A Word on Weddings
Like many people whose marriage impends, I have been initiated into the strange, febrile world of weddings — a world whose population is varied and ever-changing, a time-lapse version of the actual world. The wedding world is headquartered at sites like The Knot or Weddingbee, where the affianced and the “waiting” (for someone to put a ring on it) alike convene to commune in questionable spelling and reverent platitudes of surpassing banality: “marrying my best friend,” and “it’s not the wedding, it’s the marriage,” uttered in the course of a discussion about five-dollar chair covers.
Making fun of The Knot or Weddingbee is like shooting fish in a barrel, and most of the womens’ interest blogs of the sort I favor have taken aim. But Jezebel cannot tell me anything about tipping the caterer, while Weddingbee bristles with opinions on the subject. Moreover, long after I harvested the helpful hints I needed from Weddingbee, I return frequently to view the forums, which I have found absorbing to an almost debilitating degree.
It began with the unkind voyeuristic impulse behind something like The Hairpin’s Today’s Top Ten Wedding Bee Discussion Board Thread Titles. The Internet, more than travel, more than almost any other thing, gives you a glimpse of how other people live and what they care about. And with weddings being a widespread but mostly un-ideological phenomenon, a wedding website attracts a real slice of life. On Weddingbee there are the expected Marxian differences, as well as significant regional and hemispheric variations.
In spite of this, these boards are a friendly place. Women are frequently reminded by the world at large that they are catty and shrewish, but I am often struck by the fierce generosity demonstrated by groups of women unknown to one another (also by the speed with which a group of female strangers will turn to topics of contraception under the right circumstances). As in any community, some members are just assholes. But someone asks if she is too fat to see daylight, and everyone tells her no, no, no. Someone loses her job a week before her wedding, and the hive gathers round her in an online embrace.
Disdain for these sites is often of a parcel with another phenomenon the wedding-haver encounters — a sort of race-to-the-bottom humblebrag about the minimal expense of the interlocutor’s wedding, sometimes phrased so that the implication is that the success of a marriage is inversely proportionate to the cost of the shindig. “Had it in the backyard,” they say, and the Lord rained down gratis BBQ and compostable cutlery to reward their lack of pretension. Then there is Caitlin Flanagan, who characteristically manages to be right about a lot of things while sucking the joy right out of the world, reminding us that weddings are a colossal, farcical, tasteless, and needless expense representing a hollowed-out institution — just another example of our sick culture.
Everyone has their own line for what constitutes folly. I am not without my own strain of Flanaganism. But one thing I really like about weddings is that though they are a folly, they are to the best of my knowledge a relatively universal folly (and one of the few driven by some ostensibly joyful and optimistic instinct). Even in less libertine cultures than my own, they often represent a union in which not a shred of virginity, financial health, or, sometimes, likelihood of enduring love remains. Even so, we are going to get spruced up, create a festive atmosphere of one sort or another, and take photographs. In a thousand languages, people spend money, fight about the guest list, and try not to get any unsightly hives on the big day. Then, they try to stay married. We are unlikely to make ourselves less stupid than we collectively are, so we should have parties.
My own experience of wedding planning has been a very traditional cocktail shared with my beloved, composed of anxiety, guilt, and joyful anticipation. Like many people, I made a lot of lists of things and fretted too much about some things and not enough about others. I did things that were called “wedding planning” which were actually just mindless Internet trawling, looking at pictures of things that have no bearing on my life, and patting myself on the back for at least not being as x as the people who say y on Weddingbee.
What the wedding sites made clear to me about weddings generally and ours in particular is that they are inevitably one iteration of a thousand other weddings — a melange of logistical and aesthetic decisions dictated by social forces largely imperceptible to you. You find that choices you believed you had arrived at quite on your own are some current staple of Pinterest, totally characteristic of your particular station in life. My demographic, evidently, is very fond of the “rustic” and the “vintage.” And while I have grown to shudder at these terms (one wedding theme I read about: “vintage books”), part of it is the pain of realizing that you are part of a vast, rushing current, and your tastes are not your own.
I eventually resigned myself to rusticity and sameness, but one place where I thought I could assert my personality (without leaving my fiance totally by the wayside, or course), was the wedding reading. I was confident that Weddingbee could tell me nothing that I did not already know about a pithy piece of writing.
How Literature Failed Me in my Hour of Need
It is now customary in many weddings to write one’s own vows, tailored to fit the bride and groom’s individual quirks. Faced with this prospect, some dour inner Protestant stirred and grumbled. I could not picture us telling the assembled that we enjoy fattening food, Breaking Bad, and architectural boat tours. That when I mop the floor, I like to get drunk and listen to Groove Armada. When you sneeze, you sneeze five times. That I promise to always like the Redskins even when they are dismal. No, I am partial to “death do us part.” And brevity, ironically.
