Honored to have two pieces—an essay and a short story—in this month’s issue of LEON Literary Review, alongside some amazing writers. Here’s a taste from the essay:
“When my brother and I were small, and my mother was out somewhere—at work, or perhaps in a psychiatric hospital, I don’t recall—my Dad showed us how he could peel an orange. All in one piece, he said. Look … ” More
Check out LEON Issue #1 for some fantastic poetry from authors including Christine Kitano, Matthew Olzmann and J. Estanislao Lopez.
‘Many guests especially recalled the beautiful moon that shone that evening,’ Chapter Five of Lincoln in the Bardo begins.
‘There was no moon that night and the sky was heavy with clouds,’ it says later.
‘The guests began to depart as the full yellow moon hung among the morning stars,’ it also says.
This chapter of George Saunders’ novel is made up of bits of texts from 1862. Other parts of it are told by ghosts. In all, the novel—which is built around the death of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie—is told by 166 different voices.
Given all of that, you’d expect this Man Booker Prize winner to be difficult, right? And maybe, given the subject matter (Lincoln, death, grief), off-puttingly earnest.
But it’s not. I mean, it’s kind of great.
There’s a lot to say about this book. It’s a brilliant, sideways take on Lincoln and his legacy; it’s a novel about finding connection, and letting go; it’s a reckoning with America’s past (the Civil War and slavery). But what I particularly liked about it, and what I think is worth thinking about, is the way Lincoln in the Bardo disagrees with itself.
Why is that interesting? For a start, it’s funny. Saunders’ ghosts often disagree, which is amusing and life-like (apart from the fact that they’re dead and in the ‘bardo’, the state between death and rebirth in the Tibetan tradition). As we read, those disagreements make the story—especially the ghost parts—seem more real. And we’re not too troubled by the contradictions in the historical sections. We know that historians disagree about stuff now and then. But here’s the clever thing: it seems none of the quarreling sources in Chapter Five exist. I did some unscientific sniffing and couldn’t find any record of them online (in the Library of Congress database). A couple of them were listed as unpublished sources, so it’s possible they’re real. But most likely, Saunders made them up.
Does that matter? As a reader, I’m with novelist Colson Whitehead when he says: ‘Who cares? Keep going, read the novel, Google later.’ (Which I did, and had some nerdy fun doing it). And Bardois a novel, after all. The fact-fiction mix (some of the works cited elsewhere in the book are real, and permissions are noted in the copyright page) doesn’t hurt the narrative. Saunders did what he needed to pin the story together.
On another level, it does matter. In a good way. Saunders has said that during research, he noticed that historical texts about Lincoln didn’t agree. But not only that: the memories of Lincoln ‘seemed to evolve in response with the mythology about him’. So in a sense, the facts of Lincoln—what kind of man he was, how he looked, how he moved—changed over time. And likewise, whether the moon was out on the night of the Lincolns’ party maybe depended on whether you knew there was a sick boy inside. Or realized that he had later died.
But listen. Don’t worry. I’m not about to mount some postmodern/post-structuralist/fancy argument about the end of truth and the impossibility of knowledge. (I don’t understand that stuff well enough anyway). What I am saying is that truth isn’t simple. That it’s interesting. And worth thinking about.
At an event in Newton, MA, recently, Saunders talked a bit about the notion of absolute versus relative truth (a Buddhist idea, he said). He gave this scenario: a bear is chasing a person. If you’re the person, your relative truth is that the bear is trying to eat you. So you’d better run. The bear’s relative truth is that it’s hungry, and needs to eat. The absolute truth is just that the bear is a hunter, and the human is prey. In that situation, the person might know the absolute truth—that none of this is personal—but it’s the relative truth (run!) that counts.
The point is, you need both kinds of truth to even begin to have a go at understanding stuff. And that means allowing for lots of different perspectives.
Which you get, in this book. One hundred and sixty six of them, to be exact. But that’s not even close to enough. Every person looks out at the world from inside their own personal skull. When you think about it like that, the miracle is that we get along at all. That roads exist, and schools, and hospitals. Yay for us.
And now, just to confuse things further, I’m going to point out that when you read Bardo you don’t really get 166 voices. You get one: Saunders, telling you a story. In order to do that, he’s stretched his imagination in lots of different directions. He’s gone into Lincoln’s head, conjured up a 19th century graveyard, and skipped even further back in time to imagine his cast of ghosts (landowners, former slaves, alcoholic parents, children … the list goes on). He even shows us an afterlife/gateway thing (a gutsy move).
For all their differences, though, there’s one thing that all Saunders’ characters have in common. They have to accept reality and let go. This means, first, recognizing their need for connection and love. Then, they must embrace the fact that everything (even the people they most loved in the world) is ‘passing temporariness’.
