“Homer on parchment pages! / The Iliad and all the adventures/ Of Ulysses, for of Priam’s kingdom, / All locked within a piece of skin / Folded into several little sheets!”—Martial, Epigrammata (c. 86-103)
“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” -—John Milton, Aeropagitica (1644)
At Piazza Maunzio Bufalini 1 in Cesena, Italy, there is a stately sandstone building of buttressed reading rooms, Venetian windows, and extravagant masonry that holds slightly under a half-million volumes, including manuscripts, codices, incunabula, and print. Commissioned by Malatesta Novello in the 15th century, the Malatestiana Library opened its intricately carved walnut door to readers in 1454, at the height of the Italian Renaissance. The nobleman who funded the library had his architects borrow from ecclesiastical design: The columns of its rooms evoke temples, its seats the pews that would later line cathedrals, its high ceilings as if in monasteries.
Committed humanist that he was, Novello organized the volumes of his collection through an idiosyncratic system of classification that owed more to the occultism of Neo-Platonist philosophers like Marsilio Ficino, who wrote in nearby Florence, or Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who would be born shortly after its opening, than to the arid categorization of something like our contemporary Dewey Decimal System. For those aforementioned philosophers, microcosm and macrocosm were forever nestled into and reflecting one another across the long line of the great chain of being, and so Novello’s library was organized in a manner that evoked the connections of both the human mind in contemplation as well as the universe that was to be contemplated itself. Such is the sanctuary described by Matthew Battles in Library: An Unquiet History, where a reader can lift a book and test its heft, can appraise “the fall of letterforms on the title page, scrutinizing marks left by other readers … startled into a recognition of the world’s materiality by the sheer number of bound volumes; by the sound of pages turning, covers rubbing; by the rank smell of books gathered together in vast numbers.”
An awkward-looking yet somehow still elegant carved elephant serves as the keystone above one door’s lintel, and it serves as the modern library’s logo. Perhaps the elephant is a descendant of one of Hannibal’s pachyderms who thundered over the Alps more than 15 centuries before, or maybe the grandfather of Hanno, Pope Leo X’s pet—gifted to him by the King of Portugal—who would make the Vatican his home in less than five decades. Like the Renaissance German painter Albrecht Durer’s celebrated engraving of a rhinoceros, the exotic and distant elephant speaks to the concerns of this institution—curiosity, cosmopolitanism, and commonwealth.
It’s the last quality that makes the Malatestiana Library so significant. There were libraries that celebrated curiosity before, like the one at Alexandria whose scholars demanded that the original of every book brought to port be deposited within while a reproduction would be returned to the owner. And there were collections that embodied cosmopolitanism, such as that in the Villa of Papyri, owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the uncle of Julius Caesar, which excavators discovered in the ash of Herculaneum, and that included sophisticated philosophical and poetic treatises by Epicurus and the Stoic Chrysopsis. But what made the Malatestiana so remarkable wasn’t its collections per se (though they are), but rather that it was built not for the singular benefit of the Malatesta family, nor for a religious community, and that unlike in monastic libraries, its books were not rendered into place by a heavy chain. The Bibliotheca Malatestiana would be the first of a type—a library for the public.
If the Malatestiana was to be like a map of the human mind, then it would be an open-source mind, a collective brain to which we’d all be invited as individual cells. Novella amended the utopian promise of complete knowledge as embodied by Alexandria into something wholly more democratic. Now, not only would an assemblage of humanity’s curiosity be gathered into one temple, but that palace would be as a commonwealth for the betterment of all citizens. From that hilly Umbrian town you can draw a line of descent to the Library Company of Philadelphia founded by Benjamin Franklin, the annotated works of Plato and John Locke owned by Thomas Jefferson and housed in a glass-cube at the Library of Congress, the reading rooms of the British Museum where Karl Marx penned Das Kapital (that collection having since moved closer to King’s Cross Station), the Boston Public Library in Copley Square with its chiseled names of local worthies like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau ringing its colonnade, and the regal stone lions who stand guard on Fifth Avenue in front of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library.
More importantly, the Malatestiana is the progenitor of millions of local public libraries from Bombay to Budapest. In the United States, the public library arguably endures as one of the last truly democratic institutions. In libraries there are not just the books collectively owned by a community, but the toy exchanges for children, the book clubs and discussion groups, the 12 Step meetings in basements, and the respite from winter cold for the indigent. For all of their varied purposes, and even with the tyrannical ascending reign of modern technology, the library is still focused on the idea of the book. Sometimes the techno-utopians malign the concerns of us partisans of the physical book as being merely a species of fetishism, the desire to turn crinkled pages labeled an affectation; the pleasure drawn from the heft of a hardback dismissed as misplaced nostalgia. Yet there are indomitably pragmatic defenses of the book as physical object—now more than ever.
For one, a physical book is safe from the Orwellian deletions of Amazon, and the electronic surveillance of the NSA. A physical book, in being unconnected to the internet, can be as a closed-off monastery from the distraction and dwindling attention span engendered by push notifications and smart phone apps. The book as object allows for a true degree of interiority, of genuine privacy that cannot be ensured on any electronic device. To penetrate the sovereignty of the Kingdom of the Book requires the lo-fi method of looking over a reader’s shoulder. A physical book is inviolate in the face of power outage, and it cannot short-circuit. There is no rainbow pinwheel of death when you open a book.
But if I can cop to some of what the critics of us Luddites impugn us with, there is something crucial about the weight of a book. So much does depend on a cracked spine and a coffee-stained page. There is an “incarnational poetics” to the very physical reality of a book that can’t be replicated on a greasy touch-screen. John Milton wrote in his 1644 Aeropagitica, still among one of the most potent defenses of free speech written, that “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are.” This is not just simply metaphor; in some sense we must understand books as being alive, and just as it’s impossible to extricate the soul of a person from their very sinews and nerves, bones, and flesh, so too can we not divorce the text from the smooth sheen of velum, the warp and waft of paper, the glow of the screen. Geoffrey Chaucer or William Shakespeare must be interpreted differently depending on how they’re read. The medium, to echo media theorist Marshall McLuhan, has always very much been the message.
This embodied poetics is, by its sheer sensual physicality, directly related to the commonwealth that is the library. Battles argues that “the experience of the physicality of the book is strongest in large libraries”; stand amongst the glass cube at the center of the British Library, the stacks upon stacks in Harvard’s Widener Library, or the domed portico of the Library of Congress and tell me any differently. In sharing books that have been read by hundreds before, we’re privy to other minds in a communal manner, from the barely erased penciled marginalia in a beaten copy of The Merchant of Venice to the dog-ears in Leaves of Grass.