Thus the reading became the one place in the ceremony for a little customization and flair. My beloved also likes books, but I am bossier, and I took the reigns on this project. And since I find literature sufficient for expressing most of what there is to express about human life, the bar for this particular passage was very high.
As a bookish person, it felt like cheating to be searching for beautiful passages from the Internet. I preferred for it to happen more organically (so precious, so mistaken). I read books all the time, I thought to myself; surely I should have some interior commonplace book chock-full of beauty and inspiration to consult. But the only two poems I can recite in their entirety — Philip Larkin’s “High Windows” and “This be the Verse” — are so far from wedding-worthy it’s hard to imagine anything worse: “When I see a couple of kids/ And guess he’s fucking her and she’s/ Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,/ I know this is paradise.” (Or “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” obviously.)
I love “The Whitsun Weddings,” which is technically a poem about weddings. But while, contra Christopher Hitchens, I think its last line is romantic, the romance is that of life, not of individual human relationships: “A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” “Broadcast” is love poem, but a more sneering and cringing love poem there never was: “…Then begins/ A snivel on the violins:/ I think of your face among all those faces,/ Beautiful and devout before/ Cascades of monumental slithering.” Most unsuitable for a wedding. And anyhow, Larkin — more on him later.
My favorite poem is probably T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes,” the last lines of which reveal the haunting ordered chaos of the universe, but hardly warm the cockles: “The worlds revolve like ancient women/ gathering fuel in vacant lots.” In a book shop pawing through the poetry, I sensed this was a theme, in poetry in general, and especially in the poetry I like. Tomas Tranströmer seemed promising for a minute in “The Couple,” if a touch erotic: “The movements of love have settled, and they sleep/but their most secret thoughts meet as when/ two colours meet and flow into each other/ on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting.” But that ending: “They stand packed and waiting very near,/ a mob of people with blank faces.” It leaves an impression of a lonely echo in a hallway, a little like “Preludes.”
Googling had seemed like cheating, but I started to Google, and found, predictably, that I was hardly the first person to have had this problem. Book snobs abound. I went to the library and took out several anthologies, including a book of readings specifically for weddings. There are things I have seen before — sonnets, for example — but I like free verse. There were many things I hadn’t seen. Margaret Atwood has a poem about marriage called “Habitation,” evidently used in some weddings. I liked it, stupidly, because it mentions eating popcorn, which happens to be something that my beloved and I do together on a shockingly regular basis. But it seemed a little fraught for a wedding. The last line, “We are learning to make fire,” hangs at the bottom of the page, lonely as early man: I pictured us shivering in our damp cave.
I liked an excerpt from Toni Morrison’s “Jazz” — “It’s nice when grown people whisper to each other under the covers” — but that’s so private, and then the poem invokes an off-stage “chippie” and “stud.” I checked out Love Letters of Great Men, but the problem, aside from the sort of ethical weirdness of reading someone’s mail, is that great men tended to write romantic letters to a number of different women, which is not really on-message for our marriage (this was not in the collection, but I remember Malcolm Lowry once wrote one of his wives that he wanted to use her toothbrush instead of his own). I looked to the eminently quotable Flaubert in the pages of Julian Barnes’ wonderful Flaubert’s Parrot. Here’s a good one: “You ask for love, you complain that I don’t send you flowers? Flowers, indeed! If that’s what you want, find yourself some wet-eared boy stuffed with fine manners and all the right ideas. I’m like the tiger, which has bristles of hair at the end of its cock, with which it lacerates the female.”
Rumi figures in anthologies of love poetry. I like Rumi, but for a wedding I feel that the Sufis are off-limits. As far as I know, which is not very much, the beloved of whom they speak is likely to be God, or the young man who brings you your wine. Context matters. Also, my favorite line from Rumi is fiercely individualistic: “I drip out of a spout drop by drop — But like the deluge I crush myriad palaces.” (Rappers have nothing on Rumi). I toyed with finding something in Turkish — but it seemed to me that this was a moment for my mother tongue. And my knowledge is limited, and my favorite Turkish poetry is in any case a line written by the twelfth century poet Yunus Emre, too defiant for a wedding unless it was one disapproved of by all relatives: “What should the ignorant know of us?/ Greetings to the ones who know.”
Context matters, and that’s really what takes Philip Larkin out of the question: he loved Monica Jones so much he helped Kingsley Amis turn her into one of literature’s great hysterics, a caricature of a pain-in-the-ass female (Lucky Jim’s Margaret Peel). When I think about literature I don’t typically dwell on the private life of the author, because it’s a slippery slope. But I found when looking for a wedding reading that I became more interested in whether the writer him or herself had been married and gave at least the appearance of contentment.