As any human knows, that’s hard to do.
See what Saunders did there? It’s all made up, but it’s kind of true.
I’m sorry. I know. People loved 80s Anne. She was funny, and cute, and clever. And the film is well done.
But I couldn’t connect. An unwanted child whose defining characteristic was optimistic smarts? Who, when told she couldn’t stay with her new family, looks politely sad, but doesn’t stamp her foot, or otherwise make an angry mess? I couldn’t do it. She was welcome to be charming and resilient and successful over there, while I was messy and cranky and resentful over here.
So while I didn’t rush to the new TV adaptation of L.M. Montgomery’s 1908 book, I didn’t approach it with any of the trepidation that others did. And I wasn’t put off by reviews saying the new series was a ‘betrayal’.
What I didn’t expect was how fascinated I’d be.
I watched it once. Huh. I watched it some more. I got the novel out from the library. I watched the 80s version on DVD. I went back to the 2017 version. Hm.
You might’ve heard that the Netflix/Canadian Broadcasting Corporation version is different from the 80s one. It’s visually darker, and it includes some new scenes (the writer is on the record as saying she worked from the novel; she didn’t want to be influenced by the 80s version). In the 2017 version, Anne has flashbacks. We see her being beaten by her former family, and taunted by children in the orphanage.
This has annoyed some people.
One reviewer said the show ‘strayed disastrously’ from Montgomery’s novel; another (in the New Yorker) that the flashbacks evoked seething, not empathy, and another felt the show revelled in Anne’s suffering.
I didn’t feel like that. Some of the scenes go too far (a character dies of a heart attack while beating Anne: really, guys?), but on the whole, watching Anne’s stunned/sad/angry face, I felt reassured. I knew I was being asked to understand Anne’s experience. Watching her zone out (eyes wide open, the sound of blood rushing through her ears), I thought: yes. It can be like that.
But this doesn’t entirely explain my fascination. What I kept coming back to, as I circled around the story in my head, is what these changes might represent. Some of them probably come down to medium: for example, Anne’s 2017 creators have said they added some scenes to ‘show’ events rather than ‘tell’ them (the 80s TV version does this too). And others seem stylistic (the 2017 Cuthberts’ house is more spartan than what we saw in 1985). But at their heart, I think these changes point to an evolution in how we understand childhood. This has been shifting since 1908, for sure. And in my lifetime, too.
That’s pretty interesting.
Let me give an example. In all of the versions I’m talking about, Matthew Cuthbert goes alone to collect an orphan ‘boy’ who turns out to be a girl, Anne. Matthew is shy. In both film versions, we see his surprise and hesitation—and we witness Anne winning him over on the ride back to Green Gables. But in Montgomery’s version, we hear Matthew’s thoughts:
“He could not tell this scrawny child … that there had been a mistake; he would take her home to let Marilla do that.”
He deliberately takes Anne all the way back home so that his sister can tell her she’s not wanted? A grown man is so afraid of the world that he would inflict such a disappointment on a child?
Well, yes. And Montgomery doesn’t seem to judge Matthew for this (later, of course, Matthew wants Anne to stay). But by 1985, we see his hesitation from the beginning (though we don’t hear his thoughts). Then, 2017 shows us concern as well as connection (Anne and Matthew see each other at the station before he realises who she is, and later the camera zooms in on them shaking hands). We’re allowed to believe that Matthew doesn’t want to let Anne down; that he accepts, on an emotional level at least, his responsibility for her as a child. In 2017, we need that in order to believe in Matthew’s basic goodness.
This (and the inclusion of those flashbacks) points to the fact that for contemporary audiences, childhood experiences are formative—and adults cannot be passers-by. Trauma can’t simply be overcome by an innately sunny (or robust) disposition. We’re too invested in nurture to believe that.
But I think 1985 viewers were expected to accept it, at least to a point.
I’m agnostic on whether this is a good thing. On the one hand, glossing over trauma can reassure viewers that things aren’t so bad; the wider society needn’t change for the benefit of this character. She’ll be all right. On the other, dwelling on trauma risks reducing a child to her circumstances. Which stinks.
Perhaps this tension is behind some of the reactions against Anne with an E. Where’s our sunny girl gone? they seem to be saying. Why have you made the world so dark?
Well, stories (like the world, and ourselves) change. The Grimm fairy tales, for example, have been evolving since the first edition was published in 1812 (and as oral tales, were changing long before the Grimms wrote them down). In the 1812 edition of Hansel and Gretel, two children are abandoned by their parents. Later versions have them ditched by their stepmother, with the (reluctant) help of their father. And the 1812 house is made of bread, with sugar for windows. The kids seem happy to find it, but it’s not the candy-bedecked confection I drooled over in the 1970s.
