considered. “I suppose I must. First you should know that I have protection. My armament would stop you should you attack me.”

Louis Wu made a sound of disgust. “Why would I do that?”

The puppeteer made no answer.

“Now I remember. You’re cowards. Your whole ethical system is based on cowardice.”” (p. 8)

This is bad writing. It’s bad on a couple of levels: first, it’s a freshman-creative-writing-class violation of ‘show, don’t tell’. Second, it doesn’t in any way resemble dialogue that people would actually have, ever, under any circumstances. It’s cheating out, explaining for the audience, like high school drama nerds: “Oh, right, your whole ethical system is based on cowardice!”

I believe that it is fair to say that the only good thing about ‘Ringworld‘ is its premise, and, frankly, the premise is not well-utilized. On the contrary, the set-up of the novel feels like a wasted opportunity (which is not uncommon: good scifi premises are a great deal more abundant than good scifi executions):

Louis Wu is a two hundred year old human man. Bored during his two hundredth birthday party, he goes wandering via teleportation around the globe, only to be highjacked by an alien from a species thought to be extinct, the two-headed Pierson’s Puppeteers. This puppeteer, named Nessus, offers Louis a chance to join him on an expedition, a member of a four man crew, though where they are heading, Nessus won’t say. The payment will be a ship with hyperdrive capability, which only the puppeteers have, and blueprints for same. The two other members of the crew are a member of a catlike warrior species, the kzin, named Speaker-to-Animals, and a human female, Teela Brown, who has been born with a genetic gift for luck.

This crew sets off for their unknown destination, which will, of course, be revealed to be the Ringworld, a 186 million-mile-wide ring orbiting an unknown star in distant space. The ring is, ostensibly, an answer to a problem of over-population: with a livable surface which is over a million miles wide and almost 600 million miles in circumference, the Ringworld would comfortably support the populations of many worlds. A marvel of engineering, nothing is known of its creation or inhabitants. The puppeteers have been observing it, of course, but they have not even been able to observe whether or not there is any life still occupying it.

OK, so, yes, the character set-up is a little furry, I admit. But the Ringworld itself: a technological marvel, discovered in deep space, abandoned and uninhabited? A construction with more living room than most solar systems, unknown to its nearest neighbors and empty? It’s a great premise for an eerie space mystery!

But ‘Ringworld‘ is not a great space mystery. The Ringworld itself is merely a backdrop for what is, at its heart, an feel-good romp with a zany ensemble cast, and it’s stupid. All the possibilities of the Ringworld are wasted; its mystery is asked and answered, barely, almost as a side note, and as boringly as possible.

Ringworld‘, to give it credit, doesn’t wiff quite as badly on the second most interesting question it poses: what would happen if a person were bred for luck? What would luck look like if it could be relied upon? What would your life mean if you could know, could really trust, that everything that happened to you actually happened for the best, the best for you? What if your luck was so powerful that you could apply it to other people, warp their lives and their destinies, to further your own luck, that you had this effect simply by being near them?

Ringworld‘ is one of those scifi “classics” from the 60’s and 70’s (it was published in 1970), and it shows, not only in the bad writing, but in the bad politics. The women are particularly ghastly: they are (both of them) beautiful, overly sexualized, and stupid. Explicitly stupid – their male counterparts wonder at their stupidity, and marvel outright at their occasional ability to solve problems. One of them is, literally, a ship’s whore.

Whatever – basically, to read any literature written before 2008 (and half written after) is to encounter problematic depictions of women. You learn to stop taking it personally. My issue is that these characters aren’t only problematic, they are clunky and problematic.

This is the reason for my not-so-bad-I-notice rule for prose in genre fiction in the first place: bad prose amplifies every other sin a book may possess, and books, like people, are never perfect. As you wade through garbage writing, you tend to notice every single flaw that passes you by, and they irritate you more than they normally would, they grate on the nerves. Beautiful prose might not hide flaws, but it does make them easier to swallow. Why should I read about shallow, stupid characters if they aren’t even written well?

Ringworld‘ was bad. The prose was bad, the characters were shallow. The premise, the problems, are interesting, but they are abandoned: never answered, never explored.

Larry Niven

But ‘bad’ is not necessarily boring. ‘Ringworld‘ isn’t really boring: it hops weirdly along, you keep up. But it isn’t good – it’s probably the worst Hugo and Nebula winner I’ve ever read. But science fiction is often uneven, that’s almost a characteristic of the genre. Sure, a book’s characters might be thin, but the premise is thought-provoking, even profound. Say the dialogue is stilted – it might be redeemed by incredible world-building. I think, ultimately, my problem with ‘Ringworld’ is that it doesn’t do anything to redeem its badnesses. There aren’t really any upsides to weigh against the downsides of the bad prose, stupid characters, wasted premise.

One should always keep in mind, though, that books are due credit not just for how good or bad they are, but also for their effect on the genre. Some of ‘Ringworld‘s sins (like two-dimensional women) might not have been so damning in 1970. Whatever the reason, people remember ‘Ringworld’ as a classic, and it has had its impact on the genre. That legacy belongs to it – a work deserves some recognition for what it inspired, not just what it is.

So I’m not saying that ‘Ringworld‘ should be pulled from bookshelves, wiped from the cannon. I read it, and I’m glad. It informs my knowledge of the genre, and I’m grateful for that.

It’s just bad, is all.

Wuthering Heights

By Emily Bronte

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Sometimes I wonder why we even bother to make teenagers read.

Specifically, I wonder why we make teenagers read the classics. In middle and high school, we drag them, mostly unwilling, through the Great Books before they have had most of the experiences which would allow them to connect with the material therein, and insist to them that these books represent the best of human literary effort.

I understand the arguments in favor: we are using these books to teach children how to think critically about literature, teaching them how to approach and, hopefully, to love it. Of all the teenagers alive, I was perhaps the one most likely to approach the material with reverence; if I was not smarter than anyone else, certainly I had a character inclined, even at that age, to love great books, to embrace them with an open heart.

But even I misunderstood most of them. So often, in my adulthood, I have picked up again a book I read in high school only to discover upon rereading that I have completely misremembered it. That the book that I thought I loved all these years bears little to no resemblance to the actual book.

I did not love ‘Wuthering Heights‘ in high school. I remembered it as a great love story, and I was not often moved by love stories in high school. I remembered it as tragic, overwrought, but essentially romantic: ‘Romeo and Juliet’ on the moors. Catherine and Heathcliffe loved each other cleanly, I thought, were kept apart by their families, died. There was much lamenting, I thought, and Healthcliffe I remembered as dark, and brooding, but essentially appealing.

I don’t know why I decided to reread it now, decades later. I found a lovely old box set of ‘Wuthering Heights‘ and ‘Jane Eyre’ (by far my favorite of the two) at Second Story Books years ago, and I picked it up on impulse last week. And, upon rereading, I have discovered something interesting, something which completely eluded me in high school:

Wuthering Heights‘ is batshit crazy.