On love, Emily Dickinson basically sums it up: “That Love is all there is/ Is all we know of Love;/ It is enough, the freight should be/ Proportioned to the groove.” But love and marriage are not the same thing. Most unkindly, I wondered what the virginal shut-in would know of the long intimacy, the vaunted tedium of marriage. Bizarrely, I veered into some exclusionary policy regarding Auden and Forster, whose circumscribed personal lives were in the broad sense casualties of a bigoted and ignorant society. Nabokov was promising; he is known to have loved Vera, and wrote her poems. But the 1974 poem “To Vera” is just that, a poem to Vera, and seemed to have nothing to do with us. “How I Love You” is Nabokovian in a way that confounds a ceremonial reading: “…gnats:/ hanging up in an evening sunbeam, / their swarmlet ceaselessly jiggles…”
There is the religious angle — a friends’ wedding featured Isaiah 43:1-7, which I believe is a particularly badass selection from the Old Testament: “When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned.” But novels are my sacred texts, and we are in any case rather unclear in our feelings about the Lord. His brief invocation in Robert Louis Stevenson’s cheerful “Wedding Prayer” is enough: “Lord, behold our family here assembled” (which one could also read: “Oh Lord, they’re all here.”)
Poetry letting me down, I turned to the novels that I love. No passage suggested itself to me — unless you have a very certain kind of mind, you can’t survey the text of every book you’ve ever read all at the same time. And if it’s not cricket to go looking for a previously unencountered reading that somehow has meaning to you, it’s equally uncricket to read everything with an eye to appropriating some piece of it for your marriage ceremony. But I began to see that’s how I should have been reading for the entirety of the preceding year.
What had I read most recently? We Need to Talk About Kevin, for chrissakes, and a book about rabies. I reread Goodbye to All That, which Graves closes with “…marriage wore thin. New characters appeared on the stage. Nancy and I said unforgivable things to each other. We parted on May 6th, 1929. She, of course, insisted on keeping the children. And I went abroad, resolved never to make England my home again…” My fiance had most recently read Travels With Charlie, and suggested I look there. But Travels With Charlie is about a man and a poodle, and the poodle goes “ffft.”
I began to comb through my favorite novels, but from the outset it was clear that most would never do. There’s Burmese Days or Of Human Bondage, where goodish men are driven mad by worthless women, with differing outcomes. A Suitable Boy is a spectacularly romantic novel, weddings all over, but it portends falling in love with the man you can marry, in lieu of the one that you can’t. The Tin Drum, full of obscenity. Wodehouse, too facetious. The aforementioned Lucky Jim closes with a romance, but it is a revenge story, against all Welches and Margarets, rather than a love story about the well-formed Christine. Iris Murdoch’s novels are full of bizarre marriages and strange perversity. (The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, anyone?) Till We Have Faces, jealous sibling love and spinsters. I opened Possession, even Swann’s Way — they presented unyielding blocks of text. The closest I came was from A Dance to the Music of Time, and in fact explained why I was having so much trouble:
A future marriage, or a past one, may be investigated and explained in terms of writing by one of its parties, but it is doubtful whether an existing marriage can ever be described directly in the first person and convey a sense of reality. Even those writers who suggest some of the substance of married life best, stylise heavily, losing the subtlety of the relationship at the price of a few accurately recorded, but isolated, aspects…Its forms are at once so varied, yet so constant, providing a kaleidoscope, the colours of which are always changing, always the same. The moods of a love affair, the contradictions of friendship, the jealousy of business partners, the fellow feeling of opposed commanders in total war, these are all in their way to be charted. Marriage, partaking of such — and a thousand more — dual antagonisms and participations, finally defies definition.
It defies definition, and yet I wanted something romantic, weighty but not melancholy, in English, about marriage. It was finally Louis C. K. who drove it all home, how hard this is to do:
…Or you’ll meet the perfect person who you love infinitely and you even argue well and you grow together and you have children and then you get old together and then SHE’S GONNA DIE. That’s the BEST CASE SCENARIO, is that you’re gonna lose your best friend and then just walk home from D’Agostino’s with heavy bags every day and wait for your turn to be nothing also.
That is indeed the best case scenario, the lost best friend, that friend so abstract on the Weddingbee message boards, so real in practice. I listened to Donald Hall reading about the death of Jane Kenyon on This American Life and bawled my eyes out.
In the end, I stood again in a book shop, rifling through every poetry book they had. (In the course of the hunt I was descended upon by the proprietor, and because the last thing I wanted was someone’s advice on the matter, remained mute on the subject of the wedding and was thus compelled to read two suggested Bill Hickok poems while he stood watchfully at a remove.) Finally, I picked something, a poem by Billy Collins from his collection Nine Horses. I picked something, but what I thought was even better in that collection was something else, “Bermuda,” which is basically a poetic version of the Louis bit. A husband and wife lie together on a beach: “and the two of us so calm/ it seems that this is not our only life,/ just one in a series, charms on a bracelet,/ as if every day we were not running/ like the solitary runners on the beach/ toward a darkness without shape/ or waves, crosses or clouds,/as if one of us is not likely to get there first/ leaving the other behind,/ castaway on an island…”
It turns out that it was hard for me to find a good wedding reading because I’m a gloomy old bastard.
