Saturday, November 28, 2009

Reading Journal: "The True Deceiver"

Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver. New York Review Books 2009. Translated from Swedish by Thomas Teal, with an Introduction by Ali Smith. Available December 1, 2009. I received an ARC from the publisher as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

Finnish writer Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is best known for her series of children's books about little hippopotamus-shaped trolls called Moomins. Jansson created the Moomins as a form of escapism while she was working as a cartoonist for an anti-fascist magazine during World War II. Several books featuring the adventures of the Moomintrolls followed between 1945 and 1970. After her mother died in 1970, Jansson set aside the Moomins and turned to writing novels for adults in which the loss of her mother continued to resonate.

In her novel The Summer Book (1972), also published by New York Review Books, a child who has recently lost her mother spends a summer with her grandmother on an island in the Gulf of Finland. The novel beautifully depicts the relationship between the small child, Sophia, and her loving but often astringent grandmother. Loss permeates the book—both the mostly unspoken loss of Sophia's mother and the loss of youth and time that the grandmother increasingly feels.

"It all seems to shrink up and glide away," the grandmother says.

Summer on the island becomes a symbol of loss and loneliness and the shortness of time, but Jansson's touch is light and whimsical enough that the sadness and symbolism never weigh the story down. Her cover illustration for the book is perfect: the dark island, with two dark figures alone on the point, floats weightlessly above its dark reflection in an sea of pale yellow and blue. In the middle of the island, among the dark trees, a square of yellow light glows in the window of the house.

In one chapter in the middle of The Summer Book, Sophia sleeps out alone in a tent and, waking to the profound darkness, ventures out into the night to find her grandmother:
She really listened for the first time in her life. And when she got out in the ravine, she noticed for the first time what the ground really felt like under her toes and the soles of her feet. It was cold, grainy, terribly complicated ground that changed as she walked—gravel and wet grass and big flat stones, and every now and then some plant as high as a bush would brush against her legs. The ground was dark, but the sky had a faint, gray light. The island had grown tiny, floating on the water like a drifting leaf, but there was a light in the guest room window.
When we go through a period of darkness, Jansson implies, we begin to notice things we haven't noticed before: subtleties of the darkness, the light that waits for us, the complicated texture of the ground beneath our feet.

In The True Deceiver (1982), Anna Aemelin is, like Jansson, an illustrator of children's books. She creates meticulously detailed paintings of the forest floor, then populates them with floral bunnies. Her life, in the family villa known to the locals as the bunny house, is quiet and well-regulated. She spends the winter answering letters from children, and when the snow finally melts she returns to the forest to paint. But everything changes when the ruthlessly pragmatic Katri Kling comes to live with her and starts to reorganize her life.

As in The Summer Book, the time and place—deep winter in a small coastal village—become a dominant presence in the novel, and deft symbolism is joined with deep psychological insight. Katri is both honest and calculating. She has no illusions about other people. She sees only self-interest at work, and is ruthless in exposing dishonesty and falsehood. Anna, on the other hand, lives in a kind of sentimental dream world, idolizing her late parents and painting floral bunnies. Although she is the older woman, she has, in a sense, never grown up. The conflict between Katri and Anna, between the jaded and the rose-colored view of the world, lies at the center of the novel. Is a certain amount of deception, self-deception and the hiding of truth from other people, necessary for happiness? Is there more to honesty than a scrupulous keeping of accounts?

Katri convinces Anna that Anna has been cheated by everyone from the local shopkeeper to the toy companies who contract with her to create and market toy versions of her signature floral bunnies. Katri insists on going carefully through the accounts and contracts with Anna, figuring out percentages and profits. Katri is all business, but Anna insists on making the business into a game—a game that moves from the real numbers in Anna's account book to entirely made-up sums. Katri is uncomfortable with the shift into fantasy, but Anna still needs some element of make-believe to make the real world bearable. Anna is an artist, and art, after all, is a form of make-believe, a kind of deception, a insistence on something made up. But should art be purely escapist, or should it make us look more penetratingly at reality?

