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Sunday, 31 August 2014

An arranged faith

KEEP-CALM-AND-HAVE-FAITH-07-08-2013

Doubt is not a pleasant condition,
but certainty is absurd – Voltaire

I wrote a poem back in 1996 about beliefs:

THE NATURE OF BELIEFS

The thing about beliefs is
they don't need to be true.
That's not their job.

They're there because
so many things aren't true.
Nature abhors a vacuum.


19 December 1996

The word 'belief' is one I struggle with. Like all words the only way you can explain belief is by using other words and the most obvious synonym for 'belief' is 'faith' which I have less of a problem with. The first definition I learned regarding faith came from the Bible where Hebrews 11:1 says that faith is "the assured expectation of things hoped for, the evident demonstration of realities though not beheld." Of course the definition on its own doesn't really get to the nitty-gritty of what faith is. Late on in that same chapter (vs. 27) Paul talks about Moses "as seeing him who is invisible." Even though he had never seen God, he was as real to Moses as if he had seen him. His faith was based on experience and evidence. Of course he had the opportunity to talk directly to God and that’ll go a long way to convincing anyone that someone is real. By Paul's day God had stopped making it so easy. Even Paul only got to hear the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus but he still reasoned that there was sufficient evidence in the world about us to convince anyone of the existence of a sentient creator. As he said to the Romans (1:20): "For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God." And yet there are more people than ever who don't believe in God. You would think that all science could possibly do is provide irrefutable proof of intelligent design in nature and yet that doesn't seem to have happened.

As you'll see from the previous paragraph, I know my Bible. I was brought up in a religious household—one that encouraged study and eschewed blind faith—and yet here I am as a grown man, having left the faith I was brought up in and disinterested in finding another. So have I stopped believing in God? I can't answer that question because I never believed in him in the first place which is odd because I have been through tons of evidence and can't refute it. Creation is every bit as believable as evolution. None of the evidence touched me, though. Proof requires more than corroborative evidence. It requires a willingness to accept that evidence.

I don't understand the concept of spirituality. I can appreciate things intellectually and emotionally but not spiritually. I learned facts and figures from the Bible and other literature but that was it. I could prove there was a God (as much as anyone these days can offer up proof) but that proof didn't affect me. Okay, I couldn't get to know God personally (even though I was encouraged to develop a ‘personal relationship’ with God) although I did have "the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:16) but I found that trying to "walk in the footsteps of the faith" (Rom. 4:12) was unnatural and uncomfortable. I knew, for example, that fornication was a sin but I couldn't see why it was wrong. In 1966 being gay was a criminal offence in England but in 1967 it wasn't unless you crossed the border into Scotland where it still was (and continued to be until 1980). I'm not gay but my point is that perfect laws don't work in an imperfect world. I understand why God instigated the Law Covenant with Israel (which incorporated the Ten Commandments) because it condemned all of us to death (since no man could keep it, including Moses) and hence evidenced the need for a saviour, but here's the thing: there was no Law in Eden apart from a proviso that they didn't eat from a certain tree. The point's been made, the saviour has come and gone, the ransom paid, so whether we sin or not is neither here nor there.

The way I feel about my religious upbringing is the same way I'd feel about a wife my parents had arranged for me to marry as still happens in parts of the world. There will always be good and reasonable reasons why parents select the kind of prospective bride that they do. They know their son and his needs. And they care for him. Well I know all the reasons why my parents would want me to believe in their God but the fact is I look at him (based on the same evidence as was available to Paul) and feel nothing. In the first of the two "new" commandments that Jesus laid down before his disciples (summarising the essence of the whole Law of Moses) he said, “The most important one … is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’" (Deut. 6:4) I don't love God. I don’t hate God. I don't know God. I can see all his admirable qualities and I've read at length about how he’s reportedly dealt with people—including sending his only-begotten son to Earth—but none of that matters to me. I’m with Patti Smith:

Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine
Meltin' in a pot of thieves wild card up my sleeve
Thick heart of stone my sins my own
They belong to me. Me

[from Gloria (In Excelsis Deo)]

I'm not an atheist. I'm not an agnostic. I'm not a believer. To be any one of these I would need to take a stance and the simple fact is I don't care anymore. In 2001 I wrote this poem which basically states my current position. man_sitting_in_bleachers_SMP0012543

HUMAN RACE

(for Richard Brautigan)

A man cannot lose what he never had
but he can give up trying to get it.
Just walk off the track.
Come, join the rest of us on the bleachers.

It's that easy.
Catch your breath now.
It's too hot to run.

I've heard say parallel lines never meet.
Sometimes they seem to – in the distance –
they disappear over the horizon
so no one knows for sure.


25 May 2001

Of course I’ve no axe to grind with those who do find they have a need for God in their lives any more than I’ve no problems with people who choose to pay hundreds of pounds to listen to some opera or other and there was a time in my life I did go through the motions hoping that, by osmosis, I’d acquire a faith: elliotelijackson3-cr

AFTER DAVID

I have heard there is a god
who looks for men of crushed spirits.

I don't know where to look for him.

But if he wants to find me
I will not hide.


23 March 1984

I don’t like not getting things but there’s a lot in this life that I don’t get in addition to religion and opera and as I’ve grown older I’ve reconciled myself to never understanding some things or needing to understand them. And so I focus nowadays on what I’m drawn to. Not everyone walking along the same beach will stop and pick up the same rock or poke the same jellyfish with a stick. “Ezra … spent his entire life studying and obeying the Law of the Lord and teaching it to others.” (Ezra 7:10), Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz spent his entire life studying and advancing logics such as mathematics and philosophy; Sigmund Freud spent his entire life studying human nature and childhood; Morihei Ueshiba spent his entire life studying martial arts; Karl von Frisch spent his entire life studying bees and won a Nobel Prize in 1973 for his research on that subject; Joseph Pilates spent his entire life studying the human form and exercise. You get the idea. It’s not at all abnormal to focus on one area of interest to the exclusion of everything else. For God’s sake, Haldan Keffer Hartline devoted nearly his entire life studying the eyes of horseshoe crabs and Dave Shealy’s spent his entire life studying a smelly hominid cryptid known as the Skunk Ape!

I wasted so much time searching for the Holy Grail of my own spirituality. So what do you believe in, Jim? Fair question. I found a page where people listed ten things they believed in. Belief in this context really means certitude. People who believe in God are certain that he will do what he says; they have no doubts. I, on the other hand, am riddled with doubts. I’m fairly certain about a lot of things I’m fairly certain my wife’s not going to leave me and run off with Sean Connery but experience has taught me that “time and unforeseen circumstance” (Eccl. 9:11) befall all men. I would like to write another novel but I’m far from certain that I will. The odds are I will based on my previous performance and there are still areas that interest me enough to want to write about them at length. But nothing’s certain.

In that respect I do have a degree of faith in the unknown. The unknown is my subconscious and he plays a hugely important part in my writing. We don’t exactly collaborate, though, but over the years I’ve learned to trust him. While I’m busying with other things, sleeping and stuff, he’s fully occupied getting material ready for me to work on later. The writer Dario Ciriello posted this tweet a while back:

A good writer's subconscious always knows the full story. The challenge is to train the conscious mind to access and transcribe it.