There, it would seem, is the rub. But I wasn’t going to put this foreboding stuff into the wedding ceremony. No, with several days remaining until the wedding I picked Collins’s “Litany” (“You are the bread and the knife,/ the crystal goblet and the wine”), which I thought was lovely and romantic and yet also conveyed the promised prosaic qualities of long relationships. It’s funny, but not too much. I find the long dashes of the last lines poignant: “You will always be the bread and the knife,/ not to mention the crystal goblet and — somehow –/ the wine.” There is an element of the sacramental which appeals to me, something that begins to approach the reverence I feel for my own beloved.
After all this, after the fretting and gnashing of teeth and weeping over sad poems and vases in empty rooms, I learned I could have found my reading on the Internet. It’s on a list of wedding readings compiled by Publisher’s Weekly, for one. I could even have found it on Weddingbee, where some fiercely unique soul, someone just like me, recommended it in a thread five years ago, lauded as a “a quirky expression of love, perfect for an English major who likes playing with metaphors.”
But I don’t care, I’ve got my love to keep me warm.
Image via camerakarrie/flickr
The Guardian recently posted a collection of short pieces by different authors on the books they reread, and what they gain from the practice. There even seems to be a sort of tradition among writers and serious readers, related to these perennial rereadings. Faulkner read Don Quixote once a year, “the way some people read the Bible,” and isn’t there a place in the Bascombe books where Frank invokes the old idea that all Americans everywhere ought to make an annual reading of The Great Gatsby?
Perhaps Gatsby isn’t your choice for yearly touchstone fiction (although it is mine, and Mark Sarvas’ (see below), and was, in fact, the most commonly mentioned “rereadable” in that Guardian piece). Regardless, and no matter which one you favor, it shows adulthood and devotedness, I think, to try and get back to a book you love, every four seasons or so.
That’s why I asked a few people about the books they reread, and why. Adam Ross, author of Mr. Peanut and Ladies and Gentlemen, spent a decade reading The Odyssey once a year. Matt Bell, editor of The Collagist and author of How They Were Found and the forthcoming Cataclysm Baby, makes a yearly reading of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which he first read at age 21. He says that, while almost every other book he revered back then has receded into the background of his personal canon, Jesus’ Son has gone the opposite way, and gained in its power to move him.
The aforementioned Mark Sarvas (whose blog, The Elegant Variation, you should definitely check out,) reads The Great Gatsby once a year — in fact, for 18 years, it’s been the first book he reads every January, and he always tries to do it in a single sitting. Changes in his own life have tracked these readings: he’s read it as a single man in his 30s, “very Nick Carraway-like;” he’s read it as a husband and a divorcee; he’s read it from the perspective of a writer and, more recently, as a teacher of writers. And, lately, reading it as a father, he’s found himself appalled at the way Daisy Buchanan treats her small daughter (although, frankly, there are very few characters in Gatsby whom Daisy’s treatment of couldn’t be described as appalling). After well over 30 readings, Mark’s never bored, never tempted to skim or skip, and the scene where Gatsby tosses his shirts on the bed always chokes him up. He also points out that a book not worth rereading is probably not worth reading in the first place. Hard to argue with that.
Speaking of “inveterate rereading,” The Millions’s own Lydia Kiesling has a slightly different approach to her touchstones. She has an ever-changing list of books she makes it a point to reread every one to three years. Currently, the list includes The Sea, The Sea, The Chronicles of Narnia, Till We Have Faces, Cloud Atlas, Of Human Bondage, The Berlin Stories, The Blind Assassin, Burmese Days, Possession, Lucky Jim, The Corrections, The Stand, and A Suitable Boy. She rereads these books in part because they’re “witty even when they are sad,” and because they manage to deposit her in another world with minimal effort on her part, which is as perfect a definition of great fiction writing as any I’ve ever heard.
Speaking of Stephen King’s The Stand, my wife, Jennifer Boyle, makes it a point to reread that one once a decade. Considering the book’s monstrosity — both in size and subject matter — every 10 years sounds just about right.
Eric Shonkwiler, former regional editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books, reads Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream once a year. He likes the way it transports him to the Gulf, and for all the “standard Hem charms” we know and love. (Can we all agree to start using “Hem” as the favored adjective for anything Papa-related?)
