Back in the day, when I was in primary school (known otherwise as “grade school”) and was doing lots and lots of reading, I got a book as a gift. Though I had received many books as gifts, other than “baby books” they were mostly soft cover; this one was my first “collector-grown-up book,” as I thought of it, because it was hard cover and yet still had illustrations to please my youthful taste. The short novel is called Tomás Takes Charge. It is by Charlene Joy Talbot, with illustrations by Reisie Lonette. My twelve-year-old nephew gave me a new copy of the same book for Christmas last year, and though I have to say it has certain drawbacks to my adult taste, I still remember it being one of my first childhood exposures to those growing up in a different culture. First of all, I came from a small town, and this book is set in the area of Washington Market in NYC. As well, it is about a young Puerto Rican boy, Tomás Lorca, and his sister Fernanda. To my adult perceptions, there is something not quite right in the almost stereotypical portrait of their favorite neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Malloy, and also in the fact that all of the people who help them out the most are Anglos. But to a child, these matters are different, and I didn’t have as keen a view of such things then as I hope to have developed since. Another part of this bookish memory is of course chewing on cinnamon toothpicks while reading the book, over and over, to such an extent that my tongue often burned and the places where I had marked my page with a cinnamon toothpick reeked of the spice to the extent that it is an indivisible part of the original memory.
The toothpicks were the province of the grade school girls, who, back in the days when grocery stores and pharmacies still sold one-ounce bottles of clear (top-strength) cinnamon oil, would make “cinnamon sticks,” so called because the boxes of toothpicks were soaked in a strong cinnamon oil-water mixture until they absorbed all the moisture, then dried and exchanged for favors and treats from other children at school. I made my own like most other girls, but I always kept the strongest and most pungent for my private “stash.” But enough of that: suffice it to say that cinnamon sticks, so made, were my version of the madeleines made famous in Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust.
In Tomás Takes Charge, Tomás and his slightly older sister, who suffers from agoraphobia, are left alone in their apartment when their father, their only living relative, is suddenly and unpredictably absent. Mr. and Mrs. Malloy attempt to make sure that the two youngsters go to their “godmother’s,” a concocted story which Tomás produces in his fear of being sent to Welfare, but Tomás’s ingenuity is too much for the older couple. He finds a way of housing himself and his sister in an abandoned top-floor apartment a few streets away. The rest of the novel is largely taken up with showing the many and various ways that Tomás employs to feed them and keep them clothed and happy, even to the extent of finding an old discarded portrait of George Washington and a map of the United States to hang on the walls. Though his sister is abnormally afraid to go outside, she coaxes a mother cat and kitten into their hideaway to help keep away rats, and she does the cooking and cleaning, leaving Tomás to play the conventional “man’s” role. Tomás accidentally trespasses on an artist’s loft apartment, where he meets Barbara Ransome, who by his very luck happens to be a children’s book illustrator in need of a model. This gives Tomás even more money to contribute to his little household, and all in all things seem set to prosper. Nevertheless, the summer is drawing to a close, and Tomás and Fernanda are uncomfortably aware that they have no heat in their hiding spot; and then Tomás takes a tumble on the fire escape while crossing the roofs, and sprains his ankle, concerning the illustrator because she is expecting him to come the next day for work and he doesn’t show up.
Luck plays a large part in the children’s fortunes, but as it is a children’s story, this is perhaps appropriate. On the same day that Barbara Ransome goes out looking for her little male model, having previously believed his tale of living with an aunt, she meets up with the Malloys. When they compare stories, they feel sure (of course) that Tomás and Fernanda are hiding in an abandoned building somewhere in the area. They go out to look; at the same time, Fernanda remembers what her brother has told her about Barbara Ransome’s skylight apartment and starts a smoking fire in the grate in theirs, hoping that Barbara will see it and come to their rescue. Luckily, of course, Barbara’s brother is a psychiatrist, and as a doctor he goes with the firemen who are summoned (because others not connected with the story have seen the smoke as well). There is just the matter of “setting the record straight” about Welfare, which happens when Tomás speaks with a representative and finds him nothing like the monster he had feared (this too seems like an apologia for the system, given all the abuses in children’s services which have been exposed in recent years, but this book is full of best-case scenarios, so one has to accept it for what it is). The ending is the best it could be, under the circumstances: they find out that the reason the children’s father has not returned is that he was killed in a car accident. That is, he didn’t just desert them. The Malloys knock down a shared wall between their apartment and the next adjoining empty room in order to make more space, and adopt the waifs. And that is the basic story line. I haven’t hesitated to give the full story without a “spoiler alert” because it is a children’s book, one a parent might have an interest in for a child, though as I have remarked, being written in 1966, and carefully slanted toward praising the system while also carefully attempting not to insult immigrant industry, ingenuity, and pride, the book would perhaps need a stream of ad libbing by an adult reader to bring it up to date (and children do get impatient with extraneous material, as I recall from trying to read The Secret Garden to a child a few years back, all the while giving a brief explanation of the British empire and class system). Whatever may be the case now, when I was in grade school in the 1960’s, the book was progressive for its time and given its intended audience, though not as progressive as most adult liberal literature of the same time span. And it is part of childhood memory for me, as I set sail upon the waters of fiction to a better understanding of others with different ways than mine.