I could go on debating the differences between these three Annes (and I haven’t even looked into all the other adaptations out there). The novel is arguably darker than the 80s film version; there are also comments in the novel (Anne would ‘rather be pretty than clever’, and longs for dimples in her elbows) which don’t translate well today. Which version is ‘better’ is perhaps beside the point.
Reading isn’t time travel: we make sense of things in the here and now. And what do I get from this version of Montgomery’s story, as I see it, today? A girl who stands up for herself, who struggles, who doesn’t accept the circumstances she was born into. Who’s clever, and strong, and brave. Who is occasionally ridiculous. And who continues to be all of these things in the face of a world that can seem dark and indifferent.
Sitting at my desk in 2017, watching a summer day fade into night, that seems like a win to me.
First, to dispense with an irritation. The guy who said Virginia Woolf’sTo the Lighthouse is ‘not about anything very interesting or important’ … well, he was wrong.
To the Lighthouse is about love, and subjection, and forgiveness. Art. Parenthood. Death. It conjures up—if you’ll excuse my earnestness—the joy and dread of being alive. So yeah, the subject matter’s interesting and important.
Briefly, the background: Published in 1927. Set in the Ramsay family’s holiday house in the Hebrides. The main characters: Mrs Ramsay, Mr Ramsay, their eight children (among them 6-year-old James), and a cast of visitors, including Lily Briscoe (an artist) and Charles Tansley (an acolyte of Mr Ramsay’s).
The story opens with James hoping to take a trip to the lighthouse. His mother says he can go, if the weather is fine. His father says it will rain. So, why read the rest of it?
1: A million universes
You know how we all move through the world, peering out from inside our own heads? Paying partial attention, sometimes being helpful, sometimes total crap?
Well, this book captures that. And it does it so well that you care whether Mrs Ramsay is cold without her shawl; feel James’s rage at his father’s interruptions; want Lily to finish painting her scene, whether it ends up in the attic or not.
Watching Woolf’s characters interact is a joy. For example: Mrs Ramsay tells Charles that a mutual friend should have been a great philosopher, but made an ‘unfortunate marriage’. Having enjoyed Mrs Ramsay’s hint at ‘the greatness of man’s intellect … the subjection of all wives’, Charles wishes they were in a cab, so he could pay; or at least, that she’d let him carry her bag. He imagines achieving great things while she watches on. And later, having revealed a vulnerability (he’s never been to the circus, he’s poor), he’s overflowing with pride to be walking with her, because she’s so beautiful. She lets him hold her bag.
So we see that Charles is a dull man who views Mrs Ramsay as a mirror for his ego—and that he’s lonely, needy, a bit sad. We also see how Mrs Ramsay indulges Charles, defers to the ‘masculine’ intellect, and maintains her own view of him (‘he was an awful prig—an unsufferable bore’).
Reading this scene is like being at a party, and instead of watching an interaction and thinking, something here is a bit off, being able to see it with painful, half-smiling clarity.
2: It’s bomb-free
Woolf was a modernist who tried to find new ways to write, and understand the world. She looked away from ‘plot, comedy, tragedy, love interest and catastrophe in the accepted style’, towards what she called the ‘semi-transparent envelope’ of existence. She meant, I think, that life isn’t a neatly arranged series of events, full of the kind of tension we expect in a tightly plotted novel; it’s continuous, often confusing, confining, terrifying, and wonderful.
So when major plot points occur in To the Lighthouse, they’re presented in brackets—as an aside. I love this, because events happen as they do in life: as interruptions to our illusion of safety, things beyond our individual control. It also denies us the spectacle of a ‘bomb’ going off, which was a risky move on Woolf’s part. Readers want to inhabit that moment of catastrophe, right? But sometimes big events can become a barrier to empathy: when there’s a gun in a character’s face, aren’t we thinking at least as much about ourselves, as the story? What would I do in this scary situation? Isn’t that shocking? Or sad, or whatever. We’ve lost the fine grain of the character’s situation. We’re reading it like a news headline.
3: Light, dark and art
This is a beautiful book. Woolf brings the landscape alive; creates natural tension between the house and the far-off lighthouse; slowly dims the light in the dining room until the windows become a darkening mirror. In the dinner scene (which anchors the story), Woolf shows us Mrs Ramsay’s artistry in bringing people together, creating ‘such moments … [when] the thing is made that endures.’ There’s a lovely parallel here between what Mrs Ramsay creates—a home, a family life—and Lily Briscoe’s painting. Both are artists. But Woolf stays sharp: during dinner Mr Ramsay is vain as well as generous, and once dinner is over the beneficent Mrs Ramsay is cranky to find her younger children still awake.
