Today, I am sitting inside a comfortable beachside condo, enjoying a precious tea that a Russian friend kindly provided me with, taking in both its nearly indescribable aroma and its delicate perfumed taste. It’s a Basilur family tea imported from Sri Lanka, flavored with “natural cornflower, jasmine buds, blue malva, and flavor roasted almond.” The whiff seems at first to be that of an expensive chocolate, and then one thinks “No, not chocolate exactly–what is that delicious smell?” I have had the luxury of consuming the tea not only as a wonderful gift, but as something I didn’t have to question or think about much, except that I do sometimes after having a tea from Sri Lanka wonder about how they ever got their crops back in order after that frightful tsunami a number of years ago.
I’ve usually had lamb in the same way, especially enjoying having it with my brother, because he appreciates the visceral element in eating meat from the bone, possibly a holdover from our more carnivorous forebears, but when you see the two of us nibbling along the bones held aloft at a private family dinner (one where our company can’t judge us savages), you know we must be kin. And as I say, I’ve not usually given a thought to where the sheep come from, how they are raised, how deprived of life, not much in fact beyond what cut I’m eating and how much it costs. A standard consumer, then. And this in spite of the fact that we are only two generations away from Appalachian small-time farmers ourselves on our father’s side, though I don’t think they had sheep.
Since I’m trying to be as honest as the book I’m reviewing today is, I will confess that my word picture of the tea above is an attempt to make tea lovers (at least) salivate and want to know more. And it’s the very word pictures of the Appalachian countryside, scattered from beginning to end of Richard Gilbert’s book Shepherd, the gorgeous imagery and word poetry which demonstrate not only his love itself of the land, his accomodation to its demands that change with where it’s located in the country, but which also in a literary manner justify that love and draw in the eager reader for more. There is a price to be paid, of course, and that is the price of empathizing with both sheep and shepherd as they suffer as well as glory in life; still, the book itself is true as true can be to living especially in this sense: despite the pain endured and the trials encountered, one can imagine few who would rather go without it.
A general statement from a little past the middle of the book itself which expresses the author’s feel for his subject is this home truth: “Something is always going awry, getting out of control, and otherwise cheating one’s fantasies on a farm.” This might almost be juxtaposed with the statement of a friendly elderly neighbor from another section of the memoir, from a time when the author lived in Bloomington, Indiana in a more residential community before the farm in Athens, Ohio was even thought of except as a remote dream: “You’re happier than you know.” Yet, as one reads forward in the book but back and forth in time in the memoir structure of past juxtaposed to present and then retroactively again, one sees a man and his family going through a much-desired learning experience. One begins to appreciate that it’s the price in lives and lifetime which gives one the right to speak in tropes and epigrams, which are scattered throughout the book, both from the author’s own words and those of the many farmers and breeders whom he acknowledges as his teachers.
One famous epigram I can recall from our own neck of the Appalachian countryside, and which I also found when I went to college for the first time at a school that was located in the midst of an agrarian community, was this punning one: one seems to praise someone by saying “He’s outstanding in his field,” but a sly grin changes this into “He’s out standing in his field,” idly, of course, not a desirable condition for a farmer or an academic. And Richard Gilbert has worn many hats during his lifetime, among others those of both an academic and a sheep farmer, while keeping his sense of humor and his modesty intact as if he were constantly mindful of this very epigram. I first encountered him as a blogger not too long after I signed onto my own site in summer of 2012, and I’ve read his many excellent posts on narrative, memoir and memoir writers, teaching creative non-fiction to students, music, featured guest bloggers, and more (see Richard Gilbert). And this summer, I was finally able to read his memoir Shepherd, which I recommend not just for anyone who has an interest in farming or raising livestock, but for those with a sincere interest in memoir or even narrative fiction: the whole aggravated question of pacing, whether of restraining oneself when one desperately wants to go ahead with a treasured project or of knowing how to pace a memoir or fiction and make it suspenseful and fulfilling and true-to-life is at stake, and Richard Gilbert satisfies, even though he himself is constantly questioning and re-evaluating his own motives.
Like Socrates, the wise man knows only that he knows not, and Gilbert allows us to follow him along in his path across the farming scene, and lets us watch him make mistakes, celebrate successes, and confront the long learning curve of life and death that attends upon even the canniest farmer. He shows us himself in his most soul-searching, depressed, angry, and perhaps even unjust moments, a man willing to learn and seeking answers. He asks at one point, “Was I really just starting to see, so late, that having strong feelings didn’t make me special? That they certainly didn’t make me good?” Again and again, he evaluates himself (even to his genetic inheritance of a weak back) against his father’s plans, disabilities, desires, and accomplishments, and those of other farmers he knows. He describes his struggle to fit into an agrarian community that has its own traditions, suspicions, and ways of doing things, the most innocuous of which perhaps is what he calls “Appalachian Zen”: his friend and employee Sam’s advice to get to work, “Let’s do something even if it is wrong.” And of his imitation of his father, he finally concludes, after a visionary dream which comes to him near the end of his farming venture, “I’ve never seen that while I tried to emulate him, I also tried to outdo him.”
