“For years the old Italians have been dying/all over America.” -Lawrence Ferlinghetti
On the second floor of Harvard’s Fogg Museum, in an airy, well-lit, white-walled gallery, near a slender window overlooking a red-bricked Cambridge street, there is a display case holding three portraits on chipped wood not much bigger than post-cards. Of varying degrees of aptitude, the paintings are of a genre called “Fayum Portraits” from the region of Egypt where they’re commonly found. When the Roman ruling class established itself in this Pharaonic land during the first few centuries of the Common Era, they would mummify themselves in the Egyptian fashion while affixing Hellenistic paintings onto the faces of their preserved bodies. Across the extent of the Roman empire, from damp Britain to humid Greece, little of the more malleable painted arts survived, but in sun-baked Egypt these portraits could peer out 20 centuries later as surely as the desert dried out their mummified corpses. When people envision ancient Mediterranean art, they may think of the grand sculptures blanched a pristine white, Trajan’s Arch and the monumental head of Constantine, the colorful paint which once clung to their surfaces long since eroded away. And while the monumental marbles of classical art are what most people remember of the period, the Fayum portraits of Harvard provide an entirely more personal gaze across the millennia.
If white is the color we associate with those sculptures, then the portraits here in Cambridge are of a different hue. They are nut-brown, tanned from the noon-day sun, yellow-green, and olive. Mummy Portrait of a Woman with an Earring, painted in the second century, depicts in egg tempura on wood a dark-skinned middle-aged woman with commanding brown eyes, her black hair showing a bit of curl even as it is pulled back tightly on her scalp; a woman looking out with an assuredness that belies her anonymity over time. Mummy Portraits of a Bearded Man shows the tired look of an old man, grey beard neatly clipped and groomed, his wavy grey hair still with a hint of auburn and combed back into place. Fragments of a Mummy Portrait of a Man represents a far younger man, cleft chinned with a few days’ black stubble over his olive skin. What’s unnerving is the eerie verisimilitude of this nameless trio.
That they look so contemporary, so normal, is part of what’s unsettling. But they also unsettle because they’re there to assist in overturning our conceptions about what Roman people, those citizens of that vast, multicultural, multilingual, multireligious empire, looked like. Our culture is comfortable with the lily-white sculptures we associate with our Roman forebearers which were then imitated in our own imperial capitals; easier to pretend that the ancient Romans had nothing to do with the people who live there now, and yet when looking at the Fayum portraits I’m always struck by how Italian everybody looks.
The old man could be tending tomatoes in a weedy plot somewhere in Trenton; the middle-aged woman wearily volunteering for a church where she’s not too keen on the new Irish priest, and the young man with the stubble looks like he just got off a shift somewhere in Bensonhurst and is texting his friends to see who wants to go into the city. I’ve never seen anyone who actually looks like the statue of Caesar Augustus of Primo Porta carved from white stone, but you’ll see plenty of people who look like the Fayum Portraits in North Boston, Federal Hill, or Bloomfield (the one either in Jersey or in Pittsburgh). When I look at the Fayum portraits, I see people I know; I see my own family.
Despite my surname vowel deficiency, I’m very much Italian-American. Mathematically, twice as much as Robert DeNiro, so I feel well equipped to offer commentary in answering the question with which I’ve titled this piece. Furthermore, as a second-generation American, I’m not that far removed from Ellis Island. My mother’s father immigrated from Abruzzo, that mountainous, bear-dwelling region that was the birthplace of Ovid, and his entire family and much of his fellow villagers were brought over to Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, to work as stone masons, a trade they’d been plying since the first rock was laid in the Appian Way. My grandmother’s family was from Naples, where Virgil was born, a teeming volcanic metropolis of orange and lemon trees, a heaven populated by devils as native-son Giordano Bruno wrote in the 16th century. For me, being Italian was unconscious; it simply was a fact no more remarkable than my dark hair or brown eyes.
Being Italian meant at least seven fishes on Christmas Eve and the colored lights rather than the white ones on the tree, it meant (and still means) cooking most things with a heavy dollop of olive oil and garlic, it means at least once a week eating either veal parmesan, prosciutto and melon, calamari, spaghetti with tuna, and buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes. Being Italian meant laminated furniture in the homes of extended family, and Mary-on-the-half-shell; it meant a Catholicism more cultural than theological, with the tortured faces of saints vying alongside a certain type of pagan magic. Being Italian meant assumed good looks and a certain ethnic ambiguity; it meant uncles who made their own wine and grew tomatoes in the backyard.