4: To say boo to her critics
Woolf absolutely had opinions about other people’s work, but man, some of the critiques of her books are snarky. F.R. Leavis thought To the Lighthouse was Woolf’s ‘only good novel’, and he seemed to think it was okay mainly because it appeared to be based on her life (patronising much?). And as for Arnold Kettle, the guy who said the book’s not about anything important: he also wondered in what sense one of the final scenes was a culmination a key relationship, which had me wondering whether he had read the book all the way through.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. Maybe Leavis and Kettle just didn’t like the book (which is fine, of course). And there’s a stack of other criticism that I haven’t even touched. So maybe this fourth reason isn’t just about thumbing one’s nose at these guys (though if you chose to do that, I couldn’t stop you), but thinking about the relationship between a book and the wider world. The writer’s job, Woolf said, was ‘to get in touch with the reader by putting before him something which he recognises … and makes him willing to co-operate’ with the world of the story. What seems insightful to me—the everyday ways a man could depend on a woman’s lower status to feel better about himself—probably chafed in 1927 (and may still, in some quarters, today). And things we don’t (or won’t) recognise are easily dismissed as unimportant, right? But of course that doesn’t mean that they are.
So, when I think about what’s recognisable, and what’s strange (and wonderful, and sad) in To the Lighthouse, I also think about what’s recognisable and strange in the world today. Woolf gives me hope that if we look closely—imperfectly, perhaps, subject to our own odd perspectives, prejudices, fears—we might see a little bit of the way things are, and how they might be. And it seems to me that right now, that’s just what we need.
 Kettle, Arnold, ‘Mr Bennet and Mrs Woolf’. From an Introduction to the English Novel by Arnold Kettle (London, Hutchinson Publishing Group, 1961). Quoted in Vogler, Thomas: Twentieth Century Interpretations of To the Lighthouse, Prentice-Hall, London, 1970, p96
 Woolf, Virginia. ‘Modern Fiction’, 1925. Quoted Leaska, Mitchell (ed), The Virginia Woolf Reader, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, 1984, p287
 Leavis, F.R. ‘After To the Lighthouse’, 1941. Quoted in Vogler, Thomas: Twentieth Century Interpretations of To the Lighthouse, Prentice-Hall, London, 1970, p99
 Woolf, Virginia. ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, 1924. Quoted in Quoted Leaska, Mitchell (ed), The Virginia Woolf Reader, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, 1984, p206
As far as kid-me was concerned, The Three Little Pigs was the fairy tale. Cinderella, nah. Too princessy. Rapunzel—ugh, all that hair. Dashing heroes, terrifying hijinks? Nope, just give me the hero who builds his house out of bricks.
This copy of the book is so familiar to me: the trio of worms cutting the Big Bad Wolf’s fishing line, the fish flipping out of his frypan, the angle of the little pigs’ feet on the path. I put in some serious page-gazing hours here.
But it’s not the most exciting, disciple-creating story, is it? Three pigs go out into the world, build their houses out of different stuff, the wolf gets two of them, the third one’s too clever for that. By the end of the story, the wolf’s pretty unhappy (or eaten, depending on which version you’re looking at), and the third pig’s won. So far, so ho-hum.
As folklore scholar Maria Tatar puts it, the The Three Little Pigs ‘hasn’t entered the folkloric bloodstream’ in the same way that Little Red Riding Hood or Cinderella have. But it is well-known and frequently adapted. Disney’s 1933 cartoon of the story was very popular (it won an Academy Award), and according to Tatar, in 2000 there were more than 50 English versions of the story in print.
So I’m not the only one.
Well then, what’s the appeal? Obviously, it’s a cautionary tale about not being crap. Or, as Tatar puts it, the risk of ‘indolence and lack of foresight’. She says the Disney film became a rallying cry against the Depression, and quotes Walt Disney saying the moral is that ‘wisdom along with courage is enough to defeat big bad wolves’. In other words: work hard, and don’t sit around eating snacks all day (even if they are delicious).
But child-me was motivated by something more base, I think: the desire to be right. In my copy of the book, the Third Little Pig looks distinctly pre-victory dance when he’s boiling (yes, boiling) the wolf. I wanted to be that pig. I wanted to foresee the dangers, make the right choice, and triumph. It didn’t bother me much that the other pigs got eaten (though I note that in other versions, including Disney’s, they survive). Because: victorious! Pig was boring and smug and pig survived.
And there was something else. I was fascinated by the actual bricks, the way they were layered and stuck together to make those impermeable walls. They’re the embodiment of safety, right? Our ability to shut out the rest of the world—to own our own security. That was definitely in my long-term plan (along with the occasional self-righteous victory dance).