Though I begin by entitling this post “In favor of,” in actual fact it might more accurately be termed “for and against,” or “pro and con” due to the fact that nothing in life is perfect and all things have their down sides. But beginning that way would lack the literary resonance of “in favor of,” which precedes other essays on life of more worth and importance than my modest effort, so I lay what claims for it I can, to belong to that fellowship. Also, I am taking poetic license by calling it “wool-gathering,” because while this is a noteworthy pun in the case, in actual fact for a lot of people including me, it’s more like “acrylic-gathering,” since I often work in the less soft and more resilient acrylic yarns which are cheaper and bulkier both. These caveats aside, I can justifiably refer to myself by the crafter’s jolly appellation “a happy hooker” (a bit of a hokey punning cognomen in use since the madam Xaviera Hollander’s bestseller came out in the 1970’s, a name supposedly adding more dash to crochet’s use of a single hook as opposed to the milder knitter’s pun of “knit-wit” for the use of two needles).
And now to begin, actually. Crochet, like knitting, is a craft which abounds in opportunities for error, because in order to render even the simplest pattern, one must count stitches, so that I can see it being excellent homeopathic therapy for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say it is probably a good way to acquire a roaring case of said disorder. One thing’s for sure, unless one has crocheted a good long while and is only doing a simple single crochet or double crochet pattern (two of the basic stitches), it is nearly impossible to carry on an intelligent conversation or watch an exciting television program at the same time. Such frivolity of approach brings on dropped stitches (missed stitches) and other unintentional and erroneous embellishments of one’s work. The down side is that one is often working merrily along on a complicated and repetitive pattern, sure that because the repetition has become second nature that one is “sitting pretty” in one’s rocker or easy chair, so to speak, when suddenly two rows from where one made the original error, one discovers a flaw that necessitates the intervening work being pulled out and reworked, with more humility this time. Probably the best secondary activity is to listen to music of a non-controversial or balmy nature, which is better than Muzak but doesn’t require singing along while muttering to oneself over and over again “one, two, three, four, five, three stitches in that one, one, two, three, four, five, skip two, one, two, three, four, five, three stitches,” etc. Even classical music could become too disruptive, especially if it is a stirring piece that one feels compelled to hum or utter “ta-da-da” along with. Many things in life, occupation-wise, call for tedious and unwavering attention to a specific thing, but crocheters (and knitters too) are among the crafters who most needlessly and relentlessly punish themselves with this form of self-abuse as a hobby.
One is also given a lesson about memory. For example, try to repeat an afghan or piece of clothing that you have done before, and without a written set of instructions with exact stitches recorded (and books of patterns are surprisingly expensive for what they are), you are doomed to hours of frustration. I have recently learned even more about the faults of memory, the necessity for patience, and the occasional failings of expert advice. Taking down an afghan that I wanted to repeat but no longer have a pattern for, I looked at the pattern intently and tried to remember just what I’d done. But memory could only take me so far: I kept making things that just didn’t resemble what I was looking at. So, I had to keep trying (patience, jackass, patience). Then, to my great joy and regret (joy because I found a store pattern which was like part of what I was trying to accomplish, regret that I had to pay so much for it), I noticed after putting in the first row that the pattern writers weren’t perfect either (the limits of experts). True, they were only a stitch off, but it left me trying to think up clever ways of coming up with the extra needed stitch at the end of the row. I fudged it, and am proud to say that the gods sometimes aid the diligent and well-intentioned (and sheerly stubborn, or as a British friend of mine used to say, “bloody-minded”–so much more poetic!)