Stephen King talks about “the boys in the basement”:

The boys in the basement are the guys who actually do my heavy lifting. They're the muses. And we have a picture of muses as being very ethereal creatures, but I think they are non-union labour. They are hardworking guys with Camels rolled up in the sleeves of their shirts. – Lisa McRee, Kevin Newman, Stephen King's Bag of Bones, ABC Good Morning America, 23 Sep 1998

A much better image than the airy-fairy muse. I agree.

Every day though I wait for “a sign” (Matt. 12:38). Every thought I have I ask myself: Is this my subconscious tossing out an idea for me to develop? Mostly it’s not. I have a very slow subconscious. He likes to mull over things for a long while. He definitely works in “mysterious ways” which is not a scripture by the way but from a poem by William Cowper.

A friend of mine once fell out with me over religion. She was committing adultery but said that God would understand. I disagreed. He might understand but he wouldn’t condone her actions which is what she wanted. Although some effort was put into making up, our friendship was never the same afterwards. For the record, I’d no problems with her committing adultery, none whatsoever, but it wasn’t my blessing she was looking for. She wanted to reform God in her own image and that’s just not on. If you decide you want to believe in God then here’s what you have to do: Find out what he wants and do it. Or you can shop around and look for a god who shares your values. Or you can do what Henry VIII did and just start your own religion.

A writer’s subconscious is a little god. Let’s not fool ourselves. He’s the guy in charge. You can’t apply the imperatives of industrial output to the mystery of creation. The writer William McIlvanney has said in interview, “I have always written from compulsion. I cannot even write to my own order, never mind anyone else's.” The word ‘compulsion’ crops up often in interviews with him. He was 20,000 words into a novel called Tribute to the Minotaur when he stopped and never returned to it:

The reason wasn’t so much a revulsion away from that book as an overwhelming compulsion towards another. – Alan MacGillivray, Natural Loyalties: The Work of William McIlvanney, The Association for Scottish Literary Studies

Of course I can’t read that without thinking of Matthew 4:1: “Then Jesus was led by the spirit up into the wilderness.” And that’s what a new novel is, a wilderness. Not just a blank page, a desert of blank pages. Who in his right mind would go there willingly? Joan Didion writes in ‘On Keeping a Notebook’:

Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

Lil DevilI’m not sure ‘loss’ is the right word for me. When I write I’m looking for something I never had in the first place. Feeling that something is missing is not necessarily the same as loss although I expect the feelings are not dissimilar. I want to rearrange the world to suit me. The world is too big and uncooperative so I make do with a virtual world and in that world I become “like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). Maybe I don’t have a bunch of hardworking guys with Camels rolled up in the sleeves of their shirts inside me. Maybe it’s a wee devil.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Waterproof Bible


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[T]he only difference between a happy ending and a sad ending is where you decide the story ends – Andrew Kaufman, The Waterproof Bible




Back in the good ol’ days there was real and unreal and that was it; it was one thing or t’other. Then all these other realisms started appearing: surrealism, magic realism, hyperrealism, neorealism, pseudorealism. Suddenly it all got very confusing. Confusion, of course, is a state of mind. And if you were looking for a state of mind in which to approach The Waterproof Bible I would aim for this one: Things only get confusing if you let them get confusing. Accept what’s presented on the page as reality even though a) that reality doesn’t match the one you’re comfortable with and b) it stretches the laws of physics (and possibly credulity) beyond breaking point. Just suspend disbelief, sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s not hard. Fans of science fiction do it all the time. We accept concepts like transwarp beaming—which even its inventor describes (will describe) as “like trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet, whilst wearing a blindfold, riding a horse”—without batting an eye so the notion that another race of sentient humanlike creatures exists under the earth’s oceans and have gone undetected for millennia isn’t such a stretch and the fact that a woman could be born with the ability to project her emotions is nothing. Oddly enough the one thing I found impossible to accept in this book is that the homes of these underwater denizens have stairs. I don’t care what universe this book is set in there is no way anyone needs stairs under the sea. That aside I got on just fine.

Setting the kind of realism Andrew Kaufman writes aside, the reason he doesn’t churn out straightforward stories is made clear in an extract from this essay written after Alice Munro received the Nobel Prize for Literature:

42. I just don’t like Realism. I find it dull. I find it adequate to document the whats of a world; what it looked like, what the politics were, what the structure of someone’s day was. But it’s clumsy at best when it tries to capture emotional reality. Even in the hands of a master like Munro, Realism fails to capture the heart. No story where a couple talk, then break up over dinner will have the power of a story where, in between the main course and desert, the girl grows wings and flies away. That poor guy sitting at the table, with everybody else in the restaurant looking at him, broken and stunned: that’s what it feels like to get dumped.

43. Give me Aimee Bender over Alice Munro any day.

44. And I’m pretty sure I’d feel that even if I grew up in Hamilton or Montreal or Barcelona. Realism doesn’t work for me.

45. At best it’s a nature vs. nurture argument. The nature of my love of the metaphoric and the nurture of growing up in the shadow of Alice Munro: they both contributed. Their influence cannot be divided.

For as short a book as this is there’s a lot packed into it. We have no less than five storylines and I wasn’t surprised to discover that the book began life as three separate novellas. Arguably the main one, although not the first one, is the story of two Aquatics, Aby (Aberystwyth, although why she’s named after an historic market town in Wales I have no idea)

aberystwyth-sea-front-564160148

and her estranged mother Margaret, and Aby’s long journey to try and reconcile with her mother before Margaret dies of something called “ryð” or “the rust”:

As every Hliðafgoð knows, the ryð signals the beginning of the end. Some have lived for years after its appearance, others for only hours; most live for another few weeks. No cure has ever been found.

The next storyline concerns Rebecca Reynolds. The book’s opening chapter is entitled ‘The woman who couldn’t keep her feelings to herself’ and when we meet her she’s sitting in the back of a limousine with her brother-in-law Lewis on their way to her sister’s—his wife’s—funeral. For some inexplicable reason the limo’s stalled in the middle of an intersection:

        [S]he looked down at the carpeted floor and remembered that she was in a limousine, travelling to her sister’s funeral. Her grief, sadness and guilt returned.
         As Rebecca felt these emotions, Lewis became overwhelmed with them as well. The grief, sadness and guilt were heavy and painful. It had been three days and eleven hours since he’d discovered his wife’s body, but until now Lewis had felt nothing. A sense of relief flooded through him. Then he remembered that he was sitting beside Rebecca and that these feelings weren’t his own, but hers.

While they’re there a white Honda Civic driven by a woman with green skin almost crashes into them. This is Aby who’s getting to grips with driving for the first time but we have to wait for a few chapters before Andrew takes us back in time and explains how she got to that point in time.