But reading the story now, something niggles. The hero of the The Three Little Pigs is the guy who makes the right choices, and therefore deserves to be safe. Too bad for those others. But adult-me knows that sometimes people work hard and make good choices, and still their (metaphorical) house gets blown down. Maybe you eat well and exercise like a demon, but you’re still considered overweight: too bad. Your fault. Or perhaps you were born in a country where there isn’t enough food to eat. Well, we’re sorry for you, but we can only do so much. We’re fine over here, thanks. I mean, where you’re born isn’t exactly your fault, but … you were involved somehow.
Now I’m not saying we should abolish private property and national borders. But I do think something interesting happens when we find our safe place, and close the door. We believe we deserve it. And maybe, by definition, some others don’t. Or at least, not as much. They need to make the right choices, like us (insert chest-puff). And like everything, bits of this are true. We do have to earn what we have, contribute to the greater good. Look after our own. And it’s sensible to teach the idea that hard work and sensible choices are rewarded. But we’re not all working with the same toolbox. People who succeed are often hard-working and lucky.
I was reminded of this when I sat in an inflatable boat at a Médecins Sans Frontièresexhibition recently, listening to the guide talk about the chemical burns refugee children get from the fuel that can leak out and that pool in the bottom of the boat. And when she showed us the sachets of protein and vitamins they hand out to parents, to feed their children on the run. And again when I stood in the tent which would house two families in a refugee camp. There were two mattresses, a small cooking stove. I was moved. I thought about what I could do.
And then I retreated behind these four walls.
Okay, then, fairy-tale wisdom: what does the little pig do now?
So I was going to post this longish essay on J.M. Coetzee, but I thought instead, I’d tell you about my dog.
That’s him on the right there. Odie. He’s a seven-year-old rescue beagle who has fans in various places (I’ve come out of shops to find strangers taking selfies with him). And he’s hungry. Oh my heavens. Always hungry.
I’ve been thinking a bit about Odie lately, because:
One: We’ve moved from Australia to the USA, and he’s my wingman. I work at home, and he watches me snack;
Two: We’ve been going to the vet a lot, due to his excessive peeing, and
Three: I’ve been reading the novel Disgrace, by Coetzee.
I grew up with dogs. Big ones, the kind best greeted via the front door, with a family member (never alone, over the back fence). Sometimes, they tried to take my food. Other times, they took me for a walk. The death of one of them broke my brother’s heart.
But I didn’t think I was a dog person. I preferred the screw-you attitude of cats. There was something clean about it.
It would suit me now to say ‘I was a cat person, until I had this dog’—but that’s crap. I’ve been in denial. Decades after my family imploded, my father’s German Shepherd would cry with joy when she realised it was me walking down the driveway. She’d do this butt-wiggling dance of excitement, her eczema-blighted, old-dog back swinging from side to side, keeping time with her tail.
It was delightful, of course. But as a young adult I just couldn’t process that amount of feeling—that much need—from another being.
The truth is, I still struggle with it. The I-love-you stare of a dog can bring even the most hard-hearted of us undone (even when it’s really I-love-you-and-also-do-you-have-cheese). But I’m not so scared of feelings now. The companionable wag of Odie’s tail when we’re out walking makes my heart sing. It’s mawkish, ridiculous. But there it is.
Being with Odie—especially in a new place—means having someone on my team. When I stand awkwardly in the park, he’s right there, ready to be talked about. He watches me resignedly (or perhaps he’s napping?) while I try to work out how to get a doctor’s appointment, where to buy a car, how to get a driver’s licence. And he’s shared (vicariously, of course) my joy at the sheer range and deliciousness of chocolate-coated caramel on offer in this part of the USA.
Odie and I have been spending some extra time together lately, what with all those trips to the vet. After a couple of Olympic-sized pees in the house (I still just—can’t—even), the vet wanted to run some tests. Ultrasounds, blood tests, urine (guess who had to follow him out in the morning with a large disposable cup?). As they ruled out infections and kidney failure, Odie just kept looking at me, panting in that way I choose to interpret as a smile.
It’s kind of terrible, the power one has over a dog. And it’s made worse by the trusting way they look at you. This is something J.M. Coetzee touches on in the novel I mentioned. Disgrace, which is set in post-apartheid South Africa, is about a professor who loses his job after he has an affair with a student. He moves to his daughter’s landholding, where he begins volunteering at an animal shelter.
Of course there’s far too much in Disgrace to do it justice in two paragraphs. But one thing that resonated with me was the way the protagonist’s attitude towards animals changes, the more of them he has to put to sleep. He doesn’t harden towards the dogs, as you might expect. He treats them with increasing respect, even as he knows they will die (and that he will help them).