His farming wisdom and advice? As he says, “Many of my breeding-stock customers had [a] broader perspective from the beginning. They didn’t aim to make money. They came to farming seeking aesthetic pleasure and solace from an angry world. And a word had arisen to honor food produced with less control but more craft: artisanal. The goal wasn’t high production per acre, but food infused with love and time. Like art….For the highest quality, nothing beats small, slow, and inefficient.”
His philosophy? His philosophy is not of the cut-and-dried kind which can be communicated in one heartbeat, but of that learning curve, there is certainly at least one wise lesson to be taken in by all of us, and it can be found by tracing an arc from his first sentence (“Childhood dreams cast long shadows into a life”) through to the very last paragraph of his book, when he describes a “sacred moment” which comes back to him as he gets ready to depart his sheep farm for yet another home elsewhere. He remembers his Georgia boyhood on a farm, when he was four or five and was surrounded on a hillside by butterflies which “infuse[d] me with wonder and joy. Because I’m so young, I can’t name, but only receive, their gift: a revelation of life’s unfolding daily abundance: a miracle.” And in that word “miracle” is after all the solution to the vexed question of the learning curve of life and death, given us by an articulate, gifted, and knowledgeable memoirist who, while not mincing words about the negatives, avers that they are only the other side of the positives we prefer to see. But this is to anticipate the reader’s travels with Gilbert, which must be experienced as a whole and followed from beginning to end to fully appreciate such a grand American adventure, and to place the right value on such an inestimable gift to the reading community. Though it may not lead you to adopt a lamb, it will certainly lead you to ponder, laugh, cry, and dream dreams with at least one academic who has earned his agrarian stripes, and that human shepherd is Richard Gilbert.
The Dismantling and Reassembling of an Author’s Reputation–Karen Joy Fowler’s “The Jane Austen Book Club”
Once again, I had decided to read a book I was somewhat skeptical about because of all the hype it had received, and also because when a book has been made into a movie (as I understand this one has been) one has also the dual task, if possible, of being responsible for a comparison of the two, and I haven’t seen the movie. But to forge on ahead–this book is not at all what I expected from what I had heard. I had expected a sort of latter day imitation of Jane Austen’s world, in which (from what I had heard) the characters reading Jane Austen would begin to enact their own interior dramas and have relationships like those in an Austen novel, and would have happy or at least deserved endings, and then (as happens these days) there would be a reader’s guide to glance through for things I might want to think about, and then the book would be over. A “good read,” but nothing spectacular, no fireworks, just a calm, if poignant, reminder of “our Jane” and her achievements. A good read, be it understood, in the same way that Austen is a “good read,” requiring one’s wits for the piercing turn of phrase and one’s contemporary awareness that even Jane had her limits, mainly those of no longer achieving a sort of sexual politics we can nowadays feel comfortable with. After all, marriage is no longer the only game in town.
But this book refused to cooperate with attempts to dismiss it (and I’m not sure now why I was trying to be so lazy), at the same time as it didn’t seem that well done, I couldn’t think why. Perhaps it was because I was expecting a holistic experience, a standard “fourth wall realism” novel, in which (to borrow the term “fourth wall realism” from theater arts) the audience is allowed to maintain its fiction that it is looking at reality. It’s not that The Jane Austen Book Club had any strange events, particularly, or departed from what we know of earth as described by basic biological tenets: it was rather that the structure of the book itself bore a strange resemblance to something that had been dismantled and left on the floor or table in a partial state of reassembly.
True, there were six main characters in the book club, each of whom had a story in which they predominantly figured, and a book each which they were responsible for discussing of the six major works of Jane Austen featured in their discussions. And, there were subsidiary characters who impinged upon their awareness and the plot itself. But the six chapters of the months of the year during which they met, and the extra seventh chapter, and all the additional material included with the novel itself was a little confusing (the book had not a few odd pages of added random information stuck in here and there, and a strange editorial “we” narrative voice, apparently not representing any of the named characters, who spoke up now and then). More and more as the novel went on, it bore the character not of a “fourth wall realistic” novel, which was what I had been expecting from the hype, but of a shattered experience known rather to the postmodern novel, with its characteristic disorientation of the reader and the reader’s presuppositions.
