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A pleasure incapable of repetition

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Henry James' The Aspern Papers made me giddy, the way children are delighted when a beloved uncle plays a trick on them. 

By this admission, I don't mean any backhanded compliment.  The Aspern Papers isn't in any respect cheap, superficial or manipulative.  Nor, on reflection, do I think it really has a trick ending - not in the sense of Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace," or O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief."

But James' rendering of Juliana Bordereau, the elderly ci-devant lover of (fictional) poet Jeffrey Aspern, is so compelling that it utterly blinded me to where James was heading with the plot.  (Warning: I am about to mention some plot spoilers.)  When Juliana catches the narrator opening her secretary cupboard, and he sees "for the first, the last, the only time . . . her extraordinary eyes" (p. 112), the confrontation was so electric that I could only feel, upon learning four pages later that Juliana had died, that James had lost his way in the plot.  Surely, I thought, the story hinges on the narrator's conflict with this indomitable, controlling, ancient woman - a woman so crushing and incomprehensible that she seemed a pagan god?

But, no, Juliana was an elaborate distraction in a story more directly about innocence than about conniving. 

On my second go-round through the story, I noted Juliana's emphasis on pushing the narrator into relations with her middle-aged spinster niece, Miss Tita.  I had registered the references before, but they hadn't clued me into the endgame of Miss Tita's marriage proposal, partly because I couldn't ever decide whether Juliana's relationship to Miss Tita was supportive or destructive.  Juliana's desire that the narrator spend time with Miss Tita seemed more likely to be a ploy to embarrass and control them both, or to get them out of the house in order that Juliana might burn the Aspern papers; a shidduch for Miss Tita's benefit and pleasure didn't seem an obvious option.  That Juliana's relationship to her niece turned out to be both supportive and destructive only deepens the realism and resonance of the story.

Seeing and analyzing the mechanism that tricked me, I feel admiration . . . and also a little disappointment.  Now that I know the trick, it won't work on me again: I'll never be able to feel the same giddiness at the conclusion of The Aspern Papers.  All the more reason to savor its memory.   

(Image of Henry James from The Guardian)

Prostitutes' paradoxes

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I don't know if Karen Blixen ever read Guy de Maupassant's story, "Boule de suif" - probably she did.  She'd lived in Paris as a student and spoke French.  Maupassant was (and still is) a writer who enjoyed wide popular acclaim; his work would likely have been unavoidable for young Blixen.

The question arose because my first thought on reading "Boule de suif" was its remarkable parallels with a (much later written) story by Karen Blixen, "The Heroine," which appeared in her second collection, Winter's Tales.

Both stories take place during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71.  In both stories, a band of French travelers are stopped by Germans.  A German officer in both stories demands sexual favors from one of the French women.  In both stories, the woman works in the sex trade.  And in both stories, the woman's companions - who, in both stories, include a pair of nuns - are instrumental in the outcome.  Yet the two stories are totally different.

In "Boule de suif," the woman, Elisabeth Rousett (known as "Boule de suif" or "suet dumpling") is a prostitute.  Her companions in her traveling coach initially snub her, but they welcome her into their society after she shares her food with them.  When the German officer arrests the progress of their party, however, Boule de suif's companions pressure her until she relents and complies with his demands.  The German officer allows their party to proceed, and the companions regress into their haughty exclusion of Boule de suif.  The story ends with everyone in the coach refusing to share their food with her, while she cries, and one of the men hums "The Marseillaise."

In "The Heroine," the woman, Heloise, appears to be a lady of some distinction.  She and her companions at an inn are trying to cross from Germany into Luxembourg.  A German officer tells Heloise that he will grant the laissez-passer if she comes to him naked.  She demands that the officer present the request to her companions.  Led by an elderly priest, who weakly waves his arms, they all give some sign of refusal, and the party is sent outside.  They fear they will be shot.  But a German officer comes with the laissez-passer and a bouquet of flowers, which he presents to Heloise, "to a heroine." 

After the war, one of the men who'd been with Heloise that night, a scholar named Frederick, goes to a nightclub in Paris where he sees Heloise - far from being a woman of distinction - performing naked in a titillating show called "Diana's revenge."  After the show, Heloise has a drink with him, during which she muses that, during their showdown with the German officer, their companions were running a worse risk than being shot.  Had they made her do what the German had demanded,

[t]hey would have repented it all their lives, and have held themselves to be great sinners. . . . for those people it would have been better to be shot than to live on with a bad conscience.
(p. 86).  When Frederick asks her why she is sure of this conclusion, she replied, "Oh, I know that kind of people well . . . . I was brought up amongst poor, honest people myself."  (Id.)   