Anyway, having got out of the limo to get a better look at this strange-looking woman before she flees, Lewis decides he doesn’t want to go to his wife’s funeral:

         “Lewis? Where are you going?” Rebecca asked, projecting her confusion across two lanes of traffic.
         “I can’t go to the funeral.”
         “Why not?”
         “Because she’ll be there. She’ll see me. She’ll know.”
         “Know what?”
         “I’m so sorry.”
        Gesturing with his right hand, Lewis hailed a taxi, which stopped in front of him. “You’ll regret this,” Rebecca shouted. Her anger reached pedestrians on the far side of the street, causing some to stop and stare, while others scurried away. Lewis climbed inside the cab and shut the door. He looked straight ahead but continued to feel Rebecca’s anger as clearly as if it were his own.

hotel_fort_garry_lgeHe heads to the airport and buys a one-way ticket to Halifax, Nova Scotia; on arriving there he buys a one-way ticket to Vancouver, British Columbia; he doesn’t stay there but buys a third ticket and some twenty-six hours after his wife’s funeral will have ended he finds himself in the Fort Garry Hotel, “the second-finest hotel … in Winnipeg, Manitoba,” waiting for a barber; he’s decided a change of image is in order. Lewis is looking for some sort of closure because he blames himself for his wife’s death:

        On the morning his wife died, Lewis had decided to let her sleep in. He got the newspaper, made coffee and relished the day’s normalcy. Ninety minutes later he went back upstairs to wake her. But she did not wake up. Lewis stood over her, counted to fifteen and then shook her. He checked for a pulse but couldn’t find one. Her skin was cold.
        He then walked downstairs and began reading the business section of the newspaper. It was the only part of the paper he never read. […] He’d reached the Gs when he set down the paper and walked back up the stairs.
        In his mind he rehearsed the conversation he would have with her. He pictured her stretching, her arms over her head. You’ll never believe it, he’d say. I thought you were dead. With a small, embarrassed smile on his lips, Lewis opened the bedroom door, but Lisa was still lying in bed. He checked for a pulse. He still couldn’t find one. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he watched daylight brighten the room. He checked once more and then dialled 911. The receiver was still in his hand as he sat down beside her.
         “I’m so sorry,” he whispered, having already begun to believe that his failure to find a pulse had been what killed her.

As it happens Lewis doesn’t find closure, not at first anyway, but he does find God. Or at least a woman who claims to be God, if only on a part-time basis:

        "Being God isn't a full-time gig?"
        "Who would I invoice?"

Also in Manitoba at this time—in Morris, a small town in the middle of the Red River Valley and just down the road from Winnipeg—is Stewart Findlay:

For three years, six months and one day Stewart had been the Prairie Embassy Hotel’s only employee. This, less three weeks, was exactly the amount of time he’d been building [a] sailboat … in the middle of the Canadian Prairies. Or, more specifically, on a bend of the Red River that could float a boat only once a year, for a few days during spring runoff.

Stewart is Rebecca’s husband. His employer is Aby’s mother who after lived for many years “unwatered” had lost most of her green skin tone and is living as a Siðri, which is what the Hliðafgoð call us humans. I referred to Aby and her mother as “Aquatics” earlier but that’s not strictly correct. Aquaticism is a religion and only Aby continues to practice.

And then there are the Richardsons, Kenneth and his son Anderson:

Kenneth Richardson had begun rainmaking in 1978, at the age of twenty-two. He’d had no one to teach him but had stumbled onto a process of filling small cloth bags with silver iodide and attaching the bags to a flock of starlings he tamed and trained himself. The birds, sixty or seventy at a time, would fly into a cloud. The silver iodide would fall out through tiny holes he’d cut in the cloth. The cloud would be seeded, and rain would begin to fall roughly five minutes later. Kenneth was never sure how it worked. He just knew it did.

Years later he brings his son into the family business but when Anderson invents a new way of making rain using car batteries and a kite the two fall out and haven’t spoken for years. See a theme here in the book? They divvy up their territory but, having forgotten about Canada, end up both been called to attend to the drought that’s been plaguing the area for some fifty-four days. Still refusing to even acknowledge the presence of each other they end up booked into adjoining rooms in Prairie Embassy Hotel and a day or two later one or the other (or indeed both of them) does manage to bring the rain. A rainstorm of biblical proportions.

EZ Self StorageOne other player who deserves mention, although his storyline is entwined with Rebecca’s, is Edward Zimmer. Edward Zimmer is in charge of E.Z. Self Storage which is where Rebecca rents unit #207 which is where she keeps her emotional baggage, literally:

        When Rebecca turned fourteen, she began collecting mementos from all the good moments in her life. Her emotions had become so powerful and important to her that when one of them left her, she felt incredibly vulnerable. Keeping these feelings of joy to herself kept her from feeling exposed. It gave her some privacy. It soon became a habit that every time Rebecca experienced a moment that produced any significant emotion, happy or sad, she stored a souvenir.
        The number of boxes under her bed grew and grew. By the time she was sixteen, the shoeboxes were stacked three high and took up all the space under her bed. When she went to university, she took the shoeboxes with her and rented apartments based on closet space. When the closets weren’t big enough, she got rid of her roommate and used the second bedroom. Then the living room. Then the kitchen. Finally, Rebecca rented unit #207 from E.Z. Self Storage near the corner of Queen and Broadview in downtown Toronto and moved all of her boxes there, where they were safely secured under lock and key.

[…]

        Other than Stewart, [Zimmer] was the only person Rebecca had ever trusted with the secret of her collection. Somehow it had seemed not only permissible, but necessary, to confess to Edward the true nature of the objects she stored in unit #207. It was a confidence he had never betrayed.

What will Edward do when Rebecca decides the time has come to empty out her unit, to emotionally detach from her past?

So what’s going on here? Is this allegory, symbolism, a fairy tale or a bit of everything? I’m going to go with the latter. You can read it as straight fantasy or science fiction but there’s obviously a message—well, several messages—underneath. It’s clearly a book about how easy it is to lose connections be they with another individual, yourself or your faith. The Richardsons fall out over something or nothing as far as I’m concerned but it was important to them. The same goes for the Aquatics. I grew up in a society where religion mattered. Hell, what football team you supported mattered. I turned my back on all that and haven’t spoken to the surviving members of my own family in about fifteen years so I empathised strongly with Margaret. Beliefs can be important. They can also be debilitating. Look at Lewis whose life is crippled by guilt because of his ridiculous belief that his failure to find his wife’s pulse killed her. It is more or less ridiculous than the Aquatic’s belief in vilja?

An Aquatic will never question anything that happens by chance. In fact, the greater the coincidence, the more an Aquatic believes it was meant to be. This concept is called vilja, which translates as ‘God’s cheat’, the idea being that what appears to be chance is how God influences the plot of your life. If something extremely improbable happens by chance, it wasn’t chance at all, but Gods hand arranging the events of your life to meet the divine will.

I knew a man who said he didn’t believe in coincidence, only God-incidence. I thought—still think—that he’s a nutter and I can quote scripture to prove that he’s a nutter but let’s not go there. I wrote a poem once:

THE NATURE OF BELIEFS

The thing about beliefs is
they don't need to be true.
That's not their job.

They're there because
so many things aren't true.
Nature abhors a vacuum.


19 December 1996

People believe in the darndest things and for the daftest of reasons. When Aby’s car nearly crashed into the limo Lewis was in, this was how he reacted:

He’d been confident that the grief he so desperately wanted to feel would soon arrive. But now, having nearly been killed by a woman with green skin, it was easy to believe that stranger things could happen and that his grieving might never begin

Or what about Rebecca and her mother’s bracelet?

Rebecca had to leave the room, but she needed something to take with her. An object she could hold, something that would continually confirm that her mother had come home. She knew she couldn’t take the pill bottles, because their absence would be noticed. She looked around, but there were very few things in the room that hadn’t been there before her mother’s return. Then she saw the identification bracelet that her mother had been wearing when they’d carried her into the house.

