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Hopeless romantic

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Bartle_Bull&Ana_Cristina_Alvarado.jpgI admit it: my idea of a romance novel is The Fountainhead

Which is not to say that the genre didn't once grip me.  I read Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear when I was eight, and I was duly scandalized by her The Valley of the Horses when I was nine, and after that there was the aforementioned Fountainhead, and then my interests focused elsewhere (with a brief detour to read Bernard Cornwell's The Fallen Angel on the recommendation of a dear friend). 

I'm not judgmental about romance novels or the women who read and love them.  Rather, romance novels - along with all genre fiction - just don't ring my bell.  Genres by their nature are rules-based (whereas I believe life is random).  Genres simplify life in all its messy complexity, and somewhere in the simplification my attention wanders.

That said, I was surprised and interested to learn that there are romance novels for men.  I am aware that they're not marketed as such, but reading Bartle Bull's The White Rhino Hotel, I slowly realized that I was in possession of a genuine romance novel for men. 

The novel's hero, Anton Rider, leaves his adopted gypsy clan in England for the freedom of East Africa, where he uses his strong and luscious body to hunt, rescue friends and maidens, wrestle and fight, and pan for gold.  A virgin who is initiated into the society of the sexually active by an irresistable and insatiable older Portuguese woman, Anton is well-intentioned, uncorruptable and reticent about his machismo.  The White Rhino Hotel's meandering story line is more a series of scenarios in which Anton can pose pretty than an engine that drives a narrative.    

Of course, no reason exists why men, like women, shouldn't enjoy genre romance novels.  We all know that men - like women - enjoy looking at stylized, idealized photos of themselves (e.g., GQ, Men's Health).  But in reading The White Rhino Hotel, I learned something about myself: when it comes to men posing pretty, I prefer the photos.

If I'm going to read about men posing pretty, at least let them be pumped full of the steroids of an over-simplistic ideology masquerading as the "philosophical theory" of Objectivism. 

(Image of Bartle Bull and Ana Cristina Alvarado from New York Social Diary)

The East African Novel

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Quick: what play involves an incestuous uncle, a sword fight to avenge the honor of a family member, a poisoned goblet of wine drunk by an unintended victim, and a pile of corpses at the play's close?  (If you said, Hamlet, that's a correct answer, but not the play about which I was thinking.)  I'm referring to Thomas Middleton's Women Beware Women, a kind of Jacobean Desperate Housewives, absent the suburbs, and plus verse. 

Women Beware Women and Hamlet, side-by-side, illustrate how playwrights of the late-Elizabethan, early-Jacobean era manipulated certain standardized or formulaic set pieces in order to craft their stories.  The fluency, eloquence and sophistication with which they maneuvered these story components, as contrasted with their originality in devising new components for the story, constituted their skill.  (Hence, Shakespeare borrowed plots from other sources, rather than making up his own.)  This mode of story telling is, in fact, quite ancient: Walter Ong describes how oral poets of Homer's time composed epic poems using "standardized formulas . . . grouped around equally standardized themes, such as the council, the gathering of the army, the challenge, the despoiling of the vanquished, the hero's shield, and so on and on."  (Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, p. 23.)

So I felt an odd delight when I realized that, quite unconsciously, I'd been working in the same tradition on my latest novel, The Celebration Husband, which takes place in East Africa during the first three months of World War I.  Upon hearing that I'd written this novel, a friend gave me his seriously tattered-jacketed copy of Bartle Bull's Africa adventure, The White Rhino Hotel.

Reading The White Rhino Hotel, I felt an intriguing sense of recognition.  The novel contained many familiar scenarios, as if Bartle Bull and I had attended the same writing seminar and had both completed the assignment to "write a scene in the following circumstance: East Africa, nineteen-teens, go."