Wuthering Heights‘ is romantic only in the technical sense: it is about two people who experience a romantic impulse toward each other. It is not romantic in the actual sense: it is not about love.

It is about hatred, and rage, and madness: it is about obsession and the warping of the human soul. It is about perversion of the human heart, not in the sexual sense, but in the original sense of the word: it is about hearts which have been twisted from their original purpose. Corrupted by something else and made into something so ugly that violence is the only possible expression of the original human capacity for caring.

It is, famously, the story of the bond between Catherine Earnshaw and Healthcliffe. I remembered this about it: it is the story of two souls, facing obstinately towards each other but kept by circumstances apart in marriage. Lonely, therefore, and tortured, doomed to wander until they find each other, finally, in death.

What I did not remember is that both our protagonists are tortured, not by unrealized love, but by rage and spite. A terrible, driving, defining urge to hurt everyone around them. They are both unrelentingly vile, and in their vileness they torment not only every single other character in the book, but each other. ‘Wuthering Heights’ is a novel of vengeance.

“Are you possessed with a devil,” he [Heathcliffe] pursued savagely, “to talk in that matter to me when you are dying? Do you reflect that all those words will be branded on my memory, and eating deeper eternally after you have left me? You know you lie say I have killed you: and, Catherine, you know I could as soon forget you as my existence! Is it not sufficient for your infernal selfishness, that while you are at peace I shall writhe in the torments of hell?” (p. 101)

I suppose, when I was fifteen, I assumed that, if characters in a novel were loved deeply, they must have been deserving of that love. If they were protagonists, they must therefore be sympathetic protagonists. I was not, I suppose, as a teenager capable of understanding that sometimes literature asks us to empathize with characters we are not supposed to admire. As a teenager, I must have thought that protagonists are only meant to reflect our better selves, whether they are true or total or not.

Emily Bronte

I was wrong, obviously, and I am particularly distressed to discover my mistake because I didn’t need heroic, sympathetic protagonists, not then, not now. I needed exactly the kind of protagonists that ‘Wuthering Heights’ was offering me: angry, tormented souls, souls who, in desperate reaction to their own psychic pain, would lash out at the world around them. Souls whose own agony would make them destructive, who carried their own suffering inside themselves, as part of themselves, but who nevertheless longed for a happiness that was an impossibility for them.

I mean, we all do, right? That’s what literature is for! I think, if you live long enough, you learn, inevitably, that heroes are thin on the ground, and literature is one of the ways that we cope with this. We need our flawed protagonists to help us play out our own worst traits, to see ourselves under different lights, from different angles. Literature is how we run experiments with aspects of our characters, how we try out different lives without paying the price for them.

There are moments of real poignancy for me in ‘Wuthering Heights‘, moments of sad human beauty. One moment, in particular, has stayed with me. Early in the novel, when Heathcliffe is told by the narrator that Cathy’s ghost (Cathy has been dead many years at this point) has been to visit her old room:

“He [Heathcliffe] got onto the bed, and wrenched open the lattice, bursting, as he pulled at it, into an uncontrollable passion of tears. “Come in! come in!” he sobbed. “Cathy, do come. Oh do – once more! Oh! my heart’s darling: hear me this time, Catherine, at last!” The spectre showed a spectre’s ordinary caprice: it gave no sign of being.” (p. 18).

It is a reminder that even wicked people are capable of genuine grief in loss, a fact which, as a wicked person myself, I was going to discover.

Wuthering Heights (Penguin Classics)‘ and I missed each other, in time. It is too melodramatic for me, as I am now. I have become more placid in my adulthood, my dramas are adult dramas, I do not draw emotional sustenance from unquiet spirits raging without each other.

But when I was a teenager, I did, and I am grieved that I did not see the lesson when it was in front of me, then. The lesson of ‘Wuthering Heights’, that real love is not possible for creatures who are animated by hatred, no matter how much they want, or need, it, not in this life – that real love and hatred are antitheses – that was a lesson I would have to learn for myself, the hard way. I could have used a book or two to teach it to me – it might have shortened my sentence.

Ivanhoe

By Sir Walter Scott

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I think we sometimes assume that old stories are boring stories.

Ivanhoe‘ is an old story. I found my copy in my favorite used bookstore, ‘Second Story Books‘ in Washington D.C. It’s a Heritage Press Edition, and I’ll confess to a weakness for this kind of hardback reprint. They are wildly inconvenient and hard to read (too heavy, difficult to hold), but they really make you feel as though you are reading a proper book. And I’m a sucker for proper books.

But I bought my ‘Ivanhoe‘ years ago and, clearly, I haven’t been in a rush to read it. Honestly, as beautiful as my edition is, I suspected that it was going to be boring. I took a run at it a year or so ago: it opens with a brief exposition of the continuing effects of the Norman Conquest, and then cuts to a scene in the middle of an old-growth English forest, where two good-hearted Saxon yeomen are complaining about anti-poaching laws. So, yeah, it seemed like it was going to be really, really boring – I put that thing down like it was on fire and didn’t pick it up again until last week.

Old stories aren’t just boring-seeming because they’re, well, old, and because we think we’ve heard them already (although that is part of it) – it’s because we think that old stories are simple.

And they sometimes are, but we mostly think that old stories are simple because old stories are foundational – they are the stories upon which later stories have elaborated. They aren’t simple, but they are archetypal, which makes them predictable.

They also aren’t modern, which is obvious but important. They aren’t written in our vernacular, and their vernacular often seems cheesy to us: lacks the rawness, or subtlety, or emotional complexity, of our own.

All of which gives these stories a sort of hokey, old-timey feel which can strike some people as quaint and some people as lame.

Ivanhoe‘ lands right in the sweet-spot of this quaint/lame zone. This is a long-ass novel of Ye Olde England, and it’s filled with all the cliches of that genre. Robin Hood is here, Friar Tuck is here, Richard the Lion-Heart is here (his wicked brother John is here); there is an archery contest, there is chivalry and maidens and Sherwood Forest and wicked Norman knights and valiant Saxon knights and tournaments of honor.

But it’s a classic, and my beautiful copy kept calling to me, so I took another stab at it.

Pretty quickly, though, after I pushed through the two soul-crushingly boring yeoman, I realized two things:

  1. Ivanhoe‘ is a weirdly complicated story. Its plot is complicated; its characters are complicated; its morals are complicated.
  2. I actually have heard this story before.

As it turns out, big parts of Disney’s ‘Robin Hood‘ (you know, the amazing cartoon from when we were all kids, where Robin Hood is a fox and Little John is a bear?) is ‘Ivanhoe’-adjacent. There is no Maid Marion in the novel, but the whole scene with Robin Hood at the tournament taunting Prince John and winning the archery contest in disguise? That’s ‘Ivanhoe‘.

