For Whom the Bell Tolls

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Reading Resistance in Translation


Last year, I felt a deep sense of powerlessness as I watched the election season unfold. While Donald Trump gained traction, I struggled with my small political actions, which felt ineffective and insufficient. Would the staff member answering phone calls in the senator’s office really pass on my message? Would signing those online petitions amount to anything? Would the kindly, disabled grandmother I met canvassing in Iowa reach the voting booth come election day? Had I moved the needle at all? And, of course, daily life distracted me. I knew I could do more, but I also felt exhausted.

I needed to find a way to nurture myself at home. Reading, I knew, I could always count on. And translations, I thought, would broaden my views while also providing a pleasurable escape.

I decided to seek novels that would push me beyond our country’s borders—beyond the expected, mainstream experience into the margins, where voices are silenced, ignored, and unheard.

One of the books that I chose during this period was Mercè Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves, which is titled La plaça del Diamant in Catalan. I picked this novel because I was curious about Catalan literature and the only other book I had read about the Spanish Civil War was For Whom the Bell Tolls. About a white American male’s experience abroad, written by a white American male (albeit, yes, Ernest Hemingway), For Whom the Bell Tolls provides a decidedly confined lens to the war. The Time of the Doves, on the other hand, was written by a female Catalan author and is about a young woman’s experience at home as the fighting continues around her. Perfect, I thought.

The Time of the Doves delivered what I needed. Rodoreda’s novel focuses on Natalia, a naïve shop girl, through a stream-of-consciousness narrative. Early on, Natalia is nicknamed “Colometa,” or “little dove” by Quimet, a man she meets at a dance in plaça del Diamant, the local square. Quimet, a harsh and obsessive man, courts Natalia until she eventually acquiesces to marriage though she must give up her fiancé, Pere. In a heartbreaking scene early on in the story, she encounters Pere after marrying Quimet:
And he gazed at me like he was drowning in the crowd, in the flowers, among all those stalls. He told me how one day he’d run into Julieta and Julieta had told him I was married and as soon as he heard it he thought of how much he wished me luck. I lowered my eyes because I didn’t know what to say or do, and I felt like I had to roll the sadness into a ball, a bullet, a bit of grapeshot. Swallow it. And since he was taller than me, while I was standing with my head down I felt the weight of all the sadness Pere carried inside him on the top of my head and it seemed like he saw everything inside me, all my secrets and my pain.
Rodoreda inserts violent imagery like the swallowing of “a bullet, a bit of grapeshot” into Natalia’s everyday emotional interactions, and although the Spanish Civil War has not yet begun, the mood is foreboding from the start. The rhythmic, rambling sentences add to this atmosphere, which becomes increasingly ominous as the war approaches.

The Time of the Doves follows Natalia’s life as a wife, mother, and eventual widow. Enduring Quimet’s small insults and larger abuses, his fanatical need to raise doves in their apartment while leaving the caretaking to Natalia, and then his absence when he joins the Republican Army, Natalia endures war, poverty, depression. Perplexed by her own helplessness and the destruction of the life she once knew, she even contemplates killing her children:
And one night when I was lying with Antoni on one side and Rita on the other, with their ribs sticking out and their bodies all lined with bright blue veins, I decided to kill them. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I couldn’t blindfold them and throw them off the balcony. What if they only broke a leg? And they were stronger than I was. I had about as much strength as a dead cat. I couldn’t do it. I fell asleep with my head splitting and my feet numb.
What I loved about The Time of the Doves was how close I came to Natalia’s thought process. Rodoreda precisely renders Natalia’s life as she saw and lived it in the moment. As the book progresses, Natalia’s psychology and self-analysis deepens, and though the novel skirts the conflict between the Republicans and the Nationalists, the reader learns about the war’s destructive effect on citizens at home. So often we read stories about soldiers and their suffering, and of course they do suffer, but the women are cast aside or swept away. Forgotten. This novel’s greatest strength is Rodoreda’s skillful expression of the women who were left behind. Natalia catalogs everything from the loss of essential items like gas and charcoal and milk, to the terror of waiting for your husband to return or die in battle, and how life and work and motherhood must continue despite it all.

Rodoreda crafts an absorbing, dreamlike voice that conveys the effects of war while always remaining in Natalia’s purview, as she does here:
I’d wake up at night and all my insides were like a house when the moving men come and shift everything around. That’s what I felt like inside: with wardrobes in the front hall and chairs with their legs sticking up and cups on the floor waiting to be wrapped in paper and packed in straw in boxes and the mattress and the bed taken apart and leaning against the wall and everything all messed up.
This is an example of how Rodoreda describes the wartime experience while remaining in the language of the domestic sphere. By comparing Natalia’s fraught state to a home in disarray, Rodoreda elevates the importance of the feminine. Yes, women during the Spanish Civil War suffered. Yes, this suffering looked different and was less visible than the traditional male-centered war narrative, but it is still important to discuss and name.

Rodoreda’s choices took on greater significance for me when I researched the author and the circumstances under which she wrote The Time of the Doves. In 1939, the military dictator Francisco Franco captured Barcelona. Soon after, he began suppressing the Catalan language and culture, and Rodoreda went into exile. Years later, when she began writing La plaça del Diamant, no one was sure the Catalan language would survive much longer. And yet, Rodoreda decided to write in her mother tongue, to use her writing as an act of resistance. This linguistic defiance, coupled with her decision to feature a woman’s story as the voice of the Spanish Civil War, is powerful and heartening.

I found solidarity in understanding that across time and culture and language, those who are marginalized and repressed continue to resist. This knowledge comforts me still, as Trump attacks freedom of speech, ridicules the DOJ and the FBI, baits Kim Jong-un, dismisses Puerto Rico’s catastrophes, guts healthcare protections for the most vulnerable, orders xenophobic and Islamophobic travel bans, and more.

Fiction creates empathy in a way that reading the news does not. It pierces our consciousness, allowing us to find similarities in the human condition. Now, when I come upon articles about Catalonia’s recent vote for independence and the subsequent demonstrations, violence, and suspension of Catalonia’s autonomy by the Spanish government, I recognize some of the history and pain that has led to this political moment. I wonder if Trump and his men would change if they read similar stories about the people they demonize in North Korea, China, Iran, or Mexico—or even here at home, about the black, native, poor, imprisoned, Muslim, Asian-American, undocumented, or LGTBQ experience in America—anywhere and anyone foreign to themselves, really.

The Time of the Doves reminds me that writing can be an act of resistance as well as a reclamation of one’s beliefs, culture, and humanity. As the Trump administration continues its attempts to disempower its citizenry, Mercè Rodoreda encourages me to search for the voices most likely to be excluded. She reminds me of the power of the written word, of language’s ability to create new spaces in our world. In a time when our future feels more unpredictable than ever, this novel will continue to fuel me in the days to come.

Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in Havana


1.In Havana, Ernest Hemingway’s restless ghost lingers more palpably than in any of the other places in the world that can legitimately claim him: Paris, Madrid, Sun Valley, Key West. Havana was his principal home for more than three decades, and its physical aspect has changed very little since he left it, for the last time, in the spring of 1960.

I’ve been traveling to the city with some regularity since 1999, when I directed one of the first officially sanctioned programs for U.S. students in Cuba since the triumph of Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution. As an aspiring novelist, I’ve long been interested in Hemingway’s work, but I had no idea how prominently Havana figured in the author’s life — nor how prominently the author figured in the city’s defining iconography — until I began spending time there.

Well-preserved Hemingway locations abound in Havana. They include the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where the author lived throughout the ’30s in a room that is now a small museum; the Floridita, which serves overpriced “Hemingway daiquiris,” and contains a life-size bronze likeness of the writer with its elbow on the bar; the Bodeguita del Medio, which has Hemingway’s signature on the wall and claims to have been his favorite place for a mojito; and La Terraza, the restaurant overlooking the small harbor that was the point of departure and return for Santiago’s epic voyage in The Old Man and the Sea. These sites are not just tourist spots, though they certainly are that. They also serve as shrines and landmarks in the city’s defining mythology. The essence of this mythology is captured in the black-and-white photos taken in the months following the 1959 Revolution, later made into postcards. These feature images of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos — and Ernest Hemingway.

To get a feel for the author’s Cuba years, let us begin with a single one: 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression. By the third week in July of that year, according to Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story, Carlos Baker’s comprehensive 1969 biography of the author, Hemingway had notched his 100th day of fishing in the waters north of Havana. He’d caught more than 50 marlin, including a 750-pounder he’d brought to hand within casting distance of the Morro, the white stone fortress presiding over the entrance to Havana Bay. The yacht he’d rented had been rammed so many times by swordfish that it was starting to leak, so he decided to buy himself a new one, a diesel-powered, 38-foot cruiser from Wheeler Shipyards in Brooklyn. He named it the Pilar, which was also his secret nickname for his second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer — whose family money, as it happened, was financing the couple’s highly mobile lifestyle: a revolving calendar of stays in Havana, Madrid, Paris, New York, Key West, and the Serengeti.

Already a literary star on the strength of his first two novels, The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), Hemingway chose Havana as his base that summer because of its proximity to one of the planet’s best places to pursue big game fish. As he later wrote in Holiday magazine, he was drawn to the Gulfstream, that “great, deep blue river, three quarters of a mile to a mile deep and sixty to eighty miles across.” He was especially captivated by the marlin, which, from the flying bridge of the Pilar, looked “more like a huge submarine bird than a fish.”

The author had first visited Havana in April of 1928, for a brief stop on his steamer journey back from Europe at the end of those romantic Paris-based years he later portrayed so vividly in The Moveable Feast (1964). It proved to be a significant layover for Hemingway — and for Havana — because he discovered something about the place that made him want to return. The central ambition of Hemingway’s life was, as he wrote in Esquire in 1934, to create novels and stories “truer than if they had really happened,” and he was continually in search of gritty, colorful, and intense experience that would serve as fodder for this quest. Cuba, like Spain, was an ideal setting for this sort of experience, not only because of the excellent fishing, but also because it was a flashpoint for political upheaval. In April 1931, a general uprising in Spain had resulted in the fall of the Bourbon monarchy, marking the beginning of a new Republic, and in August 1933, a popular uprising in Havana overthrew the dictatorship of President Gerardo Machado. Hemingway, who had a lifelong distaste for authoritarian rule, joined in the celebration of both events, but the turmoil that followed in their wake would have enduring impacts on his creative life.

In the ’30s, according to Carlos Baker, Hemingway was feeling increasing career pressure as an author. The New York critics had savaged his most recent books, Death in the Afternoon (1932) and Winner Take Nothing (1933).  He’d written enough stories about sport and animal dismemberment, they complained. Why didn’t he move on to something new? He wrote another novel, To Have and Have Not (1937), and it was a decent story — but decent wasn’t enough. A young novelist from California, John Steinbeck, was garnering critical attention and threatening to usurp Hemingway’s rightful place atop the pantheon of American writers. Hemingway needed a book as great as The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms — as great, more pressingly, as Of Mice and Men (1937) or The Grapes of Wrath (1939). He needed a masterpiece, and he was worried that he’d lost his ability to write one.