What I wish to sing of then is the physicality of the book, its immanence, its embodiment, its very incarnational poetics. Writing about these “contraptions of paper, ink, carboard, and glue,” Keith Houston in The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most powerful Object of our Time challenges us to grab the closest volume and to “Open it and hear the rustle of paper and the crackle of glue. Smell it! Flip through the pages and feel the breeze on your face.” The exquisite physicality of matter defines the arid abstractions of this thing we call “Literature,” even as we forget that basic fact that writing may originate in the brain and may be uttered by the larynx, but it’s preserved on clay, papyrus, paper, and patterns of electrons. In 20th-century literary theory we’ve taken to call anything written a “text,” which endlessly confuses our students who themselves are privy to call anything printed a “novel” (regardless of whether or not its fictional). The text, however, is a ghost. Literature is the spookiest of arts, leaving not the Ozymandian monuments of architectural ruins, words rather grooved into the very electric synapses of our squishy brains.
Not just our brains though, for Gilgamesh is dried in the rich, baked soil of the Euphrates; Socrates’s denunciation of the written word from Plato’s Phaedrus was wrapped in the fibrous reeds grown alongside the Nile; Beowulf forever slaughters Grendel upon the taut, tanned skin of some English lamb; Prospero contemplates his magic books among the rendered rags of Renaissance paper pressed into the quarto of The Tempest; and Emily Dickinson’s scraps of envelope from the wood pulp of trees grown in the Berkshires forever entombs her divine dashes. Ask a cuneiform scholar, a papyrologist, a codicologist, a bibliographer. The spirit is strong, but so is the flesh; books can never be separated from the circumstances of those bodies that house their souls. In A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel confesses as much, writing that “I judge a book by its cover; I judge a book by its shape.”
Perhaps this seems an obvious contention, and the analysis of material conditions, from the economics of printing and distribution to the physical properties of the book as an object, has been a mainstay of some literary study for the past two generations. This is as it should be, for a history of literature could be written not in titles and authors, but from the mediums on which that literature was preserved, from the clay tablets of Mesopotamia to the copper filaments and fiber optic cables that convey the internet. Grappling with the physicality of the latest medium is particularly important, because we’ve been able to delude ourselves into thinking that there is something purely unembodied about electronic literature, falling into that Cartesian delusion that strictly separates the mind from the flesh.
Such a clean divorce was impossible in earthier times. Examine the smooth vellum of a medieval manuscript, and notice the occasionally small hairs from the slaughtered animals that still cling to William Langland’s Piers Plowman or Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Houston explains that “a sheet of parchment is the end product of a bloody, protracted, and physical process that begins with the death of a calf, lamb, or kid, and proceeds thereafter through a series of grimly anatomical steps until parchment emerges at the other end,” where holding up to the light one of these volumes can sometimes reveal “the delicate tracery of veins—which, if the animal was not properly bled upon its slaughter, are darker and more obvious.” It’s important to remember the sacred reality that all of medieval literature that survives is but the stained flesh of dead animals.
Nor did the arrival of Johannes Guttenberg’s printing press make writing any less physical, even if was less bloody. Medieval literature was born from the marriage of flesh and stain, but early modern writing was culled from the fusion of paper, ink, and metal. John Man describes in The Gutenberg Revolution: How Printing Changed the Course of History how the eponymous inventor had to “use linseed oil, soot and amber as basic ingredients” in the composition of ink, where the “oil for the varnish had to be of just the right consistency,” and the soot which was used in its composition “was best derived from burnt oil and resin,” having had to be “degreased by careful roasting.” Battles writes in Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word that printing is a trade that bears the “marks of the metalsmith, the punch cutter, the machinist.” The Bible may be the word of God, but Guttenberg printed it onto stripped and rendered rags with keys “at 82 percent lead, with tin making up a further 9 percent, the soft, metallic element antimony 6 percent, and trace amounts of copper among the remainder,” as Houston reminds us. Scripture preached of heaven, but made possible through the very minerals of the earth.
Medieval scriptoriums were dominated by scribes, calligraphers, and clerics; Guttenberg was none of these, rather a member of the goldsmith’s guild. His innovation was one that we can ascribe as a victory to that abstract realm of literature, but fundamentally it was derived from the metallurgical knowledge of how to “combine the supple softness of lead with the durability of tin,” as Battles writes, a process that allowed him to forge the letter matrices that fit into his movable printing-press. We may think of the hand-written manuscripts of medieval monasteries as expressing a certain uniqueness, but physicality was just as preserved in the printed book, and, as Battles writes, in “letters carved in word or punched and chased in silver, embroidered in tapestry and needlepoint, wrought in iron and worked into paintings, a world in which words are things.”
We’d do well not to separate the embodied poetics of this thing we’ve elected to call the text from a proper interpretation of said text. Books are not written by angels in a medium of pure spirit; they’re recorded upon wood pulp and we should remember that. The 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes claimed that the spirit interacted with the body through the pineal gland, the “principal seat of the soul.” Books of course have no pineal gland, but we act as if text is a thing of pure spirit, excluding it from the gritty matter upon which it’s actually constituted. Now more than ever we see the internet as a disembodied realm, the heaven promised by theologians but delivered by Silicon Valley. Our libraries are now composed of ghosts in the machine. Houston reminds us that this is an illusion, for even as you read this article on your phone, recall that it is delivered by “copper wire and fiber optics, solder and silicon, and the farther ends of the electromagnetic spectrum.”
Far from disenchanting the spooky theurgy of literature, an embrace of the materiality of reading and writing only illuminates how powerful this strange art is. By staring at a gradation of light upon dark in abstracted symbols, upon whatever medium it is recorded, an individual is capable of hallucinating the most exquisite visions; they are able to even experience the subjectivity of another person’s mind. The medieval English librarian Richard de Bury wrote in his 14th-century Philobiblon that “In books I find the dead as if they were alive … All things are corrupted and decay in time; Saturn ceases not to devour the children that he generates; all the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion, unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books.”
If books are marked by their materiality, then they in turn mark us; literature “contrived to take up space in the head and in the world of things,” as Battles writes. The neuroplasticity of our mind is set by the words that we read, our fingers cut from turned pages and our eyes strained from looking at screens. We are made of words as much as words are preserved on things; we’re as those Egyptian mummies who were swaddled in papyrus printed with lost works of Plato and Euripides; we’re as the figure in the Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s 1566 The Librarian [above], perhaps inspired by those stacks of the Malatestiana. In that uncanny and beautiful portrait Arcimboldo presents an anatomy built from a pile of books, the skin of his figure the tanned red and green leather of a volume’s cover, the cacophony of hair a quarto whose pages are falling open. In the rough materiality of the book we see our very bodies reflected back to us, in the skin of the cover, the organs of the pages, the blood of ink. Be forewarned: to read a book as separate from the physicality that defines it is to scarcely read at all.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
Translated Portuguese literature lies mired in five names: postmodernist celebrities Fernando Pessoa and António Lobo Antunes; José Saramago, whose shiny Nobel Prize mesmerizes publishers crow-like; and the classic authors Eça de Queiroz and Luís de Camões. These are the ones that get translated and retranslated year in, year out, as if there weren’t room for more. For evidence you need look no further than the silence over Raul Brandão’s recent debut in English.