But Disney’s ‘Robin Hood’ is a simple story of good and evil – ‘Ivanhoe‘ isn’t. Or, it is, but with a lot of shades in between.

The story is almost unnecessarily complicated, and several attempts to summarize the plot have convinced me that it isn’t a worthwhile exercise. Part of the problem is that ‘Ivanhoe‘ is actually many stories woven together: two love stories, one tragic, one classic; a tale of chivalric honor over villainy; several tales of knightly valor; three tales about the honor of thieves; one tale of a sibling rivalry between two princes; a tale of a prodigal son; a tale about the loyalty of servants, and the wisdom of fools; a tale of a wicked usurper and a virtuous king; a story of the Jewish diaspora, and the terrible wickedness of Christians to Jews; and a tale of palace intrigue, all set against the backdrop of the tale of a conquered people trying regain their dignity. With some comic relief thrown in.

It’s a lot, and that really doesn’t even begin to describe it all. Before everything is through, there will be a tournament, a siege, Robin Hood will end up fighting alongside Richard the Lion-Heart, a castle will burn down with people in it, maidenly virtue will be rewarded, maidenly lack of virtue will be mocked and punished, a beautiful woman will be tried for witchcraft, a man will die of a broken heart, someone will come back from the dead, and lots and lots of horrible things will be said about Jews.

A Maiden

And I know that this sounds like a bunch of tropes all strung together into some sort of batshit Merry Old England mad-lib, and it kind of is! But if you’re expecting something simple, something quaint, ‘Ivanhoe’ isn’t it.

And if you are expecting easy moral takeaways, ‘Ivanhoe‘ won’t give them to you. There is one pure villain and maybe two pure heroes – everyone else is complicated. People are strong and weak, they succeed and fail, they are subject to imperfections but may overcome them, with work. They love truly, but with private reservations. They have virtues and failings, and sometimes they die and it’s unfair, and sometimes they are forgiven and it’s even less fair. It’s all very…modern.

Well, not all of it. The equivocation is modern – the Jew-hating chivalry is not.

Sir Walter Scott apparently used to be hot shit in Britain. He was a poet and author in the early/mid 19th century, but he was equally or more famous for his novels. ‘Ivanhoe‘ is the one for which he is best remembered now, but at the time he was also known for the Waverly novels, and ‘The Bride of Lammermoor’.

And one gets the sense, reading ‘Ivanhoe‘, that he was also pretty progressive for his time. A major theme of ‘Ivanhoe’ is that Jews are People, Too, pleaded with the sort of earnest heavy-handedness that indicates to me that the message was not uncontroversial.

Sir Walter Scott

And it’s a good message, but it’s delivery is decidedly pre-modern: Scott is going way out of his way to show you that, despite all the usury and their maniacal love of riches, Jews are also capable of love and goodness, even, in some rare cases, true human virtue. At one point, Robin Hood must admonish Isaac of York not to spare any expense in saving his daughter’s life:

“Yet, ere Isaac departed, the outlaw chief bestowed on him this parting advice: ‘Be liberal of thine offers, Isaac, and spare not thy purse for thy daughter’s safety. Credit me, that the gold thou shalt spare in her cause will hereafter give thee as much agony as if it were poured molten down thy throat.'” (p. 327)

And though Isaac acquiesces, because he loves his daughter (because, remember: Jews are People, Too!), the loss of fortune hurts him. Though the depictions of Isaac and Rebecca are meant to sympathetic, they are in fact anti-semitic and vile, and they represent, for me, an immovable obstacle to loving this book truly.

We’re allowed to be ambivalent about classics. It’s hard to remember that, sometimes, when we’re confronted by a handsome old hardback. But we are: we don’t have to love them. We can hate them, or like some parts of them and hate other parts. We can marvel at the complexity of the story and recoil at the endless, patronizing anti-semitism and laugh at the old-timey language and roll our eyes at the values.

I wonder sometimes whether classics are not our best-loved novels, but the ones which evoke the strongest ambivalence from us. The ones that elicit the strongest positive and negative emotions from us, at once. ‘Ivanhoe‘ was a ripping read, I tore through it, and I was held genuinely in suspense. That’s not to say that I loved it, but I’ll remember it.

A Room of One’s Own

By Virginia Woolf

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I really don’t like being wrong.

You’d think I’d be used to it by now, since I’m wrong at least as often as I’m right, but I still hate being wrong with the same furious intensity I did when I was a child, when I would rather have chopped off one of my own fingers than admitted I had been mistaken about something. It irks me, deep in my soul, to look foolish.

And it’s all well and good to be wrong about things that don’t matter, like math or medicine, but one would hope that I would be slightly more reliable on the subject of books. They are, after all, the most important thing in the world, the meaning and substance of my life – one would expect that, if I were going to be right about anything, I might be right about them.

And yet I’m wrong about books all the time. Even more distressing, my wrongness usually takes the same form: I discover, with depressing regularity, that I have disdained an author, often for years, who is actually excellent. Whom, when I actually trouble to read them, I end up loving.

In my defense, I rarely disdain an author for no reason. Usually, I have been forced, as a child in school, to read a classic, and found, in all my teenage wisdom, the classic wanting, and decided that the author was therefore garbage. I did this to John Steinbeck (did not like ‘Of Mice and Men‘); I did this to Zora Neale Hurston (hated ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘); and I did this to Virginia Woolf.

It was ‘Mrs. Dalloway‘ that did it. My fifteen year old self was not impressed by ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. I do not remember precisely why – I suspect I thought it was vapid. Or maybe that Mrs. Dalloway herself was vapid, and I did not feel that I should have to spend my time reading about the interior world of a vapid party-planner when there were so many more interesting things to read about, like War and Death and Space Battles. I did not understand yet that it was a novel about trauma, that great tragedies play out quietly in the psyches of ordinary people, probably because I was a teenager and so had no interior world to speak of.

Because I did not like ‘Mrs. Dalloway’, I decided that I did not like Virginia Woolf. I have never read another of her books. But I believe in reading the classics; I’m traditional, and have an idea that one should read The Great Books, even if one really didn’t like ‘Mrs. Dalloway’. And so, when I saw ‘A Room of One’s Own‘ at the Harvard Bookstore Warehouse Sale this summer, I got it.

A Room of One’s Own‘ is an essay, born from two lectures which Woolf gave to women’s colleges of Cambridge. It takes, famously, as its thesis, the problem of Shakespeare’s sister, a woman born with all the talent of Shakespeare, but none of his masculine freedom. Would she, this sister, have left brilliant plays behind her? Not, Woolf concludes, without the time, space, and money to work. Not without a room of her own.