Being Italian-American meant having an identity where the massive pop culture edifice that supplies representations of you implies that the part before the hyphen somehow makes the second half both more and less true. My position was much like Maria Laurino’s in Were You Always an Italian?: Ancestors and Other Icons of Italian America, where she writes that “All the pieces of my life considered to be ‘Italian’…I kept distinct from the American side, forgetting about the hyphen, about that in-between place where a new culture takes form.” What I do viscerally remember is the strange sense I had watching those corny old sword-and-sandal epics that my middle school Latin teacher used to fill up time with, a sense that those strangely Aryan Romans presented on celluloid were supposed to somehow be related to me. Actors whose chiseled all-American whiteness evoked the marbles that line museum halls. Sculptures of Caesar Augustus were once a lot more olive than white as well. That classical Greek and Roman statuary was vividly painted, only to fade over time, has been known since the 19th century, even as contemporary audiences sometimes violently react to that reality. Using modern technology, archeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann has been able to restore some of the most famous Greek and Roman statues to glorious color, as he details in his Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World, but as the classicist Sarah Bond writes in Forbes, “Intentional or not, museums present viewers with a false color binary of the ancient world.” We think of the Romans as lily white, but the Fayum portraits demonstrate that they very much weren’t. That the individuals in these pictures should appear so Italian shouldn’t be surprising—Romans are Italians after all. Or at least in the case of the Fayum portraits they’re people from a mélange of backgrounds, including not just Romans, but Greeks, Egyptians, Berbers, Arabs, Jews, Ethiopians, and so on. Rome was, like our own, a hybridized civilization, and it’s marked on the faces that peer out towards us on that wall.
Last fall, at a handful of Boston-area colleges just miles from the museum, classical imagery was appropriated for very different means. Students awoke to find their academic halls papered with posters left during the night by members of one of these fascistic groups to have emerged after the 2016 presidential election, a bigotry that has been revealed as if discovering all of the fungus growing underneath a rotting tree stump that’s been kicked over. This particular group combined images of bleached classical sculpture and neo-fascist slogans to make their white supremacist arguments. The Apollo Belvedere is festooned with the declaration “Our Future Belongs to Us,” 17th-century French Neo-Classical sculptor Nicolas Coustou’s bust of Julius Caesar has “Serve your People” written beneath it, and in the most consciously Trumpy of posters, a close-up on the face of Michelangelo’s David injuncts “Let’s Become Great Again.” There’s something particularly ironic in commandeering the David in the cause of white supremacy. Perhaps they didn’t know that that exemplar of the Italian Renaissance was a depiction of a fierce Jewish king as rendered by a gay, olive-skinned artist?
Such must be the central dilemma of the confused white supremacist, for the desire to use ancient Rome in their cause has been irresistible ever since Benito Mussolini concocted his crackpot system of malice known as fascismo corporativo, but the reality is that the descendants of those very same Romans often don’t appear quite as “white” as those supremacists would be comfortable with. This is especially important when considering that the Romans “did not speak in terms of race, a discourse invented many centuries later,” as scholar Nell Irvin Painter writes in The History of White People. Moral repugnance is a given when it comes to racist ideologies, but one should also never forget the special imbecility that comes along with arguing that you’re innately superior because you kinda, sorta, maybe physically resemble dead people who did important things. What makes the case of the posters more damning is that those who made them don’t even actually look like the people whose culture they’ve appropriated.
No doubt the father of celebrated journalist Gay Talese would be outraged by this filching. In a 1993 piece for The New York Times Book Review, he remembers his “furious and defensive father” exploding after he’d learned that the Protestant-controlled school board had rejected his petition to include Ovid and Dante in the curriculum, the elder man shouting at his son that “‘Italy was giving art to the world when those English were living in caves and painting their faces blue!’” A particular twist as the descendants of those same WASPs paper college campuses with posters of Italian sculptures that they somehow claim patrimony from. But that’s always been the predicament of the Western chauvinist, primed to take ownership over another culture as evidence of his own genius, while simultaneously having to explain his justifications for the disdain in which he holds the actual children of that culture.
Since the late 19th-century arrival of millions of immigrants from the Mezzogiorno, American racists have long contrived baroque justifications for why white Anglo-Saxon Protestants are the inheritors of Italian culture, while Italians themselves are not. Some of this logic was borrowed from Italy itself, where even today, Robert Lumley and Jonathan Morris record in The New History of the Italian South, some northerners will claim that “Europe ends at Naples. Calabria, Sicily, and all the rest belong to Africa.” Northern Italians, comparatively wealthier, better educated, and most importantly fairer, had been in the United States a generation before their southern cousins, and many Anglo-Americans borrowed that racialized animus against southerners which reigned (and still does) in the old country.