Finally, Emily M. Keeler, The New Inquiry book editor and LitBeat editor for The Millions, reads Zadie Smith’s White Teeth once a year, usually in September. She discovered the book in the autumn of 2003, when she was a 16-year old high school student. Her favorites back then were all dead white guys (Orwell, Steinbeck, Hem, Maugham, Waugh) and she was in a used bookstore, jonesing for more Hem, when White Teeth’s colorful spine sparked her interest. It was the most exhilarating book she’d ever read at that point, and she goes back to it every fall, “in an effort to remember that feeling of discovery,” the moment when she became aware that “literature lives both back in time and forward through it.”
So which books do you all reread yearly, or biannually, or quadrennially, or decennially, and why? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Please share.
Image Credit: Flickr/Sapphireblue.
In “What I Believe,” E.M. Forster wrote: “I do not believe in belief. But this is an age of faith, where one is surrounded by so many militant creeds that in self-defense, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own.” I can dig this, because I have been formulating a creed myself. I haven’t really worked it all out in a tract to hand out on street corners, but my view on human life is that it is a continuous exercise in accepting two often irreconcilable values. Things are good, but also bad; things are that way, and also this. This extends from the general to the specific, from the what to the how. Examples abound. People are angelic and loathsome. Religion is sublime and horrible. Coca Cola is divine nectar and chemical scourge. As I write, the atonal scratching of some young violinist floats through my window, evidence for and against a kind of order in the universe.
My philosophy, not at all novel, goes well with a glass of coke and A Passage to India. In his belief manifesto, Forster went on to say that “the people I respect most behave as if they were immortal and as if society was eternal. Both assumptions are false: both of them must be accepted as true if we are to go on eating and working and loving, and are to keep open a few breathing-holes for the human spirit.” A Passage to India is a work of art by someone who understood that every facet of human life is riddled with contradiction and un-sortable muddle, and that we must carry on regardless. And, like any novel, A Passage to India has its own life outside the hands of its creator. It is in itself a demonstration of the principle that things are that way, and also this. A Passage to India is demonstrative of our very finest human instincts; it is also a problematic novel.
In a novel whose plot hinges upon the existence of an unbridgeable chasm between a set of Us and Them, what I love the most is Forster’s savagery against his own team. In dispatches from inside the club, Forster lays bare the grotesque attitudes of the ruling class. Nothing is more vitriolic in its way than a fed-up colonial, and while few can approach the simmering hate of George Orwell in Burmese Days, Forster’s disdain for his compatriots, showcased in his astonishing prose, goes quite as far as Orwell’s did toward exposing the profound poverty of the white man’s burden. When Adela has made her accusation of Aziz, the English hunker down in the club:
One young mother — a brainless but most beautiful girl — sat on a low ottoman in the smoking-room with her baby in her arms; her husband was away in the district, and she dared not return to her bungalow in case the “niggers attacked.” The wife of a small railway official, she was generally snubbed; but this evening, with her abundant figure and masses of corn-gold hair, she symbolized all that is worth fighting and dying for; more permanent a symbol, perhaps, than poor Adela.
Page after page, Forster reveals the hypocrisy and general nastiness of the noble rulers, from the young and not wholly repellent transplant Heaslop, to the ossified Old Hand in the form of the Collector (“I have had twenty-five years’ experience of this country”–he paused, and ‘twenty-five years’ seemed to fill the waiting-room with their staleness and ungenerosity…”)
Here and elsewhere, Forster had it out for the Old Hand. Like most men of the world, he was protective of his traversed domains. He distinguished between real knowledge and false, those who know and those who do not, and those who know too much of the wrong thing. In his essay “Salute to the Orient,” he exhorts, “O deliver my soul from efficiency! When obstacles cease to occur in my plans, when I always get the utmost out of Orientals, it will be the surest proof that I have lost the East.” He tells us about the kind of traveler least likely to “salute the Orient” properly–a fusty old-timer with letters of introduction, who returns from his journey full of riveting anecdotes: “After an interesting conversation with the Mufti, in which Henry acted as interpreter, Lucy and I proceeded to inspect the so-called tomb of Potiphar’s wife.”
Forster is the enemy of the Old Hand, of his boring stories, his certainty, his smallness, his silly theories. Of the novel’s McBryde, District Superintendent of Police and the “most reflective and best educated of the Chandrapore officials,” Forster reveals that
…No Indian ever surprised him, because he had a theory about climatic zones. The theory ran: “All unfortunate natives are criminals at heart, for the simple reason that they live south of latitude 30. They are not to blame, they have not a dog’s chance–we should be like them if we settled here.” Born at Karachi, he seemed to contradict this theory, and would sometimes admit as much with a sad, quiet smile.