My novel contains: (a) a lion attack, (b) people captivated by the sight of wildlife, (c) crossing Kenya on a train, (d) riding around Kenya on a motorcycle, (e) farmers bemoaning the punishing conditions from which they are attempting to coax agricultural produce, (f) Masai and Kikuyu warriors in oppositional confrontation, (g) descriptions of bush cooking, (h) references to hunting safaris, (i) invocation of the classics, (j) a woman facing down a potential rapist, (k) a close friendship between a smart black African and a naive white colonist, and (l) arcane explanations and depictions of equipment and weaponry.

Every one of those elements appears in The White Rhino Hotel

I can think of a number of reasons for this overlap.  Bull and I might have read the same authors and texts in our research (e.g., Lord Cranworth, Elspeth Huxley, Karen Blixen, Beryl Markham are all fairly ubiquitous as sources on East Africa in the early twentieth century).  Also, these elements all correlate to regularly-occurring events in the reality of East African life between 1914 and 1921 (when The White Rhino Hotel ends), which is why they might crop up repeatedly in the relevant historical texts or stories handed down over the generations.

In short, these elements have become standard set pieces, the lion attack analogous to the Elizabethan / Jacobean sword fight.  They are (what in copyright law is referred to as) mise-en-scene: essential or stock elements of a particular genre.  See, e.g., Universal City Studios v. T-shirt Gallery, Ltd., 634 F. Supp. 1468, 1474 n.5 (S.D.N.Y. 1986).

I hadn't seen my writing from this perspective before, and - although to our novelty-centric culture, the prospect might be threatening or induce a sense of competitiveness - I found unexpectedly comforting aspects in it.  In contradistinction to the isolated novelist in a cottage in Naivasha, which I was for the duration in which I wrote The Celebration Husband, I felt myself in a tradition of storytellers captivated by East Africa in the early twentieth century, all of us sorting and reordering standardized story components of The East African Novel in our individual attempts to ignite the magic of suspension of disbelief.

In a surprising way, it felt good.

(Image of Bartle Bull and the cover of his novel, The White Rhino Hotel, from The New York Times and respectively)

Whither the women of the 1%?

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Dale_Peck.jpgIn the course of a New York Times book review of the two recently-released translations of the work of the late Austrian author Thomas Bernhard, novelist, critic and literary infant terrible Dale Peck drew a distinction between novelistic traditions.  The first, representing 99% (in his estimate) of Western novels, finds its roots in ancient Greek forms of storytelling and, in its journey through Rome, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Victorian Era, has evolved to chart the vicissitudes of "an increasingly representative cast of characters and behaviors." 

The second tradition
wends its way through various misfits, misanthropes and criminals constitutionally incapable of resigning themselves to the social contract: Cervantes's Don Quixote, Sterne's Tristram Shandy, Dostoyevsky's underground man, Knut Hamsun's self-starving doppelgänger in "Hunger."  In lieu of ­offering a rational critique of the world they inhabit, the antiheroes of the second tradition simply hate or reject it, just as their creators, far from seeing literature as a tool for cultural or even individual salvation, write only to give voice to a sense of alienation from oneself, one's peers and one's place in history.
The phrase "constitutionally incapable of resigning themselves to the social contract" delighted me - not least because of how deeply I identify with it - but also raised an immediate question: why were women authors absent from this disaffected 1%?  (I don't think the issue lies in Peck's list of examples; aside from Peck's very public philogyny, I can't think of a woman author who should have been included.)

The absence is noteworthy.  Women, after all, have very good reasons to reject the social contract.  Succinctly: we've been on the shit end of the deal - of every social deal - in Western history and maintain our sorry status in current times.  There's never been a Golden Age for women, a time during which it was good to be female.  We perennially do more to get less, find ourselves without outlets or mentors for our talents, and alone in our grief; and that's the fate of lucky women - the unlucky ones are the subjects of unremitting abuse, exploitation, degradation and violence.

So why doesn't literature by women reflect these inarguable facts?  Why aren't women writing characters that "hate or reject" the world?  Why aren't women authors writing "to give voice to a sense of alienation from oneself, one's peers and one's place in history"?