As Richard Gambino writes in Blood of my Blood: The Dilemma of the Italian-Americans, it was in the “twisted logic of bigotry” that these immigrants were “flagrantly ‘un-American.’ And Italians replaced all the earlier immigrant groups as targets of resentment about the competition of cheap labor.” This was the reasoning that claimed that all Italian accomplishments could be attributed to a mythic “Nordic” or “Teutonic” influence, so that any Mediterranean achievements were written away, orienting Rome towards a Europe it was only tangentially related to and away from an Africa that long had an actual influence. Notorious crank Madison Grant in his unabashedly racist 1916 The Passing of the Great Race claimed that Italians were now “storming the Nordic ramparts of the United States and mongrelizing the good old American stock,” with Gambino explaining that “In his crackpot explanation, Italians are the inferior descendants of the slaves who survived when ancient Rome died.”
Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould writes that Grant’s book was “the most influential tract of American scientific racism” and Adolf Hitler wrote a letter to the author claiming “The book is my Bible.” A lawyer and eugenicist, Grant’s writings were influential in both the Palmer Raids, a series of unconstitutional police actions directed by the Wilson administration against immigrants suspected of harboring anarchist and communist sympathies, as well as the xenophobic nastiness of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act which made eastern and southern European immigration slow to a trickle. Incidentally, it was the Johnson-Reed Act that, had it been passed 10 years earlier, would have barred my mother’s father from entering the United States; a law that former Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions lauded in a 2017 interview with Stephen Bannon, arguing that the banning of immigrants like those in my family “was good for America.”
In Chiaroscuro: Essays of Identity, Helen Barolini writes that “Italian Americans are too easily used as objects of ridicule and scorn,” and while that’s accurate, it’s a rhetoric that has deep and complicated genealogies. Italy has always occupied a strange position in the wider European consciousness. It is simultaneously the birthplace of “Western Civilization,” and an exoticized, impoverished, foreign backwater at the periphery of the continent; the people who first modeled a noxious imperialism, and the subjugated victims of later colonialism. A pithy visual reminder of Italy’s status in early modern Europe can be seen in the German painter Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1533 masterpiece The Ambassadors, which depicts two of the titular profession surrounded by their tools. On a shelf behind them sits a globe. Europe is differentiated from the rest of the world by being an autumnal brown-green, with the exception of two notable regions colored the same hue as Africa—Ireland and Sicily. In Are Italians White?: How Race is Made in America, coedited with Salvatore Salerno, historian Jennifer Guglielmo explains that the “racial oppression of Italians had its root in the racialization of Africans,” something never more evident than in the anti-Italian slur “guinea” with its intimations of Africanness, this implication of racial ambiguity having profound effects on how Italians were understood and how they understood themselves.
In the rhetoric and thought of the era, Italy was somehow paradoxically the genesis of Europe, while also somehow not European. As such, Italians were to be simultaneously emulated and admired, while also reviled and mocked. During that English Renaissance, which was of course a sequel to the original one, books like Baldassare Castiglione’s The Courtier and Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, with their respective paeans to sensuality and duplicity, molded a particular view of Italianness that has long held sway in the English imagination. Consider all of the Shakespeare plays in an imagined Italy: The Taming of the Shrew, Two Gentleman of Verona, Much Ado About Nothing, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, Othello, Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale and The Merchant of Venice, not to mention the occasional appearance of Romans in other plays. Shakespeare’s plays, and other icons of the English Renaissance, set a template that never really faded. A simultaneous attraction to and disgust at a people configured as overly emotional, overly sexual, overly flashy, overly corrupt, overly sensual, and with a propensity less cerebral than hormonal. And the criminality.
Long before Mario Puzo or The Sopranos, Renaissance English writers impugned Italians with a particular antisocial perfidy. Such is displayed in Thomas Nash’s 1594 The Unfortunate Traveller: or, the Life of Jack Wilton, which could credibly be called England’s first novel. In that picaresque, the eponymous character perambulates through the Europe of the early 16th century, encountering luminaries like Thomas More, Erasmus, Henry Howard, Martin Luther, and Cornelius Agrippa, and witnessing events like the horrific siege at Munster in the Low Countries. Most of Nash’s narrative, however, takes place in “the Sodom of Italy,” and an English fever dream of that country’s excess settles like a yellow fog. One Englishmen laments that the only lessons that can be learned here are “the art of atheism, the art of epicurizing, the art of whoring, the art of poisoning, the art of sodomitry.”
