Thursday, July 19, 2007

i am afraid of virginia woolf...

i a little bit do not know what to do with myself. but, faced with no structure, i find myself unable to stay away from virginia. i am reading her diaries now. i find her extremely comforting -- an affirmation of many aspects of my personality and of the habits of mine that i often find least explicable and most disconcerting. her descriptions even of her depressions are often lively, and i am relieved to learn she, too, could sometimes not read, often could not write, and explained long lapses in her diary writing by saying her mind had gone blank. she also was floored for weeks with headaches that couldn't be explained. her descriptions of vita are marked by a less articulate kind of biting -- her descriptions of other, less intimate people seem more fluent and precise -- and i suspect from this that she was more vulnerable to vita than others and so could see her less clearly. the mentions are often merely, "then, vita" or "tomorrow, vita." when she does describe her, she often centers on the physical, and i have a much better sense of the birch trees that were vita's legs than what she was like when she sat at virginia's feet on their visits -- other than that she was a dumb letter writer, wealthy and often behaved like a "schoolboy." but i have only gotten a few pages into orlando, which promises to complicate and deepen my impressions.

i am interested, also, in virginia's thoughts on what it meant to be a real woman and how she often does not feel like a real woman. this is especially brought out in her discussion of dress, how she never feels like she has anything to wear, how a new dress can make her feel more appropriate in society, how being teased for her hat made her feel so mortified and depressed.

i feel, for the first time, that i have found a literary ancestor that does not require a great amount of imagination and interpretation to identify with. a friend of mine, suspicious of the constant lesbian reinterpretation of fictions that i have increasingly relied on in order to see myself in the world, asks, really? were they really gay? and there is no question here, not only that vita and virginia slept together, but that they had a lesbian sensibility ... cataloging other 'sapphists,' often in a teasing, knowing way, taking on male pet names and imaginary characters (potto, orlando), and a certain ease with which they interrogate gender ... virginia, more than vita, wrote out of her alienation, her otherness, her queerness, while vita, it seemed, created a kind of lesbian world for herself (married a fag, is it true?).

and all this time, i have the indigo girls' song "virginia woolf" in my head and that exacerbates my sense that this exploration is a cliche one. the line that is lodged most smugly and persistently in my brain -- "they published your diaries/ and that's how i got to know you/ a key to a room of your own and a mind without end" -- makes me cringe. the flip side of the constant lesbian reinterpretation of "straight" fictions and lives is that overtly, heavily lesbian themes make me extremely self-conscious and uncomfortable.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

vw + vs-w = <3

i finished this thick collection off in a day, unable to interrupt my eavesdropping on virginia and vita, no matter how i tried. i sensed that this was dangerous territory, that in watching dual performances of idealized selves fall in love and flirt and fuck and fight, i would surely find myself heartsore and longing. it is true. i think of vita, her small lips, her giant eyes, her young, exuberant devotion and admiration and i have the chest pains of a living crush. i think of quiet virginia, the slender crag, with her pride and brilliance and wish to be her reincarnation -- madness, illness, ennui and all -- if it meant i could one day hope to match her prose. how did virginia love vita so hard and still love leonard so well and perhaps even harder? how did she write these letters and still have the emotional time for novels and essays and equally-voluminous (if not equally-passionate) correspondences with other lovers, with friends and family? i am overwhelmed. even on blank days, i am lucky to wring three pages from the dry stone that is my brain. and of course, she was the virginia woolf and i am just me, but really, need the disparity be so insurmountable!? my main complaint with this collection is that virginia is too edited. in another collection of her letters (which i lost this weekend) one gets a better sense of her rhythms to vita, while in this collection we are lucky to two consecutive paragraph's from virginia without the maddening and enticing secrecy of the ". . . " in this particular collection, it is really vita who shines.

now, of course, i am off to read orlando and will probably be bedridden with all my swooning by the end of this.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Trillin Chillin'

On days like Sunday and Monday, with the heat and humidity and general atmospheric charm of the inside of a JV basketball player's sweatsock, when midtown smells like sauteed garbage, and the heat rising from the sidewalk grates brings to mind the outer circle of hell that is a rush-hour subway car with no working a/c, it's a little hard to justify living in New York. But then, it's hard to be bored with so much to DO. With that in mind, Wordwhore and I hereby resolve to attend more bookworm-y type events around the city. To make our resolution manifest, we have added a wee little calendar to the bottom of this page, by means of which, dear reader(s?), you may track our plans.