All these factors contributed to his decision, in 1936, to go cover the Spanish Civil War as a filmmaker and newspaper journalist. He joined a score of other international correspondents based in the Hotel Florida, in Madrid. He fell in love with a tall blonde writer and war correspondent named Martha Gellhorn, and naively allowed himself to become implicated in some unsavory intrigue with a ring of Soviet advisors to the Republican high command. It was an exhilarating time for Hemingway. He took every opportunity to observe the fighting, both at a distance and up close. The ground shook with daily barrages of Fascist artillery, reducing the Gran Vía to rubble, and he felt more alive than he had in years.

Eventually, the tragic war lurched toward its close. By the winter of 1939, with the triumph of Fascism looking inevitable, Hemingway decided it was time to get back to writing. He packed up his copious notes and booked his passage home to Havana, intending to work on a collection of three long stories or novellas. Instead, he was struck by a sudden inspiration for the story that would become his majestic novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). As the words began to pile up in his old fifth floor room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, his excitement grew. He could feel it. This was the masterpiece he’d been hoping for.

In April of that year, he was joined by Martha Gellhorn, who was to become his third wife. Unwilling to live permanently in a hotel room, she located a down-at-the-mouth estate 15 miles from Old Havana called the Finca Vigía. Though the house was in need of work, it was favorably positioned on a hill washed by cool sea breezes, with distant views of the bone-white city and the glittering blue Straits of Florida beyond. In 1940, For Whom the Bell Tolls was published to critical and popular acclaim. His authorial confidence restored, Hemingway resumed the life of a migratory sportsman, with Martha as his companion and the newly renovated Finca Vigía as his long-term base.

Once the accolades died down, however, he sank into another valley of malaise. As he’d long been predicting, hostilities broke out in Europe. The fighting spread rapidly, and as of December 7, 1941, America too became involved. He’d written his masterpiece, sure, but now the entire world was consumed by war. He’d been a first-hand witness in two of the century’s defining military clashes. The idea of sitting this one out was unimaginable. Still, he wasn’t quite ready to abandon Cuba, or the good fishing, or his comfortable life at the Finca Vigía.

He was on good terms with top officials at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. With their approval, he put together a counterintelligence operation to address the infiltration of Cuba by Nazi spies. It was believed that the spies had found accessories among the many Cubans who supported the new Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco. The situation was seen as particularly dangerous because of the “wolf-pack” of German U-boats preying on Allied shipping throughout the Caribbean. Operations began in the summer of 1942, with the Finca as headquarters and a collection of fishermen, bartenders, prostitutes, gunrunners, exiled noblemen, Basque jai-alai players, and long-time drinking buddies forming the personnel of Hemingway’s counterspy ring.

But intelligence proved an unsatisfying pursuit. Yearning once again to experience the dangers of combat, he showed up at the embassy with an audacious proposal. He would staff the Pilar with a well-armed crew and patrol the island’s north coast, posing as a team of scientists gathering data for the American Museum of Natural History. Inevitably, his reasoning went, they would be stopped by a U-Boat, at which point they would wait for the Nazi boarding party to emerge. His machine-gunners would mow down the boarding party, and his retired Basque jai-alai players would lob short-fuse bombs down the sub’s conning tower. All he needed to make it work, he told the ambassador, was good radio equipment, arms and ammunition, and official permission.

Amazingly, the ambassador approved this far-fetched scheme. The Pilar was outfitted with a powerful radio, a set of .50-caliber Browning machine guns, grenades, bombs, and a variety of small arms. Martha suspected that it was all just a ruse to fill the Pilar’s tank with strictly rationed wartime gasoline so Hemingway could resume his fishing trips, and in reality the detachment of faux scientists never did encounter a U-boat. But the author’s experiences during that period gave him some terrific material for fiction. The novel that resulted, Islands in the Stream (1970) — unfinished in his lifetime and only published posthumously — contains portrayals of tropical seascapes that rank among the best passages of nature writing in fiction.

When Martha left to become a war correspondent in London, Hemingway remained in Havana, his drinking on the rise, and the Finca Vigía in a state of increasing disarray. The truth was, he was torn. A part of him felt strongly that he should be following Martha off to the war, but another part was deeply reluctant to leave the place that he’d come to consider home, his beloved cats, his friends, his record player, the long days out on the Pilar, and the mojitos and daiquiris at his Havana haunts. Still, when Collier’s offered him a job covering the Allied invasion of Europe, he managed to pull himself together. He placed the cats in good homes and shuttered the Finca Vigía for a long absence.

Like many other episodes in his colorful life, Hemingway’s experiences in World War II make for an interesting story, though that story is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that participating in yet another war seemed to give his spirit a fresh infusion, and he returned from Europe in May of 1945 with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh. Together they resumed the wandering life, alternating seasons in Havana and Sun Valley with frequent trips to Africa, Italy, and Spain. The Finca Vigía now had a staff of seven full-time servants and a well-stocked bar and kitchen. Houseguests included Hollywood luminaries such as Gary Cooper and Ava Gardner, whom he’d gotten to know in Sun Valley and from working on the movie versions of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and To Have and Have Not (1944).

In December of 1950, he finally got around to writing a story he’d long had in mind, about an old fisherman from the Cuban town of Cojímar. He knew the town well; it was where he kept the Pilar, and he was a frequent patron of an eating and drinking establishment called La Terraza, which overlooked the small harbor featured in The Old Man and the Sea (1952), the last major work of fiction published in Hemingway’s lifetime. It won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, providing a fitting capstone to a great career.

Throughout the 1950’s, the author’s health was declining. Worse, he was losing confidence in himself as a writer. In 1953, on safari in Africa, he and Mary were involved in a disastrous double plane crash, and he received a head injury from which he never fully recovered. It’s also fair to assume that his health and mental acuity were adversely affected by long-term alcohol abuse. People who saw him in the latter part of the decade were shocked by how old and frail he looked compared to the image of the vigorous sportsman and war reporter that had taken root the popular imagination. Still, he was managing to live an intermittently happy life, taking special pleasure in the company of the latest generation of the 57 cats that lived at the Finca Vigía during his decades there. “A cat has absolute emotional honesty,” he famously wrote. “Human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.”

The emotions behind Hemingway’s enduring legacy in Cuba click more clearly into focus when you talk to those who knew him when they were young. I spoke to an octogenarian fisherman in Cojímar who’d once been invited up to the Finca Vigía, along with several other young locals, to talk about his daily life and fishing practices, undoubtedly as background research for The Old Man and the Sea or Islands in the Stream. On the way back from his outings in the Pilar, Hemingway would throw towropes to local fishermen, saving them half a week’s wages in valuable gas. Indeed, the author went out of his way to maintain good relations with many working men — taxi drivers, bartenders, fishermen — with whom he was more at ease than the awestruck international visitors who were constantly knocking on his door.

The Cuban government has honored the author’s memory by preserving the Finca Vigía exactly as it was when he left it in the spring of 1960. It’s a profoundly evocative place. Hemingway’s well-stocked bookshelves are exactly as he kept them; the magazines strewn about the tables are all from 1959 and early 1960. His spectacles lie open on a side table; the typewriter where he worked rests on a shelf; several enormous pairs of shoes hang toe-down in a closet rack. The walls of the pleasantly airy and light-filled house display several of his big game trophies, including the actual physical remains of the animals that played starring roles in “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” (water buffalo), and The Green Hills of Africa (kudu). You can see the author’s handwriting on the bathroom wall, where he periodically inked his fluctuating weight during those difficult waning years.

The onset of the Cuban Revolution worried Hemingway — the explosion of a nearby munitions depot broke windows in the Finca Vigía — but according to Carlos Baker’s biography he was pleased in January of 1959, when Fulgencio Batista fled the country and Fidel Castro’s bearded revolutionaries rolled in to Havana. Hemingway was disgusted by Batista’s corrupt dictatorship, and he saw the Revolution as a positive change: “I wish Castro all the luck,” he said.  “The Cuban people now have a decent chance for the first time ever.”

He did meet Fidel Castro, in November of 1959, at a fishing tournament west of Havana. The young Revolutionary leader won the tournament, and Hemingway presented the trophy. Castro said that he’d kept a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls in his backpack during the years of guerilla insurgency in the Sierra Maestra, which must have been thrilling for Hemingway to hear. “I always regretted the fact that I didn’t…talk to him about everything under the sun,” Castro later remarked. “We only talked about the fish.”

At the Finca Vigía, downhill from the main house through shaded gardens, a walkway leads to the author’s voluminous pool. Drained now, it’s a dangerous-looking abyss, the slanting cement bottom painted blue, blown leaf litter piled in the deep end. Just below the pool, where the tennis court used to be, the Pilar rests in dry dock beneath a high tin roof. Bolted to the top of the boat is Hemingway’s custom-designed flying bridge, where he could steer the yacht and stand lookout for marlin, or U-boats. This few square feet of decking, upon which the author spent so many avid hours, is perhaps the place in Cuba where Hemingway’s troubled ghost bleeds through the thin tissue separating the living from the dead most unmistakably. It’s impossible not to visualize him standing there, gazing out over the prow as he steered the Pilar among the azure channels and white-sand keys of the island’s northern coast, as reflected in this passage from Islands in the Stream:
The water was clear and green over the sand and Thomas Hudson came in close to the center of the beach and anchored with his bow almost up against the shore. The sun was up and the Cuban flag was flying over the radio shack and the outbuildings. The signaling mast was bare in the wind. There was no one in sight and the Cuban flag, new and brightly clean, was snapping in the wind.
One of the chief traits of Havana that makes it irresistible to visitors is the city’s elegant decay: the fact that its long isolation from the architecture-purging mainstream of the world economy has preserved a striking carapace of multi-layered history. Havana is a kind of massive time capsule in which, depending on the neighborhood, one barely has to squint to be transported back to the 17th century, the Art Deco 1930s, the 1950s gambling era dominated by the American mafia, and of course the forbidden Soviet Cuba of the Cold War.

It’s ironic, and perhaps fitting, that Hemingway’s single-minded pursuit of vivid real-life experience that he could immortalize in fiction is what led to him to Havana. Because despite his best efforts, the life could never quite match the intensity of the fiction, and that truth may have contributed to killing him. In Havana, the spirit of Hemingway endures, much like the architecture of the city itself, a fading reminder of what was and what might have been.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

What Qualifies as Greatness: On Literary Awards Season

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald never won a prize. In 1925, the year it was published, the Pulitzer went to Edna Ferber for her novel So Big. How many readers have read this book or remember it?

In 1952 Catcher in the Rye lost the Pulitzer to The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. Catcher in the Rye is a short novel told in the first person and is about a teenager disenchanted by the world of adults. The Caine Mutiny weighs in at over 500 pages and is a sprawling novel of life and mutiny on a Navy warship in the Pacific dealing with the moral complexities and the human consequences of World War II. Which work would now be regarded as literature?

In 1937 Margaret Mitchell took the prize for Gone with the Wind, the same year that William Faulkner published Absalom, Absalom!

Poor Ernest Hemingway. In 1930 A Farewell to Arms, along with The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, lost the Pulitzer to Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge. In 1941, the year that Hemingway published For Whom the Bell Tolls, no Pulitzer was awarded in fiction at all. We may remember the winner of a prize, but we often fail to recall the finalists that year or the vast array of deserving works that were overlooked.

