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A schlep with a view

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E.M. Forster is obviously a man who knows from experience the pain of travel.  

Having just shipped 175 pounds of personal affects (ok, ok, I admit it: books, mostly books, I'm absolutely hopeless about being parted from certain - too many, obviously - books) to China, followed by checking in another 146 pounds of luggage on my flight to China (ok, chalk that weight up to bottles of vitamins, tins of sustainably-harvested fish and other food items that I couldn't ship), and all the attendant fees that go along with such retarded materialism (or attentiveness to one's intellectual and physical health, however one chooses to view the situation), I thrilled to the following Forster description, in A Room with a View, of two spinster lady travelers:

That there are shops abroad, even in Athens, never occurred to them, for they regarded travel as a species of warfare, only to be undertaken by those who have been fully armed at the Haymarket Stores.
(p. 223.)  Need I add that these ladies were stocking up on "digestive bread" for their journey?  

In defense of Forster's spinster ladies (and myself), I proffer that bulk purchasing in advance of extended travel is a wholly rational precaution in the face of the uncertainty of conditions in foreign lands.  Quite simply, if you do it, you may feel like a jackass for hauling around a trailer's worth of goods; but if you don't do it, you'll certainly feel like a jackass for contracting food poisoning and having to stay in bed, incapacitated, with nothing to read.  I have therefore concluded that one must simply accept what Forster later describes in A Room with a View as follows:

Waste!  That word seemed to sum up the whole of life.  Wasted plans, wasted money . . . . Was it possible that she had muddled things away?
(p. 229.)  Waste (and muddle) is an unavoidable collateral effect of imperfect information.  We don't know what we can buy in Athens or Beijing, so we bring it, possibly unnecessarily, certainly at cost.  We don't know how our stomachs will behave at foreign latitudes or exposed to strange foods, so we take precautions, possibly over-cautiously, certainly at cost.  We don't know how we'll feel if we're - or how we'll deal with the anxiety of being - deprived of items that make us feel secure and healthy in the world, so we refuse to be parted from those items, possibly pigheadedly, certainly at cost.

The only solution is to make peace with the waste.  As George Emerson says in A Room with a View,

We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows.  Choose a place where you won't do harm - yes, choose a place where you won't do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.
(p. 176.)

I am standing in my courtyard in Beijing for all I'm worth.  I'd like to face the sunshine, but there isn't any because the sky is enveloped in a thick, depressing fog that will almost certainly cause serious damage to my lungs when I attempt to run long distances in it, as I must, since I'm training for a marathon.  The only up side is that it's nearly impossible to cast a shadow in such light, even if one has the heft of 321 pounds of stuff behind one.  At the moment, my main comfort is the (possibly misplaced) conviction that E.M. Forster would approve.

(Image of E.M. Forster from Stanfords)
I had to laugh when, in Henry James' Daisy Miller, Frederick Winterbourne urges Daisy to avoid baiting her Italian friend with the following admonition:  "Flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn't exist here [in Rome]."

My laughter was prompted by the familiarity of the conversation.  Several months ago, when I was editing my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband, in Denmark, I noticed that I wasn't a hot commodity with the Danish men.  Night after night, I sipped coffee, had a drink, ate dinner - all by myself - in public places, and no one ever spoke with me. 

Finally, I asked my friend Gillion Grantsaan for his interpretation.  "Am I just not cute here?  Danish men don't flirt with me - do they not like brunettes?  They're sticking with the local blondes?"

Gillion explained that, no, the issue wasn't cuteness or hair color, but flirting.  "Men here don't flirt," he said, "because the women don't flirt.  The women are socially cold until they get drunk, at which point they go home with a guy.  Flirting doesn't enter into it."

Well then.  I won't take it personally.

Somehow I don't think the Danish women's approach would've been much assistance to Daisy Miller.

(Image of Danish photographer Kurt Rodahl Hoppe talking, not flirting, with Maya Alexandri taken by Solomon Lyttle)

This celluloid doesn't lie

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To my surprise, I found Peter Bogdanovich's film adaptation of Henry James' Daisy Miller an excellent augment to the novella.

The faithfulness of the adaptation is commendable and shows both Bogdanovich's confidence and his understanding of the story.  (The vast majority of the dialogue, for example, seems to have been transposed directly from James.)  As a result, the movie highlighted shades in the book that I'd perceived, but which I'd questioned out of concern that I was missing something, or that I was too ignorant of the historic period and Victorian writing generally to interpret them correctly.

For instance, based on the text, I didn't find Daisy sympathetic.  In fact, I thought her annoying, and Frederick Winterbourne's enduring infatuation with her struck me as difficult to fathom.  I was curious to see how the movie would handle Daisy's characterization, since an unsympathetic female protagonist is a hard sell in Hollywood.  (And, indeed, the critics seemed not to buy it, although they tended [unfairly in my view] to blame Cybill Shepherd.)  But Daisy was every bit as tiresome on the page as she is in the movie.