These are "big" questions, and a blog post is structurally incapable of admitting comprehensive (or even potentially worthy) answers.  Nonetheless, just as I struggle against other structurally-imposed constraints in my life, I'll attempt an inadequate (and possibly unworthy) answer here, one based on women's historic connection with the existence of the novel.

As Walter Ong explains in his masterwork, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, up through the nineteenth century, rhetoric-heavy academic training shaped literary style in the West, except in the case of female authors, who received no such training:

In medieval times and after, the education of girls was often intensive . . . , but this education was not acquired in academic institutions, which taught rhetoric and all other subjects in Latin.  When they began to enter schools in some numbers during the seventeenth century, girls entered not the main-line Latin schools but the newer vernacular schools. . . . Women writers were no doubt influenced by works that they had read emanating from the Latin-based, academic, rhetorical tradition, but they themselves normally expressed themselves in a different, far less oratorical voice, which had a great deal to do with the rise of the novel.
(pp. 111-12.)  And which no doubt had a great deal to do with the low esteem with which novels have been held since time immemorial - see, for example, this declamation by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey:

Although [novelists'] productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. . . . [T]here seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances that have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.
(p. 22.)  Novels, in short, are a woman's medium.  Don Quixote notwithstanding (and Don Quixote to my mind is at least as much an example of a transitional epic poem as it is of an early novel), novels were largely invented, refined and patronized by women.  The prevalence of male novelists in the list of "greats" is just another yawn-inducing example of the achievement possible for a gender unsaddled by the lion's share of procreative and domestic work, a gender that moreover (and because of the foregoing advantage) has historically enjoyed the privilege of making the fucking list in the first place.

Which is to say, a novel (as contrasted with, say, a blog post) isn't a terribly logical medium for a woman's expression of hatred, rejection and alienation: it may be the Western cultural medium from which women are least alienated.  For a woman (or, at least, this woman), novels aren't either "a tool for cultural or even individual salvation," or a forum for voicing alienation: they are her metaphoric home, the place where she can experience unmolested enjoyment of her intellect and emotions.  A novel isn't about therapy or "salvation," but rather the mere necessities of existence: whether reading or writing one, in the confines of a novel, a woman finds a space in which she has penned the terms of the social contract. 

By the same token, fouling a woman's nest with vituperative hatred, rejection, mockery and self-pitying howls of alienation is exactly the kind of asshole behavior to be expected from a sensitive male genius writer.

(Image of Dale Peck from New York magazine)


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I am now about to do something truly singular.  Nowhere else on the planet will you read a text that compares David Grossman's To the End of the Land with Noel Coward's Design for Living.  Google it if you don't believe me: only one text combines those two titles, and it's this blog post.  Prepare to experience the totally unique!

Now that you're prepared, allow me to share my thought process that led me to this surprising juxtaposition.  I found myself disturbed by several contrivances in To the End of the Land.  Of course, all literature depends on contrivances, but to operate effectively the contrivances have to find themselves in an accommodating context.  A poisoned glass of wine sipped by an unintended victim works fine in Elizabethan drama (e.g., Hamlet, Women Beware Women), but it's going to flop in a Jane Austen novel. 

By the same token, the threesome at the core of To the End of the Land struck me as an element of contrivance that defied assimilation into the novel's reality.  Ilan is rigid, unimaginative, unappreciative, emotionally choked - he's so much lesser than Avram or Ora, that he seems an implausible candidate as a beloved (platonic or otherwise) for either.

At bottom, I didn't believe it.  The following question kept surfacing: do two men and a woman really love each other and sleep with each other and have kids with each other and raise each other's kids - not as something that happened at a party, or over the course of a drug-addled summer during a transitional point in one's life - but over a thirty year period?  Does this kind of thing happen?

My reflexive answer to that question was, "It worked in Design for Living, but in To the End of the Land it's a contrivance."  Otto, Leo and Gilda are, after all, artists, aesthetes and, in certain significant instances, bisexual.  They're cosmopolitan and glib.  It's a comedy.

