SOME DISCONTINUOUS OBSERVATIONS ABOUT LOVE

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Thanks to the give-and-take most book groups require of their members, I recently found myself obliged to read a novel by Penelope Lively called Moon Tiger.  I didn’t like it, despite the promise of its early chapters.  (A woman in her seventies, dying of cancer, looks back on her life and the important people in it.) But there was one aspect of the story that really held me — so much so I would gladly, and with excitement, have read more and more, and never mind the rest.

The heroine has a brother one year older. They grow up together and in late adolescence become lovers. No one suspects.  After a few years, the physical expression of their feeling for each other fades, but not the feeling. No one she meets subsequently, except for a British captain with whom she has a brief (and unconvincing) love affair during World War II, can compare with the brother. Throughout the rest of their lives, this feeling between brother and sister seems to trump any emotions either of them can experience for other potential love partners. When he is about to die, she rides with him and his wife in a taxi to some last meeting he insists on attending:

He goes on talking and she goes on talking and interrupting and beneath what is said they tell each other something entirely different.

I love you, she thinks. Always have. More than I’ve loved anyone, bar one. That word is overstretched; it cannot be made to do service for so many different things — love of children, love of friends, love of God, carnal love and cupidity and saintliness. I do not need to tell you, any more than you need to tell me. I have seldom even thought it. You have been my alter ego, and I have been yours. And soon there will only be me, and I shall not know what to do.

Sylvia [the wife], she sees, is weeping again. Not quite silently enough. If you don’t stop that, thinks Claudia [the protagonist], I may simply push you out of this taxi.

I was an only child. I yearned for a slightly older brother when I was growing up. But I did understand early on that as a first-born, I could never have an older sibling, except by adoption, which I felt wouldn’t have been the same. Lacking this much desired older brother, I made one up. [SeeFairy Tale,” an account of my childhood fantasy, its development as I grew older, and how it looks to me now.]

This is not to say I truly believe I could have fallen in love with a male version of me who I had known all my life.  Lively’s heroine believes that brother-sister incest requires narcissism in both parties. As I didn’t love myself enough for much of my life, narcissism does not seem to have been my problem.    What I yearned for was an alter ego, someone who would accept me as I was, knowing everything about me. Someone who was my other half.

 

Diana Athill, last mentioned in this blog for having at the age of 89 written “Somewhere Before the End,” a trail-blazing account of old old age — has come up with a sequel of sorts now that she’s 97; it’s called “Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter.In her introduction to this new book, she observes that persons in retirement homes spend a good deal of time just sitting and thinking. In her case, it’s been thinking about events in the past which were enjoyable.

Until about two months ago, those events included people, usually men. I talked about it the other day with someone who is also in her nineties, though not so far into them as I am, and she said, “Yes, of course, men. What I do when I’m waiting to fall asleep is run through all the men I ever went to bed with,” whereupon we both laughed in a ribald way, because that is exactly what I did too. It cheered me up to learn that I had not been alone in indulging in this foolishness.

Athill has now moved on from thinking about men to thinking of pleasurable scenes in nature. But let’s do a rewind for a moment: How is putting oneself to sleep by reviewing past bedmates “indulging in foolishness?”  As the saying goes: Those who can, do; those who can’t, talk, write, or think about it.  I do have some years left before my nineties, but I too have sometimes counted “sheep” in somewhat the same way as Athill and her acquaintance; I review the sexual particulars of those relatively few men I have biblically known, with emphasis on the memorable ones.

However, and getting back to the theme of this piece, I don’t do that very often.  More frequently, I make up erotic stories.  They’re short on variety. I provide only two or three mises-en-scene; the two principal characters are always in their late teens or early twenties, and two or three years apart in age; I play both parts, moving in my mind from the point of view of the young man, then the young woman. But irrespective of the details of the flimsy “plot,” the underlying theme is always the same: these two grow up together, a tragic separation tears them apart, they cannot find each other, some time later, quite by accident, they do. Then nothing, nothing at all, can keep them from each other. Yes, they make love, occasionally in satisfying detail. But what is most exciting and rewarding about these pre-sleep lullabies, of which the physical “coming together” is just an expression, is the emotional coming together after having been so painfully separated.

 

The last time I read Plato’s Symposium in its entirety, somewhat unwillingly, was in the fall of 1949, when I was a sophomore in college. However, one section of it made a sufficient impression on me that I have revisited it on several later occasions.  For those of you who haven’t read it, or read about it, the Symposium is a disquisition on love as the ancient Greeks viewed it.  Since Plato wrote it, we may assume that in its entirety it represents the Platonic ideal. Briefly, six or seven of Socrates’ disciples gather with him at a dinner where they will all speak, in turn, about each one’s view of this important emotion.  The fourth in order is Aristophanes, who attempts to describe the feeling of love in “historic” terms he fears will be laughed at.

Mankind, he [Aristophanes] said, judging by their neglect of him, have never, as I think, at all understood the power of Love. For if they had understood him they would surely have built noble temples and altars, and offered solemn sacrifices in his honor; but this is not done, and most certainly ought to be done: since of all the gods he is the best friend of men, the helper and the healer of the ills which are the great impediment to the happiness of the race….

In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different…. The primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast….Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods;….

Doubt reigned in the celestial councils. Should they kill them and annihilate the race with thunderbolts…. then there would be an end of the sacrifices and worship which men offered to them; but, on the other hand, the gods could not suffer their insolence to be unrestrained. At last, after a good deal of reflection, Zeus discovered a way. He said: “Methinks I have a plan which will humble their pride and improve their manners; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.”

He spoke and cut men in two, like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling, or as you might divide an egg with a hair; and as he cut them one after another, he bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that the man might contemplate the section of himself: he would thus learn a lesson in humility. Apollo was also bidden to heal their wounds and compose their forms.  So he gave a turn to the face and pulled the skin from the sides all over that which in our language is called the belly, like the purses which draw in, and he made one mouth at the centre, which he fastened in a knot (the same which is called the navel); he also moulded the breast and took out most of the wrinkles, much as shoemaker might smooth leather upon a last;….

After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them — being the sections of entire men or women — and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position, and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they mighty breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man.

Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half….And when one of them meets with his other half, the actual half of himself….the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight, as I may say, even for a moment: these are the people who pass their whole lives together; yet they could not explain what they desire of one another. For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell, and of which she has only a dark and doubtful presentiment….And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love. [Italics mine.]

After my second husband and I separated, I sequentially looked up (and in my older son’s words, recycled) the two significant boyfriends of my premarital life. You may see where, perhaps not entirely consciously, I was trying to go with this coming together after painful separation.  I showed each of them the Aristophanes riff on love.  The first was both tactful and rueful as he turned its pages in bed:  “Here I am,” he said, “thirty-odd years later: same bathrobe, same book.” At least he didn’t laugh.  The second did laugh; halfway through his reading, the phone rang. “Hi,” he said, “I’m reading about these funny round people with four arms, four legs and two heads….”

As you may surmise, neither effort to rejoin what had come apart worked out. There’s a reason the Platonic ideal is called an ideal.  Real life just isn’t like that.  Romantic love, youthful passion, may feel so compelling nothing can get in its way.  But if satisfied, it begins to dilute itself into something else which we also call love.  However, that’s a different love: warm, safe, familiar, comfortable, with cranky moments, boring times, tough passages, and also good ones. A love that leaves time and space for the speculations in this piece.  A love to be explored in some other post.  I invite you to do that.