Reflecting on the film, I think part of the problem is that immature females can quite easily be intrinsically annoying and tiresome.  In my own writing, depicting women moving from states of relative immaturity to relative maturation, I've found myself becoming fed up with my own creations (my fault as the author - I own it - but a fault easily indulged given the reality).

But I also think Henry James missed an opportunity.  His Daisy Miller bears more than passing resemblance to Marianne Dashwood in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility.  Like Daisy, Marianne is also impulsive and emotional; she also cultivates an unwise attachment to an unsuitable man; and Marianne also suffers illness as the fallout of the relationship. 

But unlike Daisy, Marianne has depths that she reveals in the text.  Marianne is passionate, hard-working and unspoiled.  I got the impression that James expected us to like Daisy because she is beautiful and American, but those qualities are too superficial to inspire the reader's empathy.  (In this respect, Bogdanovich added a lovely touch when he had Daisy sing for Frederick, an episode that doesn't appear in the book, but which allows us to see Daisy's talent, as well as her beauty.)

And, unlike Daisy, Marianne doesn't die.  She marries a mature man, making a sensible choice that assures her a future both less romantic and more complicated than any situation in James' story.  Indeed, by comparison to Marianne's fate, Daisy's death looks mawkish and sentimental - another cheap, easy way of pushing the audience's sympathy buttons.

Bogdanovich handles the ending extremely well and, with Barry Brown's exceptional performance, manages to wring genuine regret from Daisy's death.  All the same, if the film seems like an over-expenditure on a slight tale, the cause seems to lie (and I say this with apologies to the Master) in the source material. 

(Image of Cybill Shepherd and Barry Brown in Peter Bogdanovich's film version of Daisy Miller from BAM)

Sisyphus was a writer

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Maya_Alexandri_in_a_cage_of_her_own_making.jpgP.G. Wodehouse repeated himself - jokes, similes, motivations, plots, quotes from poetry.  I love him so dearly that the repetitions don't bother me at all.  They're a quirk of a beloved - if soused - uncle, and if he didn't repeat himself, I'd ask him to, "Tell me the one about . . ."  

But I don't repeat myself, I thought.  I'm not writing in a genre, like Wodehouse (even if it is a genre of his own invention); each of my books is new and fresh and different and reflects the stupendous growth I've experienced since I finished my last book.

Well, ha.  Ha.  Ha.  And, for good measure, ha ha ha ha ha.  Rereading my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, this past week during the audio recording, I noted numerous instances of writing that I recognized - with a sigh and a resigned grimace - from later works, specifically my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband.  Certainly, the repetitions didn't rise to the P.G. Wodehouse level in either number or their verbatim quality, but I was plainly writing again, and around, and about, familiar themes.

In particular, a theme that manifested itself in similar terms in both books is the experience of feeling humbled before wonders, and how that humility is, in fact, empowering. 

I was interested to see this idea mentioned in Susan Neiman's recent NYT book review of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly's All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.  According to Neiman, Dreyfus and Kelly argue that
reading great works of literature allows us to rediscover the reverence, gratitude and amazement that were available in Homeric times.  These qualities, [the authors] believe, can be cultivated to provide a bulwark against the nihilism they rightly view as threatening our ability to lead meaningful lives in the 21st century.
. . . .
The reason so many of us feel so miserable is that we can neither find meaning in ourselves alone nor give up the longing to find it somewhere else.
. . . .
[The authors discuss] the Greeks, who were less reflective than we are, and less convinced that they were in control of the world. This left them open to experience a world in which things shine as works of art do, to feel gratitude not only for the bounties of nature but for human excellence in all its forms, itself regarded as a gift.
This quest after meaning, and finding its satisfaction in experiences of "reverence, gratitude and amazement" is a major theme in my life (and, unsurprisingly, my writing).  I hadn't thought I was trendy, or part of zeitgeist, but - worse - a cliché, but turns out I'm not only repetitive, but also unoriginal.  I better hope I at least write pretty.