[…]

For the next six weeks, while Rebecca’s mother remained in bed, Rebecca carried the plastic bracelet with her at all times. She held it in her hand while she slept. She kept it in the front right pocket of whichever pair of pants she was wearing. She never forgot to bring it with her, not even once. When someone asked her how her she was doing, Rebecca could just say fine and they would believe her.

Or what about these weird beliefs?

It is important to understand that, for devout Aquatics, simply being unwatered is a sin. At the core of the religion is a belief in the Finnyfir, or Great Flood. In this way, Aquaticism is not unlike Judaism or Christianity, but with one central difference: where those religions believe God flooded the world in order to start again, Aquatics believe God simply liked water better.

[…]

While Aquatics believe that it’s a sin to breathe the air, it is a minor sin. Within Aquaticism, there is only one sin that is considered an act so blasphemous it is beyond forgiveness, and this is to die with air-filled lungs. This, Aquatics believe, curses your soul to wander disembodied and alone, unwatered and unforgiven for eternity.

[…]

Devoted Aquatics, which Aby certainly was, believe that losing your keys not only predicts, but elicits mental illness. To lose one’s keys is the equivalent of losing one’s mind.

Not knowing about the existence of these marine creatures when Lewis meets God, he doesn’t think to ask her whether she prefers water to land, but he does ask a question that I think would be at the top of many people’s lists of things to ask God if they got half a chance:

        “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
         “Because it makes a good story.”
        Lewis did not know how to respond. Both her response and how quickly she gave it were unexpected. “That’s…cruel,” he said finally.
         “You gotta think about it as if you were dead. Because at the end of your life, all you’ve got is the story of it. If you were guaranteed a happy ending, how satisfied would you be? You’d want some drama! Some intrigue! You’d want to feel that you’d struggled and overcome, even if you’d lost.”
         “So death just makes a good ending?”
         “Works every time,” she said.

Only one of the main characters dies by the end of the book but I’m not sure that necessarily guarantees a sad ending; that’s not what God meant. For a story about a bunch of sad people there’s actually a lot of humour to be found in this book. Aby is a fish out of water metaphorically at least since I assume she’s a mammal and not an amphibian although her genus is ambiguous and don’t get me started on her ability to live in both salt and fresh water. Her ability to cope—and go undetected—in this strange land is as remarkable as it is unbelievable but it’s always entertaining Morkto see Morks and Datas struggle with everyday human activities. Balancing humour and seriousness is not always easy. A little leaven goes a long way. I think Andrew gets it about right although the ending was—perhaps unavoidably—a bit on the sentimental side and sentiment is even harder to work with than humour.

The book ends with a flood. The symbolism there’s perhaps a bit heavy-handed but it works even if the physics do not; I’m thinking here about the water flooding a five-storey hotel. Of course not everyone’s caught in the flood—Rebecca’s some eleven hundred miles away, for example—but most of the players are. Some can swim to safety; others board a leaky “ark” and set off to rescue whoever they can in Winnipeg.

The only difference between a happy ending and a sad ending is where you choose to end the story. I doubt Kaufman thought of that first—God alone knows who did—but he must’ve had that in mind as he brought this one to an end. Assuming, of course, that any story ends when an author stops typing. For me this one hasn’t ended yet. To be honest I can’t get it out of my head and even when I’ve moved on to the next book I can see myself harking back to this one again and again. This is the third book I’ve read by Andrew. I loved his first book, All My Friends are Superheroes; and I liked his third, The Tiny Wife; The Waterproof Bible was his second and, in his opinion, his best. I think it possibly is although I do have a special soft spot for anything to do with superheroes. (Recently read Charles Yu’s Third Class Superhero.) Despite the fantastical aspects of the book each of the characters is very human, even the two non-humans.

To be fair, the ending is probably the weakest thing about the book and I think the problem there is there are too many storylines. It feels as if only the Aby storyline ends properly and the rest just run out of gas; we expect everyone to get over their personal crises and get on with their lives eventually, and a lot of that will happen after the book’s finished, but only Aby gets to close one door and open a new one. I was reading a post by a book club based in Bournemouth and this was what they had to say about the ending:

We had trouble remembering how this book ended, even the members who had only just finished the day of the meet, it just wasn't memorable. Although it didn't have any loose ends, it was too sudden and still left us asking questions. We did discuss that the ending seemed rushed, but was that reflecting the fact that there was a genuine urgency in each of the characters stories?

What is also notable from this article is how much the book polarised opinions:

Nineteen people came to this meeting and gave the book an average score of 6.3 out of 10, our lowest being 1, and our highest score was 8.

I can see why but I still think 1 is very harsh criticism. I liked it. I wouldn’t have sat down the day after finishing the book and written almost 4000 words about it if I didn’t. I have more book reviews written than I know what to do with so I know it’ll be a while before I’ll be able to find a gap in which I can post this but this is a book I wanted to promote. If a guy can’t promote books he loves on his own blog then I don’t know what the world’s coming to. An end most likely.

You can read a good interview with Andrew Kaufman here where he talks a bit about The Waterproof Bible.

I’ll leave you with this video interview with him:

***

Andrew%20Kaufman_0Andrew Kaufman was born in the town of Wingham, Ontario. This is the same town that Alice Munro was born in, making him the second best writer from a town of 3000. Descending from a long line of librarians and accountants, his first published work was All My Friends Are Superheroes, a story following the adventures of a man turned invisible only to his wife. This novella, first published by Coach House Books in Canada, has also been published in the UK and translated into Italian, French, Norwegian, German, Korean, Spanish and Turkish. He has since published The Waterproof Bible, The Tiny Wife, Selected Business Correspondence and Born Weird. He is also an accomplished screenwriter for film and television, and has completed a Directors Residence at the Canadian Film Centre. He lives in the East Oz district of downtown Toronto with his wife, the film editor Marlo Miazga, and their two children, Phoenix and Frida. He’s currently working on something called The Waterfields and that’s as much as I know.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Twilight of the Eastern Gods


9780857860101

Am I a gangster or murderer?
Of what crime do I stand
Condemned? I made the whole world weep
At the beauty of my land.
Boris Pasternak from ‘Nobel Prize’



This is both an old and an odd book. The copyright says 1978 but its origins date back to 1961 which is when the short story ‘A Summer in Dubulti’ which forms the basis of the first of this novel’s five chapters appeared in print, although the events described date back to the late fifties. Other fragments followed over the next fifteen years which Kadare assembled and buried within a collection along with two other pieces, but even there what was published was not the book I’ve just read. In 1981 a French translation came out and Kadare, according to the English translator David Bellos, “used this opportunity to smuggle back into the novel some of the more forthright passages about girls that had been omitted from the Albanian ‘original’” but please be assured this is no Lady Chatterley’s Lover (which was published in 1959); if memory serves me right our young protagonist has sex once (maybe twice) and there’re no titillating accounts of his night-time gymnastics. Here’s one of the racier bits (or maybe the only racy bit):

Without waiting for a response from her sister [who wants to go for walk in the woods], she took my hand and pulled me towards her bedroom …

Shocking, what? The French version was revised in 1998 and what Canongate has just published is an English translation of that version, not a direct translation from the Albanian. This has been the case with all the novels that are available in English; seven of which that I’m aware of having been handled by Bellos.