The thing is, to be so seasoned a connoisseur of the Old Hand, one must likewise approach a state of Old-Handedness. This gets to the heart of both my admiration and my anxieties about this novel. How can we write across culture, or think across culture, even, in a way that is fair? The cowardly answer is that we can’t. We can’t think about anyone who is not ourselves in a way that is fair. We can’t think of ourselves in a way that is fair. Fortunately, Forster was not cowardly. It would have been a shame had he been prevented from writing this extraordinary novel because he took a college course about the dangers of Othering. We miss out if we are frightened to write about the world, especially if, like Forster, much of what we write is at odds with the edifice of policy or public opinion.
Still, there is a way that speaking of difference can inject a subtle poison into the air, especially when the playing field is unequal. Forster, the man who once wrote “Only connect!” knew this–it is in a way the premise of his novel. He was, after all, President of the Cambridge Humanists. Nonetheless, we should be mindful of the times–the early twenties–and of Forster’s own status as an Old Hand; we should be conscious of the way that observations, even from subtle and sympathetic minds, acquire their own patina of ungenerosity. “Like most Orientals, Aziz overrated hospitality, mistaking it for intimacy, and not seeing that it is tainted with the sense of possession.” Later, “Are Indians cowards? No but they are bad starters and occasionally jib.”
In our current age, during which immeasurable ink has been spilled on the purportedly forever-and-ever “Clash of Civilizations,” with the East represented by the clamoring Muslim hordes and the West represented, presumably, by George Bush, purveyor of light, it is refreshing in a grim sort of way to read about the good old days, when Islam still enjoyed the (comparatively) vaunted position granted it in western Europe by the nineteenth century British orientalists. In Forster’s novel, Islam is the exotic yet comprehensible religion of Fielding’s friends. In A Passage to India, religious strife is a purely domestic problem. Moreover, it is the comically inscrutable Hindus who are treated most irreverently by the novelist. (Of the exasperating Professor Godbole it is written that his conversations “frequently culminated in a cow.”)
It’s curious to see the relative ease at which “clash” models are transmuted to fit their times, how quickly they become self-fulfilling prophesy. In Forster’s East v. West match, the result of which is that the well-meaning Aziz and Fielding cannot maintain a friendship, it is not humdrum religious rancor that creates a rift. In this novel, it is the old-fashioned kind of Orientalism–at once promulgated and illuminated by Forster’s sympathy–that explains the troubles in this India. In this novel, the disease is the British Raj, it is the jib Indians, it is the poison of ill will and the strain of good will, it is the earth itself that keeps the two men apart:
The horses didn’t want it–they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House…they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “no, not there.”
I like the anecdote about Gandhi on Western Civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.” I’m sure that a brief sit-down with Christopher Hitchens or even an ideological and self-possessed tween would show me to myself as a waffling liberal twit, but I like to think there is no East and West. Forster would disagree. I think we would both be right.
I feel a bit like the irrepressible Dr. Godbole who, when asked for his opinion about the charges against Aziz, responds thus:
“I am informed that an evil action was performed in the Marabar Hills, and that a highly esteemed English lady is now seriously ill in consequence. My answer to that is this: that action was performed by Dr. Aziz.” He stopped and sucked in his thin cheeks. “It was performed by the guide.” He stopped again. “It was performed by you.” Now he had an air of daring and of coyness. “It was performed by me.” He looked shyly down the sleeve of his own coat. “And by my students. It was even performed by the lady herself. When evil occurs, it expresses the whole of the universe. Similarly when good occurs.”
“And similarly when suffering occurs, and so on and so forth, and everything is anything and nothing something,” [Fielding] muttered in his irritation, for he needed the solid ground.
Fielding’s aggravation notwithstanding, I think Forster built up much of his novel around Godbole’s philosophy. Things are that way, and also this; we must carry on regardless.
This novel gives me some trouble–considerable food for thought, better to say–but I love it. I love it for its perfect writing and I love it for its courage and its sympathy. In his later essay on belief, Forster describes his own vision of what he calls the “aristocracy” of humanity: “They are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.”
If this novel isn’t the work of just such an aristocrat, I don’t know what is.
I avoided reading Kim for a long time because I’ve always thought of it as some creaking colonial bore, popular with dads (or my dad, rather. Who is not, for the record, a creaking colonial bore). Kipling, I have observed, is catnip to gentlemen over a certain age; how far they are over that age determines how much they own up to his allure. Kipling is also high on what I will call the Post-Colonial Burn Index (higher than Conrad, lower than Haggard). These are the authors who look particularly dingy in the bright(ish) light of progress. While authors high on this index retain value within Academia and among the Olds, their stock with the Youngs and the read-for-fun set is at an ebb. I guess it’s like that for most hundred year-old books, regardless of reputation. Either way, I approached Kim expecting little.