From Nash until today there has often been a presumption of vindictive relativist morality on the part of Italians, and it has slurred communities with an assumption of criminality. In the early 20th century sociologists claimed that the dominant Italian ethic was “familial amoralism,” whereby blood relations had precedence over all other social institutions. Nash’s nobleman is the great-grandfather to Michael Corleone in the collective imagination. Do not read this as squeamish sensitivity, I’d never argue that The Godfather, written and directed by Italians, is anything less than an unmitigated masterpiece. Both Puzo’s novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation are potent investigations of guilt, sin, and evil. I decided not to join the Sons of Italy after I saw how much of their concern was with stereotypes on The Sopranos, which I still regard as among the greatest television dramas of all time. I concur with Bill Tonelli, who in his introduction to The Italian American Reader snarked that “nobody loves those characters better than Italian Americans do,” and yet I recall with a cringe the evaluation of The Godfather given to me by a non-Italian, that the film was about nothing more than “spaghetti and murder.”
Representations of Italianness in popular culture aren’t just Michael Corleone and Tony Soprano, there’s also the weirdly prevalent sitcom stereotype of the lovable, but dumb, hypersexual goombah. I enter into consideration Arthur “The Fonze” Fonzarelli from Happy Days, Tony Micelli from Who’s the Boss?, Vinny Barbarino of Welcome Back Kotter, and of course Friends’ Joey Tribbiani. Once I argued with my students if there was something offensive about The Jersey Shore, finally convincing them of the racialized animus in the series when I queried as to why there had never been an equivalent about badly behaving WASPs called Martha’s Vineyard?
Painter explains that “Italian Americans hovered longer on the fringes of American whiteness,” and so any understanding must take into account that until recently Italians were still inescapably exotic to many Americans. Tonelli writes that “in an era that supposedly values cultural diversity and authenticity, the portrait of Italian Americans is monotonous and observed from a safe distance.” The continued prevalence of these stereotypes is a residual holdover from the reality that Italians are among the last of “ethnics” to “become white.” Tonelli lists the “mobsters, the urban brute, the little old lady shoving a plate of rigatoni under your nose,” declaiming that “it gets to be like a minstrel show after a while.”
Consider Judge Webster Thayer who after the 1921 sham-trial of anarchists Barolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco would write that although they “may not have committed the crime” attributed to them, they are “nevertheless morally culpable” because they were both enemies of “our existing institutions… the defendant’s ideals are cognate with crime.” Privately, Thayer bragged to a Dartmouth professor, “Did you see what I did to those anarchistic bastards the other day?” As late as 1969, another professor, this one at Yale, felt free to tell a reporter in response to a query about a potential Italian-American New York mayoral candidate that “If Italians aren’t actually an inferior race, they do the best imitation of one I’ve seen.”
But sometime in the
decades after World War II, Italians followed the Irish and Jews into the
country club of whiteness with its carefully circumscribed membership. Guglielmo
explains that initially “Virtually all Italian immigrants [that] arrived in the
United States [did so] without a consciousness about its color line.” Victims
of their birth nation’s rigid social stratification based on complexion and geography,
the new immigrants were largely ignorant of America’s racial history, and thus
were largely immune to the anti-black racism that was prevalent. These
immigrants had no compunction about working and living alongside African
Americans, and often understood themselves to occupy a similar place in
But as Guglielmo explains, by the second and third generation there was an understanding that to be “white meant having the ability to avoid many forms of violence and humiliation, and assured preferential access to citizenship, property, satisfying work, livable wages, decent housing, political power, social status, and a good education, among other privileges.” Political solidarity with black and Hispanic Americans (we forget that Italians are Latinx too) was abandoned in favor of assimilation to the mainstream. Jennifer Gillan writes in the introduction to Growing up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction about Learning to be American that “American have often fought bitter battles over what it means to be American and who exactly get to qualify under the umbrella term,” and towards the end of the 20th century Italians had fought their way into that designation, but they also left many people behind. In the process, a beautiful radical tradition was forgotten, so that we traded Giuseppe Garibaldi for Frank Rizzo, Philly’s racist mayor in the 70s; so that now instead of Sacco and Vanzetti we’re saddled with Antonin Scalia and Rudy Giuliani. As Guglielmo mourns, “Italians were not always white and the loss of this memory is one of the great tragedies of racism in America.”