And now, I’m well on my way to accomplishing my goal of figuring out the (as it turns out) quite complicated pattern I once did blithely in my foolish youth, when success was only a few stitches away, and I had plenty of time and patience, excellent memory and ingenuity. Creativity, it turns out, can take many forms, and is often made up of these things almost exclusively. What one realizes with this craft at least is that time is finite, patience and memory often decrease with age, and ingenuity is called upon more frequently to make up for the shortages of the other three. As one of my favorite refrigerator magnets has it, “Age and guile always overcome youth and skill.” So now you have it, my completed post. Last but not least: this post was inspired by the reflection which visited me this morning that I have obligations willingly incurred to my readers and blogging buddies as well, and it was high time I produced another post. As to those of you who are waiting for me to respond to their posts, take it as read that i will do so very soon. Right now, I’m still wool-gathering, and have to finish a bit more in order to be satisfied!
The Close-Up and Personal View: “In the Heart of the Valley of Love” (A Dystopia by Cynthia Kadohata)
Normally (a word to be used advisedly when speaking of dystopias, which are all individual and unique and different from each other, but still!) when I think of dystopias, I think of large-scale pictures of societies in turmoil and decay, or turmoil and wrong-headed development, or sometimes just turmoil taken to the nth degree itself. And I think secondly of science fiction/fantasy, because that is the “category” to which most dystopias necessarily belong, as visions of the future (I refuse to use the word “genre,” because “genre” means a quite different and specific thing in literary analysis; it does not really mean “the difference between a mystery novel and a romance novel.” If I’ve ever used it incorrectly, may the literary gods that be have mercy on me). But I digress.
The book I am reviewing today, Cynthia Kadohata’s novel In the Heart of the Valley of Love, is indeed set in the future (around the year 2052 or so), and it is unquestionably a dystopia, because it features many and varied negative societal outcomes that are worse than what we currently experience. But there are two main ways in which it is different from all the others that have come my way. Those ways are 1) that the bad incidents and happenings in this world are directly connected to things which have already happened, such as water and gas rationing being a problem, bug spraying over a large area of a city or town, things going mysteriously missing in the mails, government conspiracies and cover-ups, and so on and so forth, and 2) the extremely myopic or tunnel vision view of all these events and many more as experienced by the main character Francie and her boyfriend Mark.
I am more used to characters who are involved directly in fighting the dystopic elements, who come into direct contact regularly and usually (and eventually) tragically or with loss with “those in charge.” But in Kadohata’s world (Los Angeles and Chicago and the environs of the near future), the main characters go around largely as many of us do today, more or less accepting the limits set on them, or at least avoiding an outright conflict over their “rights.” They seem to be living their lives by rumors about how things are rather than with any exact certainty that such and such a thing is true. This is what I mean by seeing with tunnel vision or myopically. They understand what the safe limits are by the experiences of others they know or have heard of, and except for trying to get their friend Jewel to leave her abusive boyfriend (a situation as old as society itself), or trying to decide whether the character Matt, a man whom their college newspaper has defended, has actually committed murder or not, they are not political firebrands. No government body is obviously oppressing them in particular, and what oppression there is is accepted by them as simply part of their way of life, however much they might deplore it.
The novel is narrated in first-person by Francie, and she contemplates her society at large in various comments and asides, but she clearly takes the small view of large things and events: she is living her life the best way she can, and having experiences more or less similar to what any young woman of average intelligence and sensibility might have, barring a certain sort of superstitious nature, apparently a function of having lost her parents early, and having lost along with the aunt she lives with their male protector, her Aunt Annie’s boyfriend Rohn (he is mysteriously arrested and disappears). Forces loom largely over the protagonists, but–to echo religious Scripture vaguely–no one exactly knows the time of his or her going or the manner.