Now that awards season is upon us, with various lists of contenders for the Booker, the National Book Award, and soon the National Book Critics Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize, it is interesting to step back and examine the place of prizes in literature. Do they necessarily reward greatness or works that, like a fine wine, gain stature over time? Do they simply reflect the taste of the jury at a particular moment in history? Or is it a little of both?

Prizes are not awarded by an omniscient god. They are based on a jury. The Pulitzer typically invites three to five judges to recommend works that then go to its 19 to 20 member board of newspaper journalists to make the final decision. The National Book Award seats five jurists. According to its blog, Critical Mass, The National Book Critics Circle divides “into informed, committed teams that focus on one category each. Those committees take their judging to the finalist stage, after which the board reunites into one massive voting group to choose the winners.” Although their choices may be worthy, does the 24-board-member committee have its ear tuned to the winds of media hype? When they meet to choose their finalists, typically announced in January, are they looking for the best books that year, books that may have been overlooked by the judges of the National Book Awards, for instance, which holds its award ceremony in November? Or do they hop on the bandwagon and support the same five or 10 books that — because a seven-figure advance was paid and publishers have a vested interest in getting the books known —  are getting all the attention? Or because the NYTBR has chosen to give the book front-page acknowledgment? Or because a particular author’s work has been ignored in the past, even if the new work isn’t as strong as earlier work? Do they purposely seek out a book by a smaller press to stir up debate? Why is it that the same books generally tend to be acknowledged by various prize committees?

Roxana Robinson, president of the Authors Guild says, “I am very wary of a book that has won more than one prize. Then it seems like a lemming award. Two things I wish would change: One, that prize-awarders would agree tacitly not to award more than one prize to any given book. There are always a number of good books in any season, and for one book to get more than one award is a huge waste of public attention — there are other books that could use it. Two, I wish some of the many First Novel awards would shift their sights to writers in mid-career. Those are the writers who often need support, if their first books weren’t blockbusters, or didn’t win a prize.”

About awards, author Alix Kates Shulman’s feelings are mixed: “Of course I like getting one, which feels validating, and my desire to read a book shoots up a little bit if it has won an award, even though I know the process is basically corrupt. Awards help the few and hurt the many and probably make literary culture a little less welcoming to most writers and more clubby. Having been on award committees, I’ve seen that those who have an advocate or friend on the committee (preferably male and loud) are the ones who usually win. And then there are those writers, some very good ones who never win (or who seldom get reviewed): I’ve seen them get discouraged and even depressed — the opposite of validated.”

What happens to writers who do win awards? Does it affect their own perceptions of their work? I asked Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Philip Schultz. “Winning the Pulitzer Prize affected me in many helpful, sustaining ways. It was certainly surprising. The attention it brought to my work helped me find more time to actually write, which no doubt affected my process, too. But one’s creative process is a mysterious, unknowable source, and I doubt anything external can really affect what takes places at its core.”

The Pulitzer and National Book Awards help the publishing industry because they ignite sales and interest in books in general and invite traffic into the bookstore. If consumers go to the bookstore to purchase the latest novel by Jennifer Egan or Elizabeth Strout after it won the Pulitzer, the likelihood is that they will pick up or be made aware of another book. Prizes affect sales, advances, and influence. Prize-winning books that earn a gold stamp of approval, even if the judging that goes on behind the scenes is subjective, tend to be volumes that book club members will choose for their book club inflating further the worth (and sales) of the book. But while prizes offer a greater visibility for an author and his or her award-winning book, do they necessarily validate a work’s artistic worth?

Joyce Hackett, whose novel Disturbance of the Inner Ear won the Kafka Prize for fiction, said her book “gained far more recognition that it might otherwise have, after it won. Still, prizes reflect one thing: the taste of this year or this era’s committee.  A book like The Known World, which won every prize, has only grown in stature since it was published. On the other hand, the Nobel list is littered with people who are no longer read.” But still she sees the benefits of such distinction: “One of the great things about literature is that it’s as individual as the souls who read and write it. Well-read people can have completely contradictory, equally valid lists of what’s great and what’s unreadable.”

Perhaps, in the end, a work’s worth can only be based on the beholder’s sense of what qualifies as greatness, and it is the artist alone who holds the power of validation over his or her work.

When Jean-Paul Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1964, he refused to accept it — as he did for all awards — out of fear that by accepting the award he would be aligning himself with an institution. He believed that individuals must create their own purpose in life. “The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case,” he said. “If I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre it is not the same thing as if I sign myself Jean-Paul Sartre, Nobel Prizewinner.”

I can’t think of many writers today who would not want to sign their name as a Nobel Prize winner.

Image Credit: Flickr/Lars Plougmann.

Because I, Too, Am Hungry: On Food and Reading

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I don’t remember everything about Slaughterhouse-Five, but I remember that vitamin tonic. Though I read the book maybe 10 years ago, I can still see a dirty, malnourished prisoner of war working in a barely functioning Dresden factory that makes some kind of vitamin tonic for pregnant German women. And one day, starving, that man decides to open a bottle, and puts it to his lips, and tips it back. And what I really remember is how Kurt Vonnegut describes what happens next, how that man, whose name I cannot remember, is transformed, how that elixir hits his belly and then his blood, turning him from mostly dead to something suddenly rather alive, his bones alive, his hair alive, and that’s what I remember, that feeling that you can get from a book, a feeling that sticks with you, when somebody gets what he desperately wants, what he desperately needs.

When I think about my favorite books, I remember how they made me feel, and I remember the food, and sometimes those two feelings get all mixed up. I remember when a girl is hungry and when she eats something. Especially when the girl is hungry and when she eats something.

If you’re at all like me, you have your own, but here are mine.

Hemingway. I’ll start out slow here. Of course there’s the heroic drinking (so many aperitifs and digestifs) but for some reason the drinking does not stay with me. The raw-onion sandwiches in For Whom the Bell Tolls, however, I remember those. I can see the American bridge-destroyer crunching away on his raw-onion sandwich, the Spanish partisans drop-jawed and incredulous. Not that I have any particular love for a hunk of onion between bread, but I’ve got this in my head now: the snap, the pungent kick in the tongue, the sinuses suddenly supercharged.

And there’s that staple of 12th-grade English, The Old Man and the Sea. While Santiago is nearly killing himself by fighting the big fish, he—effortlessly, in my head—catches a second fish, a little one, dismantles it, and eats the flesh in ragged, torn hunks. I remember Santiago wishing he had some salt. When I read that book, I had not yet eaten sushi but I’ve eaten it since, and so I can verify that salt, with that raw fish, would have been good.

The Grapes of Wrath. Everybody’s hungry in this one. When the Joad family is traveling west, at some point they find themselves in a peach orchard. Everyone helps picking the peaches, and the kids pick some and devour some, and there are stomachaches, and finally an adult says, hey, you can’t make it on peaches alone. Earlier in the book, someone slaughters a hog and, rather than share, tries to eat the whole thing by himself, which is a mean thing to do. And of course I remember, as you do, that the old man, at the end, drinks human breast milk because that’s all there is and that it keeps him alive, and that’s not mean or not-mean but instead a whole other kind of thing that Steinbeck is doing there.

Atonement. I loved this book and I loved it when our man, the lower-class suitor of the upper-class girl, is stuck, with the retreating British army, in Dunkirk, the Nazis on their heels. He’s wounded, or is sick, or both, and he’s sitting with his back against a cold wall, and someone hands him or he produces from his dirty rags the following: a dried French sausage. It’s in McEwan’s novel that I first saw the word for this particular kind of sausage. Say it with me. Saucillon. The sick soldier dies later, and it’s awful, but that sausage he eats, the description of it, that does it for me. His mouth is filled with fat and salt and the taste of something hopeful and he, briefly, lives again. Do you have a saucillon, by chance? I’d like a bite. Full disclosure: I don’t know how to pronounce saucillon.

Stop-Time. It doesn’t matter what food. It could be the case that the simpler, the better. It’s almost certainly true that the more specific, the better. In my favorite memoir, Stop-Time, Frank Conroy describes his teenage self, in 1950s New York, and how he desires, with all of the cells in his body, a lunch so simple and yet so specific that I never could have dreamed it up on my own: an orange soda and a sandwich consisting of a deviled egg between two slices of white bread. That’s it. I’d recommend the book, and the deviled-egg-sandwich scene, to anyone. Do you like it when people in books go from something less than happy to something beyond it, all because they got, finally, what they wanted?

Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. And also the bad-sounding food stays with me. What’s the deal with English food? I do not know. One of the older guys in that book, when he goes out, he goes to the same pub and orders the same thing, every time. It’s one of those incredibly English dishes made up of about 17 fried things, eight of them sausages, three of them beans, and the rest mushrooms or else tomatoes so ravaged by heat that they are no longer tomatoes at all but rather only wet sources of fiber. Actually, that doesn’t sound all that bad. I’d eat that plate of food. But I can see the glistening sheen of grease on everything and I can smell the warm, stale beer, and I wish the English didn’t feel the need to fry or else boil all of their vegetables. But, of course, they do. Also, it’s acceptable to make fun of the English, I realize, and it’s especially acceptable to make fun of their food.

Philip Roth. The best description of fruit-eating you’ll see is in Goodbye, Columbus. Fruit, man. Fruit for days. Flesh and stems and peels and juice and skins. Bananas and oranges and apples and pears and, of course, cherries. Also, this book is about sex, or about what you do when you want to have sex but can’t, and I’m reasonably sure the fruit has something to do with that.

Tony Earley’s Jim the Boy. Read that first chapter. Tell me reading about those farmers, very early in the morning, devouring those biscuits, those eggs, that ham, that coffee, doesn’t do something for you, doesn’t make you feel as if you could hoe a field, could do damage to some corn (if indeed it was damage that needed to be done), doesn’t make you want to go out and get that shit fucking done, man. And then read the rest of the book because it’s the kind of novel you want to tell your friends to read, unless they don’t like great books that are easy to read but which stay with you for years and years because they’re beautiful and the best kind of complicated and true.

Angela’s Ashes. Ireland in the 1930s: Not great. Everybody’s so hungry and there’s so little actual food in this story that what little food does show up, you remember it. Our man Frank McCourt goes to an aunt or a cousin or some sort of older lady, who feeds him something small and feeble, maybe a piece of bread. And when he asks for another little bit to eat, she scoffs, is incredulous, says, next you’ll be wanting an egg. And how precious those odd chunks of toffee are, and how you cheer for the little guy as he pops them into his mouth. And how, finally, after pages and pages, he somehow gets his hands on an actual order of fish and chips and he eats and eats and of course he wants more. And, oh, the alcoholic father, after yet another of Frank’s brothers or sisters dies, takes the little casket into the pub for a pint, and it breaks your heart. And how he rests that pint, between drinks, on the casket, and that really breaks your heart. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. I can see the wet ring from that pint of Guinness on the top of that cheap, tiny casket.

Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That.” Though I can’t recall exactly what Didion eats in her great essay about spending one’s 20s, vividly but depressed, in New York, I remember that she is so poor that she uses her father’s credit card for odd little meals at a fancy department store’s fancy lunch counter. Also, gazpacho. Even in the 1960s, New York was the kind of place where you could find gazpacho. And even though cold tomato soup does little to cheer up one of my favorite nonfiction writers, I’m certainly glad she ate it, sad spoonful by sad spoonful. Didion makes gazpacho exotic and sad and weird and I’d like some.