Thus inspired, we ventured up the western coast of the little island to 82nd street. There, in the pastoral expanses of the Barnes and Noble, we sat among a sea of white and grey head to hear deadline-poet laureate Calvin Trillin read from his latest book of political verse, Obliviously On He Sails. When I say a sea of grey and white, by the way, i mean that most people present seemed to have a good 30-40 years on us. It was like being at an Episcopal church. Are we unusually young for his fan base, or is it always like this uptown? (Mr. Trillin, of course, is a stranger here himself; his Greenwich village digs, he says, are surrounded by a metaphorical white picket fence, a symbolic boundary, marking his home as an eastern annexation of Kansas City. At one point in the evening, when remarking on his habit of using footnotes in his poetry, he allied himself with another member of the Missouri diaspora: "I use footnotes sometimes. T.S. Eliot used footnotes.... T.S. Eliot and I , I guess you could think of as the Missourah School.")

One of my weaknesses as a snooty and bookish sort is how twitchy I get when confronted by poetry, particularly in the reading form. No more am I a great fan of liberal preaching to whiny choirs, although I am the kind of democracy geek who even votes in primaries. Funny poetry, on the other hand, and witty preaching, are other things entirely. Trillan read his poems in a dry tone, and seemed refreshingly immune to the worshipful salivating of the post-reading audience:

In response to the first sychophant: "Nice to have a cousin here. I'm sorry what I said about Aunt Sadie. I forgot she was your mother."

To a tired little question about whether it's "hard" to write: "I have to turn the poems in on Monday , so I set the showerhead to iambic pentameter on Sunday night."

To one of a string of political questions of the sort that seemed to imply he is oracular: "My candidate remains Ross Perot, because of the rhyming possibilities. A good iambic pentameter candidate. A little buggy, but a great name."

Calvin Trillan is a great hero of mine, more for the combination of boyish enthusiasm and tongue-in-cheek description that characterizes his essays than for his poetry, which is the kind of candy I prefer in small doses. Still, while they can't touch the beauty of his recent New Yorker essay about his late wife, Alice, the poems -- particularly when read aloud -- have the charm of Ogden Nash and the bittersweet wit of H.L. Mencken. Plus, it's fun to get to call the war-mongering draft-dodgers populating Capitol Hill these days "sissy hawks."

Friday, June 16, 2006

On Moderation

Wordwhore and I need a Salinger break. It seemed like a good idea, reading all of it at once. Salinger's a whale of a good writer, of course, and he didn't write all that much, which makes the project emminently do-able. And once we'd done it, we'd have a handy trump card to play the next time some cocktail-party blowhard who skimmed half of Catcher in 10th grade and has the plot muddled up with Dead Poets' Society and A Separate Peace got started on some Bacardi-fueled mental masturbation about Christ-imagery or the effect of the Cold War on American letters or something equally insufferable.

So we read Nine Stories and we read Catcher. And they were, of course, amazing. The precise ear for dialogue -- any of the stories could become a play with almost no changes; if only most playwrights were so good making speech both natural and dramatic -- the consistency of Holden's cheerfully depressed voice, the characters rendered so complete with such quick descriptions of clothes or stance or habits of speech.... It was great.

But it was also a little much, or at least a little fast. The stories, each of which is each compelling and poignant and all that on its own, begin to bleed together when read as quickly and hungrily as we read them. Their endings, which are frankly not their strong points, begin to seem like gongs, or maybe like the inevitable clang of a huge bell put in motion with a yanked rope at the beginning of the story. The suicides and drunken breakdowns cease to suprise, which is why my favorite of the stories was "Down at the Dinghy", the crushed little boy and his mother racing back to, rather than away from, the house which is both the source of the boy's hurt and a haven. (Yes, there is a sorrow in the realization that the hurt will be repeated throughout his life, that his mother may not be the crusading protector we would wish him to have, but the ending leaves them running into the future, not either stuck in the past, wishing they could be stuck in the past, or about to be stuck in this moment forever.)