Such subtleties prevail that the novel progresses more like a young woman’s diary entries than like a novel, though the “diary” is broken up into titled chapters instead of dated entries. It is only at the very end, when Francie is contemplating her habit of “seeing” dead or missing people in the sky, that she utters the chilling flash forward comment: “In the months to come, the sky would get even more crowded, but I would take my inspiration from right here.” “Right here” is as we finally realize “the heart of the valley of love”: it turns out to be a valley that a friend’s father and grandfather had spoken of, where they had buried a time capsule box of sorts, and which other people are quickly turning into a junkyard and dumping ground. And there is the aura of hope: with Francie is still Mark, her boyfriend, who stands beside her there, and she is capable of still finding inspiration, even in the middle of a wasted landscape. And that’s the end of the novel. Rather, perhaps it is the beginning of a new kind of dystopia, one focusing less on gigantic, large-scale plots, stratagems, and catastrophes, and one which takes these things for granted but looks instead at what can be achieved modestly and in small by Everywoman and Everyman. It’s certainly a thought!
A gifted novel about a Wyndham Lewis-like painter visiting Canada from his native Britain during WW II, Damian Tarnopolsky’s Goya’s Dog was a nominee for the 2009 Amazon.ca First Novel Award, formerly Books in Canada First Novel Award. The book transitions from an initial state of what my mother used to call “cross questions and silly answers,” a state in which people are talking at usually unintentionally comic cross-purposes, through a series of vignettes in which the main character, the artist Edward Dacres, gradually realizes that he is a guest artist because he has been mistaken for someone else, to a finally quasi-tragic, quasi-uplifting ending.
From the first moment when I encountered the angry, frustrated, almost savage eye turned on Canadians and Canadian society by the main character Edward Dacres, as he repeatedly tries to make the best of his situation through amusing himself at their expense if nothing else, I was struck with his resemblance to another comic character of the early part of the twentieth century. Though I cannot claim that Tarnopolsky in fact had P.G. Wodehouse in mind when he wrote Dacres, Dacres reads very like an avatar, sadder, more cynical, more anarchic and down-at-heels, of the Bertie Wooster “man-about-town” comic creation. I say this with the proviso that I am not considering Edward Dacres’s indifference to the WW II effort as similar by design to P. G. Wodehouse’s own suspected collaboration with the Germans while in a European internment camp (a charge which was later fully investigated by MI5 in 1999 or 2000 and found to be baseless except for Wodehouse’s basic naïveté). Tarnopolsky’s farcical characters (farcical as seen by the main character, that is) jump into and out of relation with each other with nearly the same alacrity as Wodehouse’s, but with a deeper seriousness lurking beneath their interactions: for, Bertie Wooster’s pockets are well-lined; Edward Dacres’s are moth-eaten. It is only their desperation, their comic clutching at weak straws, which for a time makes them alike. We cannot imagine Tarnopolsky repeating his comic creation from book to book in different characters (as Wodehouse did, like a vaudeville performer with a “sure thing” of an act), or being called “a performing flea” as Wodehouse once was, though certainly unfairly. This is to say that while the satirical lyricism flows with the same easy pace as did the elder author’s, with his background in the libretti of musicals, the stakes and consequences are those tied to far more serious issues, such as the real issues of cowardice (Bertie Wooster only “funks it” in a humorous way), misanthropy, and the role of art in wartime. If forced to account for my sense of the elder comic genius lurking, I would have to say that the early sections dealing with women in general or one in particular (the main current romantic interest of the book, Darly Burner) have “comic turns” particularly situated around these relationships which are reminiscent of the earlier writer’s work. Dacres finds a woman attractive, with the woman playing the role (as in Wodehouse) of “straight man” who also finds him desirable, while Edward Dacres is the desperate eiron who is deceiving her or himself about something to do with his state, his prospects, his intentions, etc. The difference is that Dacres has a genuine tragedy in his background, the death of his own young wife of their happy mésalliance years before, in a car crash which he caused. This is the “problem” which I would liken to some neurosis that might emerge in psychoanalysis, like a squid from its sea of ink, only slowly. Though I have spent a lot of time on this authorial comparison, I don’t mean to overemphasize it, for this masterly and serious novel does not move as quickly as Wodehouse’s do almost from punchline to punchline. But the manner in which Tarnopolsky deals with the women’s other claimants, such as fathers, suitors, relatives, and social acquaintances, smacks of the older author quite strenuously.