But my next thought was: what the hell am I talking about, Design for Living was totally contrived!  Otto's and Leo's competition for Gilda never makes sense because Gilda's such a blah nothing.  The whole set-up is an elaborate contraption through which Coward snuck homosexuality into the subtext of mainstream theater.  It's not a description of reality.  If Coward could have written openly about gay life, we'd never have heard a peep about Gilda.

The appeal to writers of threesomes is obvious, so it is with some sadness that I tentatively propose that threesomes are, as yet (to my awareness), a contrivance in search of a context that can handle them.  Greater work remains to be done realizing threesomes in life before writers can nail the phenomenon on the page.  Prepare yourselves.
(Image of Coward, Lunt and Fontanne in Design for Living from Wikipedia)

Breaking the dove's wings

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Wings_of_the_Dove.jpgTaking a delightful dig at a certain type of imaginatively-constrained reader or critic, Henry James included the following passage at the opening of The Turn of the Screw:

"Who was it she was in love with?"
"The story will tell," I took upon myself to reply.
. . .
"The story WON'T tell," said Douglas; "not in any literal, vulgar way."
"More's the pity, then.  That's the only way I ever understand."
(pp. 3-4.)

Apparently, that's the only way Iain Softley thought his audience would understand his 1997 film adaptation of The Wings of the Dove.   And more's the pity.

The movie, not to put too fine a point on it, stinks.  Where Henry James drips the poisonous motivations into the plot, Softley floods the story with them.  Where James is indirect, Softley charges like a blundering drunk.  Where James refers to sex, Softley stages street corner couplings and full-frontal nudity.  To say that much is lost in the story's translation from novel to screen is an understatement.

I will not here deny that I had issues with the pacing of the novel, The Wings of the Dove.  The gambit to seduce Milly in order to inherit when she dies was apparent well before the characters speak unflinchingly of it.  But in the strategic creep of the deception, the reader - as much as the characters - acclimates to it, gets drawn in and is ultimately seduced by the plan.  In the film, however, rapidity causes shock and revulsion at the deception; the viewer recoils.  (Sample comments from my companion in watching the film, my mother: "That woman is evil"; "What a devious bitch.") 

Nor will I deny that a certain frustration attends to James' "blanks."  For example, Kate Croy's father's badness remains unspecified in the novel.  The reason everyone finds him despicable is simply not named, nor even hungered after: 

What was it, to speak plainly, that Mr. Croy had originally done?
"I don't know - and I don't want to . . . ." Kate explained.
(p. 75.)

I have written before of how James leaves these lacunae to be filled by the readers' imagination, but the film cannot tolerate such ambiguity, even at the expense of the viewer's engagement.  In the film, Kate Croy's father is an addict: mystery concluded.

As for the sex, I was frankly bowled over by the explicitness of James' reference to an act of lovemaking ("Come to me").  Nonetheless, James keeps the "who did what to whom" out of sight, so as to heighten its sensual power.  After Merton persuades Kate to make love with him before she departs with her aunt for London, Kate's presence is constant in his rooms in Venice, a goad and a talisman, proof of her love and a guarantee (to himself) of the justification of his actions.  In the film, on the other hand, the kissing, groping, entangling and disrobing is so cavalier that it can't signify anything.  It's mere prurience.

To proceed on the supposition that the film's approach to storytelling is the only way an audience will "understand" is a profound error and a terrible disservice.  Far from fostering understanding, this "literal, vulgar way" of telling a story undercuts comprehension.  Having slashed mercilessly at the progressive development of the novel's plot, the film of The Wings of the Dove descends into inscrutability.  (Why Kate takes off her clothes in the film's penultimate scene is an unanswerable question of a magnitude second only to why Merton follows suit.)   

More importantly, from the film, no one could possibly see why the novel, The Wings of the Dove, is great.  More's the pity indeed.     