What does this mean, and why does it tug so much on the heartstrings? I think it’s something to do with love and power. Because the truth is that I love Odie at least in part because he has to love me back. He knows I’m the boss (even if he sometimes chooses not to listen). It’s simple: he trusts me, and I have to live up to that.
Of course, by the fifth hour-long return trip to the vet, I wasn’t feeling my generous best. But I’m pleased to report that Odie’s pee problem doesn’t appear to be too serious—he’s on medication which has reduced his pee volume, and helped our new rug remain (relatively) unscathed. I mean I still had to nonchalantly catch this morning’s pee, and will need to remember his twice-daily medicine, monitor his water intake. And I can’t pretend this doesn’t sometimes feel farcical, when there are so many humans on the planet who don’t have access to clean water, let alone medicine.
But the fact remains that in this small area of influence (his life) I’m responsible. It’s my job to look after him, and luckily, I’m able to. I mean look at that face. Doesn’t it just bore into your soul, asking that you please at least try not to be crap?
And also maybe could you get up, and fetch him a snack?
Shortly after I had my first child, someone bought me flowers. Let’s say they were irises.
For more than a week I shuffled past those flowers, bleary and joyous and confused. We had made a person. With eyes and ears and hair; who had hands that would grasp at cups and spoons and pens and screwdrivers. Who stared and yawned and stretched and farted.
One day I came in the front door and saw that the flowers had died. They weren’t just a bit droopy, or crispy around the edges; they were completely (pardon the pun) cactus. They must have been like that for some time. Yet in my mind, until moments earlier, they’d been fresh-smelling parcels of purple. Clearly, I’d been distracted. And my mind had filled in the details for me.
Of course at the time, it was no big deal. I chucked the flowers out, and got on with things. But they’ve been on my mind recently, and I think it’s because of December.
Now I know how this sounds, but I don’t much like this time of year. I get stressed about buying presents, I avoid decorating the tree, I resist caring about what we eat for dinner. I’m happy for others to enjoy it: to pop the Christmas crackers and read out the silly jokes, work their way through a month of advent chocolate, spend days and weeks covered in salt and sand. I’ll work to facilitate that; I see the value of it. But personally—it makes me tired.
December is a pushing-up point; a moment of enforced pause. We work away all through the year, hitting (or missing) work deadlines, inching our way through the school terms, chasing our tails to keep the house in some reasonably clean state (or perhaps that’s just me?). The news sails past—boats capsize, bombs go off and people get smashed-up in their sedans on the way to work. Maybe someone you know gets married, or your brother buys a house, your neighbour makes it to the other side of the cancer treatment. And then—wham—it’s almost next year, and what does it all mean?
We wake up each morning assuming (quite reasonably, for the most part) that today is a regular day; that nothing catastrophic will happen; that dinner will be as we planned it and we’ll bicker, as usual, about whose turn it is to do the dishes. That’s what allows us (the lucky ones) to enjoy the wonderful, safe, ordinariness of existence. We have access to healthcare, education, nutrition. We can lock our doors behind us at night. But we know that bad things happen. People do terrible things. People get hurt, they go without. Life isn’t fair.
Coming up to December (especially if I’m going to have to listen to songs about peace and hope and joy), I want all of this to make sense. But it doesn’t. I hear and see and read about awful things happening, and I don’t do enough about it. Sometimes I don’t even want to know about it. I want to be safe in my kitchen with the sun streaming in and some nice classical music on the radio.
So, wait, am I saying that everything will be better if I pay more attention to flowers? Well, no. But those irises are a useful reminder that I look at out at the world from inside my own head—that reality is moving on, whether I notice or not. On the one hand, that’s a reassuring thought. I’m not in control of everything. I can’t be. On the other hand, it’s unsettling. Who wants to think about how easily things could change, how fragile we all are? Let’s just push that thought down hard, right?
Well, maybe that vulnerability is the bit I’ve been missing. If I’m feeling at all celebratory this December, it can’t be only about those new shoes I want, the opportunity to eat pudding and pavlova, or the list of achievements I can (or can’t) rattle off over the dinner table. It’s about accepting fragility, and celebrating the daily ways we overcome it. Or even, the ways that we don’t.
There’s no rule that says I have to be jolly at this time of year. Only, maybe, present. Happy enough about all the snacking and talking and general existing that’s going on. And remembering, when I can, to look around. And notice.
Mention Mansfield Park to a devoted Austen-ite and you get the tell-tale sigh: yes, but Fanny Price! Why does she have to be so …
Blessedly, teeth-grindingly annoying?