In the west we’re so used to freedom of speech that’s it’s really hard to imagine a world where a sentence like that would have to be smuggled into a novel. Maybe in the 1880’s but in the 1980’s? The simple fact is that even today people are being thrown into prison for expressing their opinions on paper. What’s amazing about Kadare is how he managed to survive all these years under the Hoxha regime. It’s not been by kow-towing but it has been by biding his time and picking his battles. So we’ve had to wait a long time to read about Kadare’s youthful experiences at the Gorky Institute of World Literature and how Russia reacted to Pasternak’s being awarded the Nobel Prize. Was it worth the wait? Not really. Now so much is known about the USSR that this is very old news. This doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading but now it’s an historical document. Had it been published in the sixties (even if it had to be smuggled out of Albania and only appeared in the west) people would’ve DrZhivago_Asheetsat up and paid attention. The 1965 film adaptation of Doctor Zhivago was a spectacular box office hit. Can you imagine how people would’ve responded had they learned just how Russia reacted when they learned one of their own was to be awarded the Nobel Prize primarily for this novel although his nomination had been on the cards for years? Even fifty years on it’s upsetting.

But then maybe you don’t know. To be honest I didn’t. The information’s all in Wikipedia. It’s no big secret. But I doubt many people know the full story. Not that we get the full story here. What we get are Kadare’s protagonist’s experiences and, to be honest, he’s a bit too interested in his lacklustre love life to worry about poor old Boris Pasternak and his troubles. He’s astute enough to realise, however, that Pasternak has only two options: refuse the prize or get on a plane to Stockholm and not expect to be allowed back into the country:

On the radio from five a.m. until midnight, on television, in newspapers and magazines and even in children’s comics, the renegade writer was being splattered with venom. As was customary in cases of this kind, the bristling statements of Soviet literati were regurgitated by workers and collective farmers. Newspapers apologised for being able to publish only a minute proportion of the tens of thousands of letters and telegrams pouring in from the four corners of the Soviet lands. Among them were expressions of outrage from oil drillers, drama students, Orthodox priests, Bolshoi ballerinas, mountain climbers, atomic physicists, beekeepers, Caspian Sea salt-rakers, reformed mystics, the mute and so forth. […] Most of the students on our course had also sent in statements and expected to see them in print in due course. One of them was […] Maskiavicius, even though he’d told me the previous day that Pasternak, despite his turpitude, was worth a hundred times more than any of the other runts of Soviet literature.

The thing is Kadare is not a Russian writer. He’s an Albanian and so can view events with some detachment. Being an Albanian may mean little to you or me (most of us couldn’t point to Albania on a map of the world) but there are certain countries around the world where national identity is a big thing, a really big thing, and Albania is one of them. I discovered this when I reviewed the first novel of Kadare’s that I read, The Ghost Rider. It’s a very important novel, too, even though it’s actually a retelling of an old folk tale, the legend of Kostandin and Doruntine. He references it several times in Twilight of the Eastern Gods but unless you’re an Albanian (or have read The Ghost Rider or at the very least my review of the book) its significance will slip by you.

During the fifties young Albanian students were often sent to educational establishments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Soviet aid was generous in those years. But by the late fifties the relationship between the USSR’s new rulers and the Communist leader of Albania, Enver Hoxha (a diehard Stalinist), were cooling and we see evidence in Kadare’s book where the young man’s called to his country’s embassy:

[W]e were urged to limit, as far as we could, all relations with Muscovites for the time being. ‘I mean especially young female Muscovites…’ he added. My heart sank, not so much from what the counsellor had just said but from his having said it without a shadow of a smile. […] ‘You will therefore have to stop dating them,’ he went on, in what sounded to me like a weary voice. He spoke for two more minutes, stressing that relations between the two countries were good, telling us not to be unnecessarily alarmed and especially not to mention any of this to anyone.

Not that the boy pays a blind bit of attention to that advice but then he’s young and stupid. Stupid as far as women goes but in all other respects he can see the writing on the wall.

Possibly the most striking section in the book is where he takes on the mantel of Dante and describes the various floors on the Gorky Institute:

First floor: that’s where the first-year students stay; they’ve not yet committed many literary sins. Second floor: critics, conformists, playwrights, whitewashers. Third … circle: dogmatics, arse-lickers and Russian nationalists. Fourth circle: women, liberals and people disenchanted with socialism. Fifth circle: slanderers and snitches. Sixth circle: denaturalised writers who have abandoned their own language to write in Russian…

In an interview when asked if he was happy during his stay at the institute Kadare responded:

"Yes. Very happy."

But then he catches himself as though he might have given the wrong impression. "I was happy… as a human being. But I was none the less aware that I was in a college that was somehow twisted. The Gorky Institute was a factory for conformist, dogmatic writers and, because I understood that, I was saved."

Gorky Institute

In his Paris Review interview he expands on what he means here when he says he was “saved”:

At the institute I was disgusted by the indoctrination, which in a way saved me. I kept telling myself that on no account must I do what they taught me but the exact opposite. Their official writers were all slaves of the party, except for a few exceptions like Konstantin Paustovsky, Chukovsky, Yevtushenko.

I understand completely where he’s coming from. I recently watched a documentary about the seventies in the UK and it really was a miserable time as far as the country was concerned but I was young and so wrapped up in my own life and loves that I really was only vaguely aware of the bigger picture. In the same interview Kadare admits:

"There was a classmate I had a relatively long affair with—but then I decided it was not the fashion." I think he means that personal attachment was viewed as anti-Communist. "Long-term relationships were considered out-of-date. One's friends and classmates were the real enemy—it was worse than having the police on your tail! Especially in Moscow. They would say, 'Are you still with that girl there? Time to change!' And I think it's the greatest failure of my life that I dropped girls that I liked because comrades told me to. It was complete madness."

Learning this we can see that the narrator of the novel is not Kadare even if some of the events in the book are (for example, his chancing upon a manuscript copy of part of Doctor Zhivago days before the furore broke out). Our young protagonist spends most of the book pining over a lost love, Lida, in fact during the chapter where the vilification of Pasternak comes to its head he’s probably more upset by the fact Lida’s dumped him and taken up with a fellow student called Stulpanc. The fault there lies squarely with him because in a drunken stupor—it seems college students are the same the world over—he handed over her phone number having decided he wanted to have nothing to do with her. All very childish.

The problems really started for Kadare, of course, when he returned to Albania. Hoxha unsettled the literati when he sided with the upcoming writers when a dispute with the old guard arose which was a clever move because he was in effect putting down a deposit on their allegiance and forming his own nomenklatura who in time he expected to function in exactly the same way as Stalin has expected the writers, artists and composers of his day to behave, as mouthpieces of the state and not of the individual artist. So Kadare has had to tread carefully over the years. Referring to The Great Winter, a 1977 novel in which he portrayed Hoxha in a somewhat flattering light, Kadare said the book was "the price he had to pay for his freedom" although when you look at the book it’s obvious he’s using broad strokes; the official response was neither lavish praise nor prohibition. It was published, yes, but he did get his knuckles rapped later on: in 1975 Kadare's privileged position ended with the publication of ‘The Red Pashas’, a poem which satirized Albania's inefficient bureaucracy. He was subsequently forced into internal exile in a small central Albanian village and forbidden to publish his works; the ban lasted for three years. Kadare’s responses to questions posed by Ben Naparstek are worth reading but are a bit long to reproduce here.

