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I take from literature what I need at a particular time in my life - a reread at a different moment reveals another necessary - so I was impressed by the resonance of Nick's final gift in Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty.  Nick's openness to seeing beauty in the world at the instant of his most foul excommunication recalled the last lines of Mary Oliver's poem, "Wild Geese":

. . . .
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
In his aesthetic sensitivity, an expression of Nick's ability to love the world with "shocking" unconditionality, Nick has found his place in the family of things - whatever the verdict of the families - the Guests, the Feddens, the Charleses, the Ouradis - he has tried to join previously.

Alan Hollinghurst and Mary Oliver are not the only authors who have comforted me thus recently.  Kathleen Jamie's joyous poem, "The way we live," makes the same point as she celebrates (among others):

. . . .
Final Demands and dead men, the skeletal grip
of government.  To misery and elation; mixed,
the sod and caprice of landlords.
To the way it fits, the way it is, the way it seems
to be: let me bash out praises - pass the tambourine.
Indeed, the power imparted by an unconditional love of the world - with its embrace of mortality as much as vivacity, hardship as much as luxury - also captured Karen Blixen's attention.  In "The Dreaming Child," she describes the helplessness an adoptive mother feels when her dying adopted son displays this very trait:

All her life she had endeavoured to separate good from bad, right from wrong, happiness from unhappiness.  Here she was, she reflected with dismay, in the hands of a being, much smaller and weaker than herself, to whom these were all one, who welcomed light and darkness, pleasure and pain, in the same spirit of gallant, debonair approval and fellowship.  The fact, she told herself, did away with all need of her comfort and consolation here at her child's sick-bed; it often seemed to abolish her very existence.
"The Dreaming Child," Winter's Tales, p. 178.  

This lesson was one Karen Blixen appears to have grasped, not by innate inclination, but through repeated suffering at the hands of men - Bror, Denys - who didn't see debt, alcoholism, war, illness, loneliness, or her own misery as conditions to be avoided - who swallowed life knife-edge first and wondered why Karen seemed to cut her throat on it - whose phenomenal fortresses of apparent independence "did away with all need" of her and "seemed to abolish her very existence."  No wonder she looked on this unconditional love of the world with awe.  Bror and Denys may have found their places in the family of things, but Karen seems to have gone to her death still looking.

Perhaps what Karen Blixen needed was, not better men, but better literature.  The last poem Denys read to her, standing with one foot in his idling car, from a book of poems by Iris Tree that burned with his body in the plane crash at Voi, is also about geese:

I saw grey geese flying over the flatlands
Wild geese vibrant in the high air -
Unswerving from horizon to horizon
With their soul stiffened out in their throats-
And the grey whiteness of them ribboning the enormous skies
And the spokes of the sun over the crumples hills.
Compared with the use Mary Oliver makes of wild geese, Iris Tree's effort is crap.  Were it that Karen Blixen could have nonetheless taken the tambourine she so badly needed from it.

Plot lines of beauty

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P.G.Wodehouse.jpgI am a plot woman.  Characterization, tone, style, word-smithing, clever turns of phrase, psychological acuity - I appreciate them, but with me plot is king.  If the plot falters, so does my enjoyment.  

Not so with the reverse.  I recall Russell Roberts opining that the plots of all P.G. Wodehouse's books were "the same."  To the contrary - Bertie Wooster's and Jeeve's characters may be frozen; the tone, style and amusing word play may never evolve; the overall story lines may remain predictable; but the plots - the plots are always magnificent.  P.G.W. was an absolute genius of the plot (as must be all masters of the long-form comedy, which may explain why they are so few in number).

For this reason, I remain amazed at my own ardor for Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty.  The novel is, in fact, spectacularly plotted . . . but the pace of the plotting is so slow as to be imperceptible until the last forty pages.  At that point, the entire world of the book shatters with such speed and reverberation that the closest analogy to reading the book's last two chapters is living through a head-on car-truck collision.