If there is to be any anecdote, then it must be in words; where literature allows for imaginative possibilities and the complexities of empathy. What is called for is a restitution, or rather a recognition, of an Italian-American literary canon acting as bulwark against both misrepresentations and amnesia. Talese infamously asked if there were no “Italian-American Arthur Millers and Saul Bellows, James Baldwins and Toni Morrisons, Mary McCarthys and Mary Gordons, writing about their ethnic experiences?” There’s an irony to this question, as Italians in the old country would never think to ask where their writers are, the land of Virgil and Dante secure in its literary reputation, with more recent years seeing the celebrated post-modernisms of Italo Calvino, Primo Levi, Dario Fo, and Umberto Eco. In this century, the citizens of Rome, Florence, and Milan face different questions than their cousins in Newark, Hartford, or Providence. Nor do we bemoan a dearth of examples in other fields: that Italians can hit a baseball or throw a punch can be seen in Joe DiMaggio’s homeruns and Rocky Marciano’s slugging; that we can strike a note is heard in Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin; that we can shoot a picture is proven by Coppola, Brian DePalma, and Martin Scorsese.
Yet in the literary arts no equivalent names come up, at least no equivalent names that are thought of as distinctly Italian. Regina Barreca in the introduction to Don’t Tell Mama!: The Penguin Book of Italian American Writing says that there is an endurance of the slur which sees Italians as “deliberately dense, badly educated, and culturally unsophisticated.” By this view the wider culture is fine with the physicality of boxers and baseballs players, the emotion and sensuality of musicians, even the Catholic visual idiom of film as opposed to the Protestant textuality of the written word, so that the “intellectual” pursuits of literature are precluded. She explains that what remains is an “idea of Italian Americans as a people who would never choose to read a book, let alone write one,” though as Baraca stridently declares this is a “set of hazardous concepts [which] cannot simply be outlived; it must be dismantled.”
I make no claims to originating the idea that we must establish an Italian-American literary canon, such has been the mainstay of Italian-American Studies since that field’s origin in the ’70s. This has been the life’s work of scholars like Gambino, Louise DeSalvo, and Fred Gardaphé, not to mention all of the anthology editors I’ve referenced. Tonelli writes that “Our time of genuine suffering at the hands of this bruising country passed more or less unchronicled, by ourselves or anyone else,” yet there are hidden examples of Italian-American voices writing about an experience that goes beyond mafia or guido stereotypes. For many of these critics, the Italian-American literary canon was something that already existed, it was merely a question of being able to recognize what exists beyond the stark black and red cover of The Godfather. Such a task involved the elevation of lost masterpieces like Pietro di Donato’s 1939 proletarian Christ in Concrete , but also a reemphasis on the vowels at the ends of names for authors who are clearly Italian, but are seldom thought of as such.
That Philip Roth is a Jewish author goes without saying, but rarely do we think of the great experimentalist Don DeLillo as an Italian-American author. A restitution of the Italian-American literary canon would ask what precisely is uniquely Italian about a DeLillo? For that matter, what are the Italian-American aesthetics of poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jay Parini, Diane Di Prima, and Gregory Corso? What can we better say about the Italianness of Gilbert Sorrentino and Richard Russo? Where do we locate the Mezzogiorno in the criticism and scholarship of A. Bartlett Giamatti, Frank Lentricchia, and Camille Paglia? Baraca writes that “Italian Americans live (and have always lived) a life not inherited, but invented,” and everything is to be regained by making a reinvention for ourselves. Furthermore, I’d suggest that the hybridized nature of what it has always meant to be Italian provides a model to avoid the noxious nationalisms that increasingly define our era.
Guglielmo writes that “Throughout the twentieth century, Italian Americans crafted a vocal, visionary, and creative oppositional culture to protest whiteness and build alliances with people of color,” and I’d argue that this empathetic imagination was born out of the pluralistic civilization of which the Italians were descendants. Contrary to pernicious myths of “racial purity,” the Romans were as diverse as Americans are today, drawing not just from Italic peoples like the Umbrians, Sabines, Apulians, and Etruscans, but also from Egyptians, Ethiopians, Berbers, Carthaginians, Phoenicians, Greeks, Anatolians, Gauls, Huns, Dacians, Franks, Teutons, Vandals, Visigoths, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Iberians, Jews, Arabs, and Celts, among others. A reality quite contrary to the blasphemy of those posters with their stolen Roman images.
Rome was both capital and periphery, a culture that was a circle with no circumference whose center can be everywhere. Christine Palamidessi Moore in her contribution to the Lee Gutkind and Joanna Clapps Herman anthology Our Roots are Deep with Passion: Creative Nonfiction Collects New Essays by Italian American Writers notes that “Italy is a fiction: a country of provinces, dialects, and regions, and historically because of its location, an incorporator of invaders, empires, and bloodlines.” Sitting amidst the Mare Nostrum of its wine-dark sea, Italy has always been at a nexus of Europe, Africa, and Asia, situated between north and south, east and west. Moore explains that the “genuineness of the ethnicity they choose becomes more obscure and questionable because of its mixed origins; however, because it is voluntary, the act of choosing sustains the identity.”