I came away from Kim surprised on two fronts. First, I was surprised to find that I was actually reading, for the second time this month, a John le Carre novel. It was all there; the story of an orphaned sahib, long on brains and short on pedigree, fostered from a tender age by the everloving arms of the Service, all in the name of thwarting the Russians. The Russians, it seems, are a perennial problem. In fact, Kim gave me a greater appreciation for John le Carre, who cleverly channels and complicates Kipling throughout his own work. Among other things, he charges right into the impossibility, which Kipling prods at without really engaging, of being wholly part of two worlds.
Then, I was surprised that I enjoyed reading the novel. It laid on the White Man’s Burden less thick than I expected. Of course it’s there; it’s the crux of the story. But I thought the novel was going to be a mouth-breathing white man in a topee. Instead, like Kim himself, it’s a lissome kid in salwar kameez. It lulls you into thinking you are simply reading a charming buddy road novel, or turning the pages of a sepia-toned viewbook. You’re skipping school, mixing it up, hustling, but with heart.
Of course, it happens not to be that simple. Kipling clearly had a deep, abiding affection for and interest in the landscape, people, customs, and cultural complexities of his erstwhile homeland, and it is felt profoundly throughout this novel. Still, comfortably coexisting with this sentiment was the firm conviction that England was the legitimate shepherd of the Subcontinental flock. George Orwell, who went back and forth in his estimation of Kipling (he called him a “jingo imperialist…morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting,” but he granted him a place in the literary-historical pantheon) knew this apparent paradox well. In Burmese Days,
Mr Macgregor stiffened at the word ‘nigger’, which is discountenanced in India. He had no prejudice against Orientals; indeed, he was deeply fond of them. Provided they were given no freedom he thought them the most charming people alive. It always pained him to see them wantonly insulted.
‘Is it quite playing the game,’ he said stiffly, ‘to call these people niggers–a term they very naturally resent–when they are obviously nothing of the kind? The Burmese are Mongolians, the Indians are Aryans or Dravidians, and all of them are quite distinct–‘
Kipling, although probably not much like the ineffectual Magregor, shares his barbed affection for the colonized. His character Kim, the “friend of all the world,” is a Mary Sue. He’s good at everything–languages, friendship, cursing, disguises (skirts, even). He can mix with sahibs, Pathans, Bengalis, Tibetan lamas, and everyone else. Basically, he is the most awesome guy ever. And, like, not only can he do all the things that various brown people can do, but he’s secretly white! It does not get more awesome than that.
The best use of Kim’s genius for cross-cultural passing, Kipling tells us with no trace of irony, is a role as a spy in the Great Game, toward the continued Dominion of the British Empire (and, naturally, the subjugation of her subjects). The novel reflects the most insidious kind of prejudice–the kind woven into a love song. Consider the print and hot air devoted quite sincerely to the beauty, the superior heart, the emotional intelligence of women–written and spoken, to a word, by people who thought women were too stupid to vote. That’s kind of the situation here.
Sorting through my impressions when I finished the novel, I find there is something weird about the whole thing. For one, the story is so wistful and idealized that it reads more like a fairy tale than the jewel in the crown of a Nobel laureate. I feel Kipling in that I fantasize about being a Kim, being able to fit in and speak without an accent. I’m a foreign service brat, from a contingent whose central paradox is that they feel homesick for places they don’t understand and languages they can’t speak.
The desire with which Kipling wants to be Kim seems palpable to me, and ludicrous, considering Kim’s impossible awesomeness. He’s the Whole Boy: Indian Edition. In fact, Kim is so awesome that I spent the last quarter of the book convinced that he was about to die, like whatsername in Little Women.
But he doesn’t die. In fact, I’m not quite sure what he does, despite reading an essay literally entitled “What Happens at the End of Kim?” Kim’s buddy, the holy man, attains nirvana, but turns back, like one does, to take his apprentice along. Kim is already bound to a life of international intrigue, though, so I’m pretty sure he can’t come. It’s sort of win-win either way for him, I thought, although I’m not sure about the lama. Maybe there’s something here I’m not grasping.
Ultimately, I suppose the book is a jewel. For all that it is founded on the paradox of prejudice and a shaky plot, the story sparkles. It’s just that it sparkles from a tarnished crown in a pawnshop window, a relic from a discredited raj.
I have a slightly hard time with Graham Greene. I don’t know why. I think his writing is very good. He has weighty themes and sexy titles. And yet I have found that I can’t really remember anything about his novels beyond the most basic plot points. I’m talking about his “serious” fiction here. I could tell you the story of Travels With my Aunt in painful detail, but recalling The Power and the Glory, I can only come up with “The priest died.” I also read The Quiet American; in that one I remember the American died. A pattern emerged in The Heart of the Matter, wherein the policeman was also called to Graham Greene’s crowded firmament.