I was not expecting to enjoy ‘A Room of One’s Own‘. I read it entirely out of a sense of duty, an obligation both the Canon and to feminism. ‘A Room of One’s Own’ is a foundational feminist text, one of those books that you, if you are a woman, really ought to have read by now. I somehow graduated from an East Coast liberal arts college without reading it (I won’t say which one, lest they recall my degree), and have felt sort of nagged ever since by my own bad feminism.

I didn’t expect her to be funny. No, not because she’s a woman – because ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ is almost shockingly unfunny, and because about ten years after she published it, Virginia Woolf loaded her pockets with stones and walked into the river Ouse to drown herself, and so I don’t think of her as hilarious.

But, wrong again: she is funny. She’s sardonically, dryly funny, almost caustic. Her gimlet eye misses nothing, she is subtle, but when she cuts, she cuts deep, and her aim is devastating:

“..I thought of that old gentleman, who is dead now, but was a bishop, I think, who declared that it was impossible for any woman, past, present, or to come, to have the genius of Shakespeare. He wrote to the papers about it. He also told a lady who applied to him for information that cats do not as a matter of fact go to heaven, though they have, he added, souls of a sort. How much thinking those old gentlemen used to save one! How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare.” (p. 46)

And she is a beautiful writer, but, of course, we all knew that. What I was not prepared for was how I would feel, as a woman, when this beautiful prose, this clear-eyed analysis, applied itself to the problem of women’s rights.

Virginia Woolf

Woolf is a feminist from an earlier time: she isn’t writing about #metoo, or whether Cosmo causes eating disorders. She is writing about whether or not women are as smart as men, whether their minds can ever be as fine as men’s minds, whether they deserve to be educated, whether they can make art. It’s moving to read such a fine writer, such an understated and lovely writer, speak to this: her very existence should prove her point, but you know that it won’t.

I was surprised by her, I suppose: I was expecting something glum, or censorious (I think, upon reflection, that I confused the character of Mrs. Dalloway with Woolf herself – oops). But ‘A Room of One’s Own‘ isn’t censorious at all – it’s a gentle argument, a ripost, to a society which much have been a source of great pain to its author. And so it still consoles now, as long as society remains a source of pain to her readers.

“Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice it’s natural size….Whatever may be their use in civilised societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically on upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism…For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished. How is he to go on giving judgement, civilising natives, making laws, writing books, dressing up and speechifying at banquets, unless he can see himself at breakfast and at dinner at least twice the size he really is?” (p. 36)

It’s hard to know whether you are connecting with a work because the work is magnificent, or because you are a woman, or a mix of both. It’s OK for works to have special resonance for certain groups, but I’m always a little uncomfortable when I feel that I am only connecting to a work “as a woman” (like I said, bad feminist).

But Woolf is such a good writer, there is no question that the connection to her work is merely estrogenic. Magnificent prose is magnificent prose, whether its author is invaginated or not.

A fact with which Woolf would doubtless agree. I’m not sure I learned a lot from ‘A Room of One’s Own‘, but I’m also not convinced that that was the point. Rather, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ was a consolation, the reaching out of one woman to another through time. I am very glad I read it, which I suppose serves me right. Wrong again, happily.

Tales of Mystery and Imagination

By Edgar Allan Poe

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Guys, is it just me, or is Edgar Allan Poe kind of…bad?

I’m having the slightly creepy experience of reading a book which is considered ‘classic’, picking up a work of Great Literature, and finding it to be, well, bad.  And not just a little bit bad, or simply not to my taste – really and obviously bad.  Just crappy.  Indefensible.

I’m sorry to have to say this, but I think that Edgar Allan Poe is a bad writer.  It grieves me, honestly, to pan the most famous author of spooky stories, to turn my nose up at the man who basically invented creepiness, but these are bad stories, badly written!  I can’t be the only person who’s noticed this, can I?

I hate these moments, these The-Emperor-Has-No-Clothes-moments, when everyone around you exclaims that a piece of culture is brilliant but, try as you might, you just can’t see it.  It’s obviously not brilliant, but no one will admit it and you wonder, is it me?  Am I crazy?  Am I missing something?  Or is Edgar Allan Poe just a bad writer and no one has the guts to say it?

I’m gonna get of ahead of you here and just slot in a few disclaimers.  First of all, I am not simply having trouble with the normal, more formal English of two hundred years ago.  I have read, and loved, many of Poe’s contemporaries, even his predecessors – I love the fruity olde English of yore.  This is not a problem of idiom, or style.

And I didn’t just read a few bad stories, his early attempts, for example, when he was still learning the ropes.  My copy of ‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination‘ contains twenty stories, including all his ‘best’ and most famous ones: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, ‘The Murders on the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’.  I read this book cover to cover.

The only thing I liked about this book was these creepy illustrations, by Harry Clarke.

And it was hard-going, I can assure you.  These are not easy stories to read, or fun.  Poe’s prose is turgid, and purple, arduous and encumbered.  Reading him is like running through wet sand.  Let me give you a few examples, chosen – I swear to God – basically at random:

“‘You behold around you, it is true, a medley of architectural embellishments.  The chastity of Ionia is offended by antediluvian devices, and the sphynxes [sic] of Egypt are outstretched upon carpets of gold.  Yet the effect is incongruous to the timid alone.  Proprieties of place, and especially of time, are the bugbears which terrify mankind from the contemplation of the magnificent.  Once I was myself a decorist: but that sublimation of folly has palled upon my soul.  All this is now the fitter for my purpose.  Like these arabesque censers, my spirit is writhing in fire, and the delirium of this is scene is fashioning me for the wilder visions of that land of real dreams whither I am now rapidly departing’.” (‘The Assignation‘)

That is self-indulgent nonsense.  Here, try another:

“Ah, Death, the spectre which sate at all feasts!  How often, Monos, did we lose ourselves in speculations upon its nature!  How mysteriously did it act as a check to human bliss – saying unto it “thus far, and no farther!”  That earnest mutual love, my own Monos, which burned within our bosoms – how vainly did we flatter ourselves, feeling happy in its first upspringing, that our happiness would strengthen with its strength!  Alas! as it grew, so grew in our hearts the dread of that evil hour which was hurrying to separate us forever!  Thus, in time, it became painful to love.  Hate would have been better then.” (‘The Colloquy of Monos and Una‘)

He sounds like a fourteen year old girl trying her first slash fiction.  Have I broken your spirit yet?  Can you bear another?

“Yet, although I saw that the features of Ligeia were not of a classical regularity – although I perceived that her loveliness was indeed ‘exquisite,’ and felt that there was much of ‘strangeness’ pervading it, yet I have tried in vain to detect the irregularity and to trace home my own perception of ‘the strange.’  I examined the contour of the lofty and pale forehead – it was faultless – how cold indeed that word when applied to a majesty so divine! – the skin rivalling [sic] the purest ivory, the commanding extent and repose, the gentle prominence of the regions above the temples; and then the raven-black, the glossy, the luxuriant and naturally-curling tresses, setting forth the full force of the Homeric epithet, ‘hyacinthine!'” (‘Ligeia‘)

What incredible rubbish.  Honestly, that is just bad writing – it’s not fancy, it’s not expressive, it’s not sensual or sophisticated.  It’s terrible.