The question then is not “What was Italian America?” but rather “What can Italian America be?” In 1922 W.E.B. DuBois, the first black professor at Harvard, spoke to a group of impoverished Italian immigrants at Chicago’s Hull House. Speaking against the Johnson-Reed Act, DuBois appealed to a spirit of confraternity, arguing that there must be a multiethnic coalition against a “renewal of the Anglo-Saxon cult: the worship of the Nordic totem, the disenfranchisement of Negro, Jew, Irishman, Italian, Hungarian, Asiatic and South Sea Islander.” When DuBois spoke against the “Anglo-Saxon cult” he condemned not actual English people, but rather the fetish that believes only those of British stock can be “true Americans.” When he denounced the “Nordic totem,” he wasn’t castigating actual northern Europeans, but only that system that claims they are worthier than the rest of people. What DuBois condemned was not people, but rather a system that today we’ve taken to calling “white privilege,” and he’s just as correct a century later. The need for DuBois’s coalition has not waned.
Italian-Americans can offer the example of a culture that was always hybridized, always at the nexus of different peoples. Italians have never been all one thing or the other, and that seems to me the best way to be. It’s this liminal nature that’s so valuable, which provides answer to the idolatries of ancestry that are once again emerging in the West (with Italy no exception). DuBois offered a different vision, a coalition of many hues marshaled against the hegemony of any one. When I meet the gaze of the Fayum portraits, I see in their brown eyes an unsettling hopefulness from some 20 centuries ago, looking past my shoulder and just beyond the horizon where perhaps that world may yet exist.
In Daniel Torday’s latest novel, Boomer1, ex-journalist, bluegrass musician, and failed academic Mark Brumfeld sparks an online movement against the economic tyranny of the baby boomers—all from the basement of his parents’ house. Told from the perspectives of Mark; his ex-girlfriend, Cassie, who is quickly rising through the ranks of an online media company after refusing Mark’s marriage proposal; and Mark’s mother, Julia, a former musician who has lost most of her hearing, the novel takes a probing look at what happens when our best-laid plans falter, our political debate falls apart, and we open doors that can’t be closed again.
Torday is the author of the novel The Last Flight of Poxl West and the director of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College. I spoke with him over email about the baby boomers and millennials, Shakespeare, the purpose of fiction, and the political chaos threatening to swallow us all.
The Millions: Why are the baby boomers the focus of Mark’s ire? In his situation—unemployed, living in his parents’ basement—I can imagine him veering far left and railing against capitalism or far right and becoming obsessed with keeping immigrants out. What’s so special about the boomers?
Daniel Torday: Straight to the white-hot center of things! I like it. I guess I have two answers for this one. The first is the no-beating-around-the-bush fact that this is at heart a novel of contemporary politics. I’d had Occupy Wall Street in mind ever since that movement ultimately failed for not having a clear enough goal or leader. I wondered how to dramatize it. I’d also begun to feel itchy about how identity politics were at times coming to shut down conversation and being increasingly adopted by the political right, picking up on rhetoric that had long been roiling the left. And so the idea of letting Mark Brumfeld take on the baby boomers directly, from his standpoint as a millennial, just felt right. If there’s a clear limit to allowing one’s politics to come solely from identity it’s that there’s just no choice in the matter: In some way you’re always walled into certain aspects of the identity you’ve been given. And what’s more intractable than one’s birthday? It also fit for my own vantage point—I’ve had the weird luck of not really being in a generation. I was born in 1978. So I’m not quite a Gen Xer, and they say millennial birthdays start in 1980, ’81, ’82. I feel like that liminal space—one foot in, one foot out—is the best place to be as a novelist.
But probably the truer answer is that, apparent or not, Boomer1 is a loose retelling of Julius Caesar. I was reading a lot of Shakespeare for my last novel, and while reading Caesar, it occurred to me that there’s something resonant, at least in the first two acts, with the way Cassius and Brutus talk about Caesar’s power—and the way millennials and boomers can be portrayed at odds with each other. So many lines just pointed in that direction. So the characters in Boomer1 map onto Shakespeare: Cassie is Cassius, Mark is Brutus, Julia is Julius. I went back and looked at the original Plutarch source material and it was a watershed. Plutarch’s book, while often read piecemeal, was called Parallel Lives—he was comparing biography from Rome to see how lives over the centuries paralleled each other. Which came to feel a lot like what I was after here, seeing how Julia in her 20s wasn’t all that different from Mark and Cassie. And it turned up all kinds of little flourishes I wouldn’t otherwise have hit on myself: Joni Mitchell is quoting Caesar in the line “I am as constant as the northern star” (well it turns out she’s actually Leonard Cohen quoting it to her, but). Caesar was losing his hearing and that opened a door to Julia’s character for me. The FBI agents who come in late in the book get to have the names of Brutus’s conspirators. That kind of stuff.
