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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
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
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
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
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
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
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?"
"They speak as if they had the interests of the people at heart, but the end of it will be military dictatorship."
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
The Tate Modern's Gauguin show sparked an interest in Gauguin's life that prompted me to buy books. As I mentioned in a previous blog post
, one of the books upon which my hand fell (in the gift shop) was Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence
. Luckily, sitting beside Maugham's clunker was the Mario Vargas Llosa novel, This Way to Paradise
, which I also snatched up.
A fictional double portrait of Paul Gauguin and his part-Peruvian grandmother, Flora Tristán, This Way to Paradise
finds Vargas Llosa projecting himself into Gauguin's mind as he paints a number of his masterpieces, including "Manao tupapau" (pictured above), "Pape moe" (based on the Charles Spitz photograph below), "Nevermore" (below), "The Vision after the Sermon" (here
Vargas Llosa's imaginative reconstruction of Gauguin's psychology in the moment of creation captivated me. I was excited by Vargas Llosa's audacity, combined with the singular opportunity that the Tate Modern's show afforded: I could stand in the presence of the paintings and test whether Vargas Llosa's words made me experience Gauguin as the paintings had made Vargas Llosa experience him.
The second time I went to the Tate Modern's Gauguin show, I took This Way to Paradise
with me and read the passages that discussed paintings in the exhibit. Here's Vargas Llosa on "Manoa Tupapau":
The raw material was in his memory, the image he saw every time he closed his eyes.
. . . .
The naked girl would be obscene without the fear in her eyes and the incipient downturn of her mouth. But fear didn't diminish her beauty. It augmented it, tightening her buttocks in such an insinuating way, making them an altar of human flesh on which to celebrate a barbaric ceremony, in homage to a cruel and pagan god. And in the upper part of the canvas was the ghost, which was really more yours than Tahitian, [Paul]. . . . It was an old woman in a hooded cloak, like the crones of Brittany forever fixed in your memory.
(p. 23.) I didn't see it. The girl's eyes didn't show me fear, nor did I see an incipient downturn of her mouth - to me, she appeared to be smiling coyly. The arch of her body was wrong for what Vargas Llosa was describing. Far from the tautness that Vargas Llosa sees, the girl's lower half looked slack: her ankles are crossed, and her legs seem to be hanging off the bed. And however much I ran between the galleries to compare the crones of Brittany with the spirit in "Manao tupapau," I didn't glimpse the connection.
But it didn't matter. Tracking Vargas Llosa through Gauguin allowed me insight into the impact of visual arts on another writer's process. This Way to Paradise
isn't art criticism; Vargas Llosa isn't informing or educating his public about what they should see in the paintings. He's exposing instead what he sees when he looks at them.
That looking at "Manao tupapau" makes Vargas Llosa think about how Gauguin came up with the image reveals a mind intrigued by the artistic process, and one additionally that sees parity in the process between visual artists and writers. Although I have wondered how other artists arrive at their images, I hadn't speculated previously about Gauguin's, in part because (before the Tate Modern show) I didn't identify with him: but Vargas Llosa must have. And, although I sense that Vargas Llosa's connection with Gauguin is very masculine - a bond I can't share - Vargas Llosa nonetheless showed me one way of empathizing with Paul Gauguin.
Empathizing - with oneself, with other artists, and with one's characters - is part of the novelist's job, and it's not the easy part. Somerset Maugham couldn't do it for Paul Gauguin (nor likely for himself), which is why Maugham depicts a Gauguin-like character, Charles Strickland, as being without compassion (discussed here
But Vargas Llosa's way of always doing the hard part - and doing it well - is why I admire him so intensely. Even his lesser works (and This Way to Paradise
isn't his masterpiece) deepen and enrich my experience of life and art.
I've never before entered a blockbuster art exhibit clutching a novel. After This Way to Paradise
, I'm not sure I'll be able to enjoy future shows as fully without one.
(Image of "Manao tupapau" from Shafe
; of "Nevermore" from Tate
; and of Charles Spitz' photograph from Cultor College