Here's a wonderful photograph of Tove Jansson, surrounded by Moomintrolls, her mouth set at a wry angle, her eyes wide and hard and penetrating, looking past childish things at something more complex out there in the dark.

Tove Jansson, 1956

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Reading Journal: "Summer Will Show"

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show. NYRB Classics 2009. Originally published in 1936.

In Sylvia Townsend Warner’s story “The Music at Long Verney” (1971), an old landed couple find themselves listening to music outside the window of their own large country house, Long Verney, which they have rented out to a sophisticated young couple from town. While the story seems to ally our sympathies on the side of the old couple and their attachment to the English countryside, Townsend Warner dismisses them at the end of the story as “impermeably self-righteous.” Fresh experiences, fresh opportunities for empathy and understanding of other lives, fail to penetrate them. They come away from listening to the music at Long Verney grasping at an excuse not to repeat the visit. They shun the opportunity to make a deeper connection.

Townsend Warner’s fiction is peopled with insiders who find themselves on the outside. Lolly Willowes, the daughter of a respectable family, becomes a witch. Mr. Fortune, an English bank clerk, becomes a missionary on a South Sea Island and an outsider among the natives. Ralph Kello, a vagrant fleeing from the plague, finds himself impersonating a priest in a medieval convent in The Corner That Held Them (1948). Ralph, who becomes known as Sir Ralph, is an outsider who finds himself on the inside, but who secretly remains outside the sanction of the church. The conflict in the Townsend Warner’s novels is often between who people are on the inside, and the different spheres in which they find themselves.

Sophia Willoughby, in Summer Will Show (1936), is another such character. Like the couple in “The Music at Long Verney,” Sophia is a member of the English landed gentry, at the same time bound by the expectations of her class and in mental rebellion against them. She’s bored and unhappy, with nothing to give meaning to her life but her children and the rituals of her class. Then her children die of smallpox, and Sophia travels to Paris, where she unexpectedly falls in love with her husband’s Jewish mistress, Minna Lemuel, and becomes caught up in the revolutionary struggles of 1848. The social insider becomes an outsider, living from hand-to-mouth, but always at the same time remaining, by virtue of her class and upbringing, outside the experience of the workers and revolutionaries who now surround her.

Sophia is caught between passionate engagement and critical detachment. She runs hot and cold. For Minna, life is art. She has an ability to pose with perfect sincerity. She is a talented storyteller, and it’s her stories that initially draw Sophia toward her. Warner is interested in the revolutionary power of stories, and in the revolutionary power of love, to change our lives and change the world. At the end of the novel, Sophia is gradually absorbed into words. “Absorbed” is, fittingly, the last word of the novel.

Summer Will Show is itself absorbing—a vivid, lyrical, bold and stimulating novel. It takes unexpected turns, and never gives its characters an easy way out. Warner has a particular genius for the historical novel, which allows her to recreate a world that is like our own, but with telling differences. The reader, like Warner's characters, is thoroughly absorbed, but at the same time stands at a critical distance—looking back, drawing connections, listening to a distant music.

When she wrote Summer Will Show, Sylvia Townsend Warner had begun a relationship with another woman, the poet Valentine Ackland. The two women became devoted Communists, helped to organize workers in rural Dorset, and made a trip to Spain during the Civil War to support the struggle against fascism. Sophia’s journey in Summer Will Show from the world of the landed gentry to the world of the revolutionary worker was in many respects like Warner’s own. Warner was the daughter of a schoolmaster at Harrow, an expert on Tudor church music, a poet and novelist. During World War I, she worked in a munitions factory, where she gained first-hand knowledge of industrial working conditions. She began to see the dissonance between middle-class romanticizing of the working class and the actual harsh conditions of labor.