But why did I keep reading through the first 460 pages?  I know people who didn't - "Same old, same old" from chapter to chapter, they complained.  They put it down 100 pages into it and never picked it up again.

In my case, I kept reading because I marveled at Hollinghurst's astonishing skill at evoking moods that leapt from the page and manifested in a physical experience.  From the scene - on page 10 - when Nick returns to the Feddens' Notting Hill house and intuits a burglary, I was in awe.  I read that scene several times, trying to understand how he'd done it.  "Just words on the page," I hmphed to myself, but they'd cast a spell of pulse-racing, quick-breathing terror and suspense over me.

This suspense - of waiting to see what a magician will do next - kept me reading, and I was not disappointed, from the surprisingly (to a heterosexual) arousing sex scene between Nick and Leo in the park, right through to its bookend, the revolting sex scene between Wani and Tristão at the party with Maggie Thatcher.  The pull of this suspense was plot-like, just as the audience's anticipation in a Cirque du Soleil performance is.

The real magic, though, is that The Line of Beauty was not as plotless as a circus.  Hollinghurst's immaculate mood-conjuring passages distracted from the machinery of the plot, and while I was dazzled by the beauty of his realism - so perfect that I experienced the physical reactions of an eye-witness - Hollinghurst was laying a merciless plot-trap.

His accomplishment suggests a nickname for him, in the tradition of his mentor-of-sorts, Henry James - known as "The Master": Hollinghurst could be known as "The Magician."

(Photo of P.G. Wodehouse courtesy of The Telegraph)  

A virtual "national park" - for books

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MacMillan_Library.jpgThe abuse of books depresses me almost as much as the mistreatment of humans; humans, after all, have an astounding capacity for resiliency and regeneration, whereas a book once beaten, broken and torn is dependent on a human for restoration.

In Nairobi's MacMillan library, the once grand interior is stained with dirt, water and - probably - mold.  The card catalog (something I haven't used for twenty years) is a jumble of worn rectangles of oak tag, occasionally misfiled, imparting unintelligible numbers - some of which correspond to the Dewey decimal system, others of which do not.  Housed in a cabinet that is itself beaten, broken and torn, the card catalog is also surprisingly inaccessible:  many of the drawers don't open - or only with minutes-worth of cajoling - and arrange themselves in an order than cannot be described as alphabetical.

Once in the stacks, the story is even sadder.  The relationship between the books listed in the card catalog and those on the shelves is analogous to that of a child with a pretend friend: only one of the four books I'd found in the card catalog was on the shelves, though the other three had not been checked out - they'd been stolen or hopelessly mislaid, since the library doesn't have a computer system.

The one book I found, Elspeth Huxley's Forks and Hope: An African Notebook, was dirty and held together with clear plastic tape.  Its jacket was long gone, the edges of the cover frayed, and the binding was broken in multiple places.  It was missing pages 49 and 50.

I love the look and feel of a book well read by many hands, but in my trek through Nairobi's National Archives, Museum Archives, and University of Nairobi Library, I've found circumstances to be as dismal as in MacMillan.  Books (and records), not burnished by good service to myriad voracious readers, but cracked, split, lost and neglected.  

Moreover, among these books are those that are out-of-print, unavailable for purchase, or which retail for prohibitive prices (e.g., $250).  Once these books are destroyed, humanity will permanently lose their irreplaceable contents.

The heartbreak of the situation is compounded by the obvious need for MacMillan and the other libraries and record repositories in Nairobi.  On the Saturday I visited MacMillan, I found that place packed - and silent - with busy readers.  (The same knowledge-hunger was evident when Huxley was writing 47 years earlier:  "In Kitwe I saw a young miner who was reading right through the Encyclopaedia Britannica from start to finish: he had reached CROCODILE." p. 259.)