Fortunately Dedalus Press, the leading publisher of diverse Portuguese literature, insists in changing things, and that’s how we got Jorge de Sena’s The Prodigious Physician, translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
In principle, things should have worked out better for Jorge de Sena. After all, he made a wise career choice when he moved to the U.S. to teach first at the University of Wisconsin, then at UC Berkeley. His tenacious, if obscure, longevity in English sort of proves this: to date one novel, a short-story collection, and several volumes of his gorgeous poetry have come out. Alas, all have quickly faded in the face of general indifference.
Why does he keep getting new chances? Writers don’t become famous only because of their literary merit; it helps when influential agents notice them: George Steiner’s infatuation with Pessoa did a lot for him; Saramago (who in the past was Sena’s editor) probably wasn’t badly served by Harold Bloom judging him “the greatest living novelist.” Even Lobo Antunes has acknowledged that his breakthrough stemmed from American literary agent Thomas Colchie championing him, lending support to the opinion that to be known worldwide is to be known in English first and foremost. No such paladin ever defended Sena; instead his translations have been living off dividends from his college career. It’s telling that he’s been previously translated by former colleagues and students, whose prefaces betray that most Portuguese of feelings, saudade, the painful longing for an absent friend, in this case a man remembered at campus as an erudite, generous, fascinating figure.
Born in 1919, Sena began publishing poems in the early 1940s in a magazine called Cadernos de Poesia, around which coalesced a band of young poets bent on revitalizing Portuguese poetry. By bringing to each verse an anger and brutality unusual in a country of mild-mannered lyricists, replacing Portuguese poetry’s propensity for sentimentality with philosophical reflection, and dialoging with Europe’s Modernism instead of burrowing in parochialism, he did just that. An engineer by education, he also pursued criticism and is rightfully considered one of Portugal’s greatest literary critics. In a country that turned to France alone for literary fashions, his knowledge of the English language and literature, so unusual at the time, allowed him to carve a niche for himself. He translated, among others, Thomas Love Peacock, Eugene O’Neill, Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, William Faulkner, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson, whom he adored. (English was such a mysterious entity to his peers that he had to endure accusations of plagiarizing foreign poets.) His anglophilia also allowed him to widen studies about Pessoa. He translated his English-language poems and studied the legacy of English culture on Pessoa, who had been raised in British South Africa. (Sena once had to confirm to a scholar that Aleister Crowley, whom Pessoa had personally met, was not a fabrication of the jesting poet.)
Sena’s lifelong interest in Pessoa made him a suitable candidate to bring order to what is nowadays known as The Book of Disquiet, and he was one of the first editors to take a swing at it. He worked at it for five years before giving up. At the time he was living in exile in Brazil, a predicament that posed logistic problems about getting copies of the original manuscripts. Sena had fled there in 1959 after participating in a botched coup to overthrow the dictatorship ruling since 1926. In a move worthy of Pessoa, all that remains of this endeavor is his 60-page introduction for a nonexistent edition of Disquiet. Tragically, Brazil fell under a right-wing regime in 1964, too, and the following year he took up a teaching job in the U.S., remaining there until his death in 1978.
Between his stay in Brazil and move to America, Sena published The Prodigious Physician, one of his most popular works. It originally belonged to a short story collection finished in 1964 and published two years later, Novas Andanças do Demónio (some stories were included in By the Rivers of Babylon). The novella didn’t ride solo until 1977; in the accompanying preface, Sena explained that at the time he didn’t have the conditions to publish it separately, so he let it “hitch a ride” with the other stories when an editor showed interest in them.
The Prodigious Physician sounds like something in the vein of Angela Carter’s mixture of erotica and myth. It chronicles the carefree wanderings of a beautiful young physician whose soul has been sold to the devil; who has a magical hat that grants any wish, from raising the dead to traveling in time; and whose blood has healing properties. These elements, plus the idea of an infatuated devil who lifts his beloved’s legs when the Inquisition tries to hang him for heresy, come from the fusion and rearrangement of two medieval tales. Sena was no different from other writers at the time who were looking backwards to move away from realist fiction: Italo Calvino reusing the chivalric romance in The Nonexistent Knight or John Barth with the picaresque The Sot-Weed Factor. In Spain, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester was doing something even stranger in Don Juan by unleashing the legendary lover on the 20th century. Even so, for Portuguese literature at the time, this was a pretty weird book.
Of the three types of writers co-existing within the regime we can dispense with two: the right-wing official author and the left-wing socialist realist, rechristened neo-realista (new realist) to avoid censorship. Often clumsy hacks prized mostly for extra-literary reasons, their value inflated insofar as they stuck to and flattered the pinched ideologies that respectively underpinned them. Sena, a life-long communist but too autonomous to follow party lines, belonged to the third type that just wanted to get on with the usual business of making great literature. As such, his fury over factions informed his own fiction. If readers keep this in mind, they’ll appreciate this deceptively straightforward novella a lot better.
The Prodigious Physician seems mathematically engineered to piss off fascists and neo-realists alike with democratic distribution. The collection it originally came in was particularly offensive because it was a rare incursion into a genre Portuguese authors seldom explored — fantasy. To make matters worse, the preface put forth a deliberate attack on “the second-rate aesthetics of the oh-so-esteemed traditional realism.” (I don’t understand why Dedalus didn’t add value to this slim volume by appending the original prefaces.) If Sena had filled a previous collection with quotidian observations and autobiographical tinges, this one basked in what he called “the fantastic realism or the imaginative historicism,” modes he judged better suited to depict his time than realism, which to him was almost “a spurious way of immobilizing reality, which, by its nature, is a continuous process.” Instead of parading masses of peasants in fields and proletarians in factories, Sena invoked mythical and historical figures; instead of Capital, he pillaged 14th-century tomes for ideas.
Even more perversely, Sena actually cared about style, even cared about difficulty. Jull Costa keeps intact his page-long paragraphs, interpolated with metrically rigorous poems, sometimes cascading down labyrinthine sentences with irregular punctuation. (If I had to quibble, I’d say she only missed the vocabulary’s archaic flavor.) All of this flew in the face of neo-realism’s doctrinal frugality; its motto was that books should be simple enough for the people to read them. Well, when you stop to think that around 1960 Portugal had a 30 percent illiteracy rate, you can estimate just how simple simple was.
Even Sena’s use of double columns encompassed a challenge to ideologies that professed to hold the Truth. What better way of questioning the regime’s and the neo-realists’ pretentions to infallibility than narrating the same event in simultaneous columns with contradictory facts? Reality, for him, wasn’t realistically rendered unless fragmented and subjective.
The Prodigious Physician also opposed the regime because it traduced conformity, sexual abstinence, and Catholic values. Few of his readers would expect a scene brimming with amoral homoeroticism between the protagonist and the devil:
He lay there in a pose of patient, indifferent abandon, his head resting on his arms, and allowed the Devil, who was invisible, to work himself up into a frenzy of desires. Long caresses ran lightly over his skin, whispered kisses nipped his body all over, hands lingered on his crotch, a hardness pressed against him, trying to penetrate him — it had been the same ever since he had reached manhood and whenever he took off his clothes and was alone. He put up with it as he might do with an unavoidable affliction, which neither excited him nor provoked feelings of horror or repugnance.