 

RIGHT UP MY ALLEY: DONALD HALL AT 86

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Just when I realized I’m exactly 83 1/2 today  — it sounds awful to me, too — this book fortuitously arrived.  Donald Hall is a former Poet Laureate, his career in letters capped by a National Medal of Arts awarded by the president.  He doesn’t write poetry any more. He says in his new book: “As I grew older — collapsing into my seventies, glimpsing ahead the cliffs of eighties, colliding into eighty-five — poetry abandoned me.”

Now he writes essays, very slowly — because for him:

[t]he greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting….Revision takes time, a pleasing long process.  Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty. Writing prose, I used to be a bit quicker. Maybe I discovered more things to be persnickety about. Most likely age has slowed down my access to the right word….Really, I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much.

But at last we have fourteen of these slowly simmered pieces gathered together in a slim little book called Essays After Eighty.  I was about to go out for a walk, the weather having magnanimously permitted such an outing, when it showed up in my mailbox. (Not actually a surprise; I did order it.) I turned right around and went back home to look inside.

In just 134 pages — I said it was slim — you can find Hall’s thoughts on looking out the window, on writing essays after eighty, on the three beards he’s had in his life, on death, on physical malfitness (his own), on garlic, on fame (his own and others), and on the human condition. Yet it’s not sad at all. To give you a taste, let me quote from the end of “Three Beards,” not because I admire beards and grubbiness — don’t imagine for a minute that either are “right up my alley” — but because I find invigorating the resurrection of his will to live to the hilt, in his fashion, after the premature death at 47 of his truly beloved wife, Jane Kenyon. On my half-year birthday today, I really need to read stuff like this:

Jane died at forty-seven after fifteen months of leukemia. I mourned her deeply, I wrote nothing but elegy, I wailed her loss, but — as I excused myself in a poem — “Lust is grief / that has turned over in bed / to look the other way.”  Among spousal survivors, many cannot bear the thought of another lover.  Some cannot do without. In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom thinks of a graveyard as a place to pick up a grieving widow. Thus I found myself in the pleasant company of a young woman who worked for a magazine — a slim, pretty blonde who was funny, sharp, and promiscuous. (We never spoke of love.) I will call her Pearl.  After dinner, we sat in my living room drinking Madeira and talking. I pulled out a cigarette and asked her if she would mind….”I was going crazy,” she said, and pulled out her own. She told me about her father’s suicide. I spoke of Jane’s death. When she left the room to pee, I waited by the bathroom door for her to emerge. I led her unprotesting to the bedroom, and a few moments later, gaily engaged, she said, “I want to put my legs around your head.” (It was perfect iambic pentameter.) When we woke in the morning, we became friends. We drank coffee and smoked. When I spoke again of Jane, Pearl said that perhaps I felt a bit happier this morning.

After seven weeks Pearl ended things. Before I received my dismissal, we lay in the backyard sunning, and she suggested I grow a beard. She had seen book jackets. “You’ll look Mephistophelian,” she said. That’s all I needed. It suited me again to change the way I looked because the world had utterly changed. I mourned Jane all day every day, and acknowledged her death by the third beard and the girlfriends. Some entanglements ended because I was needy, others because of adultery or my gradual physical disability. A California friend and I commuted to visit each other for more than a year. She diminished my beard by trimming it into a goatee, getting me to smooth my cheeks from sideburns to mustache and chin. After dozens of assignations amassing airline mileage, we decided we had had enough. I grew the big beard back.

A dozen years ago I found Linda and love again. We live an hour apart but spend two or three nights a week together.  She is an Old Lady of the Mountain in her bone structure, with pretty dimples. She is tender and as sloppy as I am. She abjures earrings, makeup and dresses; she wears blue jeans and yard-sale shirts. Combs and brushes are for sissies. We watch movies, we read Edith Wharton to each other, and we travel. In 2002 we impulsively flew to London, and later we took many trips for poetry readings without ever combing our hair.

When I turned eighty and rubbed testosterone onto my chest, my beard roared like a lion and lengthened four inches. The hair on my head grew longer and more jumbled, and with Linda’s encouragement I never restrained its fury. As Linda wheelchaired me through airports, and my eighties prolonged, more than ever I enjoyed being grubby and noticeable. Declining more swiftly toward the grave, I make certain that everyone knows — my children know, Linda knows, my undertaker knows — that no posthumous razor may scrape my blue face.

HILARY MANTEL: BRINGING HISTORY ALIVE

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I’m not a great fan of historical fiction, if by that we mean novels about fictional characters placed in a historical period for background color and to add pages of authorial research to the plot.  Long, long ago, when I was still consuming books from the children’s section of the public library, I very much liked “The Little Maid” series — A Little Maid of Bunker Hill, A Little Maid of Ticonderoga, and so forth — which gave its young readers digestible snippets of American history served up in stories about  patriotic little maids saving the day for the adults.

But once I had persuaded everyone who mattered (the librarian and my mother) that I was old enough to go upstairs to the grown-up section, the allure of historical fiction began to fade. As my taste gradually matured, most of this sort of reading matter became less believable.  Forever Amber was exciting in my adolescence because the fictional Amber slept around so much, not for its unpersuasive description of the court of King Charles II and seventeenth-century London.  Gone with the Wind was slightly better, but  probably only because many of my generation saw the movie before reading the book. And now that I’m really grown up (so they say), A Georgette Heyer Regency novel, for instance,  featuring a proud but financially challenged fictional heroine in a high-waisted column of white dress and carrying a reticule just doesn’t do it for me, even if her similarly fictional counterpart is a strong-jawed disdainful hero with a title, horses, property beyond belief and secret longings in his heart for the heroine.  I suppose Baroness Emma Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel (1901) or Rafael Sabatini’s wildly romantic Scaramouche (1921) and its many sequels were acceptable page-turners for the times in which they first appeared. And A Tale of Two Cities, a standard in the American public high school curriculum when I was young, is simply Dickens, irrespective of its historical context, stirring words  (“It was the best of times, It was the worst of times….”) and Sydney Carton redeeming himself by being guillotined in the end.  (“It is a far far better thing than I have ever done….”) That said, I have by and large closed the door on bodice-rippers and tales of derring-do.

But when we turn to fiction about identifiable historical persons, who actually did live and love and suffer and die in centuries gone by, we must discriminate between bad, okay and very good — the distinction based largely on the quality of the writing and one’s ability to suspend disbelief.  For a short while in college I was indeed in thrall to Mary Renault’s three novels about Alexander the Great, despite the fact that his bisexuality tilted strongly in favor of his own sex. Her work made his conquest of the known world seem (to me, then) somewhat real.  But it was also frustrating, because Alexander was dead at 33, and all cut up with battle scars by then, and wouldn’t have given me the time of day anyway. Girlish reasons, I admit, but what can you expect from a college girl? (Renault also wrote one about Theseus, but that was less gripping because Theseus was mythological and not a real man.)

There are other such books, of perhaps higher literary merit. Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and Burr are probably the best of the five or six he wrote in this genre.  I do intend to tackle Marguerite Yourcenar’s Hadrian’s Memoirs (in translation) at some indefinite time in the future.  But the absolutely most enjoyable and entirely convincing literary fictions about a historical figure I have read are Hilary Mantel’s relatively recent Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies.  She’s not only an accurate historian and an imaginative novelist but a superb writer.