Edgar Allan Poe.  I feel a little bad saying all these mean things about him – he looks so sad.

And my objections to Poe are not merely stylistic.  He is not just a bad crafter of prose – no, worse: he is also a bad crafter of stories.

I know, I know – this is going to be a bridge too far for some people.   But bear with me, because I’m about to make a distinction which is very important to me.  There are two different elements (at least, but let’s stick with two for right now) to a well-crafted plot: the Premise and the Unfolding.  The Premise is the foundation on which the story rests; the Unfolding is how the Premise roles out into the plot.

Greatness, in a book, is most often found in the Unfolding of the plot.  Often, this great Unfolding rests on a magnificent Premise, but it needn’t: a masterful Unfolding can make Great Art of a simple, well-worn Premise.  But it is almost impossible to rescue a great Premise from a bad Unfolding.

Which is a shame, because there is almost nothing as lovable as a great Premise, and when you meet one, you want desperately for it to become Great Art.

But wishing does not make it so.  I have a theory that Edgar Allan Poe is considered a great writer because he is pretty great at the Premise.  All of his most famous stories share this trait: they have great Premises.  A man accidentally walls his comatose wife up in the family tomb.  A brutal, senseless murder stymies the police because it was committed by an escaped gorilla.  A murderer is so haunted by guilt that he cannot escape the sound of the beating heart of his victim.  A man is trapped in the most hideous torture chamber ever devised by the Inquisition.

These are phenomenal Premises, and it’s hard to imagine that their accompanying stories might really be bad.  But, please trust me, they are.  Poe is a terrible writer of plot: he cannot pace, does not construct narrative well.  He tells, and does not show.  His stories are uneven.  He spends way too much time on irrelevant details (pages and pages devoted to the windows in the House of Usher) and rushes the denouement.  Sometimes his stories don’t even have a denouement – they just trail off into nothing, as though he wandered away from the table.

Which, OK, he was sort of inventing a genre.  Some unevenness is expected.  But, not really: people wrote ghost stories before, and novelty is no excuse for bad writing. 

We are lucky: we live in a time of plenty, book-wise.  There is so much to read, too much to ever accomplish in a lifetime, in ten lifetimes.  We must pick and choose, and so it might be time to leave Poe behind, to thank him for his service, to be grateful for what he gave us, for the traditions which he inspired, but to let go of the primary material.

So, if you will allow me, I would like to give you a small Christmas gift: time.  I would like to save you the time you might have spent reading Edgar Allan Poe.  I almost never do this – I believe in reading the Classics for yourself.  But this time I believe I can, in good conscience, free up some time for you.  I think, if you’ll let me, I can give you this time back.

Because, no matter how much I love scary stories, no matter how I grateful I will always be to the man who made them Literature, I cannot tell it other than this: Edgar Allan Poe is a bad writer.

Happy Holidays.

Tender Is The Night

By F. Scott Fitzgerald

All Posts Contain Spoilers

It’s time to talk about F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Tender is the NightI am hesitant to do this, because my feelings about F. Scott Fitzgerald are complicated, and heavy.  But Fitzgerald towers over American letters, blotting out the sun before it can reach other authors.  He is read ubiquitously, but narrowly: it is almost impossible to graduate from an American high school without having read ‘The Great Gatsby‘, but his other works have faded from the national consciousness.

In fact, really, it is ‘The Great Gatsby‘, and not Fitzgerald himself, which really dominates the American literary cannon, and so I ought to spend a moment on it before proceeding to the book which is usually thought of as ‘Fitzgerald’s other book’.

The Great Gatsby‘ fills me with awe, and with rage, with fury and contempt and profound respect, all at once (I warned you that this was going to be complicated).  It is, as near as I have ever encountered, a perfect novel.

I mean that technically.  ‘The Great Gatsby‘ is a masterpiece of prose craft – there is not a sentence, not a single word, out of place.  I am confident in this, because I have read it many times looking for one.  Do you know how difficult it is to write one perfect sentence?  The amount of skill required to write an entire novel of perfect sentences honestly boggles my mind.

So I stand before Fitzgerald as an ant before a mountain, and I am humbled by the sheer talent for the craft of writing which he surely possessed.  Nevertheless, ‘The Great Gatsby‘, while technically perfect, is banal.  Worse, it is barren: emotionally vacuous, and utterly superficial on any level above that of composition.  Its worldview is shallow; its metaphors childish (there is a reason that it is taught in schools – it is simple to the point of obviousness, and therefore the perfect text for teaching young people the rudiments of metaphor).

This juxtaposition, of compositional genius married to complete vapidity, disturbs me profoundly.  It’s more than that, actually: it makes me angry.  Fitzgerald was a genius, but he was also a twit.  Gifted by fate and practice with perhaps the greatest writerly skill in the history of his nation, he only cared about the habits and costumes of the very rich, the drinks they consumed and places that they summered.  He might have used his immense craft to describe anything, to explicate any mystery of the human psyche, but, no.  He could describe only what he felt: a longing to be wealthy.

F Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald

It’s like taking the world’s most powerful telescope and turning it to a brick wall – I am devastated by the waste.  I am filled with resentment for the work he did produce, which is so virtuosic and so unfulfilling.  And I think about writers like James Baldwin, who is the closest I can think of to his equal in prose-craft.  And I think about the ways in which Baldwin, who was not only a great writer but also a great soul, used his gifts, and I weep for what the world lost when such mastery was spent on a fool like Fitzgerald.

That, basically, is how I felt about F. Scott Fitagerald when I rolled up to ‘Tender Is the Night‘.  It’s difficult to say why, feeling that way, I even wanted to read it.  Maybe it will suffice to say: I have a fetish for thoroughness, and I do not like to convict a man before weighing all the evidence.

F. Scott Fitzgerald actually published four novels in his lifetime – ‘Tender Is the Night‘ is the last of them.  It was published nine years after ‘The Great Gatsby‘, and Fitzgerald apparently considered it his greatest work.  It tells the story of Dick Diver, an American psychiatrist living in Europe between the two World Wars.  Diver, handsome and charming, has married one of his patients, Nicole, a beautiful young woman suffering from schizophrenia.  The novel tells the story of his slow fall from greatness: an affair, the collapse of his marriage, and his alcoholism.

It is apparently considered a semi-autobiographical novel: Fitzgerald, one of our many famous literary alcoholics, did live in Europe and wrote it after his own wife, Zelda, was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  I had not connected these facts when I decided to read it, and they did not intrude on my experience of the novel itself.  Nevertheless, I was aware all through ‘Tender Is the Night‘ of a much greater depth of insight, of humanity, in this work than in ‘The Great Gatsby‘.