Sex follows the nameless protagonist around, and he’s long stopped seeing it as sacred. The physician was sold to the devil when his grandmother, “seeing him still prepubescent, but with the body of a grown man, had summoned the Devil, who had immediately enfolded him in a passionate embrace.” In exchange for his indifference, “he had received immense powers and, over time, had come to think that the Devil wasn’t really asking such a lot of him, contenting himself with a mere obliging availability, in which he, the young man, did not participate with so much as a gesture or a tremor.” As the novella opens, he stops by a riverbank to freshen up, and a trio of maidens invite him to frolic. After that, they take him to a castle, where a widow languishes from an unknown ailment; he uses his blood to cure her, and they fall in love. In this enchanted castle gender roles have been subverted, and women rule over men who “had quite forgotten their position in society, and were made equal in sharing the same pleasures and submitting to the same rules of obedience.” The novella’s a paean to sexual freedom, but if it looks like Sena was foreshadowing hippie communes, for a Portuguese reader it’s hard not to think of Camões’s epic poem The Lusiads, where Venus rewards harried sailors with a magical island filled with Cupid-intoxicated horny nymphs in a dazzling display of eroticism. Sena was not only one of Camões’s greatest scholars, he also shared his visionary hope in a paradisiacal society where women and men are equal and live bound by love.
If I have a criticism to make, it’s that this spiritual love too often feels exclusively earthly. Sena may write that the physician finds in the widow “the love of which [the Devil] knows nothing, the pleasure he cannot feel, and the furious joy that, even without love, does not exist in the lewd pleasures he can offer,” but their relationship is rather cold. The novella’s complex meditations on love appeal more to my intellect than my heart. It rejects the soul (the Devil even claims it doesn’t exist) in favor of the body as the erotic center. Descriptions of breasts, thighs, hair, skin abound. Everybody ogles one another. The castle-dwellers party more than Poe’s noblemen keeping the plague out. Perhaps this was Sena’s goal, to emphasize the physicality of sex at the time when the regime controlled the body. He evidently relished in indecency, as the dirty epigraph by Arthur Rimbaud shows. But though I can appreciate the importance of transgression, gratification without an emotional grounding feels rather empty.
Besides Rimbaud’s, there’s a second epigraph, belonging to 17th Jesuit priest Manuel Bernardes, author of a gigantic work of didactic moralizing. Readers won’t need to know that Sena considered the good priest a symbol of intellectual and moral backwardness and oppression to appreciate the joke of juxtaposing his earnestly pious sentences with Rimbaud’s scatology. He’s made of the same cloth as the novella’s castrating friars who prefer erecting scaffolds than their penises. In this part of the novella, Sena pushes too strongly in the direction of paper-thin parable when they unveil a “gigantic conspiracy by the Devil against the established order” that includes “sodomy, a whole range of crimes against nature, and a vast web of subversive propaganda.” And it’s hard not to see in Brother Anthony of Salzburg, “a famous expert and writer of treatises on matters infernal,” a caricature of dictator António Salazar. But Sena is not so much forcing a parable as stating that Portugal’s history had dead in its tracks. After three centuries under the Inquisition, followed by 100 years of relative freedom, a long dictatorship could only give the impression of static time: the present was the past, the past was the present. A few decades later, Lobo Antunes’s big Salazar novel, The Inquisitor’s Manual, would use the same metaphor. Instead of proclaiming a belief in progress, like neo-realist works, Sena’s novella hinges on subtle cycles of birth, death and rebirth. Reality may as well look back to see itself as if on a mirror.
Ribald and raunchy, The Prodigious Physician is nevertheless tinged with pessimism. Unlike the neo-realists, Sena was too realistic to know that utopias never work. Although their books have aged badly, this novella continues to resonate in our time in the way it celebrates equality between women and men, sexual freedom over prudery, reason over fanaticism, and the individual over the state.
Plus, Sena adds more context to translated Portuguese fiction, which often floats in an ahistorical vacuum, Sena’s blend of fantasy and realism predates José Saramago’s magical realism and allegories, and his rage at castrating tyrants brings to mind António Lobo Antunes. In The Prodigious Physician’s 100 pages we find all the main elements in the best contemporary Portuguese fiction. Jorge de Sena’s obscurity is a mystery, but the solution to that is simple and begins with reading this little masterpiece.
“There are two sound ways for a girl to deal with a young man who is insistent. She can marry him, or she can say ‘No.’” — Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1961
In 1962, a 40-year-old woman published a guide for single girls that shocked a nation (and spawned future memoir-manuals.) The author was Helen Gurley Brown, and the book was Sex and the Single Girl: The Unmarried Woman’s Guide to Men, Career, the Apartment, Diet, Fashion, Money and Men.
Racy title aside, the simple teal-blue book jacket was far from flashy — if anything, it looked like a secret handbook. But the message inside was loud and clear, and Helen megaphoned it to the world: Single girls had sex, and often with multiple partners before marriage. Why pretend otherwise? “Should a man think you are a virgin?” she asked in one chapter. “I can’t imagine why, if you aren’t. Is he? Is there anything particularly attractive about a thirty-four-year-old virgin?”
Drawing from her years of experience as a penny-pinching bachelorette in Los Angeles, Helen gave single women advice on everything from keeping a budget and finding an apartment to wearing makeup, meeting men, and staging a successful affair — she’d survived plenty of trysts with married men — but she was no longer single herself. She was comfortably married to the editor and movie producer David Brown, who had conjured up the idea for the book in the first place, and her status as Mrs. Brown was the ultimate testament to the fact that her man-trapping tips really worked, at any age.
Though Sex and the Single Girl had no shortage of critics (Robert Kirsch of the Los Angeles Times called it “as tasteless a book as I have read this year”), it was an instant bestseller, generating a multimillion-dollar franchise that included an eponymous movie (starring Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis); a nationally syndicated column, “Woman Alone,” written by Helen and aimed at single girls; a recorded album called Lessons in Love, which offered gems like “How to Talk to a Man in Bed;” a second book, Sex and the Office; and, of course, a magazine, the new Cosmopolitan, which Helen revamped from a staid general-interest title into a sexy single girl’s bible in 1965.
The original Sex and the Single Girl also inspired countless imitations, among them a cookbook, Saucepans and the Single Girl (“Guaranteed to do more for the bachelor girl’s social life than long-lash mascara or a new discotheque dress,” it promised), Sex and the Single Man, and Sex and the Single Cat. “A publisher asked me to write a ‘me-too’ book — about sex and the college girl,” Gloria Steinem told me in a recent interview. She declined, but future food critic Gael Greene took on the task of reporting from the real frontlines of the sexual revolution: the nation’s college campuses. Her book, Sex and the College Girl, hit shelves in 1964.