In truth, though I was a little bored with the novel proper, I found the overall tribute to Jane Austen to be quite valid and valuable and interesting. And I don’t say I was bored because it was postmodern in its structure, but because the characters, along with the subsidiary characters who impinged upon their lives, added no real “flow” to the book. It was largely a novel in which each character was briefly sketched, given some lines to say, and made to move toward some other character in the book. The most significant sentence in the entire book occurs near the end of the novel: it says, in the mysterious editorial voice (none of the named characters), “We’d let Austen into our lives, and now we were all either married or dating.” This is presumably the “sop to Cereberus” of an Austen-like result that is meant to conclude the “business” of the tribute in the somewhat scattered pieces of the story line. The after-material is another case, however.
I found that I was easily more interested in the editorial job Fowler had done with the Austen legacy and its documents than I was with the novel itself. At the end of the novel, there is a “Reader’s Guide” (a brief and highly significant quoted paragraph); a quick run-down of the plots of Austen called “The Novels” (apparently intended to supply acquaintance and encouragement for those who haven’t read Austen yet); a section called “The Response,” which I easily found the most intriguing, composed of reactions from Austen’s contemporaries and family members and followed by those of famous writers and critics since; and then the inevitable “Questions for Discussion” and an index of “Acknowledgements.” Once I had made my way through this material, I “saw [the book] steadily and saw [it] whole,” and this allowed a reassembling in my own mind of what I think Fowler’s purpose must have been: I think it was largely an educational one, and though I don’t think the quality of the novel stands up to the quality of the overall project, I am glad I read the book, and can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, though I have expressed various reservations.
My suggestion to readers is this: if you are a new reader of Jane Austen, read at least one Austen of your choice before you read this book. Asking other Austen readers for a recommendation as to which one can be a frustrating task, because it seems that each novel has its own cadre of readers. Maybe looking at Fowler’s section entitled “The Novels” will help you choose. After reading the Austen novel, then read Fowler’s novel from beginning to end, for the purpose of comparing how a latter-day admirer of Austen may write, though I don’t think the two are comparable in quality (Fowler’s effort, though perhaps more familiar in its structure to our contemporary scene, seems a little thin and slapdash by comparison with Austen, and in having made her novel referential, Fowler has invited the comparison). Lastly, and perhaps side-by-side with reading other Austen novels, read the rest of the whole of Fowler’s fine attempt to interest readers in the author whom she so obviously admires, and especially read “The Response” section: everyone, it seems, has an opinion of Austen, and some differ widely (or wildly). My guess is that all-in-all, you will come away with a similar affection for Jane Austen, and a debt of gratitude to Karen Joy Fowler, for having put your feet on the Austen reading path to start out with.
After having read Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s exciting and tumultuous novel The Club Dumas some time ago (it is a free-standing novel at this point, not a part of a series), I made up my mind that his other novels, all apparently written in the great tradition of the adventurous Dumas, must certainly be worth a read too. What with one thing and another, however, I got distracted by other books and literary endeavors, and until I found a copy of his second Captain Alatriste novel, Purity of Blood, on a free shelf at the library, I blush to confess that I had more or less put the great romancer Pérez-Reverte out of my mind.
At first, I hesitated to read the book right away, because usually I am a stickler for doing things in a certain order, and I felt that unless I had already acquired or at least read his first eponymous novel in the series, Captain Alatriste, that I should not go on to the second. But then, a friend assured me that the novels were linked mainly by internal references back and forth to the adventures in each, and each book was still easily readable as a stand-alone experience. So in I leapt. At first, I felt that I was drowning in a sea of Spanish names as Pérez-Reverte built up his world of characters, and I do not know enough Spanish history to be sure, but I suspect that some of the characters in the novel are references to actual poets, con men, and adventurers (other than the king and queen, who appear in cameo fashion, and are of course meant to refer to the real people).
The story is handled very well, and is related by a thirteen-year-old ward of sorts of Captain Alatriste, Íñigo Balboa, in turn with an anonymous omniscient narrator who tells things that happen in Balboa’s absence which he could only know about by being told about them afterwards (which we are free to think is the case if we want). The story flows easily, but the narrative waters are constantly perturbed by the concept of “blood,” both in the amount of it that is (or is in danger of being) shed in petty quarrels and scrapes, and in the troubled history of Spain’s Inquisition period, when the concept of “pure blood” (a descent unmarked by having Jewish or Moorish “blood”) was supreme. I say the concept was supreme, because as the narrator relates from a later period than his thirteen-year-old perspective–and it’s a point made gracefully and well by the rhetoric of events as well as by any rhetoric of declamation, which is kept at a minimum–the concept was all there actually was. As is reiterated by what the characters know already as well as by what they find out, there is no such thing in their world as “pure blood” of any group or category (and our world has already confronted this truth again and again in history, enough to be equally sure, though there are those slow to admit this, and even violently inclined to aver the opposite). People are people, we are all related through Adam and Eve (or through whatever “Ur” figures one chooses to prefer), and any claim to the contrary is a lie.