I’ve said this is a serious novel, and part of the source of the sombreness and the sense of tragedy which looms over Goya’s Dog, instituting from the frenetic pace rather a tense agony mimetically on the reader’s part, is the forced wait to find out if the artist will ever be able to make himself paint again. There is the fact, for Dacres, that he simply cannot repeat the past, recreating one muse with another, and so the bittersweet ending is as much a victory and vindication as it might initially seem a defeat. There is the sense, at the end, that he will be able to return to work, though when and how exactly is left undecided. It does seem, however, that he is finally on his own tick, and will not be playing any more fool’s games with fate.
The sources of this novel are in fact far more complicated than I have given my reader to believe, up to this point, but I have emphasized the particular comic influence (which may or may not have been intentional) because it is what I am myself most familiar with. To quote from Tarnopolsky’s own words in his “Acknowledgments” (the whole of which I call to the reader’s attention), “The painter and writer Wyndham Lewis spent an unhappy wartime exile in Toronto, and his novel Self-Condemned, along with his letters and the comments of his biographers, suggested much of what happens to Dacres in the first half of Goya’s Dog–together with the Polish writer Winold Gombrowicz’s simultaneous, similar experiences in Buenos Aires, recorded in his amazing Diary. Dacres shares some attitudes with these men and uses some of their expressions, but he is not a portrait of either of them. I should note that the “suicide” scene comes from Chamfort, and I think it was Fr. Rolfe who was ferried out of his hotel room in bed; Ovid grumbled definitively about the natives in his letters from Pontus. And so on–“. Thus, I have named only one possible influence, which moreover is not one named by Tarnopolsky, for the quite excellent and humorous portions of his important novel, and have had to quote from his own words to explain that and the other parts, which makes me perhaps a less adept reviewer, but certainly makes him no less a creative genius on this, his first novel. There is in fact a great deal more to say, but I leave it to you, his other potential readers, to help bring about the conversation: this is such a fine novel that to call it a “fine first novel” is already to be reductive of its worth and importance in the related worlds of fiction and painting. Do give it a read soon: you will be amused by a character’s dilemmas, confronted by his demons, and finally, in reluctant agreement with what he does to save his own soul.
José Saramago’s masterpiece Blindness is one of the few novels I have read which manages to use extended metaphor in such a way as not to make me weary of the imposition of values on fact. What I mean by this is that extended metaphor, if sustained for long enough in a work, makes the work into a sort of allegory in which the reader is always busy imputing other values to literal words and things. An example is of course Pilgrim’s Progress, in which we are “clued in” to the values which must be read in by having certain words and names capitalized and used repeatedly to illustrate the point the author is trying to make. But the main value which Saramago uses in an allegorical way, or as an extended metaphor, is “blindness.” And he keeps the fear of blindness closely enough tied to the actual condition that we can perceive his characters’ predicaments for ones likely to be suffered by blind people in a real-life, literal setting. As well, the characters do not stand for abstract qualities, but are kept very closely drawn as real people, with realistic feelings and impulses. They have no names except for example “the doctor,” “the girl with the dark glasses,” “the old man with the black eye patch,” “the doctor’s wife,” etc. Thus, though their situation is allegorical, they are people whom we can see as very like us in a novel (meaning here “new” or “unprecedented”) situation.
The basic plot is this: one day, while driving in his car, a man is suddenly stricken with a new kind of blindness, not the “dark” blindness which people have always suffered before, but a kind of “white blindness” in which people see only a white mist before their eyes. From this uncertain beginning, the disease spreads, even affecting eye doctors and policemen and other people in every walk of life, while authorities try not only to stop the spread of the illness by guessing how it spreads (which no one is actually ever sure of) but also by confining to deserted public buildings those who have gone blind, in the suspicion that they may be contagious. Our focus is on a small group of characters who have interacted in an ophthalmologist’s office, who all happen to wind up in the same ward of an empty mental hospital used to confine the blind. The ophthalmologist himself has gone blind just as he was attempting to do research on this startling new condition, and only his wife, who has pretended to be blind so that she cannot be separated from him and can go along to help, is fully a witness to what is happening.