And then there was the weather. It's summer. It's not the time to hibernate and consider the emptiness of human achievement, the inevitable failures of people (or at least adults) to understand each other; it's time to lie in the sun. It's time to call our friends up and hang out. It's time to talk to the kids on the stoop who are hula-hooping and jumping double-dutch and playing with every dog that comes by, without imagining that they will grow into frustrated, misunderstood, emotionally broken adults.

So. We are taking a break. Wordwhore finally got a subscription to the New Yorker, which should keep her out of trouble, she's swooning over Ren Weschler's Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, and staying true to our summer pledge to read more fiction with Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, one of only two women (not that I think that's ridiculous or anything) on the New York Times' list of the best American fiction of the past 25 years. I forgot to renew and thus had to return Loren Eisley's The Night Country (I'll get it back, not to worry.), and I just can't quit John McPhee, currently the essays collected in Pieces of The Frame, which are making me believe in the Loch Ness Monster again.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

On Rereading

Rereading Grendel by John Gardner, which was my favorite book after senior year English class in high school (along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard), I'm getting a subtle sense of how my mind has changed. Rereading for me is often a practice in reading with two minds, because the specter of who I was when I first came to the book (or, for Catcher in the Rye, the last four times I came to the book) reads with me. Just in these first two chapters of Grendel, I see, and not without some degree of unhappiness, how much more intimately I understand the beastly flailings of my angsty, existentialist hero. I also see that I have long misquoted Grendel's near-death epiphany in the rotting tree. He realizes, not "Blink by blink, I create the universe. I alone exist," which is how I've remembered it since I was 17, but:
I understood that, finally and absolutely, I alone exist. All the rest, I saw, is merely what pushes me, or what I push against, blindly - as blindly as all that is not myself pushes back. I create the whole universe, blink by blink. -- An ugly god pitifully dying in a tree!
It was adolescent bravado (and shoddy scholarship) that caused me to misremember, to shorten that anguished realization about the alienated nature of being into what became (for me) a statement of brash adoration for the self-centered artist.

Rereading Catcher so many times, through so many periods of my life has brought me to a point where the text doesn't change as much under my eyes. I remember and feel the same emotions, but they strike me fivefold. The text, somehow, is still new. And each time I visit, Holden lives in me for a few weeks, and I am morose but awake to small beauties, I am sensitive to phonies and craving the kind of simple honesty and openness it seems difficult to find anywhere but children.

I am glad to have disabused myself of the notion, perhaps for always, that rereading is a form of stagnancy, that by returning, I risk not moving forward. These texts, the good ones, are always new.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


Meteorologically, the past few days were perfect for reading Jose Saramago's Blindness: yesterday afternoon, as I read about the "white evil" -- an infectious blindness that leaves all the citizens of an unnamed country unable to see anything except a luminous whiteness -- a dense, white mist was curling over first tall buildings and then low treetops, crawling over to meet me. Now, a furious rainstorm pounds my windows and draws snakes on the pavement, like the redemptive rain that washes clean the much-abused characters in the novel, who fear they will lose their humanity in the face of the brutal vicissitudes of their society, by turns fascist and anarchic.

When epidemic begins, the government tries to contain it by interring all those who are struck blind and all those suspected of contamination (Does this begin to sound Orwellian? It's meant to.) in an abandoned mental assylum. Although the prisoners -- erm, patients -- are assured that they will be cared for in some minimal ways, the soldiers guarding them are terrified of contracting the blindness; their sargent keeps making comments like, "when the beast dies, the poison dies with it," which do not contribute to an atmosphere of compassion; and, of course, as the blindness engulfs the entire country, things like radio stations, banks, and the power grid cease to function. The book's pace is slow and steady. Each turn in the plot is presented calmly, as the next step in a logical and inevitable progression of horrors. Pretty soon, we have a filthy and over-crowded hospital, no food, and starving blind people shooting guns and wielding clubs and setting things on fire.

