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I enjoy occasionally reading a novel by Iris Murdoch. Each time I am hopeful that deeper understanding will come to me from the chaos of her characters’ lives. The journey is pleasantly stimulating, but I seem not to arrive anywhere.
The Unicorn is a tale in the Gothic style. Marian, a young woman, disappointed in love, takes a poorly-defined job in a remote and spooky house. The place is inhabited and controlled by characters who are not what they seem. Marian is a governess/companion to “the unicorn,” another young woman who is apparently a prisoner there. Is she guilty of a crime and atoning for her sins, or a person of much innocence? The evidence is murky, as one would expect of a Gothic tale. Also, this is Scotland and it rains a lot.
The local people regard the unicorn warily:
She is a legend in this part of the country. They believe that if she comes outside the garden she will die.
Her failure to seek freedom may or may not have great significance.
The soul under the burden of sin cannot flee. What is enacted here with her is enacted with all of us in one way or another. You cannot come between her and her suffering. It is too complicated, too precious. We must play her game, whatever it is, and believe her beliefs. That is all we can do for her.
The tale is engrossing as Marian seeks to free the unicorn and the rain rains down every day. Is all the stuff about the legend of the unicorn precious nonsense or a serious parable or just Murdoch having fun with us? I cannot decide, and perhaps I am not meant to know.
Ernest Alfred Vizetelly, With Zola in England. Zola exiled himself to England during the Dreyfus Affair in order to keep open the case against himself and to continue to work for the exoneration of Dreyfus. Vizetelly, his translator and friend, offers an affectionate account of what in means to go into hiding in a country where you don’t speak the language.
Verlyn Klinkenborg, The Rural Life. This is a compilation of Klinkenborg’s rural life articles which appear from time to time on the New York Times editorial page. Klinkenborg lives in upstate New York, but he also savors the rural life in Iowa, Colorado, and Montana. His descriptive prose has that bit of sharpness than I enjoy and that I remember from E. B. White’s reports on rural Maine.
Nicolai Gogol, Dead Souls. Russia in Gogol’s time (1840′s) had lots of “dead souls” including those peasants who were really dead but still on the tax rolls. Chichikov, the unheroic hero in this novel has a particular interest in dead souls. His search for them takes us on a tour of rural farms and villages.
Colette, Break of Day. Living in her house in Provence, the aging Colette meditates on the seasons, works in her garden, bathes in the warm sea, and draws back from the centrality of love in her life. She also remembers her mother.
Penelope Fitzergard, The Knox Brothers. Two of them were clergymen (one Roman Catholic and one Anglican), one was the editor of Punch, and one was a brilliant code-breaker (think Enigma). In this biography we begin in the Edwardian world of high teas and country houses and follow these talented brothers into the modern world.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. This is Douglass’ own account of his life as a slave and why and how he gained his freedom. Thanks to Project Gutenberg it is freely available to anyone who wants to read it.
Martha Ostenso, Wild Geese. Life on the farm is demanding, but it is made much harder by a controlling patriarch who dictates every move of his wife and children. A best seller in its day, its interpretation of family life now seems somewhat dated.
Iris Murdoch, The Unicorn. The “unicorn” is a beautiful young woman imprisoned in a spooky house. Is she the power behind it all or is she the victim of a poorly-defined evil? Murdoch’s Gothic allegory offers us more questions than answers.
Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Maladies. This is the story of cancer, clearly told. Mukherjee relates the history of the disease and its treatment, but more interesting to me is the biography of the cancer cell — how it becomes what it is and what we can do about it. If we live and our cells divide, we are all possible subjects of this emperor.
Published in 1925, this is not a recent book and not quite a classic either, so you have probably never heard of it. I had not until I read about it at the Rural Lit Rally (http://rurallitrally.org/) where they are working to bring these books about rural life back into public notice. Successful books of this type include Edna Ferber’s So Big, Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! and Josephine Johnson’s Now in November. Wild Geese was also successful in its time, but now seems more dated than they do.