TM: Going off what you mentioned about the parallels between Cassie, Mark, and Julia, I’d like to ask you about the point of view of the novel. We get a third-person-limited POV that shifts between the three main characters, and they frequently describe their experiences of key moments in very different ways. Why show those incidents from multiple viewpoints?
DT: Until this book, the third person has always shot me through with abject terror. It just seems so impossibly limitless in what you can do with it. My first two books were told all in first-person voices, which just feels much more natural to me. The boundaries are set. One question I always puzzle out with students is: How much do you want your fiction to sound like speech, and how much should it sound like writing? I think my favorite writers mostly play with aesthetics that sound much of the time like speech—Nabokov, Marilynne Robinson, George Saunders, Alice Munro, Amy Hempel, Barthelme, even Kafka and Beckett in their own ways.
But then Anna Karenina is probably my favorite novel and it’s just this kind of tennis-without-a-net free indirect narration. In the opening chapters we move between multiple characters and even briefly enter the head of Vronsky’s dog. So it felt like a challenge I was ready to take up. Then again, as you observe—all three narrators here are very close thirds, so the rules are mostly in place of what we have access to and what we don’t. I’ve actually been kind of pained in early reviews of the book to find some reviewers referring to it as “satirical”—which to me is way off. It’s a category error. I want this to be a funny book, and to reflect the world we live in, but none of the points of view are satirical. They’re just very close to the way three different humans actually think—if that sounds like exaggeration, maybe we’re not listening well. It’s my hope that Cassie sections still sound like Cassie thought, Mark sections like Mark thought. And I really try to avoid flashback, so it felt like by being very close to Julia in particular, we could get back to 1968, say, just by staying very close to her point of view. And it revealed all kinds of things to me—how you can use the third person to tell a story that still sounds like speech, keeping the language alive and vibrant, and accesses a character’s thoughts in a whole new way.
TM: Let’s talk about Mark’s thoughts—does he have a realistic view of the world, or are the boomers just a scapegoat for his own personal failures? Or is the troublesome thing that it’s a mix of both?
DT: So … Mark spends a lot of time ranting about baby boomers on YouTube, and in the book it leads to a more or less open revolution of millennials attacking boomer icons. To some extent I just wanted to see what ranting on the page would look like. My dear friend, fiction writer Karen Russell, said to me over lunch once, “You’re such a good funny convincing ranter, you should rant in a book more.” So I had in the back of my mind that would be its own weirdly literary endeavor, getting that live language on the page.
I think Mark is both completely right—and totally misguided—all at once. I’ve been thinking a ton lately about how maybe the biggest trouble our culture is in isn’t “fake news” but a version of its opposite. I don’t mean to minimize how awful actual fake news is, but we shouldn’t let it distract. More insidious and widespread is a kind of sophistry that overemphasizes the truth of any particular fact. We have access to so much information. From the pre-Socratics forward, Western culture’s great strength has been that we’ve always known relying too heavily on any single fact can lead us astray—that’s what sophistry is, and that’s why Plato and Aristotle created whole intricate lasting systems of thought to combat it. Our job is to view multiple facts, multiple viewpoints, and synthesize them. As Fitzgerald had it, “to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Right now we view so many things so quickly and with such vitriol that we’ve forgotten what nuance even sounds like.
Did I just get ranty there? Sorry. Allow me to disagree with myself, then. To return to your question: The idea was to let Mark make his case as forcefully and rationally as possible, and then to let Cassie do the same, and Julia do the same, and then back away slowly and carefully. Chekhov has this amazing thing in his letters where he says something like, “It is not for writers of fiction to decide big questions. The writer’s job is simply to describe as accurately as possible people who have been speaking about big questions.” I teach a novel-writing class every spring, where we read like 13 novels in three months, and one realization I always have after all that reading is the extent to which great writers just let each scene, each sentence, do what it’s doing as loudly and convincingly as possible in the moment. When you do that, you can’t escape disagreeing with yourself. Presenting multiple viewpoints. Maybe even ranting!