The Heart of the Matter might turn out to be more memorable for me because it is about unsavory colonials (Although I suppose The P & G and The QA are also about unsavory colonials, in their own ways. I guess most things are about unsavory colonials, when you get right down to it). But I was more receptive to The Heart of the Matter because it reminded me of one of my favorite books, Burmese Days, George Orwell’s first novel and what I consider to be his unsung masterpiece. Burmese Days, like The Heart of the Matter, is about unsavory colonials, and it is about suicide. Both novels are populated with pathetic, overgrown schoolboys and refined women living for their husbands’ promotions; in both you feel what a shoddy business colonialism is. Although I prefer Burmese Days and its overall effect, Greene’s description of the bachelor cable censor and the bachelor spy (both graduates of the same second-rate school) competing at cockroach-hunting in the decrepit Bedford Hotel is a great moment in literature, and in the history of Empire.
The novels share a handful of other elements. (Let me to take a moment to apologize if my penchant for well-trod literary territory and retrograde comparey-contrasty analysis revolts readers, lowers the general tone, and threatens to turn this site into a high school English class, as one truculent darling recently noted in a thrilling commenter skirmish. Like Elvis, I’m just doin’ [sic] the best I can.) At any rate, both of these novels have: 1. A rich, conniving Native, the baseness of whose mind is rather cheaply reflected in the grossness of his person. 2. A comparatively fetching young English woman, marooned in an undesirable outpost of empire. 3. A small, grumpy, racist English population, whose primary concern is the eternal struggle to keep the gin cold. 4. And, by christ, they’ve both got a main character whose surname is five letters and ends in a y!
Perhaps these similarities have to do with the universality of the colonial (and, dare I say, the post-colonial) experience and mentality. And maybe Graham Greene had a gander at Orwell’s earlier novel and used it as a jumping-off point for his more complex and (to me) less convincing story. Because ultimately the novels diverge, and The Heart of the Matter goes in a puzzling direction.
Both novels end in a suicide. I understand the motivations of Orwell’s wretched Flory, whose public disgrace, as a casualty of local political machinations, prevents him from marrying the (awful) woman of his dreams. Love hurts. And life, especially his, sucks. But Greene’s Scoby, who is also a suicide and also in some respects a victim of local politics, is harder to empathize with. Scoby is a converted Catholic and a real boy scout. His official career is undistinguished, despite his devotion to his various duties. His young daughter has died. His wife is a trial but he tries to make her happy. She remains unhappy, and goes to live in South Africa, and through a series of extraordinary events, Scoby is unfaithful. The wife comes back, and then he is unfaithful to his mistress with the wife. He feels awfully guilty, but he takes Communion anyway which is a mortal sin, and then he’s so distraught by this that he ends it all. Meanwhile, he finally gets that promotion. His life sucked too, maybe more than Flory’s, but he seemed okay with it for the most part. It was the sinning that finally got him down.
I read Brideshead Revisited, where I learned that British Catholics are an obscurely persecuted minority who have to Stick Together No Matter What. I am also familiar with the adage about the converted and his alarming zeal. But still it seemed odd to me that Scoby committed one easily forgiven sin, and then made it worse by taking Communion, and then decided to do the one thing that is basically unfixable in his cosmology, which is to leave the party early and on purpose. It was clear that Scoby was bound for a sad end, but I thought it would be from borrowing money, or for not being whatever the word for “pukka” is in West Africa, or for some terrible scandal with his job. But no, it’s all got to do with his immortal soul. I suppose I am very privileged in that, if I am in possession of an immortal soul, it gives me very little trouble, like an unerupted wisdom tooth.
And I wasn’t quite sure what Graham Greene made of this behavior either – whether he presented this character as exemplary of an excess of virtue, or of Catholics being crazy, or whether he thought Scoby was a saint or an idiot or what. He’s certainly the nicest person in the book. Maybe it isn’t something easily categorized. Maybe it is, to use the abhorrent popular expression, what it is.
For a while I thought that Greene’s novel was the less depressing one, because it dealt with somebody who is not like most people, instead of, as in Orwell’s novel, with a a pretty ordinary man in an unfortunate spot. I venture to say that most people don’t kill themselves because they’ve told two women they love them and then go to church, as Scoby does. I was going to say that Orwell’s novel is more rugged and brutal than Greene’s, without any of this airy-fairy spiritual stuff, but the more I think about it, the less I know (and the more confused I get). Most functioning organisms will almost always believe that life is better than death, but something about Scoby’s psyche was obviously incompatible with life, even though he seemed like such a nice guy. I wanted to shake Scoby and say “Snap out of it, Scoby! You have every reason to live!” but even without the compromised immortal soul aspect, he really didn’t really have a lot of good reasons to live.
Both Burmese Days and The Heart of the Matter seem to say that life, or life in a certain place, is kind of rubbish, but Greene takes it further to say that the most, I guess principled person, in the place isn’t able to live in it. That, maybe, is the heart of the matter. And that’s dark.