The life at the Gare farm is seen through the eyes of an outsider, school teacher Lindy Archer. So Big also begins with an outsider-teacher but in that novel the central figure becomes part of the community, both an insider and outsider. Lindy never melds with rural life and her eventual romance is with another outsider who also does not intend to remain. The setting is a northern state (Minnesota?), apparently during the 1880’s, since there are trains mentioned but no automobiles. This vagueness as to time and place are mildly irritating but intended, perhaps, to underline the universal nature of the story: the work on the land. The wild geese fly north and planting begins. When they fly south it is harvest time and winter is expected.
The dramatic center of life on the farm is not, however, the land or the geese but the patriarchal structure of a family where Caleb Gare dictates every action of his wife and four children. He is a possessor of secrets, and they are his wealth just as much as the land and his beautiful field of flax. With the secret of the illegitimate son his wife bore to another man before their marriage he bullies his wife and, through her, their children who must remain on the farm as unpaid labor. He denies one daughter shoes until she must wear her brother’s cast-off boots. He denies another daughter needed eye glasses.
Ostenso knows the land and the immigrant people who struggle to build a life there. She has been in their homes.
All the blinds, except one, were closely drawn in the room where Mrs. Sandbo sat. There was a dry smell of wall paper, as if the windows had been nailed down since the day the room was decorated. Mrs. Sandbo herself looked like wall paper, as if she had no sizable depth but a crisp, flat surface, the back of which would be gritty.
The minor characters like Mrs. Sandbo are more convincing than Caleb and Amelia Gare. The seasons change.
But in the life in the Gare household there was no apparent change, no growth or maturing of dreams or fears, no evidence of crises in personal struggle, no peak of achievement rapturously reached. There was no outward emotion or expressed thought save that which led as a great tributary to the flow of Caleb’s ambition…. The early summer season was to him a terrific prolonged hour of passion during which he was blind and deaf and dumb to everything save the impulse that bound him to the land.
That is what Ostenso says, but her story says otherwise. Caleb crawls through the bushes to spy on Lindy and her lover to as to “have something” on her. After twenty years of marriage and four children, Caleb constantly torments Amelia with hints of what he means to do with his secret information. Caleb harasses a dying neighbor to sell him his hay at a give-away price. This is not love for the land. His ambition is not to amass wealth, but to have power over others.
Thanks to Project Gutenberg, anyone can read this classic on PC, tablet or Kindle. Douglass escaped from slavery in Maryland in 1838, became an active and eloquent speaker for the Abolitionists, and published this account of his servitude and escape to freedom in 1845.
Douglass’ slave world was not the cotton plantation, but neither was it the self-satisfied world of Gone with the Wind. It was a world of constant hard work, little food, no education and abuse that was not designed to punish or reward, but to instill fear. Family bonds are discouraged.
My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant – before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.
As a boy Douglass did farm work and also worked for members of his master’s family in Baltimore. At that time he received some rudimentary reading instruction which was very quickly forbidden. Building on this on his own, he taught himself to read. Later, he worked in the shipyards, turning all of his earnings over to his master.
Douglass describes beatings and whippings of slaves that he witnessed. Slaves were savagely punished for trying to escape and then sold “down south.” Most punishments, however, were intended as a means of control. The slave did not need to do anything wrong. If the slave answered quickly, he was impertinent; if slowly, he was sulky. Any action could be interpreted as a “justification” for the whip.
Douglass is most eloquent in an Appendix to his narrative, in which he discusses the relationship of religion and slavery.
I find, since reading over the foregoing Narrative, that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent to all religion.
It is slaveholding religion, Douglass explains, to which he objects and not to “Christianity proper.” One is “good, pure, and holy” while the other is “bad, corrupt, and wicked.” He warms to his subject,
I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which everywhere surround me.
I hear a man who despises hypocrisy.
Revivals of religion and revivals of the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other.
In the narrative of his life, Douglass spells out how the maintenance of a slave system required the regular use of violence in order to control the slave. The citizens of the free states increasingly understood that this was so. On the other hand, Douglass’ identification of self-serving religion with the self-serving ownership of one man by another was not so well received at the time. It would not be popular today either, when hypocritical people find justification in religion for the abuse of power.