There are many more. But these are the ones I come back to. They pop up, unbidden, while walking, while driving, while eating. Each time, I think: I hope he gets that sandwich. And he does. In my head, he gets that sandwich, every time.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Getting Away with Murder: The Millions Interviews Ursula K. Le Guin

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Every morning, The Oregonian publishes the latest tally of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ursula K. Le Guin prints out the number in bold script on standard computer paper and tapes it to her living room window not far from the rainbow peace flag atop her garage. Does this do any good? Does this change anything? You might just as well ask if novels or stories have any real-world effect. In an interview with Wired magazine last year, she gave her approval to the members of Occupy Oakland who decorated their signs with the cover of The Dispossessed, one of her science-fiction novels that chronicled a failed revolution.

Le Guin is not a dull or prescriptive leftist and there are good reasons why her work attracts genre geeks and high-brow literary types along with activists. Her novels and stories are critical of every sort of imagined culture, and at times filled with sympathy for figures one imagines would be her fiercest political opponents on this earth. There are no Darth Vaders or Saurons in her Earthsea Cycle novels. She can’t quite manage to turn the creepy social engineer in The Lathe of Heaven into a Stalinist monster. But she does depict cruel and twisted societies and her humane gifts as a storyteller allow her to dissect them without providing any fast answers on how to correct them. Like J.M. Coetzee, she demands that you ask what citizenship in the human race requires. Unlike Coetzee, she makes you ask those questions without hating yourself for being human.

Small Beer Press has just released a two-volume collection of her short stories, The Unreal and the Real. The first volume, Where on Earth, includes her realist and magic realist fiction set somewhere on the planet she inhabits. It includes some of her pieces set in Orsinia, her fictional Eastern European country, which she has not chronicled since it enjoyed a revolution a little over 20 years ago, as well as favorites like “Direction of the Road” and “Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight.” The second volume, Outer Space, Inner Lands, includes work more squarely placed within the science-fiction genre, including “Betrayals,” another story about the aftermath of a failed revolution and “The Wild Girls,” a long piece about a slave society. The volume opens with her famous parable, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” It’s always hard to define a genre. Much of the work in her first volume could find a place in her second volume, and vice versa.

I met her at her house in Portland on a January afternoon. It was a clear day and you could see Mount Saint Helens about 50 miles distant from her dining-room window. We sat in her living room where we were consistently interrupted by her black-and-white cat Pard. We began the interview by talking about her parents and siblings. Her father Alfred Kroeber was a legendary anthropologist who wrote a famous study of the California Indians in the 1910s. Her mother Theodora Kroeber enjoyed a writing career late in life, writing biographies of her husband and of Ishi, the last member of a lost California tribe whom he had befriended. Karl Kroeber, her late brother, was an English professor at Columbia University. The following is a pared-down version of a 75-minute conversation.

The Millions: What did you learn about writing from your father and mother?  Your mother started writing around the time you started writing.

Ursula K. Le Guin: She got published first though. I suppose what I learned from my father is that writing is something people do. It’s a perfectly normal human activity. You do it everyday. You have a place where you do it and when you’re doing it, it is respected…The family doesn’t bother you.

Now, of course this doesn’t work the same way when you’re not a professor and are a young housewife. But I think it gave me a security a lot of young writers don’t have, the sense that I’m doing something absolutely worthwhile. And the sense that I can and I will make the space in my life to do it. And this can be a huge problem, particularly for women writers. They really want to write, they really have the urge, but they aren’t sure that they have a right to do it. And I was given the right by seeing my father, who I respected and who everyone respected and who was a great guy, just doing it. So that’s a huge gift.

From my mother [it was] more complicated. She, being of her generation, didn’t start writing until she got all her kids out of the house and settled. She felt it wasn’t right to combine writing [with] being a housewife and mother. I had some problems with that in my teens. I wondered if I could do it. My best friend in high school, who was John Steinbeck’s niece, said, “Of course you could do it if you want to. Why not have kids and books?” She was right. So there again, I got support. My parents were supportive, but they didn’t hover at all.

TM: Were there any writing techniques that you learned from them?

UKLG: No. I didn’t even realize what a good writer my dad was until I was quite grown up and had been writing for a long time. My mother loved to talk about her writing while she was writing. [She would] talk about it before she wrote…which was neat for me because I cannot talk about writing. And I never talk about anything until it’s finished. There’re different kinds of writers and she was the kind that liked to talk it out. And it was a lot of fun to have someone like that to talk about writing. But I don’t think we taught each other anything.

TM: It’s interesting that you say that because I thought there was a tone in her book on Ishi similar to what I see in some of your books.

UKLG: Well that would probably be something that someone else could see that I couldn’t.

TM: A way of pulling back, a quietness.

UKLG: That’s nice, yeah. She and I certainly have different styles. But you know how it is. The kid doesn’t want to be compared too closely to the parent. So I could be absolutely blind to some similarity there.

TM: Did you find yourself studying these imagined worlds the same way your father studied his actual worlds?

UKLG: There’s certainly a similarity, but I think it’s temperamental. I didn’t read his books, as I said, until I was grown up and I had been writing what I write for quite awhile. We are interested in artifacts and how things are made and how operations are carried out. It’s [a similar] mindset, his equipment [as an anthropologist] and mine as a novelist.

TM: And I imagine that’s something you picked up by osmosis in dinner table conversations growing up.

UKLG: Yes. He wouldn’t talk shop at table, but we entertained a lot of people, particularly in summer when we were up in Napa Valley. [There were] anthropologists, ethnologists, European intellectuals — mostly refugees as this was the ’30s and ’40s — and the conversations would be very wide-ranging. My father did not talk a lot about his work. Of course he wasn’t doing ethnology anymore by the time I came along. There were some picturesque ethnologists who came through and told us about their adventures.

TM: You wrote a bit about your brother Karl, who was my professor at Columbia, and your shared love for books growing up. Did you share your work with him early on?

UKLG: No. Karl and I were the two youngest [of four children] and we were just under three years apart. We were pretty tight and pretty feisty. Karl was a rivalrous person. He was very sick as a baby. He was not what they call celiac now [– he] was the real thing. He lived on rice and bananas for his first six years. So he was very fragile. And he had a tremendous fighting spirit. So Karl was in rivalry with me [from the start], which was kind of ridiculous. So there were always some problems [and we] were also very tight. Brothers and sisters are fascinating.

TM: It sounds like the Kennedys.

UKLG: (Laughs) Well, slightly different type, but yeah.  I think you know how that can be within a family. We played together and read books together all through our childhood. And often we were up there for the whole summer and there were a lot of adults coming and going but there were just four kids. When the two older brothers were playing Julius Caesar, Karl and I were [the Gauls].

TM: Was that your introduction to storytelling, playing together like that?

UKLG: Story-telling was mostly from my father who would tell us mostly Indian stories outside the house [in summer] around the fire at night. My Great Aunt Betsy had the family stories. She was a good storyteller.

TM: She was on your mother’s side?

UKLG: She was my mother’s aunt. She grew up in Wyoming. It’s a Western family. She just had that gift of storytelling. It’s because we were up there in the summer, and we sat around the fireplace [under the stars — so] no reading. It was all just game-playing or storytelling. We could play charades. So I think I had a much more oral culture than most American kids of my generation [– even then, before television.]

TM: In Always Coming Home you play with the Indian tradition where everyone is sitting around telling a story and then someone…

UKLG: Does a variation.

TM: What intrigues me about it is that it’s a very fast-motion version of what occurs in written culture.

UKLG: Yes, exactly.

TM: You read a story by Tolkien and you turn around and say I’m going to do my own version of this with the same archetypes.

UKLG: Being in science fiction was great because there was an open and free borrowing of vocabulary and ideas and so on. [It] was not plagiarism in the slightest. It was simply artists using the same material. I always compare it to the Baroque music period, where they’re all borrowing from each other like crazy and they’re all building the same house.

TM: When you’re writing about these made-up worlds, the Hainish worlds, Orsinia, or Earthsea, you are imagining all these small details, what the chairs or the doorknobs look like. But there are limitations to what you can imagine.There’s only so much you can know.

UKLG: It becomes an obsessive game.

TM: Are you ever aware of that when you’re writing?

UKLG: No, because after all in writing if you don’t have to mention the doorknob you don’t. I think one reason why most science-fiction movies are so lousy is that in them you do have to imagine the doorknob and you have to design it. And every single visual object has to be designed to tie in together. And then you get into a literalism which is a little bit soul-killing. But in writing you get away with murder. You just suggest something. So much of fantasy and science fiction is just the art of suggestion. You don’t really tell people that much, but they think you have because they imagine it.

TM: But how does it work when you imagine a new language.

UKLG: Oh well that’s different. I always come back to Tolkien here, who wrote the essential essay about those of us who make up languages. Lots of people when they’re kids draw. They draw islands or maps or places with the roads and the cities and the marshes and mountains and so on. It’s amazing when you ask an audience, “How many of you did that as a kid?” At least a third of the hands will go up. I never asked how many made up languages, which would be interesting to do. But I don’t think very many do. I love language, I love the sound of language. I play with word sounds in my head. This is just some native gift. I make up more languages than I have to actually.

TM: When Hemingway writes For Whom the Bell Tolls, he writes the dialogue as a Spanishfied English. He knows the basic constructions of Spanish in order to be able to do that. Do you ever try to do anything similar with your invented languages?

UKLG: No, not in the way Hemingway does, where he writes with a Spanish accent. And I don’t like it when he does that to tell you the truth. I find it a little affected and foolish. “Okay Ernest, if you want to write in Spanish, write in Spanish. Learn it well enough to write in it. You’re writing English.”

In The Left Hand of Darkness you have a major cultural concept like shifgrethor. I didn’t need to build the language out of that. But I did need to know enough to get shifgrethor. I needed to have a phoneme pool to get the word from. And then I just needed to know the word and what it meant and had meant and all its connotations and denotations. But I didn’t really need the rest of the vocabulary.

I do translate. I like translating very much. It’s a kind of writing I’ve done more as I’ve gotten older. And of course if I’m translating from Spanish I don’t want it to sound like Spanish. I want it to sound like English. I want it to do in English what it does in Spanish. So I’m almost the other pole from Hemingway there. And not only there.

TM: Do you feel “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” means something different now than when you wrote it?

UKLG: That story? No. Because I don’t know what it means. It is a question. I know why I wanted to write it. Out of middle-class guilt, out of human guilt for what we do to each other and everybody else. I know my motivations for that story. [It] meant a lot to me. Of course, that’s the story they always ask about, and write letters about. And they always want me to give the answer and not the question.

TM: That story speaks very directly to life under late capitalism. I don’t know if you see that story speaking to other possible systems.

UKLG: Well, I never thought of it that way because I’ve only lived under late capitalism. And both Dostoevsky and William James who asked the question the story asks before me were living under capitalism. Dostoevsky somewhat less. His was more of a feudalistic capitalism. I don’t know. Interesting question. But not one I could answer now.

TM: I’d be curious to know how maybe someone in Cuba would react to it.