Romancing about the confrontation of the lie, however, adds another dimension to the dialogue. For example, Pérez-Reverte does not make his positive characters earnest and totally well-intentioned purveyors of the truth, but erstwhile adventurers, scandalous poets, and scoundrels, all of whom have their own reasons for seeking the truth. They are pitted against the evil characters mainly because they are sickened by hypocrisy and have other axes to grind, old grudges and claims and quarrels, and they even have some prejudices of their own against disadvantaged groups, though they do not make victims of these groups. The strongest rhetorical ploy they use which features the question of blood descent in fact comes about because a young nun of Jewish ancestry and the young man, Íñigo Balboa, are in the clutches of the Inquisition, and they must find a way to free them. The very fact that they are not high-flown ministers of justice and the truth but only ordinary culprits and swashbuckling adventurers of men who make use of the truth and come to think the better of the truth in spite of their own prejudices is more convincing in some fictional ways than if they had had totally good intentions themselves to start with.
Finally, there is the rhetoric of the book which cleverly allows the reader not only to participate in a vigorous and page-turning tale of derring-do, but also to feel superior to those benighted characters who persist in their errors to their own undoing. That not all can be saved who should be and not all adequately punished who deserve it is an element of realism which Pérez-Reverte allows to creep into the novel; still, this one realistic gesture makes the otherwise a little fantastic fiction breathe life, and reinforces our awareness of just how unreal the world can become in actual fact when people allow a corrupt idea to lead them into action, and when they make victims of their fellow human beings according to a notion of division and superiority.
I have, of course, written some very serious words about this novel, as I think it deserves, but of course, another good reason to read it is because, quite simply, it’s fun, gripping, and full of wit and wizardry of blade and dagger. After all, it’s not every day our serious lessons about life are accompanied by a generous dose of fantasy and play with history and historical figures. And who better to deliver this combination than Arturo Pérez-Reverte?
First, let me apologize for having been away for so long from posting. I went away to a lovely lake, Lake Champlain, for the July 4th holiday, and some of me didn’t come back right away (mainly, my heart, which is in love with lakeshore trees and breezes in green leaves, and widely various birdsong in the forest, and good times with family and friends). But I’m ready now to re-enter my daily life, and today’s post is on a short story of Yusuf Idris, a writing physician from Egypt. The story is called “The Chair Carrier.” This story, in fact, shows what the whole necessity for revolution and change in society is about, and it does so at the sentence level, symbolically.
Basically, the story is a sort of surreal one, and here is how it begins: “You can believe it or not, but excuse me for saying that I saw him, met him, talked to him and observed the chair with my own eyes. Thus I considered that I had been witness to a miracle. But even more miraculous–indeed more disastrous–was that neither the man, the chair, nor the incident caused a single passer-by in Opera Square, in Gumhourriyya Street, or in Cairo–or maybe in the whole world–to come to a stop at that moment.”
The entire story is taken up with the speaker, a literate and prosperous person, trying to persuade the unread unfortunate chair carrier to lay his burden down (he has apparently been carrying that identical chair since before the time of the Pyramids, in search of the man whom he is to receive permission to put his burden aside from, “Uncle Ptah Ra”). Already here, we have a sort of symbolic double entendre (but of the political and not the sexual kind)–the chair carrier is the same primitive man, unable to read or write, who has been around since time immemorial, the serf or slave of the more fortunate, bowing to their customs and insistences, respecting their whims.
Then, the speaker asks the man what he will do if he cannot find the man he seeks, only to find that he will continue to carry the chair, because it’s been “deposited in trust” with him. The narrator tells us: “Perhaps it was anger that made me say: ‘Put it down. Aren’t you fed up, man? Aren’t you tired? Throw it away, break it up, burn it. Chairs are made to carry people, not for people to carry them.’ ‘I can’t. Do you think I’m carrying it for fun? I’m carrying it because that’s the way I earn my living.’….” Even when the narrator assures the chair carrier that Uncle Ptah Ra is dead long ago, the chair carrier, in another symbolic passage, which is meant to show the nature of serfdom and servility and sheer desperation to be able to support oneself somehow, indicates that he cannot put it down with a “token of authorization” from “his successor, his deputy, from one of his descendants, from anyone with a token of authorization from him.”
Even an outright command from the narrator, who is certainly of higher status, will not persuade the chair carrier that he has permission to put the chair down. Then, suddenly the narrator notices “something that looked like an announcement or sign fixed to the front of the chair. In actual fact, it was a piece of gazelle-hide with ancient writing on it, looking as though it was from the earliest copies of the Revealed Books.” As it turns out, the writing says, “O chair carrier,/You have carried enough/And the time has come for you to be carried in a chair./This great chair,/The like of which has not been made,/Is for you alone./Carry it/And take it to your home./Put it in the place of honor/And seat yourself upon it your whole life long./And when you die./It shall belong to your sons.” This too is highly symbolic, because of course any one individual chair carrier would in reality have been dead after one lifetime anyway, but this chair and this chair carrier symbolize something and someone forever a part of the human scene. Note also that the poetry says that the chair is that “the like of which has not been made,” which seems to contradict the spirit of the rest of the lines, as if it could never happen.