Throughout the course of my research in Nairobi thus far, I've wished for online or e-access to the contents of the books I'm seeking.  Such access would phenomenally speed and simplify my research, which is crawling along because of inaccessibility and graft

In all the wrangling over Google Books, e-readers and libraries lending e-books, I have yet to hear the interests of the developing world represented.  Certainly with the ease of lending e-books, no reason exists why international patrons, including those in the developing world, should not be able to borrow e-books from libraries anywhere on the planet; nor, indeed, why institutions in the developed world could not or should not support the digitization of Nairobi's collections and make them available electronically to all.

For the sake of all the under-served readers in the MacMillan library - and all the book-starved people in the developing world - I can only hope that Nairobi's extinction-threatened collections find a conservation area online to which access will be provided on a fair, affordable and convenient basis.

(Image of the MacMillan Library courtesy of Government of Kenya's Office of Public Communications)

Following The Line of Beauty to the shape of truth

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Alan_Hollinghurst.jpgReading Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty for a second time, I was more impressed even than I'd been the first time - and I'd been smitten on my initial go-round.  Hollinghurst is so well-rounded as a writer that it's a wonder his book is still bound in the conventional manner and not shaped like a globe, so near is he to what's meant by "universal" in his scope.

Of course, my neighbors in Beijing might be lost in all the references to classical Western music, art, architecture and literature (though not in the refuge sought in "high culture").  My colleagues in Pune might not relate to the Feddens' permissive attitude towards their daughter Catherine's misbehavior (but they'd understand the Feddens' general denial of her mental illness).  My friends in Nairobi might be turned off by the explicit descriptions of Nick's homosexual sex (but they'd recognize the moralistic and hypocritical condemnation of it as "vulgar and unsafe").

Still, the receptive reader from any culture will respond to the novel's surprising hopefulness.  Despite his rejection and betrayal by every member of the Feddens' household and circle, despite his absolute solitude and vulnerability in his anguish, despite his conviction that his latest HIV test will return a positive result and the hallucinatory patina his fear throws over his vision, Nick's final impression in the book is one of beauty, provoked by the unexpected discovery within himself that his "love of the world . . . was shockingly unconditional."  (p. 501.) 

Nick's apprenticeship to the masters of aesthetics has imbued him with resiliency beyond his years, his experience and, possibly, his innate capacities.  His appreciation of the line of beauty is a treasure more valuable than all the money of the Feddens, the Kesslers, and the Ouradis combined because, in the end, all must die, and money - if anything - weakens one's capacity for recognizing in mortality a beauty that's of a piece with the finest objets d'art.  

At the risk of damning the book with faint praise, I'll hazard that The Line of Beauty is the finest argument ever penned in favor of aesthetics as capacity building.  That his argument has not been more universally accepted - in developed but mediocre cultures like America, as much as in the developing world - is a loss that money-chasers are apt to discover too late.  

(Photo of Alan Hollinghurst courtesy of The Guardian

Ex Hollywood semper aliquid crap II

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At the risk of flogging a horse that is not only dead, but was dead on arrival, I feel compelled to continue my unfavorable critique of the movie, Out of Africa - call it a rash that I can't resist scratching. 

One scene in the movie that made me recoil is when Bror shows up at the farm to ask Karen for money, and he finds Karen and Denys together: 

"You could have asked," Bror says, all unwarranted hurt and bruised male ego. 

"I did," Denys replies, dripping American insousiance.  "She said 'yes.'"


Who knows if, instead of gagging, I would have tittered at the tired attempt at humor if I didn't know the truth, but I do know the truth.  Karen Blixen and her entourage were anything but bourgeois in their sexual attitudes.  Here's Karen Blixen, in a letter to her brother, Thomas, on sexual morals:

I have the impression that most people at the moment are in a state of absolute confusion about everything concerning rights and duties in the field of sexual relationships, marriage included.  I think one exception to be found in a small advanced minority, the "smart set" in the larger countries (and to a certain extent my circle of acquaintance out here), where a sexual relationship is more or less regarded as the normal social convention among young people, in which no one - spouses, parents, or former lovers not excepted - have a right to interfere, and where everything is all right, providing neither partner loses his temper or in any way pretends to take it seriously.
Letter to Thomas Dinesen, 19 November 1927, Letters from Africa, p. 323.