(Image of Helena Bonham Carter and Alison Elliott playing Kate Croy and Milly Theale in the 1997 film production of The Wings of the Dove from Film Reference)

American broads abroad

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Critics and scholars of Henry James fixate on James' alleged fixation on The American Girl.  As Gore Vidal, among many (and certainly among the sharpest of the bunch) noted in The New York Review of Books, The American Girl was James' theme, possibly for commercial reasons:
As every writer then knew, the readers of novels were mostly women; and they liked to read about the vicissitudes of young women, preferably ladies.
But, although James certainly wrote about American girls - from Daisy Miller, to Isabel Archer, to Milly Theale - all of whom may have traced their lineage back to James' cousin, Minny Temple - their significance in my mind is not as American girls qua American girls, but as American girl expatriates.

Indeed, to this American girl, the most interesting aspect of James' writing is not about "the vicissitudes of young women," but about the social regulation of expatriate society.

Daisy Miller has much to offer on this front.  The story of a young woman on a family-chaperoned European tour who comes to a sad end, Daisy Miller features an eponymous protagonist who is of scant interest in herself.  She's a pretty, "uncultivated" teenage "flirt."  Yawn.

Her sad end, however, has much to do with the social regulation of American expatriate society in Europe.  Irrepressible Daisy won't obey the rules.  She does

[e]verything that is not done here.  Flirting with any man she could pick up; sitting in corners with mysterious Italians; dancing all evening with the same partners; receiving visits at eleven o'clock at night.
(pp. 90-91.)  As a result, she is shunned.  And, in response, Daisy misbehaves all the more defiantly. 

The story's narrator, and Daisy's admirer, Frederick Winterbourne, spends most of the book unable to make up his mind as to whether Daisy is innocent and unsophisticated, or simply not "a nice girl."  As a result, he allows himself to be rebuffed despite indications that Daisy "would have appreciated [his] esteem" (p. 133), with the consequence that Daisy favors her Italian suitor, Giovanelli, a man of such little judgment that he takes Daisy to the Coliseum at night, despite the fact that the ruin is a breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes.

After Daisy (spoiler alert!) sickens and dies, Winterbourne feels guilty for having done Daisy an "injustice."  Had he persisted in his courtship of her, he might have won her and, like Henry Higgins with Eliza Doolittle, spared her both social humiliation and - ultimately - an untimely death.  Social constraints strike down yet another young American free spirit.

Whatever one might think about the class dynamics of such social regulation; or the fundamental insecurity it reflects; or the extent to which it is promulgated by, enforced by and imposed upon women (Winterbourne, after all, is an American man entangled with an older, foreign lady in Geneva - and he manages to avoid condemnation), what strikes me most about the social regulation Henry James describes is that it exists

I myself have lived overseas as part of an American expatriate community, and the most salient feature of that community was its absence of legal and social regulation.  (Indeed, my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, is about the effect of such "freedom" upon the community's members.) 

Granted, I was living in East Asia, not in the heart of Europe; and I lived overseas just over a century after Daisy Miller did.  But the time and distance had apparently worked the following transformation: whereas in Daisy Miller's time, American freedom clashed with the conservatism of expatriate society, in my era, the total freedom of the expatriate existence threatened to erode the foundation of an individual's values - be they moral, national or otherwise.  Daisy Miller's "America" represents transcendence; my "America" represents social structure.

Which is not to say that Daisy would have done any better in my expatriate community than she did in her own.  Although flirting, fraternizing with locals, dancing all night with the same partner, and receiving visitors at odd hours wouldn't get a person shunned in Beijing, neither would being an alcoholic who leaves his girlfriend in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to escape paying her the tens of thousands of dollars he owes her.  In this respect, at least, Henry James nailed the situation: whether the social constraint is so tight as to indict trivialities, or so lax as to countenance barbarity, vivacious American women are overrepresented on the losing side of the equation.

(Image of the frontispiece of the 1892 edition of Henry James' Daisy Miller from Eldritch Press)

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