In Summer Will Show, there are intellectuals who romanticize revolution, who see it as something essentially picturesque, and there are real working men and women for whom revolution is a final tragic act of desperation. Sophia, like Warner herself, can no longer romanticize, but she can never be an authentic member of the proletariat. She remains essentially an outsider. Summer Will Show stands on my bookshelf beside another NYRB Classic, Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which has at its center a debutante turned Communist. Sophia, like Mitford, cannot step entirely out of the life into which she was born, but neither can she go back to it.

In a significant scene in the novel, Sophia finds herself listening to a conversation between Minna and the proto-Marxist Ingelbrecht:
What I feel, thought Sophia, is what I have seen painted sometimes on the faces of people listening to Beethoven; the look of those listening to a discourse, to an argument carried on in entire sincerity, an argument in which nothing is impassioned, or persuasive, or reasonable, except by force of sincerity; and there they sit in a heavenly thraldom, as blind people sit in the sun making a purer acknowledgment with their skin than sight, running after this or that flashing tinsel, can ever make. I cannot for the life of me see what Minna and Ingelbrecht are after; to me a revolution means that there is turmoil and after it people are worse off than they were before; and yet as I see them is as though I were listening to music, able to feel and follow the workings of a different world. For it is there, that irrefutable force and logic of a different existence.
Unlike the old couple in “The Music at Long Verney,” who likewise stand outside the lives of others, Sophia listens.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Word Journal: Rhodomontade

Loneliness was the famine which had tamed him; and in the release of having some one to talk to he forgot the where and the when, forgot the unintimacy between them, forgot even the lack of credence which she could not conceal as she listened to his rhodomontades.
—Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show (1936)
Sylvia Townsend Warner is a careful stylist, with an ear for the shape and the rhythm of her sentences. Here is an elegant tricolon, built upon the triple repetition of the word forgot. At the same time, excessive repetition is avoided. Townsend Warner might easily have written "forgot the lack of intimacy between them, forgot even the lack of credence...," but she creates variety by coining "unintimacy," a word that even the Oxford English Dictionary fails to recognize. The combination of repetition and variation in the sentence, the juxtaposition of the familiar and strange, is, like the rest of Sylvia Townsend Warner's writing, particularly artful and elegant.

The sentence ends with a word that sent me scurrying to the OED. Rhodomontade (or, rodomontade) means "a vainglorious brag or boast," and is first attested in English in 1612. It is ultimately derived from Rodomonte, the name of a boastful Saracen leader in the sixteenth- century Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto's epic Orlando furioso (1532).

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Comment Moderation

Recently, spam comments have significantly outnumbered genuine comments on this blog, so I've reactivated word recognition for comments. Comments will also continue to be moderated.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Reading Journal: "Robert Elsmere"

Mrs. Humphry Ward, Robert Elsmere. Oxford World's Classics 1987. Originally published 1888. 576 pp.

Mrs. Humphry Ward

Robert Elsmere was an instant and sensational bestseller when it was published in 1888. William Gladstone, in between terms as Prime Minister, wrote a forty-page review of the novel, finding fault with its rejection of Anglican orthodoxy. Oscar Wilde summed it up with a witticism, dismissing it as "Arnold's Literature and Dogma with the literature left out." Mrs. Ward was, in fact, Matthew Arnold's niece, and like Arnold, she objected to the literalism of orthodox Christianity, which was based on an unscientific acceptance of miracles. The underlying purpose of her novel was to suggest a new Christianity, based on historical knowledge, the humanity of Christ, and the ideal of social justice.