UKLG: I don’t know. It would be interesting to find out. The story has been translated into lots of languages. But I don’t know if I’ve ever heard from anybody specifically about it from a really different culture. And I don’t know if my stories go to any really different cultures. I think Indonesia is about as far [as my work has gone]…Turkey…Korea…They’re all capitalistic.

TM: I sense in the way “Omelas” ends, with a look at those who choose to walk away from it, and the way many of your stories end, and a few of your novels, a weird Tolstoyan optimism minus the Christian theology. In the situations that you imagine — as bleak as they are – there’s always some decent humanity that exists that is somehow still worth preserving.

UKLG: Optimism seems an odd word. But I can see why you use it. It may just be a refusal to take the counsel of despair. I think to admit despair and to revel in it — as many 20th- and 21st-century writers do — is an easy way out. Whenever I get really really depressed and discouraged about our politics in America and what we are doing, ecologically speaking, globally speaking, [with] our mad rush to destroy the world, it’s very easy to say, “To hell with us. This species is not successful.” Something tells me I have no right to say that. There are good people. Who am I to judge? The problem with despair is it gets judgmental. But I’m not saying this very well.

TM: This refusal to judge is the other side of the refusal to idealize.

UKLG: And of course, when I was in my 20s and 30s I had a good deal of political idealism. I did think we really could work towards and achieve more justice in human societies. And that revolution might be a way to do it. I’m pretty far left, and basically socialist. Human nature is whatever human nature is. “We can make it better than it was so far.” It’s pretty hard to keep thinking that decade after decade, let me tell you. I guess José Saramago was able to hold onto his Marxist faith into his ninth decade, but he was a very tough guy. A lot of that hopefulness — that would be optimism — gets knocked out of you, particularly if you are living in a country as I feel I am living in, that is really on the skids, that is really losing it.

TM: There seems even in “The Wild Girls,” the bleakest story here, some of what I call optimism.

UKLG: There is? (Befuddled expression)

TM: There’s still humanity that comes through in this horrible slave society, in which people can still tell a joke.

UKLG: But that’s how people are. I will not say, “Even in Breslau they told jokes.” But they probably did. You read Primo Levi and you realize how people can come out of something like that. He’s still Primo Levi. He’s a beautiful man. Human beings are very tough. And they are funny and they are kind. There are all sorts of good things about human beings. And I come back to this. I have no right to despair. As for “The Wild Girls,” probably the last full short story I wrote, I think it’s a good story. But I don’t really like it because it’s so dark. Those people just don’t have a chance. It’s based on an Indian society in the Mississippi Valley that really did work that way. And I’ve been trying to imagine myself into that society. And just…“My God!”

TM: Your father had no patience for those who idealized the Indians. He had a lot of fascination for these cultures. But he disliked the [condescending, co-opting] white voice of “I admire the Indians.”

UKLG: “The wonderful brave Indian.” Oh yes.

TM: I was just thinking of that as interesting given that that was your inspiration for this story.

UKLG: The fact that it came from an Indian culture was neither here nor there. It just struck me as one of those utterly weird things that human beings have actually done. I didn’t make this up. I just fictionalized it.

TM: You have this beautiful man archetype with Shevek in The Dispossessed. He is of a different culture that you make up. So how do you balance admiring the man himself while avoiding the trap, as your father was clear about, of idealizing the culture?

UKLG: Oh, I guess because I was inoculated early. I have rarely romanticized another culture, idealized it because it’s different than mine. I say rarely, because when I was in my teens I romanticized France and romanticized French culture the way a lot of people do. Of course when I got to France, there were people [who]…but man, did they eat well. (Laughs)

There’s something I got fairly directly from my dad. [The differences are endlessly interesting], but value judgments are not involved. And you can’t romanticize.

TM: But you can romanticize an individual.

UKLG: Sure.

TM: And fall in love with him.

UKLG: And it could be a man or a woman. And of course there are beautiful people. I’ve met them. They’re not beautiful all the way through, [maybe, but] people worth knowing for the rest of your life. There are such people. That’s put me out of step a good deal with a lot of the fiction of my time.

TM: Because the fiction of your time is opposed to romanticizing individual figures?

UKLG: The fiction of my time is about dysfunctional American suburban families.

TM: No Jean Valjeans.

UKLG: Talk about romantic. Well, shoot I like Victor Hugo. I can romanticize with the best of them. I tend to romanticize people but not cultures.

TM: When you write, how much of it is “doing not-doing,” the Taoist ideal?

UKLG: Maybe, as I’ve gone on, what I’ve learned as a writer is that you do as little as possible. And part of it is leaving a lot of it up to the reader. And a lot of it is realizing you don’t have to do that much if you do the right thing. [Makes clicking sound] That’s enough. So my writing has tended to be shorter and more allusive than it used to be. I was re-reading The Lathe of Heaven — which I’m still fond of, which I still think is funny — but, boy would I cut it if I could. They talk too much. They explain things too much.

TM: I know you’ve written that science-fiction writers are not prophets. But is there any thing that has happened in your society during your writing life that has happily surprised you?

UKLG: Hmm…That’s not particularly a question to me as a writer, is it? Just to me as an American.

TM: Yes. Just curious.

UKLG: Well, pure happiness is such an endangered thing. This may sound sort of trivial, but I took geology in college, one semester. And I liked it but I couldn’t stick with it. I didn’t want to be a scientist anyway. But when they began figuring out plate tectonics, when they began figuring out how the Earth is put together, why we have mountain ranges, why continents drift and so on…That was an intellectual revolution that I lived through week by week as it developed. And it was wonderful. It was so terrific to realize that geology of all the stable solid sciences was just coming to pieces at the seams and discovering the world all over again and finally getting its feet right on the real world instead of on a lot of theory. That was so cool. I think science – not technology — science is one of the best things we do. And then there are artists who have come along in my lifetime, like Saramago, [who I wouldn’t have discovered] if they hadn’t Nobel-ed him. “Wow! There’s a man like that, writing like that, in his 80s.” I don’t know if things are better or worse. It’s always the best of times and the worst of times, isn’t it? But I’ve been glad to be alive while things like plate tectonics and Saramago were going on.

A Goofy State of Mind: My Grandmother’s Letters from Martha Gellhorn

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Frances “Peggy” Harvey, circa 1933, in Wichitaw, Kansas, where she lived with her mother and sister. She was about to go to college at the University of Kansas, where she would study journalism and meet her future husband, a dashing journalism student named Wilbur Schutze.

1. A Goofy State of Mind.
Dear Peggy: The letter I am about to write you is a monstrous impertinence. This is fair warning; you should now tear it up. It is, I think, insolent enough to give an opinion when asked for it; it is the outside limit to render judgments when no one desired them, and as a result of reading a letter not addressed to you… So. You better tear it up.

If you are still with me, I wish to tell you that, from the absorbing letter you wrote Mother (and which she showed me because you mentioned my book: always encourage authors) I have decided you are in a goofy state of mind.
Sometime around the year 1949, the eminent war correspondent and novelist Martha Gellhorn wrote the above letter from her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico to an Episcopalian clergyman’s wife living in the small town of Alma, Michigan.

Both women were devoted writers of vivid missives. Gellhorn’s pen pals included Eleanor Roosevelt, the editor Maxwell Perkins, H.G. Wells, her husband (later, ex-) Ernest Hemingway, and other luminaries. The housewife whom she was addressing, Peggy Schutze, nee Harvey, a native Kansan of pioneer stock, wrote mostly to her mother and sister. They came to know one another because Peggy (a.k.a. Nani Peg, my maternal grandmother) was a member of the St Louis League of Women Voters, which was run by Martha’s mother Edna. Both Martha and Peggy were imaginatively terrible cooks and tore through stacks of paperback thrillers like addicts, but other than that they seemed to have little in common.

My Uncle Jim found the stack of Gellhorn letters – typewritten on paper translucent as skin shards – when my grandmother died ten years ago. I was interested in them then (like everyone, awfully: “Hemingway’s wife?!”), but I only became truly obsessed with them recently. My first novel had just come out to very little fanfare, I was pregnant with my first child, and part of me was worried I had seen the beginning and end of my writing life. I hoped that if I studied Martha, the writer who wanted to be a mother, and Peggy, the mother who wanted to be a writer, some golden mean would eventually present itself.

2. A Monstrous Impertinence.
This state of mind might be desirable if you were a novelist, dreaming up the characters and plot for a new novel. This novel would be written from the point of view of the woman: the woman would describe herself for the reader, declaring her character as subservient and uncertain, wedded to a man (seen through her eyes) who combined the outstanding features of Rudolph Valentino – irresistible to all women – with the personal complexes of Don Juan Tenorio – to whom all woman were irresistible – with the moral passions and mental fierceness of Martin Luther. Our heroine, a mouse in her own eyes, is married to this paragon, which is somewhat like being married to Vesuvius in eruption, and she is at once awed, adoring, and terrified. She is never certain for a moment of this amazing figure, her husband; by contamination, she attributes the most exotic talents and knowledges to her children, since they have inherited the father’s magic. And she counts herself for nothing…
Martha Gellhorn spent the early 1930s in Paris, cutting her teeth as a foreign correspondent, having a torrid affair with the married French journalist Bertrand de Jouvenel, and generally courting scandal and adventure. From there she’d gone on to cover the Spanish Civil War, marry Ernest Hemingway, live in Cuba, and become one of the few female journalists to report on WWII. (She covered D Day by sneaking on to a hospital ship and illicitly crossing over to France, losing her military credentials as a result.) Her journalism tended towards a particularly empathetic form of reportage; her pieces describe the lives of ordinary people affected by war, often ending on an editorial moment of strong anti-war sentiment. By the late forties she’d published six books and divorced Hemingway.

Following the publication of her well-received (and totally heartbreaking) war novel, The Wine of Astonishment (later republished as Point of No Return), and a brief, frustrating period of time spent in Washington DC during the height of McCarthyism, Gellhorn fled to Mexico. She described her home in the mountain resort of Cuernavaca as “a small white house in a small walled garden, set among high soft trees. Beyond the trees is a circle of blue mountains, the loveliest I know. This is a valley where nothing happens, where people simply live, where there is sun, and the slow peacefulness of day following day.” She often said that Cuernavaca was the place she spent the happiest four years of her life; she was in love with the landscape and the locals, she felt happy and strong living alone after her difficult marriage to Hemingway. She was supporting herself by selling what she termed “bilgers,” popular stories about titled English ladies and Italian gigolos, or naïve young American women visiting Europe, to Good Housekeeping and the Saturday Evening Post. In a letter to a friend, she wrote, “I’m all right again. I know who I am… Here, where I am really alone, I am not lonely. Whereas in the US, I feel the whole time that something is desperately the matter with me.”

She was also forty, single, and had decided she wanted a child. She wrote, “It’s what one needs: someone, or several, who can take all the love one is able to give, as a natural and untroublesome gift.” A few years earlier she had written an ex-lover, “I want a child. I will carry it on my back in a sealskin papoose and feed it chocolate milkshakes and tell it fine jokes and work for it and in the end give it a hunk of money, like a bouquet of autumn leaves, and set it free. I have to have something, being still (I presume) human…”

In February of 1949, she wrote to my grandmother. Martha mentions in one of the letters that she hasn’t been to Europe in two years, and that she is “completely hag ridden” preparing to leave her house in order to go “gallivanting around [Italy] in search of an idea or two, and the chance for making an honest dime.” What she doesn’t say is that the main purpose of her trip to Italy was to adopt a war orphan.  As my grandmother squirmed under her mantle of domesticity, Martha was seeking a child of her own.