Along with guidebooks for single girls, there were also stern warnings. In 1963, two young, unmarried women were murdered in their apartment on the Upper East Side; one had been a Newsweek copy girl, the other a teacher. The high-profile double homicide was dubbed the Career Girl Murders, and it terrified thousands of single, working girls across New York City. It also inspired a morose 125-page safety manual, Career Girl, Watch Your Step!, written by Max Wylie, the father of one of the victims, who cautioned the Sex and the Single Girl set about the dangers of dating and living alone in the big city.
There’s no doubt that Helen Gurley Brown deserves credit for ushering in the sexual revolution and singles culture, but she was hardly the first woman to tackle writing a cheeky, charming guide for bachelorettes. Five decades earlier, in 1909, Helen Rowland, a noted satirist who penned biting aphorisms about the battle of the sexes for the New York World newspaper, collected her columns into an illustrated book of epigrams titled Reflections of a Bachelor Girl. (She began the column after the demise of the first of her three marriages.) Rowland followed up with more books, including A Guide to Men, published in 1922 — the era of the flapper, with her short skirts, bobbed hair, loose morals, and penchant for cigarettes and petting parties.
That year, Helen Gurley Brown was born in the small town of Green Forest, Ark. She grew up during the Great Depression, when wives and widows flooded the workforce, taking on jobs once meant for their husbands. Necessity paved the way for a new breed of woman who was capable of taking care of herself, and didn’t have to rely on a man — and popular culture reflected her newfound independence. In the summer of 1936, when Helen was 14, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind topped the bestseller lists, as the nation fell in love with a flawed and fiercely determined heroine named Scarlett O’Hara. The same year, a Vogue editor named Marjorie Hillis published a self-help guide for single women titled Live Alone and Like It: A Guide for the Extra Woman.
Who exactly was this Extra Woman, or E.W., as The New York Times later dubbed her? She was a woman who earned her own money and liked to spend it, and to reach her, Hillis’s publisher, Bobbs-Merrill, ventured far beyond the bookstore to places where single women congregated. “They sent their salesmen to department stores around the country with a multi-page memo that outlined how to pair quotations from the book with items from the store, like negligees and pajamas, compact furniture, and cosmetics,” says Joanna Scutts, who is currently working on a book about Hillis, The Extra Woman. “Hillis was resolutely a believer in material pleasure, beautiful objects, and the comforts of surrounding yourself with the things you loved.” (Three decades later, Helen Gurley Brown’s publicity team pitched Sex and the Single Girl to boutiques, singles resorts, and secretarial schools. In L.A., one bookstore’s window display featured the guide, opened to the chapter “How to Be Sexy,” paired with a black bikini.)
In many ways, Hillis’s books and their offbeat promotion offered a valuable blueprint for Helen Gurley Brown, with one major exception: Live Alone and Like It spoke primarily to a savvy, city-dwelling reader, while Sex and the Single Girl addressed a far simpler creature. It was meant for the plain, small-town girl — or “mouseburger,” to use Helen’s famous coinage — who might have aspired to be more like Hillis’s sophisticated reader, or Hillis herself, only with a much more active sex life. (A minister’s daughter from Brooklyn, Hillis had pragmatic attitudes about sex but didn’t obsess over it, or men, the way Helen did.)
Still, despite their differences, both authors recognized that the so-called problems faced by single women could actually be assets, even enviable luxuries. Long before Helen declared the working single woman as “the newest glamour girl of our time,” Hillis addressed her with a cut-the-bullshit approach. Might as well face it: “An extra woman is a problem…Extra women mean extra expense, extra dinner-partners, extra bridge opponents, and, all too often, extra sympathy,” she wryly observed in her first chapter, “Solitary Refinement.” And yet, the right attitude could turn it all around.
Being a “live-aloner” had its perks: namely, total freedom. Without a man of the house to serve, a woman could tend to herself, breakfasting in bed, basking in her nightly beauty ritual, and best of all, she could have her own bathroom, “unquestionably one of Life’s Great Blessings,” Hillis wrote. Like a witty, worldly aunt, Hillis doled out bon mots on other subjects like decorating a modern apartment for one, mixing a classic Manhattan, and the importance of having a chic bedroom wardrobe. “We can think of nothing more depressing than going to bed in a washed-out four-year-old nightgown,” she noted, “nothing more bolstering to the morale than going to bed all fragrant with toilet-water and wearing a luscious pink satin nightgown, well-cut and trailing.”
Hillis also leveled with the legions of single women about the pros and cons of sex outside of marriage, and having an affair. “Certainly, affairs should not even be thought of before you are thirty,” she wrote. “Once you have reached this age, if you will not hurt any third party and can take all that you will have to take — take it silently, with dignity, with a little humor, and without any weeping or wailing or gnashing of teeth — perhaps the experience will be worth it to you. Or perhaps it won’t.”
In 1937, Hillis published Orchids on Your Budget, predating Helen Gurley Brown’s practical financial advice for single girls, followed by Corned Beef and Caviar for the Live-Aloner — a recipe book that might have inspired Helen’s later Single Girl’s Cookbook — and New York Fair or No Fair, a travel guide for women headed to the 1939 World’s Fair. (The same year, at the age of 49, Hillis shocked her readers by marrying Thomas H. Roulston, a wealthy widower who owned a chain of grocery stores, and moving to Long Island.)
Most of these single-girl guides have gone the way of the chastity belt, but in the spirit of HGB, here are some of the wittiest and weirdest, along with some choice advice — take it or leave it.
Title: The Young Lady’s Friend (1880)
Written By: Mrs. H.O. Ward, compiler of “Sensible Etiquette”
Written For: Proper young ladies of America
On Keeping Cool: “The less your mind dwells upon lovers and matrimony, the more agreeable and profitable will be your intercourse with gentlemen.”
Title: Advice to Young Ladies from The London Journal of 1855 and 1862 (published in 1933)
Selected By: R.D., from the weekly columns of “Notice to Correspondents”
Written For: Proper young ladies of England
On Coquetry: “Flirting is heartless and unprincipled; it leads to callousness in other respects, sullies the female mind, provokes retaliation, and is sure to end in heart-burnings, sorrows, and too frequently disgrace.”
Title: Reflections of a Bachelor Girl (1909)
Written By: Helen Rowland, columnist for the New York World who became known as “the female Bernard Shaw”
Written For: Men and women wanting a good laugh
On the Importance of Taking the Long View Before Taking a Vow: “Before marrying a man, ask yourself if you could love him if he lost his front hair, went without a collar, smoked an old pipe, and wore a ready-made suit; all of these things are likely to happen.”
Title: Live Alone and Like It (1936)
Written By: Marjorie Hillis, Vogue editor
Written For: Single career girls in the city
On Ladies and Liquor: “There is no simpler way of entertaining successfully than having a cocktail party, and there is no surer way of making a casual guest have a good time, than serving a highball. For breaking ice, mixing strangers, and increasing popularity, alcohol is still unrivaled.”
Title: Orchids on Your Budget (1937)
Written By: Marjorie Hillis
Written For: Style-conscious live-aloners with limited funds
On Fashion Sense: “A cheap dress worn with good accessories will fool more people than an expensive dress worn with cheap accessories.”