2499774In 1991, when the coast was clear and he could speak his mind (he’d sought political asylum in France by this time), Kadare wrote, in Albanian Spring: The Anatomy of Tyranny:

A writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship. […] Dictatorship and literature and only exist together as two wild beasts that have each other by the throat. Each […] is capable of wounding the other in different ways. The writer’s wounds seem horrible because they come at once. But those the writer inflicts on dictatorship are like a time bomb, and they never heal.

One has to wonder what good Kadare would’ve done had be somehow managed to get Twilight of the Eastern Gods published at the time. Look what happened to Pasternak. Kadare had to undergo similar with regard to his books The Winter of Great Solitude [an earlier version of The Great Winter] and The Palace of Dreams. So why stay? For the same reason Pasternak chose to decline the Nobel Prize. He wrote to Khrushchev:

I cannot conceive of my destiny separate from Russia, or outside it. Whatever my mistakes or failings, I could not imagine that I should find myself at the centre of such a political campaign as has been worked up round my name in the West. Once I was aware of this, I informed the Swedish Academy of my voluntary renunciation of the Nobel Prize. Departure beyond the borders of my country would for me be tantamount to death and I therefore request you not to take this extreme measure with me.

This is how Kadare feels about being Albanian. But he was in it for the long haul. There have been seemingly braver writers: On October 5, 1953, the writer Kasëm Trebeshina wrote an open letter to Hoxha criticising the obsession with socialist realism shared by the Party and the Writers' Union. His predictable reward was seventeen years in gaol and only since the fall of Communism has his work begun to appear in print in Albania. In the Paris Review interview Kadare responds:

From 1967 to 1970 I was under the direct surveillance of the dictator himself. Remember that, to the great misfortune of the intellectuals, Hoxha regarded himself as an author and a poet and therefore a “friend” of writers. As I was the country’s best-known writer, he was interested in me. In such a situation I had three choices: to conform to my own beliefs, which meant death; complete silence, which meant another kind of death; or to pay a tribute, a bribe. I chose the third solution by writing The Long Winter.

All of this leaves me with mixed feelings. What would I have done? I’m certainly not a brave man but I’d be genuinely interested to learn how many truly brave men (and women, of course) there are out there. I think we like the idea of bravery just as we like the ideas of honesty and decency and all the rest. Or maybe it’s heroism we like the idea of and actual bravery—here I am referencing Huxley once more—is “pretty squalid” when compared with how we see bravery portrayed in films, TV shows and even newscasts. Is Kadare’s approach so different to that of, say, Shostakovich who, following his second denunciation, found himself having to compose three categories of work: film music to pay the rent, official works aimed at securing official rehabilitation, and serious works "for the desk drawer"? His response to the first you might recall was the Fifth Symphony with its subtitle, "An artist's creative response to just criticism".

It’s too late now to change what happened in Russia and Albania. It’s probably too late to stop what’s happening in China and Mexico right now. But the Twilight of the Eastern Gods is a valid—although not the most significant—contribution to the world literature that underlines the belief that freedom of speech should be an absolute human right. The evidence is growing. It was a shame what Pasternak went through but what would be a real shame is that he went through it and nothing ever changed. That said, this is not Kadare’s best work although it has its moments. It might have been realistic to include all the romance (for want of a better word) but it does take away from the momentous events going on all around him and yet strangely enough I felt short-changed on both counts.

Other reviews of Kadare’s book by me:

***

ismail_kadareIsmail Kadare was born in 1936 in Gjirokastër, in the south of Albania. He studied in Tirana and Moscow, returning to Albania in 1960 after the country broke ties with the Soviet Union. He is known for his novels, although he was first noticed for his poetry collections. He stopped writing poems in the 1960s and focused on short stories until the publication of his first novel, The General of the Dead Army. From 1963 he has been a novelist. In 1996 he became a lifetime member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of France. In 1992, he was awarded the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca; in 2005, he won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize and in 2009 the Prince of Asturias Award of Arts. He has divided his time between Albania and France since 1990. He began writing very young, in the mid-1950s but published only a few poems. His works have been published in about thirty languages.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Awakening


the awakening

I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can't make it more clear; it's only something I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me. – Kate Chopin, The Awakening



Canongate Books have just republished Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening. In her e-mail to me their publicist wrote:

First published in 1899, this radical novel sent shockwaves through American society and continues to speak to readers over one hundred years later. Widely regarded in the States as one of the forerunners of feminist literature alongside Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Flaubert's Madame Bovary, it is practically unknown in the UK—a fact we hope to change with this beautiful new edition, introduced by Barbara Kingsolver.

I have to say I hadn’t heard of the book and if pressed I would’ve said Chopin was a contemporary writer. The only example of early Feminist literature I was aware of (and have read) is The Yellow Wallpaper by a fellow American, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which precedes this novel by seven years, although I did know Gilman also wrote Herland which is on my to-read list. Gilman was a prominent American feminist and a lecturer for social reform but in an interview David Chopin makes some interesting observations about his grandmother:

Kate was neither a feminist nor a suffragist, she said so. She was nonetheless a woman who took women extremely seriously. She never doubted women's ability to be strong. She came from a long line of strong women whom she loved and respected, the great-grandmother, grandmother, mother affiliation. She had strong women friends including intellectual women. Her lack of interest in feminism and suffrage did not have to do with a lack of confidence in women nor did it have a lack to do with a lack of any desire for freedom. She simply had a different understanding of freedom. She saw freedom as much more a matter of spirit, soul, character of living your life within the constraints that the world makes [or] your God offers you, because all of us do live within constraints.

[…]

I think she was an exceptionally talented and interesting woman and if I resist labelling her feminist or suffragist, or claiming her for a specific view of what women require or what women's independence requires, women's freedom requires. I resist it because I think she's much larger and more important than that. I don't think we do her any honour or further our own understanding by tying her to a particular political cause. I think she really was a dedicated and talented writer, who worked very hard to capture ineffable, delicate ideas and feelings in a prose that would do them justice. [bold mine]

A very brief summary then:

Edna Pontellier is an obedient wife and mother vacationing at Grand Isle with her family. While there she becomes close to a young man named Robert Lebrun. Before they act on their mutual romantic interest in each other, Robert leaves for Mexico.

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From the 1982 film adaptation The End of August

Edna is lonely without his companionship, but shortly after her return home to New Orleans she becomes involved with Alcée Arobin. Although she doesn’t love Arobin, he does awaken various sexual passions within her.

Concurrent to Edna’s sexual awakening is her growing need for independence. Instead of spending her days concerned with household matters, she pursues her interest in painting. Since she has some capital of her own and a small income from painting Edna moves into a house of her own while her husband is away on business. At this time Robert returns, professing his love for Edna and his desire to someday marry her but, again, withdraws before anything improper can happen. Edna, increasingly struggling to cope with societal strictures, returns to Grand Isle where she first experienced her rebirth.

The Awakening is a book that can be read in a number of ways—everything from a künstlerroman to a Creole Bovary to a transcendental fable of the soul’s emergence—and there’s no reason why they can’t co-exist within the same framework but I’m not sure the book deserves to be called a Feminist text simply because its protagonist is a strong-willed woman; she’s not particularly interested in rights for women, only freedom for herself. There’s no proselytising, no burning of corsets (bras did exist in 1899 but probably weren’t commonplace), no wanting to emasculate every man she encounters. She simply wants to be able to do what she wants to do when she wants to do it. In some respects that’s a rather immature notion but as regards life’s freedoms she is something of a child despite being actually twenty-eight for most of the book, turning twenty-nine at the very end. I don’t mean ‘childish’ in a bad way, simply as a metaphor for innocence and inexperience; like all women of her time her world experiences have been limited to a “women’s sphere” cum gilded cage.