In any situation, you can count on Jane Austen’s heroine (a poor cousin taken to live with rich relatives at age 10) to be terribly proper. She’ll be concerned that everyone’s comfort is given due consideration, and aware of her own low station. She’ll say things like, ‘a whole family assembling regularly for the purpose of prayer, is fine!’ and ‘never happier than when behaving so dishonourably and unfeelingly!—Oh! What a corrupted mind!’
Cue the eye-roll.
Mansfield Park—which was published after Pride and Prejudice and celebrates its 200th anniversary this year—is acknowledged to be Austen’s least-loved novel. A seminal essay on the book (by Lionel Trilling) goes so far as to say that for Austen admirers, the book “is likely to make an occasion for embarrassment” while “nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park.” But so far this year, I’ve read it three times. There’s that same lovely Austen eye—showing us how people are ridiculous without sneering at them, making us laugh and drawing us in to the lives of characters invented two centuries ago. It doesn’t sparkle the way that Pride and Prejudice does, but its heroine (bullied as she is by her Aunt Norris and ignored by almost everyone else, except her cousin Edmund) is not (and nor is she meant to be) Elizabeth Bennet. She’s poorer, more alone, and daily reminded of her lowly position. Trilling, for all that he noted its mixed reception, pronounced Mansfield Park a great novel. And it’s Fanny—quiet, upright, moralising Fanny—who makes it so fantastic.
How can this be? So much of what Fanny does rubs a contemporary reader up the wrong way. She’s treated like a servant, pitied for her ‘deficiencies’ and excluded from the privileges her cousins enjoy—and she just accepts it. Nods demurely and fetches the sewing for her awful Aunt Norris. Is pitifully grateful that her flaccid Aunt Bertam wants her company, even though it means staying home while the others gad about having fun. You want to shake her—‘come on, Fanny, don’t be such a ninny! Show some spine!’ But this reaction, though understandable (even Austen’s mother judged Fanny ‘insipid’) rather misses the point.
I think Fanny’s pious submissiveness is in fact a clever armour, leading up to the point at which she utters those remarkable words: “I cannot like him, Sir, well enough to marry him” and “I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself.” Remembering that this is a time in which women could not vote, or own property—and bearing in mind Fanny’s precarious financial situation—her decision to refuse the wealthy (and untrustworthy) Henry Crawford is an act of self-assertion. Unlike those around her, Fanny Price’s insight and intellectual integrity allow her to see Mr Crawford and his sister for who they really are; next to Fanny, the Bertrams (including Sir Thomas, the respected patriarch) are dullards who misread just about everything that happens in the novel. The fact that Fanny is so serious and submissive means she that when she does think (and act) for herself, she is morally untouchable enough that even Sir Thomas, though angered by her refusal, can’t completely write her off. Presumably the same applied to readers in 1814.
We see this more clearly in looking at a modern version of the story. The 1999 film adaptation (the one starring Frances O’Connor) does two particularly interesting things: it hands Fanny Price a pen (and a sense of humour), and adds more events around the Bertrams’ sugar plantation in Antigua. These elements are sketched more lightly in Austen’s story—we know Fanny has a small study, where she goes to read and write, but we hear little of what she produces; and we know Sir Thomas travels to Antigua, and that Fanny asks her uncle about the slave trade, but the issue is not explored in detail. In the 1999 version, Fanny Price has taken on elements of Austen herself; the film draws on the author’s letters and diaries, giving Fanny a gift for language and seeing her, at the end of the film, about to publish her first book. She’s still reserved and accepting of her situation, but we’re allowed to interpret it differently—she knows her own mind and holds independent ambitions. Contemporary readers don’t need Fanny to be cloying, carefully toeing the line and knowing her place. Things have changed. In a similar vein, viewers today are unlikely to be satisfied with the Bertrams’ interest in the slave trade being in the background—it requires explanation. But of course whatever her personal view may have been, Edward Said notes that it’s not reasonable to expect Jane Austen to “treat slavery with anything like the passion of an abolitionist”—she, like us, is a creature of her time.
For all that, the two centuries that have passed since Mansfield Park was published can’t diminish my enjoyment of this book. Fanny Price might require a bit more of an empathy stretch than Elizabeth Bennet, but she’s more than worth the effort.
Fanny navigates poverty and patriarchy, landing on a place (however eye-rollingly virtuous it may seem) where she can assert herself. So if she sometimes comes across as a ninny, then it’s a necessary calculation—and we’re all the wiser for seeing the world through her eyes.
 For a detailed analysis of Mansfield Park and attitudes to slavery, see Edward Said’s book Culture and Imperialism (Vintage, London, 1993). Paula Byrne also provides some interesting thoughts about Austen’s deliberate use of names and language in alluding to slavery.