This comparison between Maupassant's "Boule de suif" and Blixen's "The Heroine" brings Blixen's romanticism into sharp relief . . . and possibly some ridicule.  Romanticism in and of itself doesn't deprive a work of its plausibility - people behave romantically often enough - but as the side-by-side with "Boule de suif" clarifies, Blixen's romanticism was normative, not descriptive.  She wrote about how people should be, not about how they are.  And how Blixen thought people should be can seem a bit ridiculous today.

In Maupassant's hands, the social pressure exerted on Boule de suif to force her to comply with the German officer's request that she perform exactly what she would do for her job seems dehumanizing and cruel.  In Blixen's telling, Heloise's refusal to ensure the safe passage of herself and her companions by doing exactly what she does for her job seems foolishly proud; and Heloise's insistence that her companions would have been better off being shot, than having supported her in her honor, seems naive, if not offensive.

At the end of the stories, it is Maupassant, not Blixen, who has made me feel empathy for the prostitute, who has inspired me to insist on her dignity, on her human entitlement not to be sexually degraded, whatever she does to earn a living.  Who, then, is the romantic?  Maupassant, who lays the groundwork for realization of an ideal by showing us reality; or Blixen, who shows us a peculiar ideal, the realization of which seems not merely impossible, but ill-advised?

If Karen Blixen did read "Boule de suif" before writing "The Heroine," she didn't appear to take from it its most salient lessons.   

(Image of Guy de Maupassant from Narrative Magazine)

Hitchens: great beyond debate

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Christopher Hitchens has made a career of being a provocateur.  His whole life, he's always seemed to have someone to bait:  campus policemen, religious believers, Mother Teresa supporters, Republicans, Democrats.  He's risen to the challenges of trouncing his lessers with aplomb: whatever your thoughts about the positions he takes, you'd have to concede that they're beautifully articulated.

Now Hitchens, who admits to "loving the imagery of struggle," may be facing his greatest opponent: cancer.  Deprived of his historically "stout constitution," Hitchens must cope as well with another setback: he has no lesser to taunt.  His prodigious intelligence, bullying instincts, debating techniques and rhetorical prowess are useless in this fight.  He can't humiliate his cancer on Fox News; he can't reason away the existence of his tumors as he did the myth of God.

And, yet, this lack of a confrontational dynamic may prove a gift of sorts.  Ejected from his adversarial stance, Hitchens is producing what may be the most eloquent and important writing of his life.  In four articles in Vanity Fair (part of a series that seems poised to continue until it doesn't), Hitchens has written about his cancer with an honesty, clarity and lack of sentimentality quite unusual for mass media.

Hitchens gently, bluntly deflates the linguistic tricks we use to deny the helplessness of cancer patients.  For example, about the predilection for referring to cancer patients as "battling" their disease, Hitchens observes:

when . . . kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don't read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you.  You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.
Similarly, Hitchens dissects his complex reaction to the verbal support he receives from well-wishers.  In his October article, he reflected:

An enormous number of secular and atheist friends have told me encouraging and flattering things like: "If anyone can beat this, you can"; "Cancer has no chance against someone like you"; "We know you can vanquish this."  On bad days, and even on better ones, such exhortations can have a vaguely depressing effect.  If I check out, I'll be letting all these comrades down.
Along the same lines, Hitchens in his December article recounted:

Telling someone else, with deliberate realism, that once I'd had a few more scans and treatments I might be told by the doctors that things from now on could be mainly a matter of "management," I . . . had the wind knocked out of me when she said, "Yes, I suppose a time comes when you have to consider letting go."  How true, and how crisp a summary of what I had just said myself.  But again there was the unreasonable urge to have a kind of monopoly on, or a sort of veto over, what was actually sayable.  Cancer victimhood contains a permanent temptation to be self-centered and even solipsistic.
In his writing about having esophagal cancer, as ever, Hitchens is cogent, brutal, confident and vital.  His perseverance in these qualities, despite his condition, manifests powerful personal integrity that is impossible not to admire . . . 