When the narrator reads off this poetic scripture to the chair carrier, the narrator feels joy that at last his interlocutor can put down the chair, because initially overlooked by both of them, this sign gives the necessary permission without which the chair carrier refuses to do other than carry the chair. But the narrator is unable to persuade the man, because as the chair carrier says of himself, he cannot read and does not therefore know for a fact that that is what the sign says: he has no “token of authorization,” and can only accept the reading the narrator has done for him if the narrator has such a token. The chair carrier becomes angry and says, “All I get from you people is obstruction. Man, it’s a heavy load and the day’s scarcely long enough for making just the one round.” He moves off, and leaves the perplexed narrator asking himself confused and bitter questions:
“I stood there at a loss, asking myself whether I shouldn’t catch him up and kill him and thus give vent to my exasperation. Should I rush forward and topple the chair forcibly from his shoulders and make him take a rest? Or should I content myself with the sensation of enraged irritation I had for him? Or should I calm down and feel sorry for him? Or should I blame myself for not knowing what the token of authorization was?” In this series of questions, one can perceive a gradually diminishing element of violence and hostility, until finally the narrator turns the questions in toward himself, and supposes that he himself is ignorant or lacks a certain kind of understanding. These questions in fact symbolically represent the different tactics human often take toward those less fortunate than themselves, those who are forced to live by different rules until at last they often accept their sorrowful lot and think that there is no other possible way for them to exist. Here, the better educated and more fortunate narrator sounds to the chair carrier almost like an agent provocateur, with his suggestions which do not fit within the framework of possibilities that are allowable to the chair carrier.
Yusuf Idris, the author of this remarkable story, worked as a government health inspector in some of the poorest sections of Cairo. This affected his social and political views, and gained him an audience for his works, while causing him also to be imprisoned a number of times. He was finally able to leave medicine due to his popularity and concentrate solely on his writings. What does not perhaps come across in translation (which has been done in this version by Denys Johnson-Davies) is the way in which Idris used spoken language in his compositions, producing his own individual style. Though the story above is so entirely symbolic and speaks of a long history of oppressive regimes in the world, one can almost imagine the concerned government health inspector here in dialogue with one of his poorest patients, trying to persuade him to act for his health and set his burden aside for a time. And while the chair carrier’s response is certainly grounds for pessimism, something which the narrator noted at the beginning as “disastrous” is the fact that the little scene provoked no response at all from those surrounding them in the street. This suggests the reaction Idris wants us as readers to have, possibly, and seems to indicate that our role is at least to be witnesses, and concerned witnesses as that, if we are not strong and capable enough to be changers of the scene. For, enough witnesses to an injustice can eventually provoke change, and after all is said and done, this clever and very short short story is made to be a witness’s statement, and to cause change in at least our perceptions, which is of course the first step to enacting justice.
Have you ever read a story and been so enthralled by what it reveals about a famous person that you feel a strong impulse to research it and find out whether or not it’s a true story? But then, you decide that it tells you something more essential about what we all are, and think that of course it’s true, whether or not it actually took place as described in exact detail? That’s how I feel about Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Three Girls.”
This story is addressed to a “you,” which means of course that it is written in the hard-to-master second person singular, and retells an event which happened to the narrator and the person addressed, two of the “three girls.” It’s all about the romance of books and book lovers, and what it is like to be young and lost in the infinite (or nearly so) world of words and word enthusiasts. The story is set in “Strand Used Books on Broadway and Twelfth one snowy March early evening in 1956,” and the book descriptions are as important as the descriptions of physical space: “No bookstore of merely ‘new’ books with elegant show window displays drew us like the drafty Strand, bins of books untidy and thumbed through as merchants’ sidewalk bins on Fourteenth Street, NEW THIS WEEK, BEST BARGAINS, WORLD CLASSICS, ART BOOKS./50% OFF, REVIEWERS’ COPIES, HIGHEST PRICE $1.98, REMAINDERS./ 25¢–$1.00. Hard-cover/paperback. Spotless/battered. Beautiful books/cheaply printed pulp paper. And at the rear and sides in that vast echoing space massive shelves of books books book rising to a ceiling of hammered tin fifteen feet above! Stacked shelves so high they required ladders to negotiate and a monkey nimbleness (like yours) to climb.”