I don’t have any copies of my grandmother’s responses to Gellhorn or the “absorbing letter” that started it all, but my uncles and mother remember her letters as well-written fits of whimsy. My Uncle Bill emails me, “Her Christmas letters were in an ‘Erma Bombeck’ vein which I found highly inappropriate,” especially, he notes, when he was a teenager. As my mother puts it, “she used to take incidents from life and theorize about them and slightly fictionalize them to coax out entertaining tales.” Great for a novelist, but a liability in a letter-writer, particularly when the letter-writer is your mother, and the letter-subject, you.

My grandmother was, as Gellhorn immediately nosed out, a repressed writer. When my grandparents met in 1935 they were both journalism students at the University of Kansas. My grandmother seems to have had lots of dates, and no wonder. Peggy Harvey was charming, bright, and lovely (in a well-coiffed college-era photograph she recalls Judy Garland in Meet Me in St Louis), though in a letter to her mother and sister she attributes her success with the college boys entirely to a new girdle. She soon settled on the tall, good-looking, serious Bill Schutze, and in 1936 they eloped. When Peggy and Bill were first married, they lived in a New Deal housing project in St. Louis, spending heady nights drinking cheap wine with other idealistic young Democrats, including the drama critic and playwright William Inge. Peggy worked for a radio station, writing radio plays and fiction on the side. It might not have been Gellhorn’s glamorous Parisian romp, but it was its own kind of urban excitement.

By the time of the Gellhorn letters, Peggy was in her mid-thirties, with three small boys (my mother would come along later). Five or six years after they’d married, my grandfather had found religion and decided to become an Episcopalian minister, which is how they’d ended up in Alma. From my journalist Uncle Jim: “I have to imagine their sojourn in boondocks Michigan was a tough price for their religious convictions. I think it was an especially tough price for my mother to pay for my father’s convictions.”

Fast-forward to the late forties. More from Uncle Jim:
My father was in his mid-30s, a tall rail-thin cleric with a hawk’s beak and a smile never quite certain, rector of the only Episcopal church in Alma… My mother was sort of the local mad woman of Chaillot, locked away in a tower in the tottering castle next to the church banging away at an ancient portable typewriter and emitting blood-curdling whoops and hollers whenever she thought she had written something especially funny or blood-curdling. She was very bright, truly eccentric and certainly had never bargained for the life of a middle western small town preacher’s wife loaded up with brats, scoured by the shrewdly appraising eyes of parishioners whenever she left the house.
I’ve always loved my uncles’ descriptions of their childhood. They claim to have been deposited outside on the stoop every morning like “empty milk bottles” and allowed to roam free all day while my grandmother wrote. (Things were, I gather, a little less loosey-goosey by the time my mother came along.) Peggy worked on letters and journals and scraps of fiction; as a college student in Kansas she had written a breezy gossip column for the LaBette County newspaper under the name “Betty LaBette.”  Jim reports that when he was young she presented book reviews to local clubs and wrote for an Episcopalian newspaper: “I only remember that when we were small, the penalty for interrupting her at her writing was often a wildly unsettling outburst, even if one were bleeding, especially if one were bleeding.”

Meanwhile, Martha Gellhorn was clattering away at her own portable typewriter in her paradise of Mexico, uninterrupted unless she wanted to be.

3. Pull Your Socks Up.
You and I, let us assume, are neither one of us complete dopes: we therefore know that even in a joke your husband [doesn’t] give a damn about pictures on dust jackets; that women do not crowd the “confessional” for love of the confessor; that, even as metaphor, “patting fannies” won’t do. But these themes recur, in the extremely witty and well-written letter of an extremely witty and intelligent woman. And they give me, an old hand at peering at people, pause… I like you. I think you have a great deal of stuff. I think you are being a fool, to the point of goofiness. I think you better pull up your socks and stop inventing things. Life is bad enough without invention of any sort. You’ve got a good young man who loves you, and three children. Leave those complications to novelists, who take their whole lives out in invention, because they haven’t much real life to handle… I can only plead affection for you, and a sort of anxiety. As if I saw someone trying to fly, without adequate training hours, on the grounds that it would be interesting to see what happened.
In an undated excerpt of my grandmother’s writing, she is renumerating what she loved about “keen old” St. Louis when they lived there in the early days of their marriage, and describes a visit – perhaps their first meeting – with Martha. At this point they had only one child, my Uncle Bill (“Billy”), and my grandfather (“Bill”) had not yet gone to seminary.
My grandmother writes:
One of my favorite activities has been politics and League of Women Voter stuff, this past year, and Bill greatly disliked both… His particular gripe was against Mrs. George Gellhorn [Edna, Martha’s mother], a perfectly swell woman who was president of the League, and despite being the usual clubwomanly matron type, had a healthy and youthful interest in honest-to-goodness down-to-earth politics in our precinct and helped us beat the local gang boss. Mrs. G. gave rather sumptuous old fashioned dinners for greatly mixed up groups of people and sometimes included us. Bill said all the other others were out-of-the-world college professors and theorists, and felt a trifle overwhelmed by Mrs. G because she was such a dominatin’ woman. So the other day, when her daughter was coming to call, Bill made elaborate arrangements to duck out and go swimming at the Y. He planned to take Billy with him, taking for granted that no Schutze man would wish to spend Saturday afternoon with a member of that rampant feminist family… just as the two boys were ready to make their getaway, there was a knock at the door and Bill, being nearest, answered. He opened the door and discovered on the threshold, a very tall and good looking blonde, about our age, with flashing eyes and instant appreciation of meeting a man in St. Louis in these manless times. Miss G. was here to discover what people in neighborhoods like ours felt about international affairs, to include in an article her boss was making her write for Colliers on middlewestern viewpoint in general. Bill suddenly discovered that he had a great of knowledge about all our neighbors, about politics, international affairs, and just anything this gal wanted to know. He seated himself in the master-chair and did not stir therefrom all afternoon.
I’d assume Martha didn’t find her occasional visits to St Louis quite as enthralling as my grandmother did. Gellhorn biographer Caroline Moorehead describes one such visit thus: “Edna’s many friends and acquaintances dropped in, and Martha sat watching their ‘round shapeless pudgy non faces’ with disdain, observing that these ‘nice’ people were made of ‘Wilton carpeting, cold cream, ice cream, cotton wool, everything bland and soft.’” It’s not as if she came to Missouri to steal any ministers’ hearts.

And yet, as Martha points out, Peggy seemed to assign to her husband “the outstanding features of Rudolph Valentino” and “the personal complexes of Don Juan Tenorio.” It’s an attitude that baffled even Peggy’s own family. Uncle Jim recalls her saying that, “Of course, all clergymen were attractive to women in the church, and of course, all clergy wives have to take precautions for that reason. I was probably 10 or 11. I remember chalking that remark up to my mother being nuts. I always saw my father pretty much as a walking icicle. I didn’t want to hear about my parents’ sex lives. And you could never tell which part of what my mother said was some strange refraction of reality or simple delusion. But they were in their mid-30s in a place and climate where repression was almost a sport. Who the hell knows?”

Or it could be that Peggy was, as Martha assumed, “terrifyingly busy at invention.” Somehow she ended up as one of those people who never quite lived in her own proper context, among people who might have appreciated her zany wit, and instead found herself in a life were she was perpetually out-of-step with what was expected of her as a small-town clergy wife. Martha wrote that when living in the US she had the feeling that something was “desperately the matter” with her – so she took off and lived abroad. Peggy didn’t have this option. She had to make life interesting somehow.

Martha writes:
Personally, I get bored spitless as soon as folks cause me trouble (trouble being, in this instance, doubt.) I was made jealous once in my life and it was a jealousy to end all jealousies and the whole performance was done with drums and cymbals and enough to make the roof fall in. A really competent professional did the job, Miss Dietrich to wit, and I had cause as few women ever do. All that was lacking were neon lights to blazon the cause over the sky of Berlin. My immediate reaction, after the first shock of knowing I was jealous, was black rage. I got in a broken down airplane and left, like that, fast as winking. I also told the guy to pick up his chips and shove, as far as I was concerned: it didn’t make me feel more loving to have uncertainty introduced. It made me sore as hell, and secondly it made me think he wasn’t worth my time, and thirdly it bored me, oh but bored me in a very big way. Finally, no doubt as revenge, I took him back and treated him carefully to such a dose of indifference as would equal the score (in heaven) between my jealousy and his damaged vanity. But you see, I do not operate on a basis of doubt. I hate it… What interests me is how much one can give, how much one can get; but on the foundation of the idea that no one will ever tire of this pursuit and that one is utterly safe, in the heart.
The incident to which she refers happened in late 1945 or early 1946. She had just divorced Hemingway. (Tellingly, she wrote to my grandmother, “If marriage were usually as enthralling as you find it, more people would stick to it. My own experience with said state was comparable to living in Sing-Sing, which a touch of the Iron Maiden of Nurnberg thrown it.” Um, ouch.) Shaken from the marriage’s messy end and fresh from covering the disturbing Nuremberg trial, Gellhorn went to Berlin where her new lover, the handsome young Commander James Gavin, was stationed. According to biographer Caroline Moorehead, “Marlene Dietrich, who had apparently long had her eye on [Gavin], arrived in Berlin [as a USO performer] and was ‘sick with rage’ to find Martha installed as his mistress.” Martha spent her days palling around with other foreign correspondents, including CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood, and Dietrich told Gavin that Martha and Collingwood were in love. As revenge, Gavin told Martha he was going out for a walk and disappeared, spending the night with Dietrich. “Jealousy was not an emotion Martha had experienced before. But, recognizing the ‘disgusting, cheap, ugly’ sensation that now overcame her, she left Berlin for Paris, declaring that no relationship with a man was ever going to work for her and that henceforth she would stick to friendship.”

Martha described her reaction when she realized her lover had gone to bed with Dietrich: “I stayed in that room weeping as I really did not believe I ever could or would again… and every night since it has come back to me the same way, like a pain that hurts too much.” As she intimated in the letter to my grandmother, she took off for England. When Gavin followed her, she relented and took him briefly back, but their lives were headed in separate directions and they soon split for good.

In March of 1946, Martha was covering the Japanese surrender in Indonesia, but she was already writing to a friend that what she really wanted “was a little white house, with a picket fence around it and some toddlers.” While my grandmother was imagining inklings of drama, her accomplished epistler was weaving her own rosy-viewed, fiction-tinged story about what life as a mother would be like. They were both, I suspect, fairly busy at invention.

4. A Fine Cast of Characters.
See? If you want to write a book, you have started a fine cast of characters. But, presumably, you are not writing books, and are living. And on that basis, your cast of characters won’t stand; and to a novelist, you are (terrifyingly) busy at inventing complication…

Anyhow, you’re not average (since we take “average” to be an ugly word) and you’ve nothing to worry about (and certainly you know it) and if you like to keep life intense by believing it to be uncertain, go ahead. It all ends up the same. The point is to be alive, any way you know how. You are. You know.
And here it is, the assumption that we all secretly share (or maybe by “we” I mean only “me”) that there are two paths – writing books, or living; wife/mother, or novelist – and never the twain shall meet.  I always feel like I’ve swallowed a dull coin of dread when I read those lines, but perhaps this is only how things were at that time, or maybe only how they seemed to Gellhorn.