. . . and for which I am grateful.  In his November article, Hitchens reported that he felt "cheated as well as disappointed" because he "didn't . . . qualify" for a trial treatment that would have allowed him to do "something for humanity" in accordance with Horace Mann's precept that, "Until you have done something for humanity, . . . you should be ashamed to die."  Hitchens is too hard on himself.  He doesn't need to be a lab rat to meet Mann's standard.  Hitchens' contribution to humanity is extant, ongoing and deeply appreciated. 

(Image of Christopher Hitchens from Vanity Fair)

A French revolution bloody rare

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About six weeks ago, while sitting in the National Theater's production of Danton's Death, I realized that I needed to read a book about the French Revolution.

That book was A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel.  I bought it in the National Theater's gift shop, which I thought was a fair recommendation of its relevance to the theater's repertoire.  The recommendation was well taken: as an overview of the French Revolution, the book was great.  It has fabulous dialogue and sexy characters.  As a novel, however, I'm not sure it holds together.

In fairness, one of the problems is the French Revolution itself.  It went on for way too long.  After its eruption in 1789, it wasn't decisively finished until 1799, when Napoleon asserted himself.  This length of time is exorbitant excess.  Revolutions, to take a page from Gilbert & Sullivan, should be a "short, sharp shock"; even before the Internet, a decade was much too long for a revolution (just ask the Chinese about the Cultural Revolution).  

But another problem is that Hilary Mantel wanted to cover it all - or, at least, all the fun bits.  Her book ends where Georg Büchner finished Danton's Death (that is, obviously enough, with Danton's guillotining); but, whereas Büchner begins his play in 1794, just before Danton's arrest, Mantel begins her book a good deal earlier - with Danton's (and Camille Desmoulin's; and Maximilien Robespierre's) birth(s).

The material is simply too vast.  Mantel sprints through it, giving us only a sketch of everything important.  In place of plot, she has historical events.  In place of character development, she gives her characters superb dialogue and characteristic gestures. 

To break up the grind, Mantel occasionally slips out of third-person omniscient to allow one of the characters to take the helm.  Presumably for similar reasons, Mantel sometimes inserts dialogue in script format.  A theater bill for a play about the French Revolution is reproduced on page 242.  A variety show about the French Revolution, A Place of Safety might be; a novel, it might not be.  (The New York Times book review never printed a truer sentence than when it concluded, "we are left to wonder whether more novel and less history might not better suit [Mantel's] unmistakable talent.")

Mantel would have done well to have followed Büchner's example and culled the French Revolution down to a few months worthy of her focus.  A five novel series about the French Revolution, each book devoted to critical events in the years she covers (and a stand-alone novel in its own right), might have been an appropriate vehicle for her ambition.  A Place of Greater Safety falls short of achieving it.

On the other hand, A Place of Greater Safety is Mantel's first novel.  And when debut authors pen flawed and insanely ambitious first novels, all I can say is, "Well done."
(Image of Elliot Levey and Toby Stephens in the National Theater's production of Danton's Death from The Guardian)


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Wandering through the Tate Modern a little over a month ago, I came across Max Beckmann's painting, "Prunier."  It arrested me because I had a moment of total recognition: "I've felt that way," I thought.

I'm sure I have felt like the people depicted.  I've participated in some fairly shameful decadent consumption.  But my moment of identification wasn't with the "Gobblers," as Beckmann apparently referred to the piece in his diary.  It was with Beckmann himself.

Revulsion at the undisciplined intake of food is a familiar response for me.  Whether Beckmann, like me, was on a first-name basis with such revulsion, I have no idea, but looking at "Prunier," I felt that I - like Beckmann - had had the same artistic response: transforming my horrified disgust into art.  I felt actually that I'd written the same scene that he'd painted. 

Here it is, a passage from my first novel, Portnoy's Daughter, during which two characters converse over a wedding banquet:

A man flops down in the chair next to me, picks up his fork and knife and interrupts my thoughts: "Not eating?"

Lifting my head out of my hands and turning to him, I am astonished to see the Don Juan of the wine cellar.  He freezes, fork mid-way to mouth, chilled abalone in shrimp aspic with lemon-caper aioli and Chanel No. 5 dangling in mid-air like jello.  Then, recovering his equilibrium, he locks eyes with me, uncurls his tongue and licks the abalone, abusing the helpless mollusk until the aspic dissolves and runs down his chin.

I take in his little spectacle coolly, and then say:  "Mr. Fist, I presume?"