It is significant that the story takes place where it does, because it doesn’t take place where the narrator and her friend would expect it to, in surroundings such as “Tiffany’s,” or “the Plaza,” or the “Waldorf-Astoria,” or on “the Upper East Side.” Instead, it takes place on their own home turf, where they have often been and browsed through the books before, at a stage in their relationship with each other which causes them all too eagerly to incorporate their enthusiasms with a certain event that takes place there, quite unexpectedly. The event? They sight a third girl poring through the sections of books, a girl older than they by about 9 years, but dressed like a girl still, in contrast to her usual famed appearance: they see Marilyn Monroe, intently perusing books in the modern poetry section, first of all, then picking up Darwin’s Origin of Species, then going through shelves marked “Judaica.” Unseen by her for most of the story, they watch her read, astonished to conclude that she apparently wants to be like them, as they see themselves, two girls with a love for poetry and writing and reading.
They have previously considered Monroe’s world to be beneath them, to be frivolous and airheaded and needful of men–whom they pride themselves on doing without–to make it meaningful. But now they see that Marilyn Monroe has a more serious side, wants to share the world they two share with each other especially, and when she hesitates near the checkout, fearful apparently of being recognized, they take her money and buy her books for her, rather than doing the more pedestrian thing of asking for her autograph. She lends her magic aura to their friendship, however, more, perhaps, to their love relationship. She gives them as a thank-you one of the books she bought, and they treasure it as a talisman both of their adventure in the bookstore and of their connection with each other. The last paragraph of the story reads: “That snowy early evening in March at Strand Used Books. That magical evening of Marilyn Monroe, when I kissed you for the first time.” Thus, Marilyn, far from being a force which causes them to scorn their enthusiasm and surroundings, instead consecrates these things for them because she turns out to have a side which is equal to the more serious topics (than movie fame) which engage them.
Though I hesitate to expose my own dubiousness about whether or not Marilyn Monroe was “bookish,” I should at least reveal that I was curious as to whether or not Joyce Carol Oates meant for her two main characters to have been correct or deluded in their notion that the woman they saw was Monroe. For one thing, she commented on the “blue eyes” of Marilyn: in all the photos I’d seen of her, I’d thought Monroe had chocolate brown eyes, and the movies of hers I’d seen were too long ago for me to be sure. Though the experience of the two girls was still significant regardless of whether or not it was actually Monroe (just as the story was significant whether or not it was autobiographical), I was intrigued by what Oates’s intentions were in this respect. So, I actually looked up a gallery of photos of Marilyn Monroe. A lot of the shots were in black and white, and those which weren’t seemed to suggest that her eyes were dark. In two of the photos taken close up and in color with Monroe’s eyes very wide open, however, the eyes were clearly a deep and pellucid blue! It was just the excessive dark eye makeup of the time which had deceived me. Thus, apparently Oates meant for the experience of the two girls to be a genuine one, in literary terms at least. And also in literary terms (with particular reference now to postmodernism), Monroe’s cameo appearance is meant to signify an interpenetration of the “realism” of films and the eerie hyperreality of seeing a film star in actual life, which is rather like seeing where the “toys” are put away after we are finished “playing” with them.
To the two girls, however, the experience joins them even more strongly to each other, as does the one book Monroe gives them to share (a book of poems by Marianne Moore, another M. M.). The glamor of the film world is therefore bestowed like a halo upon a world which for the main characters already had its crown of light; to find an unexpected “ally” of sorts involved in their dreams and fantasies of literary excellence, however, gives the experience a validity from an unexpected quarter, and somehow these situations always impress us humans the most. I still remember once back in the mid-70′s, when I was briefly in Cannes, and came back with a photo of a startling redhead whose picture had been accidentally taken while I was filming a town square: my family and I argued amongst ourselves for days as to whether or not it was Ann-Margret (the stage name of Ann-Margret Olsson). The square was still beautiful and historic regardless of who the intruding redhead was, but somehow to others looking at the photos with us, the photo became not “And this is the such-and-such Place in Cannes” but “Here’s the square in Cannes where we think Ann-Margret walked in front of the camera.”
Such is fame, and such is the significance of a moment in time in Oates’s story: the fame is there for everyone to see, and gets as near to immortality as humans can perhaps conceive of, but the moment in time in which ordinary people think they brush up against fame in non-typical or unexpected surroundings often becomes the touchstone for a private moment of their own when they felt they were in communication with infinity because of something they were sharing with others who, like them, “just happened to be there.”