What happens, but very gradually, is that order breaks down and chaos reigns, as blind crooks lord it over the other inmates and make them pay with valuables and women’s sexual favors for their very food rations. The soldiers who are supposed to be monitoring the activity and the distribution of food are powerless (by choice) to affect change, because they are afraid to get too close to the blind lest the condition is contagious by sight of them. They in fact repeatedly threaten to shoot any of the blind who step too close. The halls are covered in excrement and other offal, including sometimes the bodies of those who have died, because there is no one in charge who can restore order and who will make sure that all the dead are buried. Thus, the halls of the mental hospital quickly become more and more polluted with things which actually are likely to cause contagion. The doctor as a figure of wisdom often has good ideas about what can be done, but it’s his wife who as a figure of mercy “steals the show” in the book. Because she inexplicably remains sighted, and resists or seems to have no selfish impulses, she is the moral compass of the book.
The characters’ blindness is basically the condition all humankind is in as it goes through its own petty or even important concerns from day to day, unaware of others or not taking them into account. Their new blindness forces them to calculate what others owe them and they owe others, and illuminates the human condition of desperation which can arise when there is not enough food, clothing, shelter. It is a question posed by life as to whether or not humans will become savages when they are driven into close competition for basic needs and services. They are only able to hear of the outside world when someone admits to having a radio, but then the voices from outside go dead, and the radio’s batteries are exhausted just after, so they must assume that things are chaotic on the outside as well.
Because of a fire, the seven characters find their way out of the hospital and into the broader world outside with the doctor’s wife leading them due to her still having her sight, but now they “see” that the mental hospital they were confined in is an apt symbol for the life outside in the world. Everyone has gone blind, domestic animals are eating from dead bodies, people are breaking into the homes of others in order to have somewhere to sleep safely. The doctor’s wife finds a small food store, and they are able to stay in a safe place, but their meetings with others everywhere are fraught with fear. They are afraid even to let others know that they have someone with them who can see, lest she have too many importunate demands placed on her or figuratively be torn limb from limb.
At this key juncture, I’m going to stop my synopsis, not because any highly unlikely series of events takes place and I don’t want to ruin the surprise, but because the novel is resolved with such feeling and compassion and insight that I don’t want to ruin your reading. This book is so deceptively simple as it moves from step to step, and we can understand each step in the series of events that take place. We can “see” and feel how and why the people act as they do; the motivations that Saramago gives them are easily accessible to our own feelings, as we put ourselves in their place. This book is a cautionary tale which asks humankind when it will begin to “see,” to respond to others adequately and to save itself thereby. From having opposed interests, you against me, the characters learn to cooperate and have lesson after lesson before them of what happens to those who cannot compromise. Above all, this work is a masterwork about ordinary people, even those among them who find it possible to be extraordinary. The doctor’s wife, the moral center of the book, is “sighted” in more than one way: she knows that it is through no virtue of her own that she has not lost her sight too, so she is always ready to help those who rely upon her, because she for some unknown reason has an advantage. This is not a matter of superiority of status or condition, but merely a matter of chance. Blind chance, as one might say. Thus, we all of us have some chance of someday being extraordinary because we are able to help someone else, and yet we will only be people with no particular status or name other than “the doctor’s wife,” “the doctor,””the girl with dark glasses,””the boy who cried for his mother,” etc. This is the promise and the state of all humanity, to be able to extend itself to others empathetically when necessary, if we only take advantage of the opportunity. This is the uplifting message of José Saramago’s book Blindness. I hope that you will have a chance to read it soon.
Though I was planning to post in a few days on another work entirely, today I happened to read Caroline’s post at BeautyIsASleepingCat , and was struck with an exchange she and I had about the material of a book she was reviewing, and which she is currently receiving comments on (for those who have read it or are interested in reading it, as am I). Her review topic was J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, and I’ll just repeat the part of our discussion that is pertinent to my own topic today: in effect, we talked about the way that sometimes, happy memories from the past can make us unhappy in the present because they are no longer a part of our current experience. This is part of the character’s experience in the book she is discussing, and for some reason–and it turns out to be a fairly good one–I was unable to dismiss my own faint memory of some other work, at some other time, which had been on the same general subject.