When my husband was four, he asked for a clock. Any kind, really. As long he was going to be allowed to pull it into tiny little pieces.
Over time, he moved on to old TVs, broken video recorders, radios, cars. Eventually he learned to put things back together—and at some point, he even found there were no pieces left over.
Meanwhile, I spent years with my nose pasted between the pages of a book. I’d read one, then read it again. I was a very happy consumer of those imaginary worlds. It didn’t occur to me to unscrew the back, and see what made it all tick.
So I thought I’d come late to the take-it-apart party, and have a closer look at some stories I admire. First, I had a look at Margo Lanagan’s Sea Hearts (which is a gorgeous book about selkies, love and beauty). This month, I’ve been thinking about Brokeback Mountain, by Annie Proulx.
Like a lot of people, I’d seen the film. But I hadn’t read the book—nor had I realised that it was actually a short story, coming in at 58 small-format pages of pitch-perfect prose.
Now I’m sure there are lots of ways of thinking about Brokeback Mountain, but I’m going to focus on it as a love story—because in essence, that’s what it is. The relationship between Proulx’s two characters, Ennis and Jack, isn’t an easy one, but we believe it; it’s real love. And given how tough that can be to recognise in real life, bringing it not just convincingly—but beautifully, and honestly—to life on the page is a pretty neat trick. So in taking a look inside this particular clock, I want to know: How does Proulx bring love between two pretend people into the real world, and make it matter?
In trying to answer this question, the first thing I did was make myself a little diagram. (Warning: there are no big spoilers here, but there are plot points—so if you don’t know the story and you’re the kind of person who likes to be surprised … well, you’ve been warned).
Now this is just a very simple outline showing how I see the story’s structure (I certainly wouldn’t set your watch by it). The first thing I noticed was the ‘frame’ that Proulx has put around the story—represented here by the two dark blue rectangles on the far left and right. Both of these sections are set at the same time, and they use two key motifs: Ennis dreaming about Jack, and a pair of shirts hanging on a nail. The opening section gives us a glimpse of the shirts (they’re explained later on), and we only get hints about what’s in Ennis’s dream—but by the time we learn that he’s had it, we’re right there with him, at 5am on a windy morning, in a flimsy aluminium caravan.
From this frame, we go ‘back’ to hear the main story—represented by the four light-to-dark rectangles in the middle of the diagram. The main story brings our two protagonists together by circumstance (they both sign up to work on Brokeback Mountain), and through the simple act of having them share a paragraph:
They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat, up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life.
We know that these two somehow belong together; Ennis and Jack are a “they”. From here, the story follows the contour of a relationship which in its most basic sense (they meet, they fall in love, there are difficulties) is familiar. But Jack and Ennis’s difficulties are major: openly having a relationship would pose the real risk of violence, and even death. And this matters—it really does. But for us in the real world to care, first we have to believe in the ‘truth’ of these pretend people, and their love.
So how does Proulx do it? My theory is that it’s a combination of intimate connection, tension, and distance. From the beginning, these two characters share the frame—they’re talking, drinking beer, setting off up the mountain together. We know it’s a story about them. And then once they’re involved, there’s tension: after that first summer, will they see each other again? Will they get along, are they truly connected? And all along, there’s a distance that animates everything. This is most beautifully captured early in the story:
During the day Ennis looked across a great gulf and sometimes saw Jack, a small dot moving across a high meadow, as an insect moves across a tablecloth; Jack, in his dark camp, saw Ennis as night fire, a red spark on the huge black mass of mountain.
What this story does so well is hold two people simultaneously together, and apart. It does that structurally (through plot and so on) as well as with gorgeous words: from the description of Jack’s buckteeth as “not pronounced enough to let him each popcorn out of a jug, but noticeable”, to Ennis as “a little cave-chested … a small torso on long, caliper legs” and the way the two of them sat in front of the fire, “boot soles and copper jeans rivets hot”. Proulx takes an ordinary scene and makes it strange for us; gives us pause, makes us look again.
In convincing us of the truth of her pretend people, Proulx performs a powerful act of empathy—not on herself (she’s already there), but on us. If we believe the truth of these two characters, and in their genuine connection, then their story really matters. It matters because it reminds us that there’s a whole world inside the head of every person we meet, and that there is often a wide gulf between what we think we know about someone, and the truth.
Looking back, perhaps I didn’t try to ‘pull apart’ books when I was a kid because I didn’t want to spoil this kind of magic—the stuff that made a story matter. And there is a difference between reading with the clock back open, watching the gears turn, and looking at it from the front. But we can read both ways, right? And at least with a story, there’s no danger of finding stray words hiding under the toolbox when you’re done.