The veracity of her impressions is proved by the fact that Bror, far from begrudging Denys his affair with Karen, introduced Denys happily as "my wife's lover" and continued to hunt professionally with Denys - including when the Prince of England was Denys' client.

I don't in any way argue with Hollywood's prerogative to entertain, even at the expense of the truth.  But Hollywood is abusing this liberty when its "entertaining" reimagining is so much less diverting than what really happened.
Middlemarch.jpgGeorge Eliot has many strengths, but a surprising one is her facility with confrontations.  People facing down one another verbally is difficult to depict for many reasons: confrontations are tough to observe (or participate in) because so many people tend to avoid them; and then when confrontations do occur, they're often emotional, nonsensical and frustrating.  Verbal confrontations are so troublesome that authors may even feel uncomfortable writing them: Jonathan Franzen, for example, disperses his characters in The Corrections just before they can all meet (and fight) at Christmas.  (Physical confrontations are much easier to portray on paper: they're less ambiguous, require less - or no - dialogue, and tend to end with a winner.)

But George Eliot is a master of the verbal showdown.  Time and again, her characters face off and, with devastating directness, collide verbally with profound consequences and stunning language:

  •  Mary Garth stands up to Peter Featherstone, when the old bully - even as he lays dying - wants to use her for his manipulative ends ("I will not let the close of your life soil the beginning of mine" p. 316);
  • Tertius and Rosamond Lydgate attack each other over his debt and her deceptiveness;
  • Camden Farebrother demands that Mary Garth reveal her affection for Fred Vincy;
  • Nicholas Bulstrode coldly denies Tertius Lydgate a loan with the words: "My advice to you, Mr. Lydgate, would be, that instead of involving yourself in further obligations, and continuing a doubtful struggle, you should simply become a bankrupt." p. 684;
  • Middlemarch's municipal politicians publicly humiliate Nicholas Bulstrode by insisting that he make an accounting of his past deeds or resign from his leadership roles;
  • Dorothea Brooke's and Rosamond Lydgate's startling heart-to-heart opens the way for Dorothea's reconciliation with Will Ladislaw.
The list could go on and on and on.  The engine of Eliot's plot are these gorgeously-crafted confrontations, in which her characters speak, not like people, but in that much-harder lingua literatura: dialogue that reads believably on the page because - without realizing that we're flattering ourselves - we think we speak like that.

Eliot's astonishing skill with confrontations is all the more unexpected because the British are stereotypically not confrontational: the general image is that they avoid ruffling the surface in order better to maintain the stiff upper lip. 

But Eliot plainly thinks well of confrontations.  Dorothea's first mistake with Edward Casaubon, for example, is not confronting his claims of intellectual superiority.  Celia's blunt exposure of her sister's flaws is a sign of love ("by opening a little window for the daylight of [Celia's] understanding to enter among the strange colored lamps by which [Dorothea] habitually saw" p. 820).  Fred Vincy is likable because he squarely faces his failures with the Garths.

In this respect, Eliot is modern.  Transparency, honesty, forthrightness and directness - whatever the consequences in terms of discomfort, loss of face, humiliation, or instability - are modern values.  That Middlemarch - not a modern place - is nonetheless a hotbed of confrontation is an instance of literary argument: Eliot endeavors to persuade her readers to accept modern values by illustrating their basis in established (even timeless) behaviors; rather than a descriptive "study of provincial life," Middlemarch is a normative vision of the transition from pre-modern to modern. 

In so doing, Eliot fulfills an obligation identified by Caleb Garth, Eliot's salt-of-the-earth pro-modernity atavist: "The young ones have always a claim on the old to help them forward."  (p. 563.)  By providing so many elegant and vital examples of human confrontation, Eliot shows us latter generations how to live with the courage of the convictions she urged us to adopt.

(Photo courtesy of BBC)

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