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This celluloid doesn't lie

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Daisy_Miller.jpg
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)

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)

Don't Marry Him

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Lori_Gottlieb.jpgReviews of Lori Gottlieb's new book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, along with Gottlieb's original Atlantic article (on the book is based), miss an important opportunity for addressing a serious problem in American society.

In her Atlantic article, Gottlieb calls the problem one of the "most complicated, painful, and pervasive dilemmas many single women are forced to grapple with nowadays: Is it better to be alone, or to settle?"

In her review of Gottlieb's book in The New York Times Book Review, Amy Finnerty describes Gottlieb's restatement of the problem as follows:

Gottlieb makes a case that many women today end up alone because they hold men to insanely high standards. . . . She convinces us that we women are simply too fussy, entitled and downright delusional about our own worth in the mating marketplace. We overanalyze and seek undiluted sexual and intellectual fulfillment, thus setting men up for failure.
But both formulations of the problem miss the point.  Gottlieb is closest to the real issue when, in her Atlantic article, she observes:

I've been told that the reason so many women end up alone is that we have too many choices. I think it's the opposite: we have no choice. If we could choose, we'd choose to be in a healthy marriage based on reciprocal passion and friendship. But the only choices on the table, it sometimes seems, are settle or risk being alone forever. That's not a whole lot of choice.
Sadly, Gottlieb doesn't expand upon this insight.  Neither female pickiness nor a sense of being forced to choose between settling and solitary lives is the problem; these phenomena are side-effects of the real problem: American men aren't well-matched for America's post-feminist women.

The most serious failure of feminism was to ignore the fact that gender roles are relational.  Men's and women's roles fit together like puzzle pieces (or like yin and yang).  Radical alteration of one of the roles requires a similar level of change in the other role for the two roles to continue to be compatible.  Feminists devoted extensive thought, theory and action to the cause of revising a woman's role; to the extent that the gave any thought to men's roles, however, they seem to have assumed that men would adjust.

Men have not adjusted.  While women struggle under extraordinary social pressure to be educated and sociable, have careers and families, be sexy and mothers, be emotionally competent and financially wise, men grapple with the sense of being intimidated by women, of feeling inadequate and fearing they are a disappointment to the beloved women in their lives.  In my experience, they deal with this complex of issues by taking refuge in extended adolescence and staying stoned a lot.

In this context, settling - as Gottlieb advises - is insanity.  As anyone who has lived through a divorce (or who has witnessed parents get divorced) knows, a bad marriage causes vastly more damage that no marriage.  And if a society is grooming men who aren't suited to the women that the society is producing, the choice is not between settling and solitude, but between a bad marriage and a decent life.

I'm not alone in either my conclusion or my analysis: two hundred years ago Jane Austen wrote a more persuasive argument than this blog post can offer in her novel, Pride and Prejudice.  As any reader of that novel can recognize, American women live today in a world where too many of the men are Wickhams, the con artist scourge of Pride and Prejudice.  By the conclusion of that novel, Eliza Bennett has learned that her own haughtiness and preconceived notions had prevented her both from seeing the dangers of the charming Mr. Wickham and the goodness of the more remote Mr. Darcy, her future husband.  

Gottlieb would have American women unlearn the lesson of Eliza Bennett - would have American blind themselves to the unsuitability of the available partners out of their prideful need to get married and their prejudice against carving out a satisfactory life for themselves beyond the bounds of marriage.  Gottlieb urges American women to settle for Wickham.

Jane Austen has already illustrated the perils of that choice.

(Picture of Lori Gottlieb from The New York Times Book Review
F111.jpgIn 2000, I went to the Guggenheim in Bilbao and saw a show called, "Degas to Picasso: Painters, Sculptors and the Camera."  The show charted the use of photography by fourteen artists at the turn of the twentieth century.  Looking back on descriptions of the show, I gather that the artists on exhibit made various uses of photographs; but what I remember, what particularly impressed me, was the idea that a core of two or three images or concepts could and did nourish these (or some of these) artists through their entire careers.  Degas' horses and ballerinas, Gaugin's Tahitian women and (although they weren't in the show) John Singer Sargent's society ladies, James Rosenquist's spaghetti and Philip Guston's cartoon Klansmen, light bulbs and shoe souls all seem to be examples of this phenomenon.

For the past nine years I've been thinking about that argument and wondering: are two or three concepts really enough for a lifetime? 

My musings received more fodder when I read the following passage in Colm Toíbín's The Master:

[Henry James] did not realize then and did not, in fact, grasp for many years how these few weeks in North Conway - the endlessly conversing group of them gathered under the rustling pines - would be enough for him, would be in, in effect, all he needed to know in his life.  In all his years as a writer he was to draw on the scenes he lived and witnessed at that time, the two ambitious, patrician New Englanders [Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Gray], already alert to the eminence which awaited them, and the American girls, led by Minny [Temple], fresh and open to life, so inquisitive, so imbued with a boundless curiosity and charm and intelligence.
(p. 102.) 

Of course, novelists often rework familiar territory.  Marilyn Robinson's Home is a retelling from another perspective of her novel Gilead.  Philip Roth's The Plot Against America gives us a Jewish family from Newark recognizable from his other novels.  Joyce Carol Oates fictionalizes lurid news stories.  What's Milan Kundera without Communism or Jane Austin without Britain's class system?

Still, despite the evidence, I'm not convinced.  Two or three ideas seems like fuel for a decade, not a lifetime . . . unless you're defended or restricted from, or uninterested in, the wider world. 