As you may know, these are novels about Thomas Cromwell, the man behind Henry VIII’s defection from the Catholic Church and his divorce from his first queen, the man who sent supposedly saintly Thomas More to be burned at the stake, divested the church of its property in England for the benefit of the crown and shortly thereafter contrived to have Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife, convicted for adultery (and incest with her own brother) so that she could “legally” be sent to the executioner when she was unable to produce a male heir to the throne.

Sound like a bad guy? Don’t rush to judgment.  Mantel shows you early sixteenth-century England exclusively through Cromwell’s eyes.  You are there.  You live his life. She omits no known historical fact in the public record, but benefits enormously from the almost complete absence of any record of Cromwell’s private life by creating one for him.  You not only see with him, but also think with him, feel with him, maneuver with him, sympathize with him.  In a way, you become him — whether you approve of yourself as Cromwell or not. Give Mantel fifty pages, more or less:  if you can get through that much, you will be hers, and perhaps Cromwell’s too, until he dies.

Unfortunately, neither she nor he are there yet. She is still writing the third book of the trilogy.  So until she finishes and this ultimate treat reaches publication — what might there be of equal allure to get me through hot damp July in Princeton?  What a question!  More Hilary Mantel of course.  Before she tackled Cromwell, she labored intermittently over the French Revolution for almost twenty years.  The book, finally published in 1992, is A Place Of Greater Safety, and it tells its panoramic story through the lives of three of the most important figures of the revolutionary period :  Maximilien Robespierre, Georges-Jacques Danton, and Camille Desmoulins. It runs 749 pages in the paperback edition and I’m only at page 220.  But that’s far enough to report that I am half in love with Camille, of whom I had not known before.  (He’s the one who jumped up onto a table in front of a crowd gathered before the Bastille on July 14, 1789 (le quatorze juillet) and delivered a speech so incendiary the population erupted and the monarchy soon toppled.

A Place of Greater Safety, written earlier than the Cromwell books,  is not as smooth a read.  It has a much larger number of significant players to keep straight in your head and a more intricate and shifting scheme of political events to follow, so that if you begin it, I cannot promise easy sailing all the way through. But if your idea of what the French Revolution may have been like while it was happening is based on Hollywood screen sets populated with heavily made-up movie extras in picturesque rags who are going to go home at the end of the working day to a gin and tonic and a nice dinner — then look at how Hilary Mantel sets the scene.

We learn early on (page 26) about bread:

When the Lieutenant of Police goes to his desk — today, last year — the first piece of information he requires concerns the price of a loaf in the bakers’ shops of Paris. If Les Halles is well supplied with flour, then the bakers of the city and the faubourgs will satisfy their customers, and the thousand itinerant bakers will bring their bread in to the markets in the Marais, in Saint Paul, in the Palais-Royal; and in Les Halles itself.

In easy times, a loaf of brown bread costs eight or nine sous. A general laborer, who is paid by the day, can expect to earn twenty sous; a mason might get forty sous, a skilled locksmith or a joiner might get fifty. Items for the budget: rent money, candles, cooking fat, vegetables, wine. Meat is for special occasions. Bread is the main concern.

The supply lines are tight, precise, monitored. What the bakers have left over at the end of the day must be sold off cheap; the destitute do not eat till night falls on the markets.

All goes well; but then when the harvest fails — in 1770, say, or in 1772 or 1774 — an inexorable price rise begins; in the autumn of 1774 a four pound loaf in Paris costs eleven sous, but by the following spring the price is up to fourteen. Wages do not rise. The building workers are always turbulent, so are the weavers, so are the bookbinders and (poor souls) the hatters, but strikes are seldom to procure a wage rise, usually to resist a cut. Not the strike but the bread riot is the most familiar resort of the urban working man, and thus the temperature and rainfall over some distant cornfield connects directly with the tension headaches of the Lieutenant of Police.

Nearly one hundred pages later (on page 122), we see five lines inserted between two paragraphs of the story:

Price inflation 1785-1789:

  • Wheat     66%
  • Rye          71%
  • Meat         67%
  • Firewood 91%

And then (on page 136), we get to January 1789 in Paris. This is no Hollywood movie set.  This is why I like Hilary Mantel so much:

New year. You go out in the streets and you think it’s here: the crash at last, the collapse, the end of the world. It is colder now than any living person can remember. The river is a solid sheet of ice. The first morning, it was a novelty. Children ran and shouted, and dragged their complaining mothers out to see it. “One could skate,” people said. After a week, they began to turn their heads from the sight, keep their children indoors. Under the bridges, by dim and precarious fires, the destitute wait for death. A loaf of bread is fourteen sous, for the New Year.

These people have left their insufficient shelters, their shacks, their caves, abandoned the rock-hard, snow glazed fields where they cannot believe anything will ever grow again. Tying up in a square of sacking a few pieces of bread, perhaps chestnuts: cording a small bundle of firewood: saying no good-byes, taking to the road. They move in droves for safety, sometimes men alone, sometimes families, always keeping with the people from their own district, whose language they speak. At first they sing and tell stories. After two days or so, they walk in silence. The procession that marched now straggles. With luck, one may find a shed or byre for the night. Old women are wakened with difficulty in the morning and are found to have lost their wits. Small children are abandoned in village doorways. Some die; some are found by the charitable, and grow up under other names.

Those who reach Paris with their strength intact begin to look for work. Men are being laid off, they’re told, our own people; there’s nothing doing for outsiders. Because the river is frozen up, goods do not come into the city: no cloth to be dyed, no skins to be tanned, no corn. Ships are impaled on the ice, with grain rotting in their holds.

The vagrants congregate in sheltered spots, not discussing the situation because there is nothing to discuss. At first they hang around the markets in the late afternoons, because at the close of the day’s trading any bread that remains is sold off cheaply or given away; the rough, fierce Paris wives get there first. Later, there is no bread after midday. They are told that the good Duke of Orleans gives away a thousand loaves of bread to people who are penniless like them. But the Paris beggars leave them standing again, sharp-elbowed and callous, willing to give them malicious information and to walk on people who are knocked to the ground. They gather in back courts, in church porches, anywhere that is out of the knife of the wind. The very young and the very old are taken in by the hospitals. Harassed monks and nuns try to bespeak extra linen and a supply of fresh bread, only to find that they must make do with soiled linen and bread that is days old. They say that the Lord’s designs are wonderful, because if the weather warmed up there would be an epidemic. Women weep with dread when they give birth.

Even the rich experience a sense of dislocation. Alms-giving seems not enough; there are frozen corpses on fashionable streets. When people step down from their carriages, they pull their cloaks about their faces, to keep the stinging cold from their cheeks and the miserable sights from their eyes.

Six months later Camille Desmoulins climbed up on that table in the midst of a roiling crowd of such desperate people and precipitated the fall of the Bastille.

I proceed towards page 300.  Anyone care to join me?

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STUPID ME

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I admit to many flaws; stupidity usually isn’t one of them. However, there’s always a first time. And here it is: a slender book called Monogamy which has left me feeling really dumb.

Not that Adam Phillips, the author, isn’t a terrific writer.  He is, he is!  But I’ve had to reread each page of his book at least twice to figure out (most of) what he’s getting at.  What seems evident to him is so much less evident to me that it’s hard for me to follow.  On the first go-round anyway.

Phillips also leaves me dumbfounded because what he seems to be saying here does appear to be the way things are, or one of the ways things are.  And my life might have been quite a bit different if I had been able to think about these things in the way he does.