So here's the writing: judge for yourself.  This first quote is from The Swing of Beijing, when one of the main characters, Tyler, is in a club listening to a jazz singer, called the Marquise:

     The Marquise was now doing her delightful version of "Take Five," in which she scat sang the signature saxophone solo.  Tyler closed his eyes again, enjoying the gravel-tinged honey that was the Marquise's voice, sweet and rough, simultaneously coating and caressing, and jutting against and ricocheting off of, the rhythm.  She sang the way she lived, accepting the rhythm - however strict, however unexpected - as a non-negotiable and nonetheless not letting it get in her way.  And, although neither she nor the song were Chinese, the Marquise's "Take Five" embodied Beijing for Tyler, better than any summation he'd encountered in any medium.  In her interpretation of the song - with its bizarre time signature; its odd drafting of the piano to do the work normally assigned the drums; her willful, beautiful occupation of melody; and the unbelievable way it melded these non-conforming elements to roll over Tyler with a soft power that submerged his individual existence into the flow of music - "Take Five" distilled Beijing, a city that in its near millennium of history had defied lack of water resources and a profusion of invaders, had witnessed profound progress in dark ages and starveling stagnation in eras of modernity, and throughout had inspired big imaginations to draw on its leviathan depths of potential and recreate it.  Like the song, Beijing humbled Tyler with the evidence of his meagerness and uplifted Tyler with its grace in enfolding him anyway; but most of all, it impressed Tyler with its capacity for strange and boundary-less change, a flexibility to which Tyler felt distinctly unequal.
Now compare that paragraph to these passages from The Celebration Husband (and this is a selection; there are other passages I could've excerpted), where the provocation for the experience of uplifting humility is not music, but the landscape:

    Looking beyond the station, Tanya absorbed the Eastern Rift Valley: game-rich forest and fertile farmland punctuated by the voluptuous protrusion of the extinct volcano, Mount Longonot, to the west.  Verdant green after the rains and dusty yellow during the dry season, Mount Longonot hid from Tanya's view Lake Naivasha, a vast stretch of fresh water so well integrated into the landscape that it often deceived observers into thinking it was part of the sky.  Augmenting the Valley's grandeur were the clouds, transformed by moody and variable weather into actors in an epic drama, involving much darkening and glowing, rearing up, rolling about, thunder-and-lightning sound effects, and honey-cognac lighting.
    Pitched midway on the escarpment that descends into the Valley, Kijabe afforded Tanya a prime vantage point for this spectacle.  As her eye roamed the scene, grey and gold clouds floated at eye level, so that the capacious sky seemed to arch overhead and then drop below her into the Valley.  Tanya had never before known the sensation of sky beneath her.  Kijabe elevated her; Tanya felt that the scenery demanded that she present a better, more noble self.
. . . .
    Arduously, achingly, she angled herself on her knees so that she faced Mount Kilimanjaro.  On the corridor of plain stretching before her, round white butterflies fluttered, their wings beating like nuns' wimples in a breeze.  Looking on the mountainous sanctum in the distance, Tanya saw that a cloud mass had swept over the snowy peak.  Her view of the colossus now occluded, Tanya remembered von Lettow-Vorbeck's remarks about Kilimanjaro's ability to dwarf an event as monumental as battle.  The mountain was so miraculous that it could remove any vastness from her perspective, even itself. 
    As it is with the mountain, let it be with me, she thought.  Let Kilimanjaro be my cathedral, let my perspective be guided by the light it filters onto me.  If war itself vanishes into the maw of the mountain, let me cast my pain upon it, and let my sorrows dwindle in its immensity.
    Then, still kneeling, Tanya bent her torso forward until her forehead touched the prickly ground.  She had seen Hassan bow this way during prayer, and the action had puzzled her.  She didn't understand how Hassan could willingly adopt a posture of such abject submission.  Now she imitated him intuitively.  She'd had no expectations of the movement; she had prostrated herself unthinkingly.  And yet, with this motion, she gained a sense of power.  Bowing to the mountain, Tanya was blessed with the insight that triumph, too, can emerge from surrender.
Seeing this theme emerge in different stories, in various words, written over four years of my life, I can feel how deeply I want my characters to undergo the liberation of humility, and how persuaded I am of edifying effects of such experiences.  I just hope audiences can bear with me (that I can bear with myself) as I write the same damned thing over and over again, trying (vainly) to pin the ineffable on paper.

Uncle Wodehouse, can you tell me the one about the peak in Darien?

(Photo of Maya Alexandri in the art cage of her own making by Andrew McConnell)

Really Rosie

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In a prior post, I speculated that I must have seen the movie, The African Queen, when I was a kid.  The book presents to the world an amazing, embodied female, smart and physically capable, optimistic, strong-willed and sexually alive, and I conjectured that the film must have had a profound influence on me. 

Having recently seen the film, I am now confident that I'd never seen it as a child.  And, in fact, had I seen it when young, it wouldn't have had the influence on me that I'd anticipated in the prior post.

As much as the film adheres closely to the novel's plot right until the end, John Huston's movie isn't as radical on gender issues as is C.S. Forester's book.  Yes, Rosie still steers the boat in the movie, but the film devotes little attention to the skill required of her to navigate The African Queen through the rapids.  The film makes Rosie's and Charlie's triumph over the rapids look like luck, whereas Forester's book attributes their success to the "lightning-calculating machine [that was Rosie's brain,] juggling with currents and eddies."