Granted, most adults are not continually open to world throughout their lives.  As Toíbín's Henry James explains in The Master, referring to Isabel Archer,

decisions [about] matters of duty and resignation were often more easily made than . . . . "leaps in the dark.  Making such leaps requires us to be brave and determined, but doing so also may freeze any other possibilities.  It is easier to renounce bravery rather than to be brave over and over. . . . The will and never needed for such actions do not come to us often." 
(p. 324-325.)

The "two or three concepts for a lifetime" theory strikes me as a byproduct of stasis, laziness, oppression or other barriers to making "leaps in the dark," those terrifying risks that reinvigorate one's supply of motivating ideas. 

On the other hand, maybe "two or three concepts" represents an intrinsic limit in human capacities, a reflection of the human penchant for imposing familiar, convenient and appealing constructs on the external world - the likelihood that, having leaped into the dark, you'll find there a variation of what you thought you were leaving behind.

For myself, if two or three concepts are animating my work, I'm not seeing them yet.  Certainly, I could identify common themes for my novels, but I think doing so would be a process of post-hoc rationalization.  If I've had my North Conway experience - if I've stumbled upon the well to which I will return year after year, novel after novel - I don't know it. 

Perhaps I haven't found or can't recognize my life-long subjects yet.  Or potentially I'm outside the "two or three concepts" paradigm.  Or, maybe, rather than leaping in the dark, I'm free-falling.

(James Rosenquist's F111 from Aasavina)

An injured body

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I love reading novels for three reasons, primarily.  The first is relief of boredom.  The second is the pleasurable stimulation I experience when I'm engaged in a story.  And the third is the comfort I derive from novels.  Learning from Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, for example, that the contours of generation struggle have changed remarkably little since the nineteenth century made me feel wonder at the consistency of human travails throughout time and the support we can find in the written records of our forebears.

That said, I didn't expect to find comfort in novels for the irritation and insecurity occasioned by the current state of the publishing industry.  The decline in reading rates, the competition from the Internet and video games, the market preference for memoirs/how-to's/biz books, the current economic downturn -- these harbingers of the death of the novel I took to be burdens I'd have to shoulder without aid from authors of an earlier era.  How often I'd thought my publishing woes would be solved if only I'd been writing during the heyday of Grove Press, in the years of Max Perkins . . .

But Jane Austen set me straight.  "[I]f the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?  I cannot approve of it. . . . Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body," Austen writes, taking her stand in Northanger Abbey.  "Although our 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.  From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers."

Ah me.  To be assuaged with such thorny balm -- the assurance that writing novels would be a miserable pursuit whenever I'd be born; to be comforted with the knowledge that reports of the death of the novel are greatly exaggerated -- and have been so for some two hundred years; I can only love reading novels even more.

Scarlett and Emma

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Notwithstanding the tremendous differences in style, setting and story between Gone with the Wind and Emma (as well as the 121 years between their publications), Scarlett O'Hara and Emma Woodhouse are remarkably similar.  They are both strong-willed and rich.  They are both treated by society as beautiful, but handled by their authors somewhat less deferentially.  (The first clause of Gone with the Wind is, "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful."  And Emma, though pretty, is second in beauty to Harriet Smith.)  They are both quick witted but narrowly focused in their interests.  They are both selfish and lack self-awareness.  And, perhaps most importantly, at the time we meet them, they have -- neither of them -- been in love.

"I never have been in love: it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall," says Emma (at page 75).  The fact that, by the end of the book, she has fallen in love with Mr. Knightley is what salvages her from perpetual bratdom.  In gaining self-awareness of her own heart, she grows up.  Most significantly, she ventures beyond the safety of her self-sufficient life, willing to risk the ever-present failure that lurks when any of us trades our solitary satisfactions for the hope of greater bliss in pairs.

Scarlett, on the other hand, thinks she's in love with Ashley, but her love for him has always struck me as false.  Ashley doesn't possess any of the qualities -- pragmatism, forthrightness, gumption -- that Scarlett prizes most highly, and perhaps it is for this reason that she can't comprehend him.  Ashley's function is not as the love of her life, but as the shield to protect her from ever truly falling in love.

For all the horror that Scarlett confronts, the one thing she fears is falling in love.  Scarlett, who reacts to the atrocities of war by committing passionately to survival, equates that survival with self-sufficiency.  She can envision (indeed, tolerate) a survival that burdens her with dependents for whom she must provide; but she cannot fathom a survival in which she is dependent -- even in a situation of mutual and reciprocal dependency, as (presumably is possible) in marriage.  Falling in love would deprive her of the independent self-sufficiency that she feels is necessary for her existence.

A woman who doesn't want to fall in love is a challenging character.  Jane Austen remarked that Emma was a character that only she could like, and Scarlett is far from sympathetic.  And yet both characters are compelling, both books masterpieces and -- not incidentally -- popularly acclaimed. 

Perhaps that combination of tough character and popular appeal arises from the humiliation both women endure.  Emma is mortified when Mr. Knightley criticizes her sharp treatment of Miss Bates.  Scarlett is humiliated so profoundly and so frequently that Margaret Mitchell appears almost sado-masochistic. 

That audiences can endure strong female characters as long as they get their comeuppance is received wisdom.  But maybe audiences are also warming to an uncomfortable truth fundamental to both tales: openness to the humiliations and tribulations of dependency is a prerequisite to falling in love; but a refusal to countenance such indignity is no protection against it.   

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Austen, Jane category.

Auel, Jean M. is the previous category.

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