Title: Sex and the Single Girl (1962)
Written By: Helen Gurley Brown
Written For: Small-town girls thinking of moving to the big city for romance and recognition
On How to Meet a Man: “Carry a controversial book at all times — like Karl Marx’s Das Kapital or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s a perfectly simple way of saying, ‘I’m open to conversation,’ without having to start one.”
Title: Career Girl, Watch Your Step! (1964)
Written By: Max Wylie, father of career-girl murder victim Janice Wylie
Written For: The Sex and the Single Girl set
On Bachelorettes in the Big City: “Don’t think of yourself as being safe. Think of yourself as being in danger all the time. This will make you wary. There is no better protection than an awareness of the dangers that might engulf you.”
Title: Saucepans and the Single Girl (1965)
Written By: Jinx Morgan and Judy Perry, college roommates-turned-cookbook authors
Written For: Unmarried women looking for the fastest way to a man’s heart
On Cooking for the Man in a Brooks Brothers Suit: “If you can cook without tripping over it, by all means wear your chicest hostess skirt. This is known as packaging the product.”
Title: Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girl’s Cookbook (1969)
Written By: Helen Gurley Brown
Written For: Cosmo Girls
On Ending the Affair: “When it comes to that dinner you know in your heart is to be the longed-for (on your part) last one, you must plan as wickedly as for a lovers’ feast. It shouldn’t be too difficult. Through careful observation of your companion through the months or years you’ll know everything he actively hates — what gives him tummy cramps or causes him to break out. These are the foods you carefully prepare and feed him tonight.” Suggested dishes: Ceviche, Lamb Kidneys and Bacon, Refritos with Cheese.
Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn’t read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat.
I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and my word, was that good. I read The Appearance of a Hero, and wrote a whole review of it in my head called “Where the Bros Are” — or was it “For the Bros”? — but forgot to write it down (don’t get me started on the things I didn’t write this year). I read NW and couldn’t stop thinking about the scene with the tampon string like a mouse tail and got the taste of metal in my mouth, thank you very much Zadie Smith. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and got the feel of bleach in my eye and hamster in my sink, thank you very much Lionel Shriver. I read The Snow Child which was like Crystal Light with extra Splenda (that is not a compliment, in case it’s not clear). I read The Silent House which gave me the willies (that is a compliment). I read the The Deptford Trilogy because every year I have to read something by Robertson Davies and like it and then forget what it was about. I read the Donald Antrim triple-decker (one, two, three), and those were the greatest old new things I read this year.
I re-read Good-bye to All That and Tender is the Night and Midnight’s Children. I did not re-read The Tin Drum or Middlemarch or The Chronicles of Narnia or any Sherlock Holmes stories, and I really feel it in my bones that I did not re-read these things. I did not re-read The Corrections or Cleveland’s History of the Modern Middle East, which I was going to re-read to remember what is the deal with Syria. I only re-read half of one movement of A Dance to the Music of Time (one-eighth, then).
I still did not read Witz or Swamplandia! or The Instructions or A Visit from the Goon Squad or Skippy Dies or The Art of Fielding, or How Should a Person Be? even though I spent $30 on it at a book thing to seem like a team player. More distressing, I still did not really read Don Quixote or Das Kapital or War and Peace, or a thing by Stendahl or Ulysses. I did not read one really hard book this year, except one by Buket Uzuner, and that was just hard for me, and I didn’t really read that either, just 20 pages.
As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
At the beginning of 2010 I was in Ukraine, and trying to understand what was going on there. Two contemporary historians, both dissidents, helped explain. Georgiy Kasianov writes in Ukrainian, Russian, and English; his history of post-independence Ukraine (in Russian) is a great and funny book that bravely resists the nationalist narrative pushed forward by the Ukraine-for-Ukrainians lobby. In English his edited volume, A Laboratory of Transnational History, is recommended. It includes an essay by John-Paul Himka, a Canadian historian of Ukrainian origin who has for a number of years kept up a lonely moral crusade against the nationalist elements of the Ukrainian diaspora in North America. You would think the margin for historical error in a territory and period as finite as Western Ukraine during the Second World War would be pretty thin; you’d be wrong.
I tend to read books in spurts. After Ukraine, I read a number of dystopian novels for an article I was writing. The best were Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island. I preferred the Houellebecq. In fact, though Elementary Particles is still his best book, this one is his funniest. “In order to pass the time I told him the story of the German who ate the other German whom he’d met on the internet.” Very funny.
At this point, having settled again on American soil, I decided to figure out what was going on with our foreign wars. I read Rory Stewart’s amazing and funny book about walking through Afghanistan in the wake of the American defeat of the Taliban in late 2001 (The Places In Between), and then Megan Stack’s Every Man in This Village Is a Liar, which begins with her entering Afghanistan a bit earlier, right on the heels of the American invasion, tagging along with an Afghan warlord who will eventually try to sneak into bed with her. Stack’s book was so good that I could hardly believe it, so I read Dexter Filkins’ Forever War just to check. It was also very good. Forever War has more bombs exploding; Every Man has more of a comparative sweep.
At this point, almost without intending to (I was waiting for someone to give me their copy of Freedom), I read Ian Frazier’s funny, epic, surprising Travels in Siberia. Then I read Freedom, which is as good as everyone says it is. Reading Frazier and Franzen back to back underscored, first, that they have quite similar names, and, second, the deeply Midwestern quality of Freedom. There’s a great passage at the end of the Siberia book in which Frazier talks about how his father used to berate him, back in his Ohio childhood, for living such a sheltered existence and knowing nothing about the rest of the world. This is a uniquely American, perhaps American-suburban, prejudice–the idea that Ohio couldn’t possibly be further away from, say, Siberia. What Frazier points out, in his quiet, uninsistent way, is that the center of the most economically powerful nation on earth can’t pretend that it’s far away from anywhere, much less one of the world’s largest oil-producing regions, which is what Siberia is. It seems that a deep awareness of the truth of this–of the interconnection of the American suburbs and the rest of the world–is one of Franzen’s important contributions to American fiction and American self-understanding over the past ten years.
In June, my book of interviews about the financial crisis with a hedge fund manager was coming out, and I realized I still knew nothing about the financial crisis. I read as fast as I could to avoid humiliation. Many of the books were bad. Their authors had the difficulty of writing from another country–like the Ukrainian historian Kasianov, who writes partly for Russians–but in a language that the people in that other country (that is to say, us) didn’t know. So they could either pretend that we knew it already, or treat us like idiots. They did a bit of both. The Michael Lewis books–his newest, The Big Short, and his oldest, Liar’s Poker–stood out among all these for their clarity and wit, although I should add that I haven’t yet read John Lanchester’s I.O.U. or Yves Smith’s ECONned, both of which are supposed to be good.