“Dead souls” are serfs who have died but who remain on the tax rolls until the next census. They are all expense and no possible profit. So Pavel Ivanovich Chicikov’s offer to buy them is attractive, especially to a hard-pressed landowner who knows better than to ask too many questions. We assume there is something crooked about it, and of course there is.
‘What?” A deed of purchase for the dead souls?”
‘Not quite!’ said Chichikov. ‘We shall have it on record that they are living as, indeed, they are according to the census register. I am in the habit of observing the civil laws, although I have suffered as a result when in the service, so you will excuse me, but in my eyes duty is always sacred. I am dumb when confronted with the law.’
Chichikov travels from landowner to landowner seeking more dead souls and his adventures take the form of a road book. When Dorothy takes to the yellow brick road we know she is seeking the wizard and the way back to Kansas. When Huck and Jim float down the Mississippi we know they are escaping past ties. Gogol takes us pretty far down the rural Russian road before he clarifies who Chichikov is and what he plans to do with his purchases. That is fine because, as in other road books, the destination is less important than the journey. We get to enjoy Gogol’s descriptions of the joys of country life.
In the meantime, the dogs were barking in every pitch and key: one of them, his head uplifted, was howling so continuously and with so much effort that he might have been earning God alone knows what salary; another was clipping it off hastily like a sacristan. In between them, like a front-door bell, rang out a scrambling soprano voice, probably a puppy’s, and all these were finally capped by a bass voice, that of a grandfather, maybe, endowed with a sturdy dogged nature; for he was as husky as a contrabasso in a choir when a concert is at its height and the tenors are standing on tiptoe from passionate desire to utter a high note and everybody strains aloft with head uplifted, while he alone, tucking his unshaven chin into his tie, squatting almost the ground, lets out a note at which the very window-panes shake and rattle.
Dickens couldn’t do better than that!
In American novels of the 19th century the writer speaks of farms or plantations; in English novels, of estates. Gogol speaks of villages, as each large landowner requires a village of peasant serfs to work the land and perform all the necessary tasks of daily life, from shoeing horses to cooking meals. Gogol wrote in a time and of a time when this was the norm in Russia. Strangely, as I was reading Dead Souls in paperback I was intermittently reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave on my Kindle. It was the same time period on the other side of the world. Gogol from the outside and Douglass from the inside tell us the same thing: a system which relies on forced labor corrupts both the laborers and the masters. With few exceptions, the owners of the dead souls live in idleness, yearning to be elsewhere and unhappily dependent on the will of the serfs to perform correctly that which they are compelled to do. Gogol tells us that he could please us with a romantic story, and then he would be as a god.
But such is not the lot, and quite different the destiny, of the writer who has ventured to bring into the open what is ever before men’s eyes, all those things which the indifferent gaze fails to perceive, the whole horrid and shocking mess of trifling things which have clogged our life…. It is not for him to receive the applause of the people….
When a novel has been out there for over 150 years, read and commented upon by intelligent readers during all that time, it is unnecessary for me to add to the chatter. This book deserves its reputation – go and read.
The Gertrude is Gertrude Stein and the Alice is Alice B. Toklas. I enjoyed Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in which Stein, adopting the voice of Toklas, tells us what she thought of Picasso, Hemingway and others. We will never know what she would have thought of Janet Malcolm.
In Two Lives Malcolm confronts the same issue she struggled with in Silent Woman (Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes) and In the Freud Archives (Freud groupies): sorting out a confused and confusing situation. This is no small task.
I think it is safe to say that most well-read people in the English-speaking world have not read The Making of Americans… It is believed to be a modernist masterpiece, but is not felt to be a necessary reading experience. It is more a monument than a text, a heroic achievement of writing, a near-impossible feat of reading.
Malcom has read it, along everything else Stein wrote, and has done so with a rare appreciation.
Stein seems to be transcribing rather than transforming thought as she writes, making a kind of literal translation of what is going on in her mind. The alacrity with which she catches her thoughts before they turn into stale standard expressions may be the most singular of her accomplishments. Her influence on twentieth-century writing is nebulous. No school of Stein ever came into being. But every writer who lingers over Stein sentences is apt to feel a little stab of shame over the heedless predictability of his own.