The novel begins in the Lake District, where the saintly and evangelical Catherine Leyburn brings comfort to her poor neighbors and holds her family together after the death of her like-minded father. The first part of the novel tells quite compellingly the story of Catherine's wooing by the young clergyman Robert Elsmere, fresh from Oxford and about to become the rector of a small parish in Sussex. Catherine struggles between her sense of duty to her family and neighbors, and her growing love and admiration for Robert. Finally, she accepts him, and Robert takes up his post in Murewell, Sussex, where he immediately becomes a force for good. At the same time, he comes under the spell of the scholarly and misanthropic Squire Wendover, with his fabulous library and his atheism. Under the Squire's influence, Robert comes to reject the miraculous basis of Christianity, which means that he can no longer accept the 39 Articles and therefore must leave the Anglican Church.

Elsmere, through his historical researches, comes to the conclusion that the miraculous elements of Christianity, like the story of the Resurrection, arose out of prescientific modes of thought and conventions of storytelling. Miracles made Christ's story compelling to a first century audience. But the scientific nineteenth-century had no need of miracles or the divinity of Christ: the self-sacrificing moral goodness of a purely human Christ was enough. There was no need to believe in the literal Resurrection when the example of Christ remained, though the work of his followers, a powerful force for social and moral regeneration.

Robert Elsmere represents a middle way between the evangelical orthodoxy of his wife Catherine—who becomes a less sympathetic character as she struggles intractably with her husband's heresy—and the thoroughgoing skepticism and atheism of Squire Wendover. Gladstone objected that the deck is stacked against orthodoxy because Ward gives the Church no intellectually formidable proponent in the novel to counter the influence of Wendover. For Catherine, Christianity is a matter of feeling, not thought, and she can only pray that her husband will return to the fold. At the same time, Robert doesn't follow the Squire's teaching to its logical conclusion, and become an atheist. The Squire is misanthropic, too absorbed in his scholarship, and dies bitter and alone. Atheism is a moral abyss.

The novel is full of attempts at salvation. Rose, Catherine's artistic younger sister, yearns to save the handsome morose Oxford tutor, Langham, from his lonely and disappointed life. A minor character, Charles Richards, wants to "reclaim" his alcoholic wife. Catherine wants to save Robert from heresy and damnation. Robert wants to save everyone. Salvation, Ward seems to say, is not worked out through the miraculous intervention of the risen Christ, but through human relationships, and human love. Christ was not the incarnation of God; rather, we are the incarnation of Christ when we work together in love for the betterment of the world. This is the essence of Robert Elsmere's new religion.

Storytelling is also central to the novel, and to Mrs. Ward's ideas about religion. Both in his Sussex parish and in his ministry to London workers, Elsmere institutes storytelling evenings, when he reads aloud to his parishioners. Like her uncle, Matthew Arnold, Mr. Ward saw that familiarity with the workings of literature was essential for understanding the metaphorical truths of Christianity. Storytelling also brings us into the lives of others. It draws people together, and becomes an agent of reconciliation. It's hearing from someone else the story of her husband's ministry to the London working poor that finally reconciles Catherine to her husband's loss of orthodox faith.

In the course of the novel, as Catherine becomes more rigid and less sympathetic, Elsmere himself becomes more idealized. One character talks, late in the novel, about "the spirit of devotion, through a man, to an idea." He says, "There is no approaching the idea for the masses except through the human life; there is no lasting power for the man except as the slave of the idea." Mrs. Ward, writing in the late nineteenth century, optimistically believed in the power of the charismatic ideologue to be a force for profound good. The twentieth century would show the other side of the coin.

Robert Elsmere is an absorbing, thought-provoking, beautifully written novel. Mrs. Ward has a sympathetic understanding of human character. Walter Pater called the novel "a chef d'oeuvre of that kind of quiet evolution of character through circumstance, introduced into English literature by Miss Austen..." The influence of George Eliot can also be felt throughout (at one point, Elsmere's influence is said to be "incalculably diffusive"—a quotation from the end of Middlemarch). Above all, Mrs. Ward has a deep Victorian moral earnestness. The novel is, as Gladstone, said, "eminently an offspring of the time," and as such offers a panoramic picture of late Victorian religious and intellectual life. It's a shame that Oxford has not included the novel in the latest reissue of the World's Classics series.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Grand Obsolete Party

On Tuesday, New York's 23rd Congressional District—my Republican father's old stomping grounds in his days as an administrative law judge for the New York Department of Labor—elected a Democratic congressman for the first time since the 1850s. According to a political history of the district—the northernmost congressional district in New York—part of the district (Franklin County) was, until Tuesday's election, more recently represented by a Whig (George Simmons, elected in 1852) than by a Democrat (the last Democrat was elected in 1850).