When the HFM book came out, I did mostly manage to aovid humiliation–for example, by sleeping through a scheduled radio interview. But non-humiliation was not enough. I decided to get to the bottom of things by reading Capital. But I couldn’t understand it. I began to read around Capital–David Harvey’s Limits to Capital; Peter Singer’s Marx; Immanuel Wallerstein’s Historical Capitalism; Michael Harrington’s The Twilight of Capitalism; Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station. The only one I really got through (aside from the Wallerstein book, which is like 100 pages long because he uses no examples) is To the Finland Station. I’d inherited the notion somewhere or other that Wilson’s book wasn’t first-rate as intellectual or political history. This is untrue. Of all the secondary sources on Marx, it has been the most valuable to me. It will certainly always be the most entertaining. It gives a different kind of genealogy of Marx, through the French historians rather than the German idealists, and also it has a beautiful and sympathetic account of the relationship between Marx and Engels. Just a lovely book, almost as good as Parallel Lives.
At around this time, about a month ago–and still stuck about a third of the way through the first volume of Capital–I concluded that I would never understand Marx’s obsession with the concept of “price” until I went back to Adam Smith and the original formulation of the theory of price that Marx is taking issue with. So that is where you find me today, about a fifth of the way through the first volume of The Wealth of Nations. Maybe a quarter of the way.
Other great books I happened to read that came out in 2010 were Elif Batuman’s The Possessed; Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask; and Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey. I recommend all three without reservation; they are instant classics. Another book I think everyone ought to read is Thomas Chatterton Williams’s Losing My Cool. It’s a complex, very honest, very entertaining memoir about a young man’s education that has not received anything like the serious consideration and discussion it deserves. And a final book I recommend from 2010 is And the Heart Says Whatever, by my very witty girlfriend, Emily Gould.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions
Vampires figure the anxieties of their cultural moment. They come out at night—and during periods of social and political turmoil, and their habits and looks mutate to personify the fears of the age in which they appear. Bram Stoker’s Dracula dramatized Victorian fears of sex as morally corrupting and fears of English culture as threatened by invading foreigners. The vampires of Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, published primarily in the 1980’s, shared a certain kinship with the ruthless, amoral financier characters of the age, Gordon Gekko of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and Patrick Batemen of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, but their most striking feature was their homosexuality. Rice’s vampirism as blood-borne pathogen also came to seem a metaphor for AIDS—a taunting metaphor, since her beautiful men could not die.
So what about our vampires—the vampires of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels or those of Stephenie Meyer’s ubiquitous Twilight? Our vampires seem a domesticated, morally evolved breed. Meyer’s vampires have been defanged altogether (Meyer only agreed to sell the film rights with the caveat that the Cullens could not be depicted with fangs in any film version), while the vampires of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels (better known as HBO’s True Blood) have discretely retractable fangs. Both authors’ vampires are committed to humane, sustainable diets. Indeed, if Michael Pollan wrote for vampires, he might recommend the diet devised by the vampires of Meyer’s Twilight. The members of the Cullen household, the forward-thinking vampire “family” at the center of the series, forswear feeding on humans. “I don’t want to be a monster,” Edward Cullen, Meyer’s teenage vampire hero explains to his human beloved, Bella Swan, when she asks him about his diet.
Turning from the gruesome practices of most of the rest of the vampire community in Meyer’s alternate version of contemporary America, the Cullens feed only on wild animals they hunt in the woods around their home on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. And even in this (by some standards) less murderous diet, they take a sustainable approach, carefully alternating their hunting grounds so as not to decimate the local populations of deer and cougars. Carlisle, the patriarch of the Cullen clan and the originator of what they refer to as their vampire “vegetarianism,” goes even further in his determination to be good. Through hundreds of years of practicing this vegetarianism, Carlisle has perfected his self-control to such a degree that he remains seemingly unmoved in the presence of human blood. His control is so great that he can practice human medicine. Not only does he not kill human beings—he heals them and saves their lives.
The vampires of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, which are also known as the Southern Vampire Mysteries and are the basis of Alan Ball’s hit HBO series True Blood, share with Meyer’s Twilight a kinder, gentler vampire whose physical beauty seems the outward sign of his moral improvement. Gone are the days of the repulsive and remorseless Count Dracula, with his hairy palms and rank breath, his insatiable hunger for blood. Like Twilight, Harris’ series presents a morally enlightened vampire. Set in an alternate version of the contemporary American South, the Sookie novels depict a world in which vampires have declared themselves publicly, sought and won some civil rights, and live openly amongst humans. Their emancipation from the shadowy world of myth and legend is possible because a synthetic blood developed by the Japanese allows them to refrain from feeding on humans.
Living only on bottled blood, however, doesn’t satisfy like organic warm-from-the-body human blood. Fortunately for the vampires and humans who occupy the Sookieverse, Harris’ mythology also revises the nature of the vampire bite. Unlike Meyer’s vegetarian Cullens, Harris’ vampires still feed on humans, but do so more considerately and in moderation. In the Sookie novels, being bitten by a vampire isn’t normally lethal, nor does it turn one into a vampire. In fact, the vampire’s bite, a quintessential symbol of sex (penetration, exchange of fluids), becomes pleasurable for human and vampire alike rather than damning or damaging: “I felt Bill’s teeth against my neck, and I said “Yes!” I felt his fangs penetrate, but it was a small pain, an exciting pain,” Sookie says of her first bite, given to her by the prosaically named vampire Bill Compton. (“I thought it might be Antoine, or Basil, or Langford!” Sookie responds, laughing, when Bill first tells her his name.) But the point of vampire Bill’s prosaic name is that he’s one of us—that vampires are people too.
Harris’ and Ball’s versions of Sookie’s world are full of such prosaic details of modern vampire life. Their vampires play Wii Golf, serve Fresca to guests, shop at the mall, wash their hair with Herbal Essence shampoo, wear Dockers, renovate their homes. For Ball and Harris, vampires are people too, both materially and morally. And while the melodramatic pitch of Twilight makes Edward and his kin seem like they couldn’t possibly do such grubbily vulgar things as shopping or styling their hair, their artfully tousled locks and well-cut leather jackets tell another tale. These vampires, our vampires (whether we like it or not), do and feel human things: They attend high school, practice abstinence and medicine, tend bar, go to the prom, get married, create computer databases, lobby for civil rights. They cry, fall in love, feel guilty, worry about whether they have souls and what state those souls might be in. Which is why they’ve gone vegetarian—or at least Whole Foods sustainable.
Our vegetarian vampires, I think, are afflicted with the same crises of conscience that we are as first-world twenty-first century humans. We eat too much, we shop too much, we use too much fuel, water, land; we mistreat the animals on which we depend for food and the other peoples whose labor produces for us the cheap abundant goods we have all grown so used to. The vampire’s insatiable hunger for blood mirrors our insatiable hungers for food, wealth, property, and possessions. Contemporary vampire fiction mirrors our collective anxiety about our need for self-discipline and a return to a more humane approach to our fellow beings: Now, the vampire, the most appetitive and unrepentantly murderous of our culture’s mythic archetypes, restrains himself in our popular fiction. He has become a “vegetarian” of sorts, the vampire version of a Whole Foods shopper, who prefers humanely raised meat, free range eggs, sustainably farmed produce. From the shimmering pâleur of the vampire radiates something new and hardly otherworldly: an aura of white liberal guilt.