Similarly, the movie softens the dominance of Rosie's personality.  In the book, Charlie is unreflective and passive, and he responds positively to Rosie's initiative.  Forester refers to Rosie as the "captain."  In the film, on the other hand, Bogart - though very receptive to his first mate - never abdicates the leadership role.

As for the sex, forget it.  Contrast Forester's Rosie, big breasted, bursting with "ripe" femininity and "powerful" arms - an earth mother goddess, in other words - with Katharine Hepburn's near-skeletal severity.  Even if Hollywood mores hadn't limited the sexual possibilities for Charlie and Rosie, Hepburn couldn't have given us a Rosie who (as in the book) "actually enjoyed [sex], as no woman should ever dream of doing."

The movie's cowardice on gender issues is most apparent at its conclusion.  In the book, Charlie is apprehended wearing Rosie's underwear.  When the two are released, Rosie insists that they marry, and Charlie amiably agrees despite mentally registering (unvoiced) anxiety about the fact that he's already married.  In Forester's hands, "[w]hether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided."

I hardly need mention that, in the film, Bogart never dons Hepburn's underclothes.  And in the movie's cartoonish finale, Charlie asks the Germans to marry him and Rosie before they're hanged - a gesture that Rosie compliments for its sweetness.  I can imagine Forester looking confused and wondering where the heroine he wrote went.

The loss of Rosie is unfortunate because, in many other respects, The African Queen is a model of moving a book from page to screen.  Huston and his screen writers, James Agee and Peter Viertel, mostly succeeded in getting out of the way of messing up the story.  They allowed Forester's plot (gentle by film standards) to float (rather than drive) the film, thereby allowing time and space for the development of the wonderful chemistry between Bogart and Hepburn that keeps fans raving about the film.  Nonetheless, their collective imaginations stalled when the writing turned to Rosie's characterization. 

I conclude this blog post, therefore, in the same place I concluded the prior post: remake the film!  Or, better yet, read the book. 

(Image of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen from The New York Times)

Facing the music in the audiobooth

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Over the past week, I've been recording an audiobook of my second novel, The Swing of Beijing.  Although I'd last read the book only two years ago, I remembered little of the details, and reading the book aloud has been an interesting experience.

My literary mentor, DM Thomas, wrote about the stresses and discoveries of re-reading all his novels, and his experience was much in my mind as I sat in the audio booth, reacquainting myself with The Swing of Beijing.

DM Thomas had been anxious that, upon rereading his works, he might find that his novels were "dead."  I wasn't worried about that, so much as discovering that the novel was crap.  Roberto Bolaño summed up my concern in one of the many breathtaking passages in his stupendous novel 2666

Ivanov's fear was of a literary nature.  That is, it was the fear that afflicts most citizens who, one fine (or dark) day, choose to make the practice of writing, and especially the practice of fiction writing, an integral part of their lives.  Fear of being no good.  Fear that one's efforts and striving will come to nothing.  Fear of the step that leaves no trace.  Fear of the forces of chance and nature that wipe away shallow prints.  Fear of dining alone and unnoticed.  Fear of going unrecognized.  Fear of failure and making a spectacle of oneself.  But above all, fear of being no good.  Fear of forever dwelling in the hell of bad writers. 
(p. 722.)  I am not immune to reading my own work and thinking, wait a minute, I know why this hasn't been published yet!  It's because it's no good.

Certainly, such thoughts and their variants crossed my mind when I was in the audio booth. 

But on the whole, I think those thoughts were too harsh.  Yes, some scenes were too complicated; writing them, I learned how to write scenes like them better in later novels. 

And, yes, some of the characters posed challenges for the reader - that is, me - in empathizing.  I still haven't fixed that issue to my satisfaction, but I could see my growth as a writer depicting difficult characters in empathetic ways, even from chapter to chapter in this book.

The turning point came in the second half of the novel, with a long monologue by a character named Gao Yi, a Chinese smuggler.  In truth, I'd forgotten the monologue in its particulars, and reading it I was captivated by its freshness, surprise and humanity.  Those characteristics are, of course, relative and - given the way I'd been feeling about the foregoing pages - I won't make any judgments about the absolute quality of the monologue; but I was confident that it wasn't "no good."

And after that monologue, I began to feel similarly about the writing that followed.  The Swing of Beijing is not a masterpiece by any stretch.  Maybe not even worth publishing beyond the audiobook version - maybe not of interest except as a record of my growth as a writer (and possibly only of interest in that respect to me).  But it's not "no good."

Then again, to quote DM Thomas assessing his own novels, "Who could ever trust an author's own view of his work?"

Tarik_Jarras.jpgAt the end of the reading, my sound engineer, Tarik Jarras, said that he wanted to know more about the characters, and that maybe I should write a sequel.  Bless him.      

(Image of Maya Alexandri taken by Tarik Jarras; image of Tarik Jarras taken by Maya Alexandri)

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