It is not, in terms of prose-craft, the masterpiece that ‘The Great Gatsby‘ is.  It is poorly paced, and makes a few jarring transitions.  It also contains a few experiments with prose style (particularly in attempts to catch Nicole’s madness) which are unsuccessful, if not downright incoherent.

But Dick’s slow unwinding, the emotional forces which impinge on him, which drive him onwards in all their contradiction, those are beautifully portrayed.  The thing which failed in ‘The Great Gatsby‘, the attempt to show how a wealthy life might yet be bleak, actually works here: all the strands of money and charm and loveliness which surround Dick Diver slowly enmesh and entangle him, tightening and tightening around him until he, and you, are thrashing in a sort of slow, angry suffocation.

And, of course, because it is Fitzgerald, it contains passages of transcendent beauty, like this one:

“Baby had certain spinsters’ characteristics – she was alien from touch, she started if she was touched suddenly, and such lingering touches as kisses and embraces slipped directly through the flesh into the forefront of her consciousness.” (p. 172)

Or this one:

“Her naivete responded whole-heartedly to the expensive simplicity of the Divers, unaware of its complexity and its lack of innocence, unaware that it was all a selection of quality rather than quantity from the run of the world’s bazaar; and that the simplicity of behavior, also, the nursery-like peace and good will, the emphasis on the simpler virtues, was part of a desperate bargain with the gods and been attained through struggles she could not have guessed at.”  (p. 21)

Or this one, which I believe I will carry with me for the rest of my life:

“One writes of scars healed, a loose parallel to the pathology of the skin, but there is no such thing in the life of an individual.  There are open wounds, shrunk sometimes to the size of a pin-prick but wounds still.  The marks of suffering are more comparable to the loss of a finger, or of the sight of an eye.  We may not miss them, either, for one minute in a year, but if we should there is nothing to be done about it.” (p. 169)

It’s kind of funny, actually: ‘The Great Gatsby‘ is a perfect book utterly without emotional effect; ‘Tender Is the Night‘ is a imperfect book which is, nonetheless, much more emotionally affecting.  It lacks the tightness, the lapidary, flawless prose that ‘Gatsby’ has, but it shows so much more depth, is so much more moving, than ‘Gatsby’ ever was.

Maybe it’s because Fitzgerald, himself a man falling apart, was writing about a man falling apart in the exact same ways.  He might have been too barren a soul to ever describe anyone else’s humanity, but he was able to describe his own plight with some grace.  He remained a vain and shallow man to the end, but, finally, he turned his craft on the one subject which could hold both his interest and mine: himself.

Finn Family Moomintroll

By Tove Jansson

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Finn Family Moomintroll“One grey morning the first snow began to fall in the Valley of the Moomins.  It fell softly and quietly, and in a few hours everything was white.”

Fall is here, and I’m sure you know what that means:

It’s time to re-read ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘.

I’m not sure why it is that this time of year always draws me back to this book from my childhood, why the gray, chilly days remind me of the strange, bleak world of Moomin Valley.  Whatever the reason, I rarely make it to Thanksgiving without re-reading ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘.

Tove-Jansson
Tove Jansson

The Moomin books are Swedish (written by the Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson), and they are quite famous there (there is actually a Moomin house, in Finland), but to my consternation, most Americans are unfamiliar with the Moomintrolls.  There are nine Moomin books, of which ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘ is actually the third.  But it is my favorite of the books, the one I think best captures the sweet, weird, sad tone of them.

Thingumy and Bob Comfort Moomintroll
Thingumy and Bob comfort Moomintroll

The Moomins are a family of hippopotamus-like bipeds.  Moominpappa, Moominmamma, and their son Moomintroll live in Moomin Valley, in a turret-house which is always filled to capacity by the various friends and hangers-on that they acquire during their travels.  They are accompanied most of the time by their neighbors the Snork and the Snork Maiden, also hippo-like.  Other frequent allies include the Humulen, the Muskrat, Snufkin, Sniff, Thingumy and Bob.

In small bands or all together, the Moomins have small adventures and tribulations.  The chapters of ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘ have descriptors like, “In which Moomintroll suffers an uncomfortable change* and takes his revenge on the Ant-lion, and how Moomintroll and Snufkin go on a secret night expedition” or, “In which Thingumy and Bob, bringing a mysterious suitcase and followed by the Groke, come into the story, and in which the Snork leads a Court Case“.

*This is NOT puberty – this is a transformation wrought by the Hobgoblin’s Hat.

Ant-lion Hedgehog
The Ant-lion has been transformed into the world’s smallest hedgehog (and he is surrounded by Outlandish Words)

All of which adventures are accompanied by little pen and ink drawings, done by the author herself, and which constitute easily the most charming part of the entire series.

If this all sounds too precious, it’s not.  It’s true: ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘ has all the necessarily ingredients of a delightful children’s book: whimsical creatures, adventures with high stakes but good outcomes, magic, humor, and an essential sweetness.  It is lightly eccentric, and quite funny.

“Next morning the Muskrat went out as usual with his book to lie in the hammock, but he had just gotten comfortable when the string broke and he found himself on the ground…

‘Oh, dear,’ said Moominpappa, who was watering his tobacco plants.  ‘I hope you didn’t hurt yourself?’

‘It isn’t that,’ replied the Muskrat gloomily sucking his moustache.  ‘The earth can crack and fire come down from heaven for all I care – that sort of thing doesn’t disturb me – but I do not like to be put into a ridiculous situation.  It isn’t dignified for a philosopher!’…

‘I know, I know,’ interrupted Moominpappa miserably.  ‘But there’s no peace in this house…And sometimes string wears out with the years you know.’

‘It must not,’ said the Muskrat.  ‘If I had killed myself, of course, it wouldn’t have mattered.  But imagine if your YOUNG PERSONS had seen me! Now, however, I intend to retire to a deserted spot and live a life of loneliness and peace, giving up everything.'” (p. 45)

Snork on the DockBut good humor is not the most salient attribute of the Moomin books.  I think that the reason why they have worn so well, why I return to them year after year, is that they are melancholy.  There is a sad cast to them which I can’t pin down, a forlorn air which hangs over their adventures.  I find this inexpressibly moving; long after I have outgrown the whimsy of the books, I come back to this same still, quiet sadness.

It’s difficult to say where the sadness comes from.  It lurks in there, in the Hobgoblin’s endless, fruitless quest for the King’s Ruby, which has taken him finally to the blasted out and lonely landscape of the moon.  It’s in Snufkin’s need to set out on long journeys, but always alone, because it is only alone that he is really himself.  It is there in the Humulen, devastated by the completion of his stamp collection, because, as Moomintroll says, he is no longer a collector, now merely an owner.  There is something low and sorrowful here.

Hobgoblin on the Moon
The Hobgoblin on the moon

But that is not the only thing which has called me back to Moomin Valley all these times, not the only thing which makes ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘, to my mind, a rather perfect little book:  it’s also creepy.

Hattifatteners
The Hattifatteners (which are very creepy) swarm the Humulen

As I have mentioned before, creepiness is, for me, a requirement in children’s literature.  ‘Finn Family Moomintroll‘ isn’t ghost-story creepy; rather, it’s sort of weird-creepy, touched by a pall of uneasiness which lies over the whole story, over all of Moomin Valley.  There is a sinister whisper behind everything, which rarely comes out into the light but does occasionally, as in the character of the Groke:

“Then – they saw the Groke.  Everybody saw her.  She sat motionless on the sandy path at the bottom of the steps and stared at them with round, expressionless eyes.

She was not particularly big and didn’t look dangerous either, but you felt that she was terribly evil and would wait forever.  And that was awful.” (p. 116)

The effect is sort of mesmerizing, this strange, happy story with it’s sad, ominous undercurrents.  The stories aren’t swashbuckling-exciting, but because the creatures are so original, and because the narrative voice is so unusual, they are completely absorbing.  And even though the language is simple, clearly meant for children, the tone is subtle enough that, as adult reader, you still feel overcome by the story.  Moomin Valley exists for me, an eerie place, known and unknown, safe yet spooky, filled with ambivalent little creatures hiding in strange and unexpected places.

Party in Moominvalley
A party in Moominvalley

I always feel so incompetent at moments like this, when I try to describe the effect a beloved book has had on me.  The books are so much better than my descriptions of them will ever be – you cannot describe better, in words, an accomplishment of words.  And words are insufficient, too, for my feelings: I cannot paint for you, quite, the feelings which Moomin Valley evokes in me.

So I will leave you, instead, with the words of the book itself, with the sure knowledge that, if this can’t charm you, nothing can:

“While the Hobglobin was eating they edged a little nearer.  Somebody who eats pancakes and jam can’t be so awfully dangerous.  You can talk to him.” (p. 145)

Finding the Hobgoblin's Hat
Moomintroll, Sniff, and Snufkin find the Hobgoblin’s Hat

I Love Dick

By Chris Kraus

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Have you ever been at an art museum and heard some idiot, standing in front of a Pollack or a Rothko, say, “I don’t get it – I could paint that”?  And did you then feel a stab of rage towards that idiot, because a) even if they could have painted it, they didn’t and b) they definitely could not have painted it.  And did you silently congratulate yourself on your sophistication and appreciation, on your ability to see the enormous amount of skill and learning and vision that lies behind deceptively simple masterpieces?

Well I definitely have, which is what made it a little alarming to read ‘I Love Dick‘, by Chris Kraus this week and think, over and over again, “I could have written this”.

I Love DickI Love Dick‘ was Kraus’s first book.  Published in 1997, it is an epistolary novel, a series of letters from a woman Chris Kraus (and her husband, Sylvère) to Dick, her husband’s friend, with whom she has fallen in love.  The novel was, apparently, in large part memoir; Kraus was married to Sylvère Lontringer and the eponymous Dick was later identified as the cultural critic Dick Hebdige.

However, the novel isn’t really about either of those men – it’s about Kraus, and about female desire, uncontrolled.  It’s about how when your culture will not recognize your legitimate desires, it robs you and your desires of dignity.  It is about the way that women in unreciprocated lust are ridiculous in our culture (“debased”, to use Kraus’s word).  It is Kraus’s attempt to take back her own dignity by fully inhabiting that debasement.

I loved ‘I Love Dick‘, and when I say, “I could have written this”, I don’t mean, “I could have written this because it seems so easy, so amateurish”.  I mean: “I wish I had written this.”  I mean: “I am so glad that someone wrote this, and I only wish that it had been me”.

Chris Kraus
Chris Kraus from The New Yorker

I Love Dick‘ is considered an important feminist text (The Guardian called it “the most important book about men and women written in the last century”), and that makes sense to me: I feel as though I connected to it primarily as a woman.  This is unusual for me – I don’t read books as a woman.  And what I mean by that is, ‘woman’ is not the first lens through which I experience most literature.  Sometimes a text, or a portion of a text, will remind me that I am a woman, but it is rare that I engage with a book in constant awareness of the fact that I am a woman, rare that my femininity, my lived experience as a woman, is the best tool I have for connecting with a text.

Aside/Manifesto: I believe that there is an enormous amount of information about humanity lurking within the Amazon algorithm.  When Amazon suggests a product to you based on your purchase, it is essentially telling you what kind of person you are, and what it is that your kind of person buys.  What I have learned from ‘I Love Dick”s Amazon page is that Amazon thinks that people like me (women?) are stupid: the ‘Sponsored Products Related to this Item’ include: ‘Stone Heart: A Single Mom & Mountain Man Romance’, ‘Bad Seed: A Brother’s Best Friend Romance’ and something beggaring description called ‘Falling For My Dirty Uncle: A Virgin and Billionaire Romance’.  These books are ‘related’ to ‘I Love Dick’ the way gonorrhea is related to penicillin.

But I found that I did read ‘I Love Dick‘ in large part as a woman.  It is as a woman that I was best able to understand what Kraus felt as she thrashed around in love, and shame, and fear.  And it is as a woman that I was best able to relate to her desire to understand, articulate, express herself.  If femininity is a house, a large, complicated, rambling house, with an old, old main building but with additions and wings and rooms in the back that we all forgot were there, then ‘I Love Dick’ is spring cleaning, airing out the attic and the basement and spending some time in all those rooms which we don’t like to show to guests.

Chris Kraus 2
Chris Kraus from The Guardian

And the part of me that did not read ‘I Love Dick‘ as a woman read it as someone who loves texts, and meaning.  ‘I Love Dick’ is often described as a semiotics text.  Kraus was a filmmaker (in fact, much of what ‘I Love Dick’ is about is her reckoning with the failure of her filmmaking career; it is failure transformed, escaped from, into sexual desire, and, really, who hasn’t been there?), and if her book is about love, and lust, and failure, then it is also about art.  It is about how we use art to understand ourselves, and our feelings.  It is about the collision of our selves and the content we consume, and how the result is our lives.

Kraus loves art that I do not love, but I understood the enormous meaning that she draws from art.  I am, like her, built from the parts I have found in art.  And, even if her taste does not suit, her eye is phenomenal.  She is a witty, biting observer of…everything.  Born, perhaps, to be a critic, she weaves art into her life, and then shreds the result with observation:

“Years later Chris would realize that her fondness for bad art is exactly like Jane Eyre’s attraction to Rochester, a mean horse-faced junky: bad characters invite invention.” (p. 21)

“”As soon as sex takes place, we fall,” she wrote, thinking, knowing from experience, that sex short circuits all imaginative exchange.  The two together get too scary.  So she wrote some more about Henry James.” (p. 51)

“Because [Chris and Sylvère] are no longer having sex, the two maintain their intimacy via deconstruction: i.e., they tell each other everything.” (p. 21)

People often seem to object to ‘I Love Dick’ on the grounds that it is ‘difficult’, that it is dry and theoretical and abstract.  I find this puzzling: I found warmth and wisdom and sadness here, no difficulty, just a winding path.  A novel analyzing love is still about love, and observing something doesn’t make it any less true.  I recognize myself in Kraus’s love, and I think that many women do, in the snarls and complexity of it all:

“If the coyote is the last surviving animal, hatred’s got to be the last emotion in the world.” (p. 160)

“How do you continue when the connection to the other person is broken (when the connection is broken to yourself)?  To be in love with someone means believing that to be in someone else’s presence is the only means of being, completely, yourself.” (p. 168)

“And isn’t sincerity just the denial of complexity?” (p. 181)

“Isn’t sincerity just the denial of complexity?”  I could have written that.

Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen

All Posts Contain Spoilers

There are times in one’s life which call for Jane Austen.

It’s a little difficult to define these times with precision (paradoxical, given that one of the great gifts of the author in question is precision).  They are the times in one’s life when things feel as though they might not work out, as though the world is not abiding by rules, when people feel coarse or evil, or when you are lonely, and the world feels large and empty around you.

In those times, this reader often turns to Jane Austen, to her small, orderly world with its essential kindness and small stakes.  Her attention is so fine that she justifies yours, and you feel completely vindicated in devoting emotional energy to courtships, and small slights of manners, and hattery.

Northanger AbbeyI should have read ‘Northanger Abbey‘ long ago.  I’ve read all the others, twice at least.  ‘Northanger Abbey’, Austen’s first complete novel and not published until after her death, has been a nagging hole in my education, and as the winter and the news and my own life converge to feel onerous, it felt like the right time to complete my relationship with her, and read her earliest work.

Northanger Abbey‘ is the story of Catherine Moreland, a young, good-natured, but otherwise totally unremarkable woman, her predilection for novels, and her courtship with one Henry Tilney.

Catherine meets Henry on a trip to Bath with her family friends, the Allens; he is assigned to her as a dance partner.  Normal Austenian hijinks ensue: Catherine’s brother will be thrown over by Catherine’s socially ambitious friend, who will in turn be thrown over by Henry’s caddish brother.  Catherine will befriend Henry’s saintly sister Eleanor, and there will be much muttering and misunderstanding about family incomes and marriage settlements.  All will come right for everyone who deserves it.

But ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is really a novel about novels, about our love of them, what they bring to our lives, the ways in which they affect our thinking, and why we publicly scorn the plotty ones that we secretly love best.  Catherine loves novels, particularly the chest-heaving Gothic romances, and her determination to find novelistic adventures in her own life leads her into one or two small scrapes (including the brief conviction that her future father-in-law has his late wife imprisoned in a wing of Northanger Abbey).  The whole novel is a tongue-in-cheek defense of novels, for even while Catherine fails to achieve Gothic adventure, she is, in fact, meeting and contending with villains, falling in love, and showing loyalty to friends and loved ones, the grand tropes of romance writ small.

Which, I think, is part of Austen’s point: novels are meaningful to us not because we are going to achieve the exact adventures which they portray, but because the emotions which animate their characters are the same emotions which animate us, and, within the literary arts, emotions are the special territory of novels.  Other forms may acknowledge or portray them, but only novels explicate them.

And this little conceit is charming.  But, let’s just be honest and upfront: ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is not Austen’s best work.  Which is fine, I mean, look at the competition: she wrote at least two novels of manners which are essentially perfect, and there’s nowhere to go from ‘perfect’ but down.  And this was, as stated earlier, her first attempt, so it’s not surprising that the learning curve should be visible.

Lismore Castle.jpg
In the 2007 PBS adaptation, the scenes in at Northanger Abbey itself were filmed in Lismore Castle, in Ireland.

But it is visible.  There are a few structural problems with ‘Northanger Abbey‘.  First of all, the pacing is odd.  Only about two fifths of the novel are even spent at Northanger Abbey itself.  Too much time is spent in Bath, with the Allens, and much of the later action is dispatched too quickly.  Significant characters, like the odious suitor John Thorpe, are dealt with off-screen, and one of the main characters, Eleanor Tilney, triumphantly marries a Viscount who is not only completely unknown, he is never even named!

A bigger problem is Catherine herself.  Some characters, it is true, do not age well, and the traits of heroines tend to be era-specific, but I suspect that Catherine was a complete drip even in Austen’s day.  She is, by the admission of her narrator, not very smart, only kind of good-looking, and lazy.  Certainly, she’s got all the social sense of a parsnip.  Even her eventual husband finds her lackluster:

“For though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought.” (p. 168)

This is not the denouement of a romantic heroine, which, obviously, is Austen’s point.  But, alas, it also not the denouement of a particularly interesting heroine, and this presents something of a difficulty for the reader who wishes to be sympathetic with, or at all invested in, their protagonist.

Austen will, of course, perfect the heroine later, and the hero.  In the meantime, the other reason she is read, her razor-sharp prose, is the one part of this novel that does not suffer much by comparison.  She is almost as fine a writer of prose here as elsewhere; you never go wrong reading Jane Austen for language.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen

Indeed, Austen is one the few writers who is so excellent at prose-craft that she is both beautiful and funny, high-minded and devastatingly mean, with equal comfort.  But she is most loved for her arch observations of manners, the subtle and inescapable attention with which she observes her fellow man, and ‘Northanger Abbey’ contains some really sick Jane Austen burns.

For example, demolishing the social falseness of Catherine’s friend Isabella:

“It was ages since she had had a moment’s conversation with her dearest Catherine; and, though she had such thousands of things to say to her, it appeared as if they were never to be together again; so, with smiles of most exquisite misery, and the laughing eye of utter despondency, she bade her friend adieu and went on.” (p. 45)

Or pointing out the silliness of fretting too much about what to wear for a man one hopes to impress:

“This would have been an error in judgment, great though not uncommon, from which one of the other sex rather than her own, a brother rather than a great aunt might have warned her, for man only can be aware of the insensibility of man towards a new gown.” (p. 49)

Or, my personal favorite, gently reminding us all that women are thinking beings:

‘She was heartily ashamed of her ignorance.  A misplaced shame.  Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant.  To come with a well-formed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid.  A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.” (p. 76)

I suppose, in summary, that the truth is this: ‘Northanger Abbey‘ is not Austen’s best, but Austen is a comfort even when she is under-performing.  Her excellent language, her wit, and her easy humanity all make reading her rather like coming home, and this is the last Jane Austen I will ever read for the first time.  I wish it had been better, but it was like enough to her great works that it gave me comfort, which is what I was looking for in the first place.