But being kinder to your food, whatever it might be, isn’t the be all and end all of ethical living, nor does it mean you’re not a vampire. Harris and Ball’s versions of the Sookieverse acknowledge this: that even as we try mightily to live ethically, the dangerous, cruel, and illicit—the side of human character that the vampire has always represented—cannot be vanquished altogether. Vampire Bill, born and raised in the antebellum South, may be an attentive suitor and a perfect gentleman whom Sookie can take home to her grandmother, but he’s also a self-professed murderer and his sexual appetite can turn terrifying. All of the characters in Sookie’s world, both human and vampire, have this same moral ambivalence.
Harris/Ball’s vampire is not all bad, but their human, in turn, is not all good. The world of Meyer’s Twilight, on the other hand, embraces Stoker’s basically strict segregation of good and evil. The heroes and heroines of Twilight are all understood to be morally exemplary. Meyer often has Bella compare Edward’s body and soul to that of an “angel” (and Stephenie Meyer doesn’t offer a single sly wink to let you know that she knows it’s all a bit over the top—which is really impressive in a way. I certainly couldn’t get through 2000+ pages of treacly teenage melodrama without a single devious aside to my audience).
So, in both Twilight and the Southern Vampire Mysteries, vampires do and feel human things–but a crucial philosophical difference between Harris’ books (and Ball’s series) and Meyer’s remains. Harris insists, as Meyer does not, that people are vampires—that people do and feel vampiric things—rape, murder, illicit and subversive sexual desire, manipulation, betrayal. After all, the first vampires, the sadistic historical figures out of whose strange cruelties the idea of the vampire came, were human beings: the fifteenth-century Romanian prince Vlad Dracul (meaning “dragon” or “devil”), whose name Bram Stoker immortalized in Dracula, and Erzébet Báthory (known as the Beast of Csejthe), the sixteenth-century Hungarian countess sometimes referred to as the first female serial killer. Báthory tortured and killed hundreds of young serving girls and bathed in their blood, believing that the blood of virgins had powerful restorative and magical properties. Prince Vlad was known for torturing his enemies and citizens alike, often en masse—usually by impaling them on stakes. He liked to make public spectacles of these executions, sometimes eating meals while watching them. He was also, more mundanely, known for unscrupulous labor practices such as working his peasant laborers to death. Karl Marx refers to this exploitative cruelty of Vlad’s in Capital and uses the figure of the vampire repeatedly to describe the behavior of the capitalist—though he never makes the connection between the vampire and his historical forebear (nor does Marx to Vlad by name; he refers to him “a Wallachian boyar,” but the practices he describes are Vlad’s).
This basic connection between human monstrosity and the vampire is explicit in the Harris novels. Harris’ vampires have gotten a little nicer, but her humans have picked up the slack. As her vampire characters limit their consumption of human blood, her human characters drink vampire blood in a tidy little economy of gore. Vampire blood heals humans with extraordinary speed, makes them more attractive, sharpens their senses, and enhances their libidos. It is the recreational drug of choice in Harris’ fictional world. In the first two scenes of blood drinking in the first Sookie novel, Dead Until Dark, Harris reverses the traditional roles of human and vampire: vampire becomes victim, human becomes blood drinker. In the first, an unsavory trailer trash couple, the Ratrays, begin draining the vampire Bill Compton using needles and medical tubing. They plan to sell his blood as a recreational drug. In the second scene of blood taking, human Sookie, who has been beaten almost to death by the Ratrays for preventing their attempted draining/murder, drinks vampire Bill’s blood at his insistence. At first, Sookie gags on the blood, but as she forces herself to swallow, knowing it’s her only chance of survival, she begins to enjoy it: “Suddenly, the blood tasted good, salty, the stuff of life . . . my hand clamped the vampire’s wrist to my mouth. I felt better with every swallow.”
This human taste for blood becomes the emblem of other vampiric traits. Harris’ and Ball’s human characters can be arrogant, chilly, and race-proud: murderers, rapists, self-righteous hate mongers, child molesters. Harris’ vampires may inevitably have a detached, cool demeanor, an unnerving lack of human emotional response, a disregard for laws and a disdain for human lives, but on balance the people in her books are little better. Her heroine’s most potentially devastating encounters come more often at the hands of humans, rather than vampires. Sookie’s great uncle molests her as a child; a local man revolted by relationships between human women and vampires attempts to kill her when she starts dating vampire Bill; an anti-vampire church called The Fellowship of the Sun blows up a hotel during a massive vampire conference killing scores of humans and vampires and nearly killing Sookie.
Alan Ball’s version of the Sookieverse also inverts the traditional structure of the vampire genre (vampires = bad; humans = good) to expose human moral failings, cruelties, abuses of power. In one of True Blood’s most socially canny plots, a young woman addicted to vampire blood coerces her boyfriend into kidnapping a gentle, paunchy middle-aged vampire. They tie him up with silver chains and keep him in the basement, thereby assuring themselves of an unlimited supply of V or V-juice, as vampire blood is called in Ball’s series. The vampire starves and becomes weakened in his captivity and his hunger causes him excruciating pain. He senses that his female captor is going to kill him and confronts her about it, as she’s milking blood from his tender, weakened arm. She punches him savagely and commands him angrily: “Don’t you dare get morally superior on me.” She tells him that she gave up a full scholarship to Vassar to work in an impoverished village in Guatamala, helping to bring clean water to the village. She continues, “I am an organic vegan and my carbon footprint is miniscule ’cause I know that ultimately we’re all just a single living being. But you are not.”
The scene indicts Whole Foods piety as morally insufficient—as a frail ethical blind that can obscure and justify monstrous selfishness and cruelty. By reversing the roles of human and vampire, turning the human into the torturer, the scene suggests that we humans are the vampires now—that we have always been. For Ball and Harris, the essence of the vampire is a ruthless, violent selfishness that characterizes fanged and unfanged characters—humans and vampires—alike. The Sookie Stackhouse novels and True Blood continually pose the question, “Who’s the vampire now?” They repeatedly refuse easy distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong, vampire and human.
In another such equivocal scene, an ancient vampire saves Sookie from an aspiring human rapist. This vampire, it turns out, believes himself damned and intends to destroy himself by walking out into daylight (where the sun’s rays will burn him to death). “We take the blood of innocents,” he explains, when Sookie asks why he thinks himself an abomination. She counters his claim with the question, “Who is innocent?” He says simply, “children”—the vampire fed exclusively on children for centuries. But Sookie, in gratefulness for his kindness, still decides to bear witness to his self-destruction, a decision that the vampire doesn’t understand. “I am an evil creature,” he tells her. (A confession that might seem more noble and poignant in light of the Catholic Church’s failures this week to take such responsibility for crimes against children.) “But you did a good thing, saving me,” Sookie responds. To her own surprise, she cries when the vampire steps into sunlight and begins to disintegrate.
Meyer’s fiction, on the other hand, scrupulously avoids such subtle moral shading, favoring instead the stark good/evil duality of Victorian vampire fiction—more on this in Part II.