Today is a hot, sunny, beautiful day of summer, when the sky and the ocean are both full of blue ecstasy, and that makes it just right for a little ditty of a post on the natural world, so that I can return to it as soon as possible and leave the air conditioning and the computer to their own devices (yes, I’m getting lazy in the summer heat, you guessed it). So, I chose a short three-stanza poem by Emily Dickinson, who is the perfect poet when images from nature come into question, as so many in her huge corpus of short poems have images and a figurative lexicon drawn from nature and its seasonal languages, even when the subject is death, or the departure from the world of nature. This poem (#632 of her poems), however, includes some of her homey domestic images as well, the images of a woman used to keeping house and dealing with household implements. But the real “kicker” about this poem is the way it goes along so very, very simply only to hit us with a real conundrum of an image at the very end. Here is how it goes:
“The Brain–is wider than the Sky–/For–put them side by side–/The one the other will contain/With ease–and You–beside–/
The Brain is deeper than the sea–/For–hold them–Blue to Blue–/The one the other will absorb–/As Sponges–Buckets–do–/
The Brain is just the weight of God–/For–heft them–Pound for Pound–/And they will differ–if they do–As Syllable from Sound–”
There is something a bit sly and even coy about the way she leads us into her transcendent world, which while using simple everyday images, sensations, and experiences makes such astounding transitions to experiences beyond this world. She starts easily enough, by observing that the brain can contain both the image of the sky and the experience of seeing it, as well as the self. “Well, okay, Emily D.,” one is bound to say, “I think we can accept that for starters.” Then, she passes on to another apparently limitless thing the senses encounter, which curiously enough is less big than the sky, when it seems that it might otherwise be more poetically ordinary to start with the smaller of the two items (the sea) and build up in the next stanza to the larger (the sky). But then, we find that her quirkiness or perhaps odd sense of humor has assigned a color to the brain (she says of the brain and the sea “hold them–Blue to Blue–” which means to compare the two “blue” items). This makes us forget for the moment our previous quibble about relative sizes of infinite or quite large things, and leaves us, bemused, to go on to the last stanza.
Here, in the last stanza, Dickinson is asking us to perform another and even more daunting task, really quite impossible even for the believer in God, and certainly more than impossible for the questioner or doubter. Not that it’s been easy up until now: so far, we’ve put the brain and the sky side by side, we’ve held the brain and the sea up to each other for comparison, at least mentally, and been asked to imagine the brain soaking up the sea as a sponge would a bucket of liquid. Now, we are being asked to “heft” the brain and God, to judge whether or not she is just when she suggests that they are of a similar “weight” and “differ–if they do–” and here the problem comes in. Now, we are no longer being asked to judge of something which can at least be visualized with a great deal of imagination: now we have to guess what the difference might be, if there is any, between “syllable” and “sound.” The one is presumably the visual or physical or mental notation of the second, which proposes a more sophisticated relationship than between the items in the other two stanzas. If one reads the items in order and assumes that the brain is the “syllable” and God the “sound” (and there is really no assurance that this is the correct “formula,” except that “sound” seems slightly more mysterious, as God would probably be thought to be), then the first, the brain, records or notates the second, God, and the second is the fulfillment of the first. But it’s a stretch.
Perhaps the useful thing to end this post with is the observation that Dickinson, in many if not all of her poems (and yes, I do want to assure you that my curiosity was once pronounced enough to take me through the whole volume), likes to play “riddle me this” with images and concepts. She finds in so many instances that the natural world speaks to her of what is beyond it, yet retains its own quiddity and essence, partaking of the “great beyond” without being any less literal and precious as what it is on earth. Even the experiences of imagining death use homey and everyday images and pictures drawn from the natural world, because death is the great riddle of our existence, yet is a part of the natural world as well, and Dickinson was well acquainted with its appearance in nature. And now that I have paid my tribute both to one of the greatest American poets of all time and to the lovely and perplexing world of nature that inspired her, I’ll quit writing, and go off to be inspired by the summer day myself (for so at least one always hopes to be). Goodday to all my readers, and here’s hoping that even if you aren’t in the middle of summer where you are, that you find something in the natural world to make you happy today.
Though there are narrated sections in Amrita Pritam’s short story “The Weed,” the real interior story is about a dialogue between traditions which takes place in the actual dialogue and in the happenings of the story. As the educated narrator says at the very beginning–a sophisticated and more worldly woman known simply as “bibi,” a term of affection–”Angoori [the younger character] was the new bride of the old servant of my neighbor’s neighbor’s neighbor.” “Bibi” takes care in her relation of events to establish that Angoori is a joyous and cheerful and attractive young woman recently married to a much older husband, and is very traditional in her beliefs and values.
For example, Angoori has been taught and apparently believes that it is sinful for a village woman like herself (but not a “city” woman, like the narrator) to know how to read. She also believes that it is a great sin for a woman to fall in love with her husband except through the intervention of her father. The acceptable tradition is that a girl child, when five or six, “adore[s] someone’s feet.” In this, she is directed by her father’s wishes, because he has placed money and flowers at the man’s or boy’s feet. In this way, it is decided whom the girl shall later marry. The exceptions, those girls who have love affairs, are thought to have eaten of a mysterious “wild weed” that an intending man has placed in a sweet or paan and given them to eat. Angoori has seen a girl in her village in such a situation, and she says that the girl sang sad songs a lot, and never combed her hair and acted otherwise oddly. Angoori regards this as a very unfortunate situation, and is glad, apparently, that she is married to Prabhati, the old man who does not always live at her home because he is a servant and eats at his employers’ household.