Birds crop up throughout the book (see here) beginning with a noisy parrot in the opening chapter but a particularly significant moment occurs when the pianist, Mademoiselle Reisz, puts her arms around Edna and felt her shoulder blades, “to see if [her] wings were strong”. When doing this she says:

The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.

I suppose in some respects flying and swimming are related. At the start of the novel Edna learns how to swim and can’t get enough of it; there’s a childlike delight in the fact she can now propel herself through water unaided. If you’re looking for a feminist metaphor here, sure, you can read it that way; she’s no longer supported by a man only it’s not only men. Chopin notes:

Edna had attempted all summer to learn to swim. She had received instructions from both the men and women; in some instances from the children. Robert had pursued a system of lessons almost daily; and he was nearly at the point of discouragement in realizing the futility of his efforts. A certain ungovernable dread hung about her when in the water, unless there was a hand nearby that might reach out and reassure her.

But that night she was like the little tottering, stumbling, clutching child, who of a sudden realizes its powers, and walks for the first time alone, boldly and with over-confidence. She could have shouted for joy. She did shout for joy, as with a sweeping stroke or two she lifted her body to the surface of the water. [bold mine]

Yes, she’s a woman, and, yes, once she gains confidence she does say “[s]he wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before,” but one can read too much into that. Her discovering the freedom being able swim affords her is significant though:

She turned her face seaward to gather in an impression of space and solitude, which the vast expanse of water, meeting and melting with the moonlit sky, conveyed to her excited fancy. As she swam she seemed to be reaching out for the unlimited in which to lose herself.

I’m not sure if this is her epiphany or if that comes later but considering how the book ends—she returns after her testing out her wings to the spot where she learned to swim—it’s significance can’t be overlooked. Here at Grand Isle, for the first time it seems, she discovered the pleasure of being alone; indeed the book is subtitled ‘A Solitary Soul’.

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From the 1982 film adaptation The End of August

Five quotes:

“Oh! I don’t know. Let me alone; you bother me.”

She liked then to wander alone into strange and unfamiliar places.

But after all, a radiant peace settled upon her when she at last found herself alone.

When Edna was at last alone, she breathed a big, genuine sigh of relief.

I want to be let alone. Nobody has any right—except children, perhaps—and even then, it seems to me—or it did seem—”

She doesn’t want to be a man—although she’s clearly fond of men and men certainly feature in what passes for her plans for the future—nor is she clamouring for a divorce but when she finds herself freed for a time from not only her husband—who’s really not a bad sort and far more understanding than the husband in The Yellow Wallpaper­—but also her children—whom she loves dearly but doesn’t feel a need to centre her life around—she finds contentment in the simplest of things: painting and reading, visiting her (as opposed to ‘the family’) friends and not having to oversee a household. At one point she goes to visit the Ratignolles and, on parting, notes:

The little glimpse of domestic harmony which had been offered her gave her no regret, no longing. It was not a condition of life which fitted her, and she could see in it but an appalling and hopeless ennui.

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From the 1999 film adaptation Grand Isle

It’s important to remember that the book’s title is called The Awakening. Edna takes time to wake up to the reality of her life. One of the most significant early moments is when she informs her husband that she’s thinking of becoming an artist:

        “I feel like painting,” answered Edna. “Perhaps I shan’t always feel like it.”
         “Then in God’s name paint! but don’t let the family go to the devil. There’s Madame Ratignolle; because she keeps up her music, she doesn’t let everything else go to chaos. And she’s more of a musician than you are a painter”.
         “She isn’t a musician, and I’m not a painter. It isn’t on account of painting that I let things go.”
         “On account of what, then?”
         “Oh! I don’t know. Let me alone; you bother me.”
        It sometimes entered Mr. Pontellier’s mind to wonder if his wife were not growing a little unbalanced mentally. He could see plainly that she was not herself. That is, he could not see that she was becoming herself and daily casting aside that fictitious self which we assume like a garment with which to appear before the world. [bold mine]

It takes time to awaken. It takes time to become. The realisation may feel sudden but there will have been a journey even if it is only a relatively short one. Edna Pontellier’s journey towards self-actualisation takes a year, a little less. As rebirths go it’s fairly smooth sailing. She doesn’t have to fight for her rights. She tells her husband, no, and he takes it. The first time this happens her husband, Léonce, has come home and finds Edna lolling in a hammock on the porch:

        “Edna, dear, are you not coming in soon?” he asked again, this time fondly, with a note of entreaty.
         “No; I am going to stay out here.”
         “This is more than folly,” he blurted out. “I can’t permit you to stay out there all night. You must come in the house instantly.”
        With a writhing motion she settled herself more securely in the hammock. She perceived that her will had blazed up, stubborn and resistant. She could not at that moment have done other than denied and resisted. She wondered if her husband had ever spoken to her like that before, and if she had submitted to his command. Of course she had; she remembered that she had. But she could not realize why or how she should have yielded, feeling as she then did.
         “Léonce, go to bed,” she said. “I mean to stay out here. I don’t wish to go in, and I don’t intend to. Don’t speak to me like that again; I shall not answer you.

He doesn’t drag her to her feet and give her a good slap. No, instead he draws up the rocker, hoists his slippered feet on the rail and waits out the night with her. He may not understand but he is understanding. And continues to be throughout the whole book.

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From the 1999 film adaptation Grand Isle

Of course by today’s standards the book is tame and more people nowadays will be offended by the ways coloured people are referred to as blackies, negroes, mulattos, quadroons and, in one instance (and this was a new one on me), a griffe which is, apparently, a person of three-quarter black to one-quarter white ancestry. The last slaves were freed in 1865 so no parallels are drawn between slavery and the role of women apart from one early in the book:

“You are burnt beyond recognition,” [he husband] added, looking at his wife as one looks at a valuable piece of personal property which has suffered some damage. She held up her hands, strong, shapely hands, and surveyed them critically, drawing up her lawn sleeves above the wrists. Looking at them reminded her of her rings, which she had given to her husband before leaving for the beach. She silently reached out to him, and he, understanding, took the rings from his vest pocket and dropped them into her open palm. She slipped them upon her fingers; then clasping her knees, she looked across at Robert and began to laugh. [bold mine]

This doesn’t make Léonce a bad man because as we’ve seen already he clearly cares for his wife’s wellbeing. He’s also a man of his time and behaves as he sees others behaving. He has a business to run and is (perhaps overly) concerned about how he is perceived in the local community so it’s actually to the man’s credit that he doesn’t rein his wife in.

Tame as the book is by today’s standards the book was not well received. In her preface to the Norton critical edition of the novel Margaret Culley writes that The Awakening

…met with widespread hostile criticism and the book was removed from the library shelves in St. Louis. Chopin herself was refused membership in the St. Louis Fine Arts Club because of the novel. In 1906 it was reprinted by Duffield (New York); but then it went out of print and remained so for more than half a century in this country.