He sucks the mollusk into his mouth and chews with his mouth open, smirking with self-satisfaction. 
. . . .
[He p]our[s] himself a glass of wine from the carafe on the table. . . . "May I?" he asks, gesturing at my glass.

"No," I say, covering the glass with my hand and looking at him.

"A woman who values her sobriety won't easily find a man," he quips, draining his glass and pouring himself another.

"Hardly.  The wine is cheap."

"Agreed," he says, after gargling with a mouthful and spitting it onto the ground behind me. 
The parallel between "Prunier" and the foregoing passage of Portnoy's Daughter made me reflective (and possibly a little combative).  In what I don't think is a terribly insightful display caption, the Tate Modern writes of "Prunier":

Beckmann suffered from heart trouble shortly after beginning the painting, so that the contrast between his daily, wartime realities and the sensual pleasure conjured up in the painting may suggest a meditation on mortality.
I don't have any particular insight into Beckmann, but because I feel such strong identification with the painting the Tate Modern's speculative caption strikes me as unlikely.  Excess, not mortality, seems to be under examination, and especially how excess signals decline and tends to violence.  The Tate Modern seemed much more on point when it referred to the "brutality" of the consumption being depicted.

Depiction may be an attempt at control - getting such excess on the canvas, or the page, is an enclosed space under the artist's command.  It may also be a habit: I have a hard time not making characters who are eating repellent.  (So much of accurate description of the mechanics of eating seems to invite unsavory characterization.) 

And it's also no doubt an attempt at understanding and empathy.  The tendency to excess is complicated.  The visceral impulse to gorge is often accompanied by a cerebral stupidity, apathy or arrogance about the consequences of taking in so much of the world; while the revulsion from such behavior often coexists with such impulses and mind-sets.  (Nor does preferring either the gorging, or the revulsion, have predictable results.  As Hilary Mantel made clear in A Place of Greater Safety, Danton was a revolting sensualist libertine, but refined Robespierre had the greater appetite for blood during the Reign of Terror.) 

By the time Beckmann's painting released me to continue my meandering through the collection, I'd come to recognize this tangle of impulses and judgments, additionally, as one of the enduring topics of art.  

(Image of Max Beckmann's "Prunier" from the Tate Collection)

Who loves armed missionaries?

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Nothing in the reviews has made me want to read Tony Blair's memoir, A Journey: My Political Life.  Michiko Kakutani's observation that A Journey "sheds little light" on Blair's core motivations - especially as they relate to involving Britain in America's war in Iraq - finds echoes in other reviews.  Like everyone I know, I'm busy enough that I don't want to spend time on un-illuminating books.

I can't help wondering, though, whether Blair's shallowness is a function of his own reading material.  Kakutani quotes Blair as saying that, by an April 2002 meeting with George W. Bush, Blair

had resolved in [his] own mind that removing Saddam would do the world, and most particularly the Iraqi people, a service.
At the time I read that remark, I was also reading Hilary Mantel's, A Place of Greater Safety, and I felt an uncomfortable frisson of recognition.  An ambitious account of the French Revolution from the time before its inception through the deaths of Georges Jacques Danton and Camille Desmoulins, A Place of Greater Safety details the political conflict preceding France's declaration of war on Austria in 1792.  The pro-war faction was named the Brissotins (for their spokesperson, Jacques-Pierre Brissot); the anti-war side was a sub-set of the Jacobins called the Montagnards, who included Danton and Maximilien Robespierre. 

Here's Hilary Mantel's version of a conversation between Danton and Robespierre regarding the Brissotin war plans:

"They talk," [Danton] said, "of a crusade to bring liberty to Europe.  Of how it's our duty to spread the gospel of fraternity."
"Spread the gospel?  Well, ask yourself - who loves armed missionaries?"
"Who indeed?"
"They speak as if they had the interests of the people at heart, but the end of it will be military dictatorship."
(p. 398.)

Hilary Mantel isn't responsible for the armed forces of the UK, but maybe she should be.  She, at least, has been reading (and writing) her history. 

If Blair had been doing the same, perhaps he wouldn't have supported the American folly in Iraq; or perhaps he would have: but either way he'd be much less likely to justify it as "a service."  Indeed, he'd likely have seen "a service" in describing how he learned from experience that no one loves armed missionaries.

But that service is as sadly lacking as the one Blair claimed to be providing the Iraqi people.
(Image of Jacques-Pierre Brissot from Wikipedia; image of Tony Blair from BBC)

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