Malcolm has also read what others have written about Stein and talked with them too, when that has been possible. Since my literary experience of Stein is limited to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, I was particularly interested in what she learned about what Stein did not tell us in her best-known book. We learn that Stein charmed people and portrayed herself relentlessly as popular and lucky. For example,
“Much of the Stein that is concealed in the autobiographies is revealed only too plainly and unpleasantly in the notebooks,” Katz writes, as he prepares, with the assistance of Toklas’s indiscretions and the bad-mouthings of Stein’s relatives and friends, to render the young Stein as a confused and morose young woman, recovering from an unhappy, lesbian love affair, and dazedly attempting to write.
Some of this was interesting – the contrast between the Stein Alice B. Toklas/Stein describes and the “real” Stein – but in the end it may not matter much. We have the book and the book tells us what the author wants us to know. It may have the impact of conviction, but it may not be true. The search for the underlying truth absorbs Malcolm in the endless exploration of facts and memories of facts.
The cover of my edition of this book advertises Malcolm’s research into “the mystery of the couple’s charmed life in Vichy France” during the Nazi occupation. That story is interesting, as is the account of Toklas’ struggles after Stein’s death, but any judgment must be inconclusive. Biography is difficult, Malcolm explains and the minor characters may not be treated fairly.
Unlike the flat characters of fiction (as E. M. Forster called them), who have no existence outside the novel they were invented to animate, the flat characters of biography are actual, three-dimensional people. But the biography is writing a life, not lives, and to keep himself on course, must cultivate a kind of narcissism on behalf of his subject that blinds him to the full humanity of anyone else.
Malcolm is instructive to read because she is aware that those who write biographies and those who provide information to biographers are indeed actual people and have their own interests and points of view which matter greatly to them. Our knowledge and understanding come through a filter. Just like Stein, the biographer tells us what she wants us to know.
Lore Segal, Half the Kingdom. The old people (62+) in this novel are demented, or rapidly become so. Some incidents are entertaining, a sort of gallows humor for the retired crowd (62+) which includes me. Somehow I missed the point, other than the mocking of hospital bureaucracies and the vagaries of the elderly.
Getrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. This is Stein’s account — by way of Alice B. Toklas — of the golden years in Paris when Stein collected modern art and artists. We also learn that Stein thought very well of herself.
Emile Zola, The Fortune of the Rougons. This novel is the starting point for Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series dramatizing the years of the corrupt Napoleonic Second Empire in France by the stories of the members of a linked family. The family origins are here in this first book of the series.
Janet Malcolm, Two Lives. Janet Malcolm investigates the lives the a famous pair, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, both through their writings and the memories of those who knew them. Did they really behave badly during the War, or it all just a misunderstanding?
Apollonius of Rhodes, The Voyage of Argo (Argonautica). This is the story of Jason and his Greek companions, the Argonauts, and their voyage to the golden fleece and how they stole it with the help of Medea. It is told in an epic poem written in Hellenistic Greek, translated here by E. V. Rieu. I enjoyed Euripides’ take on Jason and Medea much more.
Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier. A man narrates “the saddest story I have ever heard.” It is a sad story in which he participated as one of the members of two couples. No one is who he or she seems to be and then it ends unhappily for everybody, well, almost everybody.
Michael Connelly, Chasing the Dime. Not one of the Harry Bosch series. Scientific entrepreneur entangles himself in search for missing girl of dubious background. None of his business — until it is. Interesting characters and science, but action felt a little rushed, leaving a few loose ends.
Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes. The “age of extremes” is our age, the short twentieth century, beginning with World War I and ending with the breakup of the Soviet Union. It’s a slow go, but Hobsbawm offers plenty of detail and some challenging conclusions. I have covered some of the territory in a post on the Age of Catastrophe.
Violet Trefusis, Broderie Anglaise. Virginia loved Vita. Violet loved Vita. Vita sometimes loved Violet and sometimes loved Virginia. They all wrote about it, including Virginia (Woolf). This is Violet’s novella, published in French with the characters thinly disguised.