To be fair not all reviews were negative. C. L. Deyo in his review wrote:

It is sad and mad and bad, but it is all consummate art. The theme is difficult, but it is handled with cunning craft. The work is more than unusual. It is unique. The integrity of its art is that of well-knit individuality at one with itself, with nothing superfluous to weaken the impression of the perfect whole.

It was very much the exception. The novel “leaves one sick of human nature” complained another critic; “it is not a healthy book” said one more. (See more here.) The public reaction devastated her. In July 1899 she even went as far as publishing a retraction in Book News, a literary journal:

Having a group of people at my disposal, I thought it might be entertaining (to myself) to throw them together and see what would happen. I never dreamed of Mrs Pontellier making such a mess of things and working out her own damnation as she did. If I had had the slightest intimation of such a thing I would have excluded her from the company. But when I found out what she was up to the play was half over and it was then too late.

“She was broken-hearted,” her son Felix said, and in the remaining few years of her life (she died in 1904) she produced only a few pieces, half a dozen stories and a few poems. How sincere—or indeed accurate—her retraction is who can tell? Me, I don’t buy it. I was only a few pages into the book and I already could see the writing was on the wall; she knew where this story was going from the jump.

I do, however, think the book was misread by many. In 1895 Grant Allen published a novel called The Woman Who Did about a young, self-assured middle-class woman who defies convention as a matter of principle and who is fully prepared to suffer the consequences of her actions which is perhaps why certain reviewers saw The Awakening as part of the “overworked field of sex fiction”. Is there sex in the book? Yes, but Fear of Flying it is not; blink and you’ll miss it. Kenneth Eble in his essay, states bluntly: “Quite frankly, the book is about sex.” It is not. If sex was what Edna was after then she misses a lot of opportunities. She chooses to have extramarital relations twice and that takes up a couple of lines in a book of a hundred and fifty-odd pages. When Robert, the male friend who she met on holiday at the start of the book and whom she falls for in a big way, returns towards the end of the novel (having done the gentlemanly thing and removed himself from the path of temptation) does Edna throw herself as him? No, she says, “I’d rather talk about you, and know what you have been seeing and doing and feeling out there in Mexico.” Chopin tells us earlier on that Edna “was almost devoid of coquetry.” She’s not a flirt. She’s not a tease. But she does enjoy the company of men:

There were one or two men whom she observed at the soirée musicale; but she would never have felt moved to any kittenish display to attract their notice—to any feline or feminine wiles to express herself toward them. Their personality attracted her in an agreeable way. Her fancy selected them, and she was glad when a lull in the music gave them an opportunity to meet her and talk with her.

The book’s ending, now, that’s another thing entirely and very much open to interpretation. My own reading of it is that the symbolism suggests she’s overreached herself—or is in imminent danger of doing so—and freedom comes at a price. Also once a caged animal, no matter how well cared for, has tasted freedom there’s nothing that would lure it back. I personally don’t think Edna does overreach herself; if anything she takes baby steps. I take umbrage on Edna’s behalf. It’s as much as I can say without revealing the ending but a lot has been written about it and I’m not sure I have a lot to add other than what I’ve hinted at here.

The thing about Edna, though, is that she’s actually a bit of a Romantic and I’ve never really seen Feminists as Romantics (as opposed to romantic feminists); they’re pragmatists, realists, women with their eyes open who see the world for what it is which is why they want to change it. There’s a part of me that feels Edna is being indulged and that her husband’s going to turn up any day with a short leash and drag her off to the Continent; he’s a patient man but even he has his limits. Of course we’ll never know because the book ends before his return. What if? What if? What if?

Some books can be read, enjoyed for what they are and forgotten. This is not one of them despite the sad fact that for years it was forgotten. There are layers here and much has been written about it since its rediscovery in the mid-sixties. I’ve read a fair bit in preparing this article but most of it I can’t talk about without saying too much which I’ve probably already done. The book is dated, without a doubt, but it’s more than a historical curiosity. I agree with her grandson in his estimation of the book. In chapter six Chopin writes:

In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her. [bold mine]

Kate-ChopinThat moment comes to us all eventually, the men, the women, the feminists, the romantics, even the deluded and, yes, there are those who think that Edna’s kidding herself. Read the book. Think about it. Make your own mind up.

If you are interested in learning more about her then The Kate Chopin International Society’s website is a good a place to start as any. As I’ve said, a lot has been written about this wee book over the years and the web contains a wealth of information from a variety of angles. The following list is a little long but if you’re serious about studying the book I’ve probably saved you a good couple of hours work. You’re welcome.
 

FURTHER READING


Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Struggle Against Society and Nature

Kate Chopin: A Re-Awakening (PBS documentary, transcript)

Kate Chopin's The Awakening: A Critical Reception

A Catalogue of Symbols in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

Adele Ratignolle: Kate Chopin's Feminist at Home in The Awakening

Kate Chopin as Feminist: Subverting the French Androcentric Influence

A Feminist Analysis of Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

Deconstructionist and Feminist Analysis of The Awakening

The Bird that Came out of the Cage: A Foucauldian Feminist Approach to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

Out of Place, Out of Time? Reading Kate Chopin through Contemporary French Feminist Theory

Tenuous Feminism and Unorthodox Naturalism: Kate Chopin’s Unlikely Literary Victory at the Close of the 19th Century

Feminine Quest for Individuality in Beowulf and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

Reading and Translating Kate Chopin's The Awakening as a Non-Feminist Text

A "Cry of the Dying Century": Kate Chopin, The Awakening and the Women’s Cause

Edna’s Failure to Find Her Female Role in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

Writing The 'Solitary Soul': Anticipations of Modernism & Negotiations of Gender in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

Gender and Literary Valorization: The Awakening of a Canonical Novel

The Awakening: Female Characters and their Social Roles

Representations of Love and Female Gender Identities in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

The Female Artist in Kate Chopin's The Awakening: Birth and Creativity

The Masculine Sea and the Impossibility of Awakening in Chopin’s The Awakening

Edna Pontellier’s unwomanly vocation in The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening in the Light of Freud’s Structural Model of the Psyche

Dropping Hints and the Power of Foreshadowing in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

Marriage, Motherhood, and Reception in the Fiction of Chopin and Wharton

The Devil in the House: The Awakening of Chopin’s Anti-Hero

The Missing Link: Kate Chopin and The Awakening

Too High a Price: Sacrifice and the Double Standard in Kate Chopin's The Awakening

Loss of Self and the Struggle for Individuality in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (need to download PDF)

The Second Coming of Aphrodite: Kate Chopin's Fantasy of Desire

Solitary Blessings: Solitude in the Fiction of Hawthorne, Melville, and Kate Chopin

The Evolution of Kate Chopin’s Heroines

The Awakening - Multiple Critical Perspectives (only an extract but looks like an interesting book)

The Awakening and The Yellow Wallpaper: An Intertextual Comparison of the "Conventional" Connotations of Marriage and Propriety

Marriage and Sexuality in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying

The Criticism Surrounding the end of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (only read once you’ve finished the book)

Death as a Metaphor in The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Kate Chopin's At Fault: The Usefulness of Louisiana French for the Imagination (Not directly about The Awakening but as there’s so many French references in the book you might find it of some use)

The Awakening Study Guide (a bit basic but a decent enough overview although I would’ve thought more would’ve been said about the French expressions)

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