When she was in her twenties, Martha wrote to her French lover Bertrand de Jouvenel: “I know there are two people in me. But the least strong, the least demanding, is the one that attaches itself to another human being. And the part of me which all my life I have shaped and sculpted and trained is the part that can bear no attachment, which has a ruling need of eloignement, which is, really, untamed, undomesticated, unhuman… Since I was a child people have wanted to possess me. No one has.” She was proud of the untamed part of her, but it also caused her pain. Never to sustain a relationship, her greatest successes came from that other life path – the daring war correspondent, the brazen world traveler, the independent-minded novelist.

Even when Gellhorn was married to Hemingway, writing and relationship didn’t quite mesh. Early in their courtship they supported each other while covering the Spanish Civil War and then at home in Cuba, where Hemingway encouraged her to be a more disciplined writer and they spent every morning working on their novels. But once they married her work became a point of contention with Hemingway, who resented her going away to cover World War II while he enjoyed the success of For Whom The Bell Tolls (and spent a lot of time drinking and fishing) back in Cuba. Martha wrote to her mother about the difficulty of being a journalist while still being “a good woman for a man;” meanwhile, Hemingway wrote to his son that Martha was “selfish and ambitious.” By the time he joined her in Europe to cover the war they had engaged in a kind of journalistic competition for the best reporting jobs, and unsurprisingly the much more well-known Hemingway won out. At this point, their marriage was all but over.

Which was essentially fine by her. She later wrote travel essays dismissively casting Hemingway as “the Unwilling Companion,” but for the most part refused to talk about her time with him. Maybe Martha foretold her own future when, 24 years-old and living in Paris, she wrote a letter to her mother saying that only in work “can one have a real sense of life, of the wonder and surprise and joy of being alive.” She was most happy when alone and traveling and writing. In the end, as she wrote, “I want life to be like the movies, brilliant and swift and successful.”

It’s remarkable that this eminent woman took such time and effort to reach out to my grandmother, this “mouse in her mind.” It’s maybe more remarkable that this relative stranger is able to see right to Peggy’s spine. In one of her letters she must have referred to her plan to start a career of her own once her children were in school, because Martha writes in response, “Okay. But I think you better write books instead of doing social service, when the time comes. You’d be wasted on social service.” That young idealist from the St. Louis projects hadn’t entirely disappeared, however, and social service it was. Once my mother was in kindergarten my grandmother went back to college and became a teacher, teaching English at a predominately black school in Pontiac, Michigan where she was the only white person in either the staff or student body – this was in the 1960s. I like this part of her biography. I like the blithe way she is said to have dealt with complicated race relations at a tempestuous time. But still I wonder where that urge to write books went. In Gellhorn’s novella “The Fall and Rise of Mrs. Hapgood” Mrs. Hapgood muses:
Did people ever give up what they really wanted? Those numberless women who had rejected careers as concert pianists in favor of wifehood and never forgot their sacrifice were more apt to be cowards than concert pianists. When you set out, alone, you were up against competition and doubt; you might turn out to be nobody, not a wife nor a concert pianist. You threw away security for hope; but those who were driven by hope did not stop to add and subtract; they could not help themselves; they did what they had to do, undaunted by final results.
You do what you have to do. Peggy always wrote, even when the work went unpublished, even when it would seem impossible that she would have any time for it. She wrote because she wanted to. Did it count as “giving it up” because the writing never led to commercial success or financial gain? Because she didn’t “throw away security for hope?” She might not have had a career as a writer, but she was always a writer.

An undated letter from my grandfather. This must have been in the mid-forties, when he had gone to seminary in Virginia and my grandmother and my Uncle Bill were living with her mother in Wichita. She was pregnant with my Uncle Jim at the time, and they were planning on moving to be with my grandfather soon — so it would have been after the visit from Martha in St Louis, but before the letters.

My grandfather writes, “I found myself telling somebody that [Gellhorn] isn’t the type of person you would think… When you get right down to the facts I don’t know of any reason for defending her gadding about, getting married, and unmarried. There is that which can’t be explained away. I’m not passing judgment but believe this might be explained by her lack of religion. It is true that such people scurry about seeking something but don’t know what it is so they try marriage, Europe, cars, etc.”

There is something telling about his pat explanation of this complicated woman. It’s all so simple in my grandfather’s estimation – Gellhorn’s unsettled life was result of lack of religion – a conclusion which would have probably made Martha laugh. And yet, she was seeking something, some nebulous thing that she herself might have been hard-pressed to define. She wrote in one of the letters to Peggy, after describing some upcoming travels, “This is a way of life too. But, honestly, I believe the sons and husbands are a better way of life.”

Who can say how much she meant this? And can’t there be a way of life that encompasses both?

Neither Martha nor my grandmother was ever able to reach a satisfying conclusion. Martha did adopt her Italian orphan, and wrote about the experience in a 1950 piece for the Saturday Evening Post that my grandmother clipped and kept among her letters. She writes, “the miracle had happened; I was struck by love as if by lightning.” The essay concludes on an uplifting, undeniably rosy note: “I found the little boy, all right, but in the end, the way I see it, he has adopted me.” In the end, however, she did not find that motherhood came naturally to her, and her relationship with her adopted son was always strained. He developed into a troubled adult, a drug addict who floated in and out of jail. From a particularly brutal letter she wrote him when he was a young man: “I have no respect for you, and at present little affection… And I’ve never been able to go on loving people I don’t respect… Honey, you are neither a job nor obligation: you’re a selfish, lazy, pointless young man.” Clearly motherhood was not the unconditional love affair Martha had been expecting.

Peggy Schutze was an adoring and adored wife, mother, and grandmother, and she enjoyed (despite her doubts) a long and happy marriage. When she had a stroke towards the end of her life, my grandfather’s fierce devotion to taking care of her impressed even the nursing home staff. A few months after she died, he followed. At his funeral, my Uncle Jim delivered a eulogy that was a tribute to their enduring love, faithfulness, and loyalty to one another.

As for her writing ambitions, despite the encouragement from Gellhorn, she never produced much more than Christmas letters and stories for us grandchildren. And yet, as Martha wrote, “It all ends up the same.” It is good advice for any writer, I think (or for that matter, any mother):  The point is to be alive.

You are.

You know.

Beauty, Youth, and Their Discontents

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Oh, what a vileness human beauty is,
Corroding, corrupting everything it touches.
-Euripides, Orestes, 126-7
With such painstaking awe is the beauty of The Red and The Black’s Julien Sorel detailed that one might think Stendhal was describing a woman. We are treated to countless descriptions of Julien’s “fine complexion, his great black eyes, and his lovely hair, which was curlier than most men’s…” We learn that his eyes sparkle with hatred when he is angry, and indicate thought and passion when he is at peace. “Among the innumerable varieties of the human face, there may well be none more striking,” Stendhal suggests, almost matter-of-factly.

In The Greater Hippias, Plato argues that beauty is good and the good is beautiful: the two are identical. Superficial though the ancient Greeks might have been, even later Christian philosophers like Castiglione held that only rarely does an evil soul dwell in a beautiful body, and so outward beauty is a true sign of inner goodness.

Stendhal would have agreed. With Julien’s high Napoleonic ideals and his violent, even physiological, reactions to all things base or hypocritical, he has “a soul fashioned for the love of beauty.” But life does not turn out so well for this young romantic because, predictably, Julien “was barely a year old when his beautiful face began to make friends for him, among the little girls…”

Fictional characters enjoy exaggerated attributes, but few have the sort of beauty that marks Julien Sorel, where the beauty is not only essential to his character, elevating his soul, but outside of it, dictating his destiny. If beauty can be distilled from its specific fictional forms, does it have a cogent power of its own in literature?

1. The Most Beautiful Woman in Fiction
If there were ever a fictional beauty contest of sorts, the stand-out winner might very well be Remedios the Beauty from 100 Years of Solitude. Naive to the point of saintliness, Remedios the Beauty unintentionally causes the deaths of several men who lust over her. But despite being entirely uninterested in feminine wiles, dressing in course cassocks, and shaving her head:
…the more she did away with fashion in a search for comfort and the more she passed over conventions as she obeyed spontaneity, the more disturbing her incredible beauty became…
Under the Platonic model there is a “scale of perfection ranging from individual, physical beauty up the heavenly ladder to absolute beauty.” And in that lofty vein, Garcia Marquez describes Remedios the Beauty as though she were beauty manifest, in too pure a form for this Earth, and she leaves her novel by mysteriously ascending to the sky, like a spirit.

What exactly was it that made Remedios the Beauty so “disturbingly” beautiful? For one, it had very little to do with the worldly practice of seduction. Writes Neal Stephenson (about another beautiful character) in The System of the World:
Faces could beguile, enchant, and flirt. But clearly this woman was inflicting major spinal injuries on men wherever she went, and only a body had the power to do that. Hence the need for a lot of Classical allusions… Her idolaters were reaching back to something pre-Christian, trying to express a bit of what they felt when they gazed upon Greek statues of nude goddesses.
Still, the ascending beauty of Remedios the Beauty struck me as close to paradoxical. She might have been beauty in essence, but her absolute beauty was something she achieved, namely, by renouncing her beauty through eschewing feminine clothing and, more vividly, shaving her head.

There is a curious relationship between hair and destiny in literature. Chaucer, like Hollywood, is known for casting women by their hair color, but he is far from the exception. In keeping with the practices of Remedios the Beauty, the most reputable beautiful women in fiction part ways with their hair altogether at some point, such as Maria “the cropped headed one” in For Whom The Bell Tolls (whose name is an arguable allusion to the Virgin Mary by Hemingway), or Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, who hides her hair under a rag for much of her life (and is reputable to her readers, if not always to the townsfolk of Eatonville). Even fictional literary scholar Maud Bailey from A.S. Byatt’s Possession picked up on the strange connection between hair and destiny for beautiful women: she kept her head nearly shaved in her early teaching days, recounting Yeats’ “For Anne Gregory”:
Never shall a young man
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.
But Julien Sorel never made such sacrifices. It would be most remiss to compare him to the saintly Remedios the Beauty, as he dabbles in vanity, employs manipulative mind-games, and continuously – though not malevolently – makes full use of his preternatural sex appeal in pursuit of his romantic ambitions. Rather, Julien is far better suited to a category of characters with a starkly different literary reputation…

2. The Second Most Beautiful Woman in Fiction
Notable beautiful women with such a lust for life include Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, who “had that indefinable beauty that results from joy, from enthusiasm, from success” and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with her “mysterious, poetic, charming beauty, overflowing with life and gayety…” But the most beautiful of all is The Return of the Native’s Eustacia Vye:
Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity… Her presence brought memories of such things as Bourbon roses, rubies, and tropical midnights; her moods recalled lotus-eaters… her motions, the ebb and flow of the sea; her voice, the viola. In a dim light… her figure might have stood for one of the higher female deities…
Eustacia’s textual description is not exactly an exercise in restraint. On Hardy goes for two pages, describing the curve of her lips, her “pagan” eyes, the weight of her figure – and two paragraphs alone devoted to the sheer bounty of her dark hair, of which “a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow.”