Nevertheless, a few days later, the narrator finds Angoori in “a profoundly abstract mood,” and the younger woman asks to be taught to read, and to write her name. Mark what happens next: the narrator, Bibi, makes a guess that seems to be correct, that it is because Angoori wants to be able to write letters to someone, and to read letters back. Instead of immediately agreeing as a friend of equal status would probably do if she knew how, Bibi asks her if she won’t be committing a sin in learning to read and write. The girl refuses to answer, but when Bibi sees her later, she is singing a sad song, and nearly crying, as she had told Bibi the other girl in her village had done. Bibi further intrudes and asks her if this was the song the girl in her village had sung, and she admits it. She tries to force Angoori to sing the song to her, but on this point Angoori stands firm: she will only recite the words. The narrator further investigates in a logical, forceful manner, and finds that because Angoori’s husband does not eat at home, and the night watchman, Ram Tara, who has been taking tea with milk as a regular guest at Angoori’s and Prabhati’s house, as is the tradition, has been away on a visit, the girl has had not only not much food, but also not even any tea with milk.
Then the narrator Bibi remembers something else about Ram Tara: [he was] “good-looking, quick-limbed, full of jokes. He had a way of talking with smiles trembling faintly at the corner of his lips.” Instead of just asking, as a person who thought of themselves as equal might do, whether or not Angoori was sad to be alone so much, or missed her friend Ram Tara, Bibi makes a particular kind of mischief by almost making a joke to herself of the girl’s village beliefs and traditions: she asks her, in what seems a kindly but nevertheless mocking fashion, “Is it the weed?” If the innocent and superstitious girl did not think so before, to have someone she regards as her intellectual superior ask her this sways her conviction on this point. Far from being able to persuade herself away from her own unhappiness, she responds, “‘Curse on me!….I never took sweets from him…not a betel even…but tea….’” We are told by the narrator, who seems to relish this point: “She could not finish. Her words were drowned in a fast stream of tears.”
In many ways, because this work shares certain tendencies with other 20th century modernist texts in which traditional, aboriginal, or village peoples are viewed supposedly objectively by a better educated person or persons (Edith Wharton’s novel Ethan Frome, with its frame story narrator, comes to mind), it has the tendency that makes of the village traditions and mannerisms something quaint or odd, something the character of higher status muses on with varying degrees of wonder, amusement, or curiosity. Though these texts are not without a certain amount of compassion by and large, by this point in the 21st century even the compassion seems like a form of condescension, and as we can see in this story, even a writer like Pritam, who was clearly and solidly in the camp of those attempting to better conditions for poorer or less advantaged peoples in her native Punjab region, leaves the question of village autonomies unvisited. While I really enjoyed the story, and felt sympathy was directed at Angoori, it’s a different matter to engineer empathy with Angoori. This latter is more what late 20th century and early 21st century aims at, in contradistinction to and in rebellion against 20th century models of social reform and conscience.
So, to view this story from a later perspective than that in which it was written is to see highlighted not only the young girl Angoori, which I feel was the original intention of the piece, but to see also the somewhat downward-looking Bibi as a character as well, not simply as an empty tabula rasa or a quiet sounding board to receive the picture of Angoori. This is why I call this story “a conflict of worlds, two traditions”: whereas it is Angoori’s tradition to live simply within the bounds of her own village, and to obey its rules, it is also her tradition to respect the opinions and values of those who look down upon her from a superior social height, and to attempt to scale the heights of reading and writing, which have been posited to her as values she could espouse. By contrast, the narrator Bibi is in her own way sophisticatedly naive, because she has too her own form of blindness in automatically assuming that it’s not simple loneliness but the love affair attributed by Angoori’s village traditions to “the wild weed” that the girl will claim as her dilemma. The true kindliness is practiced by the author in showing these two characters face-to-face, two faces of what was once a part of India and what is now a part of Pakistan. Amrita Pritam is clearly not the narrator, but is even one remove farther away, sharing with us a type of encounter which in all likelihood happens relatively frequently, whatever part of the world one is in. Two forms of naiveté, two forms of sophistication, first contradicting each other then complementing each other, then cooperating with each other. At the end of the story, it is clear that something else will happen, but what concerns us most has already been seen: the women, working through the problem together, despite their other differences. One will take care of the other if it is necessary, and one will make the other feel significant; and this, perhaps, is one of the fairer exchanges life offers.