As it so happens, it was one of my favorite of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poems, short and to the point though it is, in contrast with his several lengthier poems which have won worldwide acclaim. The poem is “Tears, Idle Tears,” and I am able to give it here in complete form, because it is available elsewhere on the Internet as well:
“Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,/Tears from the depth of some divine despair/Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,/In looking on the happy autumn-fields,/And thinking of the days that are no more./” “Fresh as the first beam glittering on a sail,/That brings our friends up from the underworld,/Sad as the last which reddens over one/That sinks with all we love below the verge;/So sad, so fresh, the days that are no more./” “Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns/The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds/To dying ears, when unto dying eyes/The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;/So sad, so strange, the days that are no more./” “Dear as remembered kisses after death,/And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned/On lips that are for others; deep as love,/Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;/O Death in Life, the days that are no more!/”
I’ve always said that no one can milk an emotion like Tennyson! But how does the poem actually work? It seems to work by an intricate set of connecting words and phrases which rely on experiences everyone has either had or has imagined having, so that its universal appeal can easily be understood. In the first stanza, Tennyson begins with the rhetorical trope of paralipsis, or denying something that he is in fact going to affirm, when he first says, “I know not what they mean,” and then goes on to tell us exactly what they mean. The tears are “idle” only in the same sense that they are “vain,” not as in “vain’ equalling “empty” or “egotistical,” but “vain” as in “useless,” “hopeless,” “having no worthwhile issue.” The present “autumn-fields” are “happy,” but the speaker is sunk in recollection by what they call up to memory. There have been other autumn days and fields which were happier still.
In the second stanza, it’s not just the memories that are said to be past, but also what would be a rather eerie visitation by friends “up from the underworld,” were it not a welcome visitation. The beam of sunlight which the speaker can imagine “glittering” on the underworld sail as it rises is challenged in its “fresh” quality by the nearly concurrent “sad” quality (a word reiterated throughout the poem) which “sinks with all we love below the verge,” so that “the days that are no more,” the phrase repeated in the end of each stanza, has a focus on the distant horizon, whether in the rise of memories or their return to the underworld which apparently stores them, the horizon often being a symbol of life’s bourne, limits, and of death.
The subject of death having been well-introduced by now, the speaker makes a tie between an experience everyone has perhaps had, that of “dark summer dawns” and hearing “the earliest pipe of half-awakened birds,” and links it with an experience that awaits everyone but which only those who are already gone could actually have, “the dying ears” hearing the sounds, and the “dying eyes” which see the casement “slowly grow a glimmering square.” This stanza uses the word “sad” as well to describe this imagined experience, but whereas in the second stanza it was living persons watching those from the underworld approach and leave, at least in imagination, so here it is the imagined dying people who have the “strange” experience of watching the dawn of a day which they possibly will not live to see the end of. In this respect, the poem reminds me a little of Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died,” which also discusses a moment when “I could not see to see,” and purports to be talking from a time after that moment, to judge by its past tense.
Lost causes seem to be the subject of the fourth stanza, whether that of kisses that are no longer accessible, or fantasies about love and lovers that did not bear fruit, and the word “hopeless” emphasizes the whole tenor of the poem, which acknowledges happiness only to grieve its short tenure. The days that are no more are “deep as love,/Deep as first love,” which is another repetition emphasizing what is missing from the present that was available in the past, love itself, since the speaker seems not to anticipate any further happiness from the current moment or day. And then, of course, “wild with all regret,” whether of things not done at all or things that can be no longer done, we get the strongest statement yet of the speaker’s dilemma, “O Death in Life, the days that are no more!” Here, the grieving requires emphatic punctuation at the end of the line, and Tennyson caps off his line with an exclamation point, to emphasize that death is a main concern to the speaker, whether actual deaths that he is mourning or the loss of happier times which he cannot conceive will come again or be followed by more happy times.
Now, having written about this poem and having lived with it again for a short space, I can say that there is a sort of catharsis one experiences when reading a poem such as this one, so that as well as turning out an inspired bit of work, Tennyson has provided a vision with a workaday or utilitarian use. My older teachers in grade school and even in high school were excessively fond of poems with this quality, which in Samuel Johnson’s words could “point a moral” and “adorn a tale.” Their own confreres amongst the more exalted academic circles at the time of their own youth must have surely pooh-poohed this approach to literature, and it has its limits. But I do have to say that having re-read the poem after a long time of not seeing it in front of me, I do feel not only admiration and reverence for its aesthetic qualities, but appreciation as well for the cathartic release it engenders. I think it likely that the book Caroline is reviewing, A Month in the Country, may well have similar cathartic capabilities. Why not visit her site and see?