Examples:

19.  In private life the word we is a pretension, an exaggeration of the word I.  We is the wished-for I, the I as a gang, the I as somebody else as well.  Coupledom can be so dismaying because the other person never really joins in. Or rather, they want exactly the same thing, but from a quite different point of view.

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27.  At its best monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with; at its worst it is a cure for the terrors of aliveness. They are easily confused.

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39.  If sex brought us in to the family, it is also what breaks us out of the family.  In other words, people leave home when what they have got to hide — their sexuality — either has to be hidden somewhere else, or when it is best shown somewhere else.

If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nowhere to go. Which is one of the reasons why couples sometimes want to be totally honest with each other.

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40. Every marriage is a blind date that makes you wonder what the alternatives are to a blind date.

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45.  Rules are ways of imagining what to do.  Our personal infidelity rituals — the choreography of our affairs — are the parallel texts of our ‘marriages.’  Guilt, by reminding us what we mustn’t do, shows us what we may want; it shows us our moral sense, the difference between what we want, and what we want to want.  Without the possibility of a double life there is no morality.

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Is all this is making you cross and headachy? It shouldn’t.  Monogamy is not prescriptive.  It’s not expository.  As you may already have noticed, it’s a collection of short — sometimes one-sentence — observations on its subject.  What the French call apercus.  There are only 121 of them.  Lots of white space on each page.  Lots of time to roll each around in your mind. No need to hurry on to the next.  (Except perhaps out of curiosity.)  You can open the book anywhere.  Put it down anywhere.  Go back and read some of it again before you’ve got to the end.

But let’s back up.  Who is Adam Phillips?  If you’re not British or in the shrinkage business, you may not have heard of him.  Not being in either of those two categories, I hadn’t heard of him either. Then he was interviewed about a recent book of his in The Paris Review.  (The book? Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.) What I read there whetted my appetite to learn more.

Phillips is not only an author but a prominent British psychoanalyst.  He studied English literature at Oxford before becoming interested in psychoanalysis. (His particular interest was in children.)  After finishing his analytic training, he worked in the National Health Service for seventeen years, and from 1990 until 1997 was principal child psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital in London.  But when he found the Health Service’s tightening bureaucratic demands growing too restrictive, he left to open a private practice in Notting Hill.  He now treats adult patients four days a week and writes every Wednesday.

As a psychoanalyst, he has been a maverick, so that he’s been called “ludic and elusive and intellectually slippery.”  He also declines to defend psychoanalysis as a science or field of academic study, preferring to think of it as “a set of stories that will sustain …. our appetite for life.”  He has also said that for him, “psychoanalysis has always been of a piece with the various languages of literature — a kind of practical poetry.”

As a writer, his thinking has clearly been informed by his psychoanalytic practice with children. In addition, he’s  been described by The (London) Times as “the Martin Amis of British psychoanalysis” for his “brilliantly amusing and often profoundly unsettling” work; and by John Banville as “one of the finest prose stylists in the language, an Emerson of our time.”

[He’s also, as shrinks go, photogenic — if that cuts any ice with you.]

It may be that I made a mistake in beginning with Monogamy.  I picked it because it was short and sounded easy.  (Ha!) Here are some of the other Phillips books I might have chosen instead. [And this isn’t the whole list.  There’s even a new one on Freud’s life coming out this month.  His Wednesdays are apparently quite productive!]

  • On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored:  Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life
  • On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life
  • Houdini’s Box: On the Arts of Escape
  • The Beast In the Nursery: On Curiosity and Other Appetites
  • On Kindness
  • On Balance
  • Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature

On second thought, Monogamy was not a mistake.  Perhaps it’s the masochist still lingering in my depths even after twenty-four years of (non-consecutive) shrinkage. But stupid or no, I do find the book a keeper.  Here’s some more.  Maybe you too will develop a taste for it.

28.  There is always the taken-for-granted relationship and the precarious relationship, the comforting routine and the exciting risk.  The language won’t let us mix them up.  We have safety and danger, habit and passion, love and lust, attachment and desire, marriage and affairs.  We are not mixed up enough.  In other words, we still have bodies and souls.

******

58.   The point about trust is that it is impossible to establish.  It is a risk masquerading as a promise.  The question is not do you trust your partner? But do you know what they think trust is? And how would you go about finding out? And what might make you believe them? And what would make you trust your belief?

Trust is a word we have to put too much trust in.

******

60.     Self-betrayal is a sentimental melodrama; a deification of our own better judgement, an adoration of shame.  I am always true to myself, that is the problem.  Who else could I be true to?

When I say that I have let myself down, I am boasting.  I am the only person I cannot avoid being faithful to. My sexual relationship with myself, in other words, is a study in monogamy.

******

64.     It is always flattering when a married person wants to have an affair with us; though we cannot help wondering exactly what will be compared with what. In fact, we become merely a comparison, just a good or bad imitation.

To resent this would be to believe that we could ever be anything else.

******

65.  No one gets the relationship they deserve.  For some people this is a cause of unending resentment, for some people it is the source of unending desire. And for some people the most important thing is that they have found something that doesn’t end.

******

69.   There is always someone else who would love me more, understand me better, make me feel more sexually alive.  This is the best justification we have for monogamy — and infidelity.

******

121.   Monogamy and infidelity: the difference between making a promise and being promising.

******

51.   Serial monogamy is a question not so much of quantity as of quality; a question not of how many but of the order; of how the plot hangs together. Of what kind of person seems to be telling the story.

******

53.   The outlaw, the femme fatale, the heretic, the double agent, the pun — infidelity gets all the action. It has the glamour of the bad secret and the good lie. It travels because it has to, because it believes in elsewhere.

So what would we have to do to make monogamy glamorous? Or rather, what would we have to stop doing?

******

And how do I stop quoting?  [Monogamy, you see, becomes addictive.]  By reminding myself you can always get your own copy.  Me, I’m going on to Promises, Promises (see above).  That one is essays.  Essays I can do.  Apercus?   I’m still working on my French.

 

SHELLEY AND MY MOTHER’S TWO BIRTHDAYS

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The retired historians who belong to the reading group of which I am somewhat hesitantly the chairperson are politely outspoken in their scorn for works of fiction.  They clearly favor reading books called “history” or “biography” — books based on research into what they call “facts” and what I (the retired lawyer) would call “alleged facts,” except that I’m reluctant to stir the pot during our pleasant lunches.

However, when I once mentioned to these very serious readers that Robespierre, a historical figure, is supposed to have declared: “Facts are fiction!” — they thought either I was joking or Robespierre was.

I don’t know about Robespierre, but I wasn’t.  At least not entirely.  I do understand that when geologists and archeologists go digging, what they dig up is factual.  It exists.  But what they make of their pieces of rock or their pot shards is another matter entirely and not necessarily “fact” at all.  The construction placed on these discoveries very much depends on what else the geologists and archeologists already “know” and don’t know.

Historical and biographical fact is even more slippery. Who recorded the event?  How accurately?  What was the bias of that person?  What did they omit, either intentionally or not?  Which allegedly factual records, once made, have survived, and which were destroyed, either intentionally or not, before a later account of them could be made, which itself must be subject to questions about bias and accuracy?

Take for instance the contretemps involving a baby originally thought to have possibly been born to the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley late in 1818.  The “facts” known until the mid-twentieth century were that his wife Mary did not bear him a little girl at this time and that the poet wrote a letter to his friend Leigh Hunt in England containing obscure references to a “situation” in Naples in December 1818, because of which Paolo, a rascally servant, was trying to extort money from him.  There was also recorded gossip between the English expatriates in Italy during this period that Mary’s step-sister Claire Clairmont, who was traveling with them, was the mother of an infant fathered by Shelley.

In the 1940’s, a literary scholar, N.I. White, discovered more “facts” about the baby in the official documents in the Neapolitan State archive:  a registration of birth of Elena Adelaide Shelley, signed by Shelley, stating the child was Shelley’s daughter and the date and time she was born; a certificate of baptism, also signed by Shelley and also stating the child to be Shelley’s daughter; and a death certificate, dated after the Shelleys had left Naples, stating where and when in Naples little Elena Adelaide had died.  The documents also state that the child’s mother was Shelley’s wife Mary — patently a falsehood.  Not only was there not a shred of other documentary or testimonial evidence that Mary had been pregnant or had given birth to this baby in 1818.  The baby would also not have been left behind with foster parents (at whose home she died) when the Shelleys left Naples if she had been legitimate, and there would have been no blackmail.

So who was the mother?  White concluded, with regret, the gossip was true. He noted that Shelley and Claire had had a week alone together the previous April (1818), while traveling to Venice to visit Lord Byron, with whom Claire already had a little daughter named Allegra. He therefore deduced Mary must later have helped Claire hide the pregnancy resulting from her relations with Shelley until the baby was born.

Was that fact?  Or fiction?  If true, how could Shelley, Mary and Claire have continued together until 1822, when Shelley died, and the two women have gone on staying cordially in touch afterwards?  Moreover, Claire was devastated with grief when Allegra died, although by then she detested Byron.  She showed no emotion whatsoever in her diaries, letters, or to anyone who recorded a meeting with her in 1820 when little Elena died, although she loved Shelley all her life.

[Just in case you’re wondering, I know all this because when I was thirteen, I too loved Shelley truly and deeply, and when I requested a Shelley biography for Christmas, my father found me a used copy of the two volumes of White, which I devoured twice over, lengthy footnotes and all.]

While I was in graduate school and long past my love affair with Shelley, I nevertheless noted with interest in a copy of the PMLA (Publications of the Modern Language Association) that further Shelley scholarship into this matter had later focussed on an additional fact not known to or considered by White:  Claire’s private daily diaries throughout these years had an X in the corner of some pages, but not in the corners of many others.   What could that mean?  The writer of the PMLA article finally worked it out:  Claire had marked the commencement of each of her periods in her private diary with one of those X’s.  And there was no interruption of X’s in 1818! Thus, irrespective of what she had done or not done with Shelley while traveling to meet Lord Byron in April 1818, she could not have been little Elena Adelaide’s mother.

So in 1975, Richard Holmes, in Shelley, The Pursuit, a fine and in almost all ways authoritative biography on which its author toiled for eight years (and which of course I had to read for auld lang’s syne), placed motherhood of Elena Adelaide with Paolo’s wife Elise, the comely Swiss governess of Mary and Shelley’s two children.  He had reasonably persuasive “proof.”  I won’t bore you with it.  At some point, someone else will come up with another hitherto unknown “fact,” and the probable “fact” of Elise’s motherhood may well become a fiction.

Closer to home are the questions now surrounding the presumably factual matter of my mother’s birthday, which has mysteriously become two birthdays. When I was young, she had just one.  It was July 16.  There was some initial confusion about the year of her birth;  for a while both she, and therefore I, said it was 1905. However, when I was in my thirties and we were having a conversation about her age and mine, my father interrupted to correct her. He said she had been born in 1904, a statement with which she at once agreed, since she would never dream of challenging anything my father said.

As for me, I could not challenge it on her behalf  because it was corroborated by the “27” inscribed on my 1931 birth certificate as “mother’s age.” The possibility that he, the “father,” may have given the hospital officials this information about the “mother” did not then occur to me. However, the manifest of the ship on which she came from Europe to Ellis Island in 1922 lists her as 18. I didn’t see this manifest until after she died, when my older son found it on the internet, but I have to assume she herself told the ship’s purser how old she was, which kind of settles the year-of-birth controversy definitively. At least for me. Unless something more turns up.  Although I have always wondered why, if she had been intentionally fudging her age when she said her birthdate was 1905, she’d do it by only one year.  If you wanted to stay 39 a bit longer, wouldn’t you have arranged for it to last three or four more years instead of only one?  So perhaps it hadn’t been intentional fudging.  Perhaps she really didn’t remember.  Or had stopped counting.  Or something like that.

But about July 16 there was, until recently, no question.  That’s the day we celebrated with cake and presents, the day she received birthday cards, the day marked in my calendar all the years of her life, and marked in my mind even now.  Seven days before mine.  Always.

Until one of my daughters-in-law decided to construct a family tree for her first-born so he should know from whom he came.  Using a website called Ancestry.com, she worked it all out and sent me a copy of what she had done to check the part of it I knew about.  Much to my surprise, her tree declared my mother’s birthday to be February 14.  At first, I thought my daughter-in-law had found and relied on some reference to the old Julian calendar, which was in use in Imperial Russia when my parents were born.  But that would have produced a difference of thirteen days, not five months and two days.  I inquired.  She said she had found February 14 in Ancestry.com’s Social Security Registry.  What could be more factual than that?  Social Security?  Rock-solid documentation. The government never makes a mistake!

But could that be said of my mother?  When she worked before marrying my father (who thought it demeaning for a man’s wife to be employed outside the home), there was no Social Security.  So she first applied for a card when she returned to the workplace after I was safely in college.

I can picture her in the Lord & Taylor Personnel Office in November 1951, applying for her first paying job since her marriage twenty-six years before. A nice-looking forty-seven year-old lady with a charming accent, dressed in a becoming suit and neat pumps with medium heels, her face carefully made up with Helena Rubinstein cosmetics.  She was hoping to be hired as a temporary Christmas-season saleslady.  She was nervous.  They gave her all this paperwork to do.  She had to take off her gloves, and fish her glasses out of her purse, and her hand was probably shaking.  But why did she put down her birthdate as February 14? Who was born on that day?  Not me or my father.  Was it her mother?  Her brother? Or did some government functionary in a Social Security office somewhere misread her Cyrillic-flavored handwriting when transcribing for future and perpetual reference the information she had written on her application?  Perhaps, and more likely, she had simply become confused at having to labor over this bothersome task.

I’m sure she handed it in without checking her work.  She got the job. But her mistake lives on. The California Registry of Births and Deaths, also available on Ancestry.com, lists the “right” birthdate on her death certificate:  July 16.  But it was me, her daughter, who supplied that date to the assisted living facility where she died, which passed it along to the California registry. Which means it’s not dispositive in resolving the dilemma.

So now my mother has two birthdays, recorded in two separate government registries, where both birthdays will be preserved for as long as such records are kept.  Would my mother have cared about the discrepancy?  Not a bit.  If pressed for an explanation while she was alive, she might have waved the question away with a disclaimer — “I don’t understand such things.”  If she could now speak from beyond the grave, she might understand, but what she would understand would be something else.

She would shrug the shoulders that don’t exist anymore and say, “What does it matter?  It’s past, it’s done, it’s over.”  And Shelley might say the same.

That’s why I prefer fiction. When well written.  You know for sure what you’re getting.

FINISHING WHAT I STARTED

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The story thus far:  In her last post, Bad Girl was confessing to having been greedy and self-indulgent about books, to having bought books more quickly than she can read them.  Bad Girl of course is me, the one with the punitive super-ego and a determination to finish whatever I start, however long it takes. That goes for both (a) reading the books on the windowsill and (b) telling you about them.  Telling is easier and faster than reading.  Are you up for it?

1. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. Three-volume boxed set. I did manage to make my way through half a one-volume edition in my twenties, but never finished. Why begin again? Because two Septembers ago, I re-read Anna Karenina,  after more than half a century. This time I loved it so much.  The half-century had changed me as a reader.  Anna was no longer just the story of an adulterous love affair gone bad, as I once thought, which had made much of the rest of the book uninteresting. It was a whole vanished world brought back to life, a world in which Anna played only a not-so-admirable, although tragic, part, and one I hated to leave when I reached the last page. War and Peace is longer than Anna, so I thought having it in three volumes rather than a single heavy and bulky one would make it physically easier to hold and read.  It’s also a beautiful edition, bound in wine-colored cloth.  In fact, just telling you about it makes me want to drop everything and begin. Ah, well.

2. Beethoven, by Lewis Lockwood. A year ago Bill and I took a terrific night course at Princeton Adult School on listening to Beethoven’s  piano sonatas, taught by Scott Burnham, the Schiede Professor of Music at Princeton University.  He was witty, lyrical, enthusiastic, gymnastic, and wore jeans:  everything one wants, and rarely gets, all rolled up in a single professor. He recommended Lockwood as the one book to read on Beethoven if we were going to read only one.  (In number two place was  Maynard Solomon’s Beethoven  — the psychological approach to biography. But I had already bought and read that one.) We’ve signed up for a second course with Burnham this spring.  He will almost certainly recommend another book.  Fortunately, there’s still room on the metaphorical windowsill.

3.  A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel. I loved, loved, loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies — the first two remarkable books in her three-volume fictional account of the life of Thomas Cromwell. It was so hard to emerge from the sixteenth century when I had finished that I had to go back to read many parts again. Hurry up with the third volume, Hilary!  In the meanwhile, there’s this book, also fictional, which she wrote earlier about three men who counted for a lot in the French Revolution: Robespierre, Danton and Camille Desmoulins. 748 pages in paperback, though. Which explains why it’s still on the windowsill.

4.  The End of the Story, by Lydia Davis.  Davis is the skilled and sensitive translator of the most recent edition in English of Proust’s Swann’s Way.  Her ability to tame his labyrinthian, sometimes page-long sentences into beautiful and accurate readability was extraordinary.  She also writes short — often very very short — stories, which have been collected and can currently be purchased all together in one book. This one is her only “novel,” and is much slimmer, so I thought I would start with that.  Except I haven’t. Yet.

5.  This Is The Story of A Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett. A novelist whose work I have read only sporadically, and chiefly when her short stories appear in The New Yorker  (to which I’ve subscribed faithfully, with very few breaks, since I was twenty and a youthful admirer of J.D. Salinger, whose stories were then appearing in its pages). Patchett recently became the co-proprietor of a bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee, where she now lives — so that Nashville should have a place where one can buy the kinds of books she likes to read.  I visited Nashville several times during the year one of my sons was working there and concluded that Nashville did indeed need an independent bookstore.  Which predisposed me to like Patchett and therefore to acquire this, her latest book — a collection of essays and other short pieces.  I am particularly inclined to short pieces, not only because they are short, but because they are what I have been trying to write, both before the blog and also now that I’m blogging. I’ve always maintained that you learn to write by reading. Even at eighty-two. Just give me time.

6.  Little Failure, A Memoir, by Gary Shteyngart. His fourth and newest book. I’m beginning to like memoirs, if well written, much better than most fiction.  Moreover, Shteyngart is a funny, sad, bitter and skillful writer, who is also a Russian Jew brought to Brooklyn by his parents when he was seven.  That makes us landsmen, although he’s about half my age. Also, I read his first two and enjoyed them.  How could I not buy this one? (P.S.  “Little Failure” is what his parents used to call him.  In Russian, of course.)

7. Coin Street Chronicles, by Gwen Southgate.  Last fall, Bill and I participated in a seminar course on “Five Angry Young Men and One Woman” at the Evergreen Forum, a lifelong learning program in Princeton designed principally for “seniors.” It was taught by Lee Harrod, an emeritus professor of The College of New Jersey. We read and discussed novels and plays written in England during the two decades after World War II. Gwen Southgate, who I did not know before, was also in the class.  As a child, she had lived through that war in England, and had much of great interest to tell us.  (Had there been a class vote, we two would have been tied for Most Talkative.) One of the others in the class let it be known that Gwen had written a memoir about her childhood. She is my contemporary.  Despite the dissimilarities between us  — as you may note from her occasional comments on this blog, which she is kind enough to follow — how could I not buy her book?  Now I just have to find time to read it.

8. Lit, A Memoir, by Mary Karr.  A mistaken purchase.  Last spring, I took a short Princeton University course for auditors  about Literary Memoir.  A reading list was posted online, but later revised.  This book was on the original list and then removed, but I had already bought a used copy of it.    Although it was no longer part of the curriculum, I kept it for future reading because it’s a confessional. (“Lit” being a colloquial synonym for “drunk.”)  I too once wrote 187 pages of a confessional, which is still on my computer.  (Original title: “My Secret Life.” Now retitled. Not about alcoholism.) My 187 pages were intended to be Part I of a two-part book.  However, I never could work out how to do the second part and thought I might get some ideas from Karr. Since I haven’t had the time or urge to read her book yet, I still draw a blank on finishing my own.  Sorry, no more questions.

9. The AfterLife, Essays and Criticism, by Penelope Fitzgerald.  She was a wonderful novelist who began to write relatively late in life.  The Blue Flower is unforgettable, but I have also found pleasure in all her other novels, and have re-read many of them. This book, published posthumously, contains her non-fiction. I have no idea what I will find when I sit down with it.  I bought the book because what’s in it was from her. When I find an author this good, I’m intensely loyal.

10. Memories of a Marriage, by Louis Begley.  Another loyalty choice. It may be good, it may be less good: I don’t care. Begley was an international corporate lawyer at a major New York law firm (he’s now retired) who took a three month sabbatical to write his first book, Wartime Lies, at the age of 63. I give paperback copies of it to everyone I care about.  It attached me to him for life, although I am less fond of some of his subsequent fiction, which is concerned with the problems of aging men.  (Caveat: Why The Dreyfus Affair Matters, not fiction, is a must-read.)  When I see Begley has put out a new book, I buy it.  Simple as that.  This is the latest.

11. The Conquest of Happiness, by Bertrand Russell. A very used and yellowed copy, purchased last summer after a brief fling with Gretchen Rubin’s blog, The Happiness Project.  Gretchen recommended it.  She went to Yale Law School and clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court before she became a blogger. So maybe she knows something I don’t.  Besides, who doesn’t want to be happy?  Then I got happier.  Not necessarily thanks to her. So I haven’t read the book yet.

12. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. Another Gretchen recommendation.  She loves children’s books.  (She has two little girls, according to her blog.)  This book, I know, is a classic.  However, I never read or gave it to my own children when they were young. So I was curious. Curiosity may not kill (if you’re not a cat), but it does result in less space on your shelf.

13. Frenchwomen Don’t Get Facelifts, by Mireille Guilano.  Don’t laugh.  I have a certain interest in both France and facelifts. [Two summers ago I ventured to explore this facelift business with an actual cosmetic surgeon, but decided no. Didn’t know that about me, did you?]  Also, my younger son once made me a present of Guilano’s earlier book, Frenchwomen Don’t Get Fat, when he saw me eyeing it in a bookstore.  It was a fun read, and I kept it — possibly because of who had bought it for me. Obviously I needed its sequel.  Well, I did.  Didn’t I?  Didn’t I?

14. Diving for Pearls, A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, by Kathleen B. Jones.  I met Kathy last October at a very crowded fund-raiser tea given in New York by Persimmontree, an online magazine of the arts by women over sixty.  I was there with a friend who had contributed a piece to the magazine, as I had done.  Kathy was the guest of another contributor.  We found ourselves face to face in the crush — many contributors, small private house — and got to talking.  She is a retired American academic now living in Bristol, England and writing up a storm.  Blog, book, articles.  We liked each other, and promised to stay in touch.  Then she went back to England. This book on her intellectual/philosophical journey with Hannah Arendt, which she mentioned during the tea, was published last November, after a sizable excerpt had appeared in the Los Angeles Times. I read the excerpt and bought the book.  Well, wouldn’t you? Although I’m not much of a philosopher, the reason the book’s still on the windowsill is a time thing. Really and truly. If we do get together again in the spring, which we discussed but now seems to me doubtful considering how busy she is with Arendt conferences, of course I will read it first.  (And hope I understand it.)  I never show up without having done my homework!

15. Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan.  Another quasi-loyalty selection. Enjoyed Atonement and Saturday.  Thought On Chesil Beach was well done, although I found it hard to believe.  (But then I’m not English.)  So why not his next one?  Sweet Tooth has only been in the house for about two weeks, and I might actually be able to get to it in the foreseeable future, as it doesn’t seem too taxing. It may therefore be only a temporary windowsill resident.

16. 2666, by Roberto Bolano.  I forgot why I had bought this and had to look at the cover and frontispiece to refresh my memory. There I learned that Bolano lived in Mexico and Spain, where he died prematurely at the age of 50. 2066 was published posthumously and won major awards in Spain and Latin America. When translated into English by Natasha Wimmer, it won the National Book Critics Circle Award. But in paperback it has 898 pages, which partially explains why I have been slow to begin.  But only partially explains.  The description of it in The Washington Post is also off-putting:  “With 2066, Bolano joins the ambitious overachievers of the twentieth-century novel, those like Proust, Musil, Joyce, Gaddis, Pynchon, Fuentes and Vollmann, who push the novel far past the conventional size and scope to encompass an entire era, deploying encyclopedic knowledge and stylistic verve to offer a grand, if sometimes idiosyncratic, summation of their culture and the novelist’s place in it.  Bolano has joined the immortals.”  And here is Francine Prose, in Harper’s Magazine: “The opening of 2066 had me in thrall from those first few pages….For all the precision and poetry of its language, for all the complexity of its structure, for all the range of styles and genres it acknowledges and encompasses, for all its wicked humor, its inventiveness and sophistication, 2666 seems like the work of a literary genius.”  Will I be smart enough for this book?  Or will I go down in defeat? I hesitate to find out.

17. My Early Life, by Winston Churchill.  A third Gretchen Rubin recommendation. I read this long ago just after Churchill died, but somehow became separated from my original copy.  Since Gretchen recommended it, I bought it again, to see what she thought was so special about it.  Haven’t yet re-read it.

18. Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell.  A purchase driven by having seen and enjoyed the movie made of the book on Netflix. Wanted more. After a few pages, the book itself proved too much more.  Maybe I’ll do better with it another time.

19. Elizabeth Gaskell, by Jenny Uglow.  Biography of the author. Don’t say I’m not thorough when I decide to look into something.

20. Works on Paper, The Craft of Biography and Autobiography, by Michael Holroyd.  I liked both parts of his own autobiography.  This one is a collection of short pieces on a subject in which I am interested.  Perhaps it will teach me something more about how to write about myself? (Which, as you can’t help but notice, I do quite a bit of.)  We’ll find out if I ever get around to reading it.

21. Less Than One, Selected Essays, by Joseph Brodsky. From Bill.  Too important to give back.  Too gloomy to take to the bathroom.  Dilemma.  Windowsill.

22. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, by Alan Jacobs.  Also from Bill.  I do like the title.  And it’s a very slender book.  So it’s a keeper. For now.

23. Gulag, A History, by Anne Applebaum.  The Gulag was, of course, the vast array of Soviet concentration camps that held millions of political and criminal prisoners, and part of the system of repression and punishment that terrorized an entire society. This book about it, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, was so highly praised we bought it twice.  I bought it for Bill as a surprise, and Bill bought it for Bill before my surprise arrived.  So then he had two copies, and guess who got the other one. I do not dispute its merit.  “The most authoritative — and comprehensive — account of this Soviet blight ever published by a Western writer.” (Newsweek)  “A titanic achievement: learned and moving and profound….No reader will easily forget Applebaum’s vivid accounts of the horrible human suffering of the Gulag.”  (National Review) “Lucid, painstakingly detailed, never sensational, it should have a place on every educated reader’s shelves.” (Los Angeles Times)  I modestly admit I am an educated reader, and now the book does have a place on my shelves.  But the thing is, I don’t want to read vivid accounts of horrible human suffering.  It’s bad enough to know such suffering existed.  Must I?  I suppose I must.  Just not yet, please….

24. Hermit in Paris, by Italo Calvino.  A third from Bill. Probably not long for the windowsill.  Flipping through it one day, I discovered a snippy bit about my alma mater.  This classy author was arch and snide about Sarah Lawrence College?  No, Italo, no!  I can be arch and snide if I want, but you can’t. I’m a graduate, you were a guest. If you keep this up the next time I flip your pages, back to Bill you go!

25. Unknown Masterpieces: Writers Rediscover Literature’s Hidden Classics.  Bill can’t stop.  Why does he keep doing this to me?  Doesn’t he think I have enough to read?  On the other hand, this one is easy to tuck into a large handbag for reading away from home.  Interesting short pieces by writers I have heard of (like John Updike, Susan Sontag, Francine Prose, Toni Morrison, Lydia Davis, Elizabeth Hardwick) about writers I’ve never heard of that the known-to-me writers consider “hidden classics.”  Why not?  Let it stay.  It might come in handy sometime.

26-28.  Portrait of A Lady;The Wings of the Dove;The Golden Bowl, all by Henry James.  I once audited a course at Princeton on the novels of Henry James and William Faulkner because these two authors, who are each in his own way difficult, represented yawning gaps in my reading experience. In the course, we had time only to read James’s Daisy Miller, The American, The Ambassadors, The Turn of the Screw and four or five of the short stories.  Unfortunately, I tend to become overenthusiastic about whatever I do while I’m doing it, although the glow often fades fast afterwards.  So it was with James.  Wings and Bowl are two of the late difficult novels we didn’t cover in class that I just had to have, and Portrait is too well known not to have read.  I was certainly going to attend to all three of them when the semester was over. That was nearly three years ago.

29-32. Go Down Moses; Light in August; Absalom, Absalom; Selected Short Stories, all by William Faulkner. For an explanation of why these are in my home, see 26-28 above.  Different author, but same Princeton course, same initial enthusiasm, same result.  Shelved, until further notice.

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In the interests of full disclosure, I admit that I’m omitting discussion of the titles on my iPad, whether from Kindle or iBook, because this post is now far too long as it is, and I can’t believe anyone could possibly still be sufficiently interested in it to scroll down any further.