The Republican Party has strong historical roots in far upstate New York, going back to the founding of the party in the 1850s, when the Republican Party was the party of Lincoln and abolitionism. The most famous abolitionist of all, John Brown, lived on a farm in Essex County, which is part of the 23rd district, and Underground Railroad lines ran throughout the district, which borders on Canada.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Republican Party was the party of progressive social change, the party of civil rights and environmentalism, the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. In the antebellum era, it was the old Democratic Party that was invested in preserving the institution of slavery. Republicans abolished slavery, broke up monopolies, and pioneered the cause of environmental conservation. The new GOP website lays claim to African-American heroes like Frederick Douglass and John Mercer Langston, who were members of the party of Lincoln and abolitionism. Sadly, in this new century, the GOP has become the party of racism and opposition to climate change legislation and comprehensive health care reform.

The change in the party is probably most dramatically illustrated by the defection to the GOP of South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond in 1964, at the height of the civil rights era. Originally a Southern Democrat, Thurmond left the party that had associated itself with civil rights and equal opportunity. But the shift in progressivism from the GOP to the Democratic Party began much earlier, even before the Democrat FDR introduced the New Deal. In 1912, the GOP was split between progressives, who supported former President Teddy Roosevelt, and conservatives, who supported the incumbent President, William Howard Taft.

In language that will seem familiar from the most recent Presidential election, Taft said of both his fellow Republican (Roosevelt) and his Democratic opponent (Woodrow Wilson): "The equal opportunity which those seek who proclaim the coming of so-called social justice involves a forced division of property, and that means socialism." (One of Taft's opponents in the crowded race was an actual Socialist, Eugene V. Debs.) Taft and the Republican Party declared themselves in 1912 the party of the status quo, of small government and big business.

For a fascinating account of the pivotal race of 1912, I recommend James Chace's 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft & Debs—The Election That Changed the Country (Simon & Schuster 2004).

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Friends Signing Books

Rob and Rebekah and BANR

Yesterday, after Latin class, I walked over to the Carleton Bookstore with Rebekah Frumkin, author of the short story "Monster," which is featured in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009, edited by Dave Eggers. A large group of friends and fans showed up at the bookstore to have Rebekah sign copies of the book. In a unique arrangement, the contents of BANR are selected by a committee of high school students in the Bay Area and in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who work with Dave Eggers to compile the anthology.

"They thought my story was creepy," Rebekah said.

Rebekah signed books for an hour before rushing off to write a computer program and study for her Latin quiz. There may be a few copies of BANR left at the Carleton Bookstore; otherwise it can be special ordered or ordered online. A large percentage of the proceeds from the book go to 826 National, a coalition of non-profits "dedicated to helping students, 6-18, with expository and creative writing."

Rebekah's story originally appeared in Post Road Magazine, an online literary magazine published by the English Department of Boston College. It shows once again the incredible quality and variety of creative work now appearing in online publications.

On Sunday, back in Oberlin, Ohio, Kerry Langan was signing copies of Only Beautiful & Other Stories, with my review projected onto a screen behind her to help boost sales. Next she'll be traveling down to Palmetto, Georgia, for a reading and book signing at StudioSwan Gallery on Saturday, November 7, at 5:00 p.m. I wish I could be there for the book event, and to celebrate the birthday that Kerry and I share on Sunday.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .