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.

The Thorn Birds

By Colleen McCullough

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It’s always slightly disorienting to hear a book you’ve never heard of described as a “classic”.

It’s even more disorienting to read that “classic” and discover that it is absolute trash.

I’m not sure what called ‘The Thorn Birds‘ to my attention after all these years. I suspect I started noticing it on bookstore shelves – it is a great title, after all, and a big honking book, and I love big honking books. I certainly did minimal research into the plot before I bought it, but buy it I did.

The Thorn Birds‘ is, apparently, the best-selling novel in Australia, ever. It is also the source material for the most-watched mini-series of all time, and it has been re-released as a ‘modern classic’. Only this last achievement surprises me: ‘The Thorn Birds’ is pulpy and plot-driven, perfect mini-series material, but only a classic if classicism is a measure of popularity and not of critical merit.

It is, at its heart, the story of Meggie Cleary and her family. Meggie is born in New Zealand, the only daughter of Fee and Paddy Cleary. Paddy is a sheep-shearer and the family is poor; however, Paddy’s estranged sister, Mary Carson, is the richest women (nay, person) in Australia, the owner of Drogheda, a sheep and cattle ranch as big as Ireland. When Maggie is a child, her aunt calls her father to Drogheda to come and run the ranch, promising to leave it to him when she’s done.

On Drogheda, Meggie meets Father Ralph de Bricassart, the astonishingly fit, astonishingly handsome, astonishingly suave local priest. Ralph and Meggie, the priest and the little girl, love each other on sight, he with a strange, protective, fatherly instinct for a lonely little girl, and she with the adoration a child feels for the only being that has ever loved it.

But Meggie will, of course, grow up and, of course, become very beautiful, and the love between them will change, mature, and, of course, become lustful and forbidden. ‘The Thorn Birds’ is the story of the way in which this deep and forbidden love will shape and deform not only their lives but the lives of the entire Cleary family, Meggie’s parents and brothers, and the two children she will eventually bear, one with the irresistibly sexy Father Ralph.

It’s really not a great book. The plot alone should give that away: it’s overwrought and creepy all at the same time: the fated and forbidden love between a devastatingly attractive, yet ambitious, priest and a lonely young girl, a young girl to whom he is both masculine ideal and father-figure? It’s wildly implausible and super gross.

Colleen McCullough

From McCullough’s New York Times obituary: “Ms. McCullough’s fiction was prized by readers for its propulsive plots, sympathetic characters and sheer escapist potential. Its critical reception was mixed; reviewers took the author to task for sins ranging from stilted dialogue to the profligate use of exclamation points…Negative reviews did not appear to faze Ms. McCullough, whom The Philadelphia Inquirer, in a 1996 profile, described as “a woman supremely unafflicted by self-doubt.”

“I think in their heart of hearts all these people know that I’m more secure than they are, more confident than they are and smarter than they are,” she said of her critics in a 2007 interview on Australian television.”

Germaine Greer wrote a very satisfying re-examination of ‘The Thorn Birds’ in the Guardian when it was reissued as a Virago Modern Classic, in which she says, “It would probably be over the top to denounce ‘The Thorn Birds’ as a sneakily racist and sectarian book, but it is definitely contrived and insidious. Let’s just leave it at that.”

Germaine Greer is exactly correct: ‘The Thorn Birds‘ is contrived and insidious. ‘Insidious’ is a very good word for what it is: it is possessed of a deeply fucked up world view which it hides with plot, and then uses the outcome of that plot as an argument in favor of that worldview.

But what is the worldview? Great question, and the answer is: I’m not entirely sure, but I know it’s bad.

And, yes, I know that that is a bullshit thing to say, but it is nevertheless true. It is possible to know that something is corrupting without understanding its exact designs.

The world of ‘The Thorn Birds‘ is an all-white world. It is one in which the gigantic estates of the white landed gentry which locked aboriginal peoples out of the Australian economy for generations are remembered with nostalgia. It is one in which the sexual conquest of a young girl, a young girl in his charge, over whose family he has complete financial power, can be considered part of a priest’s spiritual deepening. And that the young girl is probably the seducer anyway. It is a world in which deferred sexual or maternal impulses curdle inside women and cause them to become frigid, deranged, spiteful, unnatural. Men, on the other hand, become even more dignified. And handsome.

If I am being completely honest, though, it is not this worldview, noxious though it is, which informs my primary objection to ‘The Thorn Birds‘. The truth is, if you read books written in different times and places, you encounter many noxious worldviews. They are a characteristic of almost every age and place except your own (and you will find that many of your own compatriots possess them, if you ask). You learn to hold the worldview in some remove from other assessments of artistic merit.

My primary objection to ‘The Thorn Birds‘ is that it is deeply mediocre. It is poorly written; the characters lack subtlety. The plot is appalling, not only from a moral point of view, but from a human point of view, from the point of view of a person who thinks and cares about how other humans behave, in real life. It is bad, merely bad. It is not a classic.

“He took the half-open bloom from her, his hand not quite steady, and stood looking down at it. “Meggie, I need no reminder of you, not now, not ever. I carry you within me, you know that. There’s no way I could hide it from you, is there?”

“…Please take it, Father.”

“My name is Ralph,” he said…”Do you want a keepsake from me, Meggie, is that it?”

“Yes.”

“I won’t give you one. I want you to forget me, I want you to look around your world and find some good kind man, marry him, have the babies you want so much. You’re a born mother. You mustn’t cling to me, it isn’t right. I can never leave the Church, and I’m going to be completely honest with you, for your own sake. I don’t want to leave the church, because I don’t love you the way a husband will, do you understand me? Forget me, Meggie!”

“Won’t you kiss me goodbye?” (p. 268)

Garbage.

I really doubt that ‘The Thorn Birds‘ is popular among Aboriginal Australians, but I do not know why the white people of Australia have decided to embrace this glorified romance novel to their collective bosom. If I had to guess, it is because of the loving, lengthy descriptions of its landscape. They are loving, and they long – Australia is almost a character in this novel, and national pride is a powerful thing.

Which, fine, but it doesn’t redeem this trash-ass novel. Bad characters, ludicrous plot, white-washed world. Not a classic, bad book. Bad book all around.

Against The Day

By Thomas Pynchon

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When I was little and had just started reading books for grown-ups, I asked my father if he had ever encountered a book so difficult that he had not been able to finish it. There was one, he answered, a book called ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘, which was so long and hard that he had given up part-way through.

I asked him what was so hard about it, and he told me that he didn’t know how to describe it because it didn’t make any sense to him. It was just impossible to get through. I asked why he had tried to read it in the first place (he never was a great one for novels) and he told me that it was considered one of the great novels of the 20th century. I told him I bet that I would be able to get through it, and he bet me I would not. He bet me $50 dollars (a huge amount of money to me at that age, when my allowance was $8 per week) that I would not be able to read ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘ all the way through.

I won that $50, some years later, with the help of a companion gloss, but it was reading by brute force. My father was exactly right: it didn’t make any sense, and, to this day, I don’t really know what ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ was about. But I was left with an impression of greatness which I am still unable to justify: I didn’t understand it, at all, but I liked it.

And so, over the years, I have come back again and again to Pynchon, reading a number of his books. In his defense, none have had quite the zany incoherence of ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘, though they are all clearly products of the same mind. Nor have any had the length.

Until now: ‘Against the Day‘, which was published in 2006, clocks in at almost 1100 pages. It is a historical epic, following dozens of named characters from the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 to the global eruption of World War I. The gravitational center of the novel is the three sons of the anarchist bomber Webb Traverse. Traverse is tortured and killed by two assassins in the hire of anti-union interests; his death will torment and mutilate his offspring, will pursue them in their flight over the surface of the planet.

As so often with Pynchon, there is no plot, per se, uniting these characters and episodes; rather, they are united by a moral and stylistic point of view. ‘Against the Day‘ is a long fever dream laboring under a cloud of foreboding: World War I, the death of innocence, the blood and machines which will devour and destroy mankind’s ability to believe in its own civility, is coming, bearing down on Pynchon’s mind and clouding his world with unnameable, or maybe just unnamed, fear. ‘Against the Day’ is a novel about a civilization, a whole world, gone mad, and the creeping evils, capitalism, greed, technological progress, which drove it there.

In my years of making attempts on his novels, I have learned that one doesn’t read Pynchon’s books so much as one experiences them. There is a trick to this, a sort of mental relaxation which is counter-intuitive to all one’s instincts as a responsible reader. You have to relinquish your need to understand what’s happening, to remember details and to track events, and just let the novel happen to you. I believe, and I may be wrong about this, that the point of Pynchon’s novels happens in a sort of gestalt-absorption of the prose-tone, which I recognize doesn’t make any sense, but, then again, neither does he.

If you can let go of the idea that prose is supposed to make sense, you begin to understand that Pynchon’s writing is totally fucking sublime, I mean really, really good. And it’s not incoherent in the Joycean way of ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, not gibberish – that would make me furious – it’s world-class writing, but it’s not being deployed to communicate a story to you. And so reading him is not like taking in a story at all – it is like taking in a busy scene: chaotic, overwhelming at first, but punctuated by moments in which your eye comes to rest on something beautiful, small points of lovely focus:

“Fire and blood were about to roll like fate upon the complacent multitudes. Just at the peak of the evening rush-hour, electric power failed everywhere throughout the city, and as the gas mains began to ignite and the thousand local winds, distinct at every street-corner, to confound prediction, cobblestones erupted skyward, to descend blocks away in seldom observed yet beautiful patterns. All attempts to counter-attack or even avoid the Figure would be defeated. Later, fire alarms would go unanswered, and the firemen on the front lines would find themselves too soon without reinforcement, or the hope of any. The noise would be horrific and unrelenting, as it grew clear even to the willfully careless that there was no refuge…

There was debate in the aftermath about what had happened to the Mayor. Fled, dead, not right in the head, the theories proliferated in his absence. His face appeared on bills posted all over the wood fences around vacant lots, the rear ends of streetcars, its all-too-familiar bone structure shining with the unforgiving simplicity of a skull. “Remain indoors,” warned bulletins posted on the carbonized walls over his signature. “This night you will not be welcome in my streets, whether there be too many of you or too few.” (p. 152).

Thomas Pynchon

This is breathtakingly good writing, but understand: it is an aside. The Figure wreaking havoc on this town is never explained, and not mentioned again. It is a small piece of madness in a swirling world, important the way everything is important, meaningless the way everything is meaningless.

Pynchon isn’t incoherent because he’s garbled, he’s incoherent because he never pauses for breathe, doesn’t resolve loose ends, doesn’t resolve anything. Because his worlds are magical and he never explains them, because he doesn’t give context or backstory or rationale. He makes no sacrifices for you, makes no gestures at you, doesn’t even seem to realize that you exist.

Oh, and he’s funny. Funny, and rude, and crude. ‘Gravity’s Rainbow‘ launched him into the pantheon of the unread Greats, the Postmodern Masters, but because no one can read him and everyone knows that he is Important, no one supposes that Thomas Pynchon is fucking hysterical, that he’s obsessed with sex, and gutter-minded, and slapstick.

I suppose that maybe that I love Pynchon, but not as an author. I love him as writer, if that makes any sense. I don’t love his books, but I love the lucid moments in his incredible prose, the those moments of blinding skill. I love the lens through which he looks out upon the world, the mischief, the chaos, the evil and the love and the humor which provide respite from it. The great human forces which pull us all along, and how strange and unreasonable it all looks to him. How alien and small we are all, and how lovingly he draws us. I don’t understand him at all, but I’ll read him, I think, forever.

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

All Posts Contain Spoilers

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.