I am also not mentioning James Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (other than Swann’s Way), Dante’s Inferno and the Shakespeare plays I haven’t yet read, all of which I hope I will read before I die — because I’ve owned copies of them for far longer than three years and if we begin examining my entire library, we will not be done for a very long time.  Enough is enough.  Even for me.

Out of the confessional and on to something else.  Any suggestions?

BAD GIRL

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IMG_0174Bad Girl buys too many books. She doesn’t go to the library, as a frugal older person on a limited income should do, because she doesn’t want to wait for the book she wants. With books, she’s the instant gratification type.

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t wait once she owns it. Her wants are sometimes fleeting. Or they require serious undivided attention for at least a week or more and therefore cannot be attended to right now. Or they may be such frivolous impulse purchases that she feels she’d be wasting time with them best spent elsewhere, and needs a long beach vacation or a broken bone that requires much rest while it heals in order to justify indulging herself in these frothy trifles.

As a result, she is behind, far far behind, on her reading.

Last night — driven by guilt — she lined up on the windowsill all the books she’s acquired in the last three years or so that she still hasn’t read, the ones that came so easily with a click of the mouse from Amazon. [Without shipping charges, of course — because Bad Girl is a Prime Member.] Or came from Bill, a Bad Boy himself in this regard, because he thought she might be interested, so how can she give them back?  [Actually, she gave many back, or else the windowsill wouldn’t have been long enough.]

Amazon isn’t Bad Girl’s only accomplice here. There’s also Kindle, for when she really and truly can’t wait even the two days it takes from Amazon.  Except she clearly can wait, because she hasn’t read any of these yet either, except some of the Janet Malcolm on the train going in to New York.

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And let’s not forget iBooks, where three of the five titles on her iPad were free, which is why she acquired them in the first place.  Acquired for when?  When is she going to sit down for a romp through The Brothers Karamazov, or Shakespeare’s Sonnets? If she ever finds herself on a desert island, will there be a charger station for the iPad?

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Bad Girl is well aware that the eleventh of her twelve principles for getting better at getting older, as set forth in this very blog at the beginning of the year, is “Invest in Me.  (Spend on doing, not acquiring.)”  She feels, however, that books are a special case.  They may be tangible objects to be acquired. [If in digital form, the tablet on which to read them is the tangible acquisition.]  But unless you’re buying books with no intention of actually opening them, solely because you are decorating the walls of a library to be photographed in Dwell Magazine, you’re acquiring them to do something more with them. Sooner or later, you’re going to read them.  And reading is doing.

So why isn’t Bad Girl getting on with it?  Apart from the somewhat superficial excuses offered above?  Because she’s already reading her head off in the time remaining after laboring over blog posts, making the bed, getting in the groceries, wondering whether to resume piano lessons.  She belongs to two book groups, each of which tackles a non-frivolous book a month.  The first is a History Reading Group;  she joined it after some procedural difficulties (another story, another post) because she thought reading history would be good for her.  Now she knows she was wise not to major in History when in college, but she can’t skip a month’s reading with this group, because after some attrition among the other members, she found herself unanimously selected as Chairperson before she had a chance to say no.  It’s hard to show up and admit you haven’t read the book when you’re Chairperson.  So right now, she’s reading this:

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As a non-historian, Bad Girl rarely vetoes the choice of those members of the group who are, or were, historians, unless the book looks very long and very dry.  The Stewart book was written by a former lawyer, which for her was a plus in its favor;  believe it or not, lawyers tend to write clearly, which cannot be said of all historians.  It was selected by the others, without demurrer from Bad Girl, because the last book the group read was Gore Vidal’s Burr, a fictionalized version of Aaron Burr’s life and of the political history of the time as Vidal imagined Burr would see it.

One of the members of the group who admits he is uncomfortable with fiction therefore wanted to read, as a check on any possible flights of fancy in which Vidal might have indulged, a book about Burr which purports to be all historical fact.  This despite Robespierre’s famous declamation that “Fact is fiction!” — which Bad Girl mentioned during the meeting. The proponent of the Stewart book thought Bad Girl was teasing him and brushed past this interesting idea.  [As a result, it may become a future post.]  Bad Girl is therefore reading the Stewart book. She has until February 28 to finish it.

[Who was Aaron Burr?  A colonel in the American Revolution and George Washington’s aide, he later became Thomas Jefferson’s first Vice-President. But he was most famous for being the Founding Father who in 1804 killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel over some “despicable” animadversion on his — Burr’s — name. Vidal hypothesized in his fictionalized account that Hamilton’s “despicable” remark was that Burr had slept with his own daughter.  However, there is no documentation to support the hypothesis, and Vidal doesn’t claim there is.  Burr was later tried for treasonable conduct in the Western part of the new United States, the part that’s now the Mid-West, and was acquitted.  But you don’t need to know all that.  Or if you do, read the book.]

The second book group to which Bad Girl belongs meets monthly from September to May — each time in the home of a different member.  [There are just enough members to make it through the nine months.]  All the members are women “of a certain age.”  Each gets to pick a book. Since the hostess-members come from a variety of educational backgrounds and countries of origin, it’s hard to generalize about what is chosen.  So far this year, the group has worked its way through

(1) Proust’s Swann’s Way (in Lydia Davis’s excellent new translation) for the two meetings in September and October:  one section of the book per month, leaving the third section, “Place Names,” for optional reading on one’s own;

(2) Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, a doorstopper of a book, for the meeting in November;

(3) Leslie Maitland’s Crossing the Borders of Time,  a book Bad Girl could hardly bring herself to finish and does not recommend, for the meeting in December; and

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(4) Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad  for January.  This fourth book was Bad Girl’s own choice.  She bought it when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and inserted it into the group’s reading for the year because it has been described as “post-post-modern” and would therefore prove controversial with the other ladies. Also because it had been sitting among the unread purchases on her metaphorical windowsill for over a year, and she really wanted a mandatory reason to read it.

Now she has read it, and will be glad to offer her thoughts about this intellectually stimulating, highly participatory and beautifully constructed novel if anyone leaves a reply expressing desire for them.

Bad Girl also wants you to know that up ahead for the group is Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac in February (fortunately Bad Girl has already read it several times); Madame de Stael’s Delphine and Corinne in March; Christa Wolf’s Medea in April; and Henry James’s Portrait of A Lady — already on the windowsill in May.

Moreover, she has an additional excuse for the book-laden windowsill. Besides the Egan and Stewart books, she has currently been reading the first volume of Parade’s End.  This she purchased so as to better understand the plot of the movie made from the book — a movie she saw only for more Benedict Cumberbatch viewing pleasure than was available until last Sunday, when the third series of Sherlock began.

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Nonetheless she probably won’t finish the Ford book right now.  She’s read enough to understand how Tom Stoppard cut and pasted its separate parts to make the shooting script she couldn’t follow (not having previously read the book).  She must hurry on to other things.  Sadly, in the near future Parade’s End may well join her many other unread books on the windowsill.

Bad Girl did intend to make a full confession here by listing the titles of all the books on the windowsill (for the most part not visible in the photograph) and on her iPad  — which holds both her Kindle and iBook purchases — and then explaining why she wanted them, or agreed to accept them, in the first place.  But that, as you can imagine, would take many more paragraphs and therefore be too much for one post.  Not everyone who visits her blog is as book-mad as she is.

However, it is possible she will return tomorrow, in the first person, to finish the job.  And perhaps even the day after that — if there are enough pleas for her views on A Visit from the Goon Squad.  

Be careful what you ask for.  You might get it.