Like Julien Sorel, Eustacia Vye is naive, egotistical, self-serving, and obsessed with the idea of Paris, “the centre and vortex of the fashionable world.” She is far too human to achieve the Platonic ideal of beauty, “transcending sex, sensuality and ‘mere’ physical beauty” to “the region where gods dwell.” Nevertheless, Hardy gives a nod to “the fantastic nature of her passion, which lowered her as an intellect, raised her as a soul.”

And like Julien Sorel, Anna Karenina, and Emma Bovary, Eustacia – mired by the societal constraints on her free will – ponders:
But do I desire unreasonably much in wanting what is called life – music, poetry, passion, war, and all the beating and pulsing that is going on in the great arteries of the world?
3. The Curse of Beauty
The short answer: Yes. Without question. All four romantic leads bring about varying degrees of generalized suffering and to some degree their own demise, whether in gruesome and painful detail, like Emma Bovary, or only in critical speculation, like Eustacia. In literature, as it turns out, it is dangerous to be ambitious just as it is dangerous to be beautiful, but to be both ambitious and beautiful is fatal.

Helen of Troy is the prototypical example that ancient aesthetic philosophy ascribed a darker tone to female beauty than it (generally speaking) did to male beauty. Historian Bettany Hughes writes, “Rather than positioning Helen’s beauty as a worthy gift of the gods – ancient authors… saw her peerless face and form as a curse.” And yet, the power of Julien’s beauty proves to be as inevitably corrosive in The Red and The Black as it does in the respective novels of our beautiful female characters.

In fact, that sheer absence of a double standard to a great extent saves The Red and The Black from losing its modern flavor. As P. Walcot acknowledges the ancient Greek belief in “the male’s inability to resist… the immense power that the female wields through her sexuality,” so, too, are Julien’s female admirers Madame de Rênal (despite being married!) and Mathilde de La Mole (despite being solely motivated by boredom!) judged equally helpless in succumbing to their desire for him.

In part this arises from an amount of sympathy that Stendhal clearly harbored for women (he apparently had a beloved sister), even wealthy, spoiled, bored young women like Mathilde: in reference to her, he quotes from the Memoirs of the Duke d’Angouleme, “The need of staking something was the key to the character of this charming princess… Now, what can a young girl stake? The most precious thing she has: her reputation.”

Julien Sorel, conversely, escapes Stendhal’s goodwill far longer. From Diane Johnson’s introduction to The Red and the Black:
This accounts for the side of Julien that is calculating, flattering, insincere, and inwardly hostile even to people who intend to help and love him – indeed, he is an early example of an anti-hero of whom, at first, even Stendhal cannot approve. (emphasis added)
4. The Cure of Youth
At first.

But The Red and The Black has an unexpected twist: Julien gets to die like a martyr. There is hardly a consensus on this interpretation, but I read his death as something akin to a happy ending. Julien somehow manages to give everyone what they want from him – in particular, his most affected conquests. He returns the pious Madame de Rênal’s love and fulfills the passionate Mathilde’s Gothic fantasies while (outwardly) rejecting neither of them. But more amazingly: he reaches a sort of inner peace. He listens to his own heart which – unbelievably – instructs him to be truthful, sincere, to love the woman who most deserves it, and to carry the sole blame and make the entirety of amends for all the misfortune his (prior) self-indulgent, romantic nature hath wrought. Rather than marking a fundamental lack of character, Julien’s selfishness can be dismissed as mere youthful indiscretion.

Having sought the mystery behind the divergent destinies of Julien and his beautiful female counterparts in terms of the role of beauty in fiction, I come to find that it resolves itself in another, altogether more disconcerting thesis: that perhaps the nature of the young romantic hero in literature is eventually malleable, whereas the nature of the young romantic heroine in literature is essentially fixed.

Towards the end of her life, it occurs to Anna Karenina, “I am not jealous, but unsatisfied…” Emma Bovary and Eustacia Vye have similar exits: their earthly desires resist satiation, but congeal and turn ever more destructive. Their three fates recall the following canto from Dante’s Inferno, which warns of a female beast:
And has a nature so malign and ruthless,
That never doth she glut her greedy will,
And after food is hungrier than before.
And so beautiful women in literature are brought to ultimately ugly ends.

Book Lovers

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It starts out innocently. I recommend Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. “I think you’d like Johnson,” I say, after reading one of his short story drafts. “The violence and the tenderness together. ‘Emergency’ will knock you out.” He’s never read Johnson before. I know it will knock him out.

It does (of course). He can’t stop talking about it. I introduce him to some of Johnson’s poetry. What else? he asks. Meaning: more, more, I want to be knocked out again.

We’d talked about minimalism. I recommend Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. He is European, so I am sure he’s read it, but he hasn’t. Again, he loves it. What else? Now I have cred. Now we’re rolling.

He goes back to Europe. The email exchanges begin. He sends me “In Memory of My Feelings” by Frank O’Hara. I send him Galway Kinnell’s “The Bear.” Don’t be intimidated by Kierkegaard, he writes, start with the Diapsalmata. And Proust goes fast, once you get into it. Read Sherwood Anderson, I write. Winesburg, Ohio.

Then David Foster Wallace dies, and we both read Consider the Lobster before even mentioning it to one another. What a coincidence. The Dostoevsky essay. Yes, yes, the Dostoevsky essay.

Rilke creeps in (of course he does). He reads Letters to a Young Poet, I read On Love and Other Difficulties. It all comes together in Rilke, he writes. It crystallizes. Yes, I write, Rilke goes his own way, beauty and goodness are one – not sequential, not interdependent, but one.

More Hemingway. I find him unanalyzable, I write. The greatest work is like that, don’t you think? I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and quote this passage:
Then there was the smell of heather crushed and the roughness of the bent stalks under her head and the sun bright on her closed eyes and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves and the fluttering of the lashes on the eyes tight closed against the sun and against everything, and for her everything was red, orange, gold-red from the sun on the closed eyes, and it all was that color, all of it, the filling, the possessing, the having, all of that color, all in a blindness of that color. For him it was a dark passage which led to nowhere, then to nowhere, then again to nowhere, once again to nowhere, always and forever to nowhere, heavy on the elbows in the earth to nowhere, dark, never any end to nowhere, hung on all time always to unknowing nowhere, this time and again for always to nowhere, now not to be borne once again always and to nowhere, now beyond all bearing up, up, up and into nowhere, suddenly, scaldingly, holdingly all nowhere gone and time absolutely still and they were both there, time having stopped and he felt the earth move out and away from under them.
My God, I write, what is there to say? Yes, he writes back, I could not have stated it better, the way pure language leaves you speechless; I feel exactly the same way.

For two months, neither of us writes. His father is ill, my manuscript is due. An awkward, quiet phase, during which I slog through The Brothers Karamazov (can’t seem to keep my head in the game – guilt, theology, melodrama. Too much, too much…). He writes again, responds to my last email in which I complained about the Twilight phenomenon in the US. There are so many other better guilty pleasures, I’d written – Edith Wharton, Balzac, Palahniuk and Pelecanos. Yes, he writes, recalling a particular page-turning summer of his youth: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity. All mind-blowing, all in one week.

Then, a small thing I notice – a reference to the Norwegian writer Erlend Loe, which he’d recommended some time before, maybe more than once. When you get to it… he writes. That book really changed my life. When I get to it. In the back of my mind – a tiny thought, barely perceptible – I think: when am I ever going to get to Erlend Loe, when I’ve got Jean Rhys, Bolaño, Toni Morrison, and Tolstoy on the nightstand? I think also about whether I’d ever say such a thing: That book changed my life.

He writes that The Name of the World – a minor Johnson novel I’d recommended as an alternative to Tree of Smoke – didn’t speak to him, but Douglas Coupland is wrecking him. I write that since it was the scene in The Name of the World where the narrator has an atheistic epiphany (he is sitting in church and realizes, ecstatically, that he doesn’t believe in God) that really got me, I’d be interested in Coupland’s Life After God. But really, I only half mean it. In the back of my mind, I think: I am too old for it.

I don’t know exactly how old he is, likely a few years younger than I; but now I begin to wonder just how many years.

He’s reading more David Foster Wallace, sings the cultic praises of Kerouac (I roll my eyes a little). He raves about Lars von Trier (ok, but Breaking the Waves made me literally vomit). I recommend In Bruges – Martin McDonagh is kind of a genius, I write – which he watches and then reports back as “odd” and “all falling apart at the end.” We both agree that “Sonny’s Blues” is indeed a masterpiece.

I don’t hear from him for over a month. I do google searches on Erlend Loe and read this at 3000 Books:
If Tao Lin is the self-referential, disaffected freak-pop on the literary twenty-something’s jukebox, then Erlend Loe is the guy sitting in the corner at the piano, picking out notes that eventually turn into a tune.
I add Life After God to my to-read list.

I think: what the hell am I doing?

He writes again, back from travels. I decide to throw in a curve ball, just to see what happens. Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living by the Australian novelist Carrie Tiffany is the best book no one’s ever heard of, I write. I happen to believe this, but I don’t imagine he’ll agree. For good measure, I add: Have you seen Superbad? I could watch that movie over and over again. (This, too, is true.)

I think: what the hell am I doing?

The next I hear from him the email is short. He has deadlines to meet. He is planning a trip to Berlin for work, then Venice with his girlfriend.

You must bring Death in Venice along for the trip, I write.

Ah, yes, it’s been years, he writes. I suspect it holds up over time.

I suspect it does, I write. One of the great literary endings. The decrepit Aschenbach, slumped over in a beach chair, that final reverie of youth and eros.

He asks me if I am on Facebook.

I write yes.

Let’s be Facebook friends.

Yes, let’s. (My mind flashes to all the profile photos of me and J. – grilling fish on the porch, gussied up for a film opening, canvassing for Obama.)

I read on about Erlend Loe: “Naive.Super is a tiny charmer, a ripe fig that falls out of a budget store Christmas cracker onto your toe. Sure, it’s 12 years old, but it remains a fresh antithesis to the meta-literary swagger of the 21st century, an antidote to superanalysis and overcomplexity.” I think: that sounds refreshing. And J. might like it, even though he generally prefers nonfiction. I click, moving it from my wish list into the shopping cart.

Ask a Book Question (#59): Books for Recent Graduates

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Bryan wrote in with this question:I’m a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I’m a huge fan of the Millions. I’m attaching a recent reading list, if there’s any chance you’d be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 – april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known – n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O’HaraSwann’s Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan’s recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a “very testosterone-y” reading list and added, “I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets).” Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several “upgrades” that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s Herzog. If you’re going to read Exley, read A Fan’s Notes, and “Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature,” Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan “needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O’Hara, and Hemingway,” all authors featured on Bryan’s list.In thinking and discussing Bryan’s list, we also hit the idea of a “staff picks” for recent grads – a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson’s version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don’t let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey’s argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you’re holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you’re untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you’ve been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age – mid-twenties or so – when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell’s social soul. “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny.”Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.

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