I said that everyone goes blind, but that is only almost true. One woman, the wife of a doctor who is the first to be sent to the assylum, mysteriously keeps her sight. She lies about it in order that she may remain with her husband, and she keeps her sight a secret at the hospital, too, afraid of the dependence and potential jealousy of the other inmates. They do depend on her, though unknowlingly: she is constantly touching people to guide them or trying to engineer some fairness in the distribution of food rations or spying on the gang with the gun in the ward down the hall. A few sentences ago, I thought about saying that she "miraculously" retained her vision, but that is not the story Saramago has written. While her vision is a blessing for her husband and especially for the group of inmates who stay with her when they escape the assylum and wander the ruined city, it is in many ways a curse for her. Not only does she bear more responsibility for caring for her blind charges, but she is forced to witness the disintegration of her world. She must choose, too, whether to bear witness, whether to tell her companions the truth about why she throws up walking down the street (because she sees a gang of dogs tearing apart a human corpse) or a less horrific version (that the dogs were eating another dog).

To my list of favorite characters from literature, I must add the dog of tears, a mutt of unknown origins who arrives to comfort the woman who can see. He licks her face clean when she falls down in the street and sobs; he discretely buries the remains of the chicken he has stolen from a suspicious old lady whose good-will they require; he clears a space for the woman and the doctor to sit down on the floor of a church filled with blind refugees and also with one of the most vivid and haunting images in the book, one I will not describe here in the name of not spoiling the read. The dog of tears is loyal and kind and self-sufficient; the characters in this book who fret constantly about turning into animals could do worse than to be like him.

It is a cliche to call a novel "breath-taking", and although I did read parts of this book without breathing, one hand clapped over my mouth, it was not the novel that took my breath, making me gasp with easy suprises, as some do, rather it was I who was holding my breath in, afraid of what would happen if I dared to exhale before the end of each scene.

The Rest of The Stories

Friday, May 19, 2006

Five Stories (Some Notes)

Reading Salinger now in this blank hotel room, a bit worried of the psychological effects of this project. His uncanny ability to articulate what I can only vaguely refer to as the intuitive aspects of human interaction disarms me. Though, in life, I am aware of the underlying sadness of the everyday and of the rare moments of ecstatic beauty that interrupt that sadness, experiencing the precise articulation of those moments leaves me craving, both for more of that kind of honesty off the page and for the ability to be that genius on the page.

Each story so far has the same pattern: I resist in the beginning, I am absorbed in the middle, and I am slapped with the ending. If nothing else (and there is everything else), J.D. knows how to end a story.

This charmed me, from "The Laughing Man":

Offhand, I can remember seeing just three girls in my life who struck me as having unclassifiably great beauty at first sight. One was a thin girl in a black bathing suit who was having a lot of trouble putting up an orange umbrella at Jones Beach, circa 1936. The second was a girl aboard a Caribbean cruise ship in 1939, who threw her cigarette lighter at a porpoise. And the third was Chief's girl, Mary Hudson.

My most-recent favorite line, from "Down at the Dinghy":

Her joke of a name aside [Boo Boo], her general unprettiness aside, she was -- in terms of permanently memorable, immoderately perceptive, small-area faces -- a stunning and final girl.

Just a Glimpse (or, I Forgot that BEA is Boring)

I spent most of the day watching booksellers step peppily into the convention halls at 9 am and come out hours later, suitcases full of literary loot, dragging and bleary. The highlight of the day was meeting Alison Bechdel and procuring signed copies of the next dykeread. She good-naturedly tolerated the few but feverish fans, including my blushing, fumbling self. Also good: I only had one conversation about the Da Vinci Code, I was only forced into interacting with one becostumed book creature (Gabby the Six-Foot Literacy Dog), and I successfully avoided excessive thoughts of homicide.