“The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire,” and “Mockingjay”–or, Incitement, the Turn Against Repression, and Outright Rebellion
Once again, a younger person has been instrumental in getting me to read a fiction he has enjoyed, and once again, the person is my nephew, Charles. In this case, it was a slightly longer proceeding, because from the time I continually saw him sitting around engrossed in The Hunger Games trilogy to the time when I could pry the books from his fingers to read them was longer. I’m just joking, though, about his reluctance: he was quite enthusiastic about having me read the series. And as I read and let him know over the phone what book exactly I was on, he eagerly asked each time “How do you like it?” I was able to be just as happily engaged with the books as he expected, though I did point out that in this book as in others I’ve read in the YA category from time to time, the author has neglected to observe some grammar rules, such as the difference between “who” and “whom.” It happens to everyone from time to time, because our society has become so casual in its observance of some parts of grammatical precision that even quite well-read and literate people have been known to slip up. And of course, his rejoinder was to remind me of the last book he had me reading, The Wide Window from the A Series of Unfortunate Events series, in which a character named “Aunt Josephine” continually corrects grammar (I also reviewed that book for this site). So now, on to the review of the events of the books themselves, which will probably be shorter, however, due to the fact that I don’t want to have to issue spoiler alerts, but instead want to leave those who have not yet read the books or seen the movies to their own discoveries.
The first thing I noticed about the books, even early on, and which I was surprised about and would highly commend is that in them, Suzanne Collins didn’t pull her punches. Tragedies were not just things which took place in the past, well-drawn and well-liked characters die and suffer in the present as well, and even though there are repairs which can be made surgically to the competitors in the games, or to those fortunate enough to be able to afford them, more and more the sense grows in the books that some things can’t be changed, some misfortunes must be lived with, some bad things will have to be lived through again and again and again in the memories and sorrow-filled dreams of the main characters, those who survive, that is. This is a series of books which, with a few changes, a very few indeed, could easily be marketed to an adult audience. And yet, the difficulties approached by the characters are ones easily understandable and accessible to a youth audience: it’s just that the book makes no attempt, fortunately, to “dumb down” or “soft-pedal” suffering, no matter whose it is. There is no condescension in these books, and I can see why they have easily won a loyal following among parents and young people alike.
Next, I appreciated the slight amount of retelling that was necessary in the later two books in order to link them with the first. Often, authors make the mistake of retelling large swatches of the plot or of characters’ histories in series, in order to play to the market either of people who were not paying attention in the earlier parts or to pick up new readers who are too indifferent to begin at the beginning. Collins has clearly chosen to regard her audience as both intelligent and energetic enough to start with the first book and keep on going, and trusts herself to maintain their interest. That her trust is not misplaced is I think obvious in the great enthusiasm with which people discuss the series.
Finally, what people these days call “the story’s arc” is both very accomplished and very insightful about the nature of slavery, rebellions, and resolutions of conflicts. I have said the story begins with the “incitement” that the Capitol offers the known-to-exist twelve districts by forcing them to participate in the Hunger Games; follows this up with “the turn against repression,” which draws in some of those originally with the Capitol and aligns them with the gradually more and more rebellious people in the districts, which begin to revolt; and concludes with the picture of a whole society as it experiences “outright rebellion,” including quite intelligent assessments of both sides in the combat as first of all run by individuals with conflicting aims and desires, whatever their side. Among the thanks which Suzanne Collins includes to her colleagues, friends, and family in the back of the third volume, are these tributes: “Special love to my late father, Michael Collins, who laid the groundwork for this series with his deep commitment to educating his children on war and peace, and my mother, Jane Collins, who introduced me to the Greeks, sci-fi, and fashion (although that last one didn’t stick)….” Certainly, these dedications are quite apt, as the force of them shows everywhere in the books (even in the playful tweaking of the nose of the “fashion police” who appear in the series). I would gladly recommend these books for their teaching abilities and their warmth of heart, their ability to educate young people in both their methods of forming allegiances and their gradual and growing awareness of when something isn’t as it should be. These books, like the folk song taken from Scripture, proclaim “to everything there is a season…and a time to every purpose under heaven.” Only, having read them, young people may well emerge with a stronger sense of the right time for each and every purpose which confronts them. These books, far from being just for entertainment, are for the mind and the spirit as well, and I can think of nothing better to advise than that adults as well as young people read them, not just to keep an eye on what their children are reading, but to keep an eye on their own strengths, weaknesses, decisions, and impulses as well. This is a family book in the best sense of the term.