TM: Mark’s ranting on the internet takes him to some places online he’s never known about before. And while he may give a dynamic performance in YouTube videos, his other online interactions, particularly with the group known as Silence, are a bit underwhelming for a would-be revolutionary. Where did that dynamic come from?
DT: You know, I’m well into work on my fourth book, and I still feel like a novice each time I pick up a pen. I guess if I’ve worked out a bit of a process, it’s to let a character act and ramble for a while—and then to figure out what it looks like when their hopes and desires hit up against the reality of their world. So for Mark that meant setting him free to fuck up his life in Brooklyn, to rant, and then to see what that might mean. So I spent a bunch of time poking around the “dark web” and reading what I could about that world. There’s a Canadian researcher named Gabriella Coleman who’s written a ton about Anonymous, and her books gave me a lot of background. I also did a bunch of research about what analogous examples could look like: the Boston Marathon bombers, Anwar al-Awlaki, the guy who founded Silk Road and then was arrested. Then I jumped back to the ’70’s and read a bunch about Patty Hearst, SDS, the Weather Underground. Then I jumped back and read a bunch about Emma Goldman. Then I jumped back to the 1850’s and read everything I could get my hands on about John Brown. You could say that’s my other instinct: jumping back, and back, and back.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that once Mark had given what felt to me like convincing rants, when I let my imagination test them against the weird tricksters and hucksters—so, Americans—he would’ve encountered in the dark recesses of the web seven or eight years ago, I suspect it wouldn’t have gone particularly well. He has some real, valid gripes, but I suspect most of the folks he would’ve excited would have been more of the burn-the-motherfucker-down crowd. And not to nerd out too hard, but again, that dynamic felt so in keeping with Marcus Brutus to me. He allows Cassius to convince him to lead Caesar’s assassination, and it’s basically a tragedy of errors from there, from Mark Antony’s famous “I come to bury Caesar, not praise him” speech forward. And shit, living through the last two years of politics feels a lot like that, too, doesn’t it? Well-intentioned people, and some very not-well-intentioned people, and their actions leading to all kinds of awful consequences, intended and otherwise. Tragedies of errors, piling up.
TM: Right—no matter his intentions, Brutus has opened the door to political violence, and it’s a door that can’t be easily closed once it’s opened. That’s exactly where Mark’s headed, whether he’s realizing it or not. And with our political situation today, I’m thinking a lot about the doors that can’t be closed once they’re opened. It seemed like the Republicans in the Senate refusing to consider Merrick Garland was crossing a line in a pretty heinous way. Now I’m reading articles advocating for the Democrats to pack the Supreme Court to 15 members to reclaim a liberal majority and split California into six different states to tip the scales in their favor in the Senate. But then does the Supreme Court just keep growing and growing any time a single party controls the executive and legislative branches? It’s scary to play that out. Did writing about Mark, Cassie, and Julia give you any insight into the balance between no-holds-barred fighting it out and trusting in institutions in hope of better days?
DT: Nicely put. Like most folks I know, I was pretty despondent after the election. I turned to one of my old mentors over email and he said, “Well, there will still be music, right?” I should say we’ve been discussing Boomer1 here as a “political novel,” and I’m OK with that, but I’m also tempted to argue that any novel that grants you access to character is political by nature. That’s what I take Chekhov to be saying in his letter, and maybe it’s the opposite of how a first read might take it—not that literary fiction doesn’t take up philosophical and topical material. But that the sheer act of saying, “Here’s the limited, complicated, flawed, emotional, deep, rich way people think, presented in words on the page. Now read it.” And in doing so, you’ll be engaged in a political act. Facile as it might sound, I still trust down deep that if any of the venal, corrupt, autocratically inclined folks in the current presidential administration were really to sit down with a work of art—Tolstoy, Chekhov, Alice Munro, Marquez, Grace Paley—they’d come away less able to enact the evil they’re busy at now. Though, you know, good luck on both fronts.
Which, I guess, is to say … I have not one iota more sense of what’s ahead after writing this book. I feel like I hardly understand what’s behind. I did have the strange experience of finishing this book, selling it, and then having to look at it again after November 2016 and rethinking and retooling a whole lot of it. Things I thought were going to be implausible and inflammatory seemed weirdly tame. Things I thought were innocuous needed a new cast. I struggled a lot over whether it was problematic that the guys in Silence weren’t guided by the bigotry that’s taken over much of the trollish web, but I think I settled on a feeling that back in 2010 or so, the Breitbart-ization of those musty corners hadn’t yet taken over or become inevitable. I’m a huge fan of Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, which I reread while writing, and I thought of the early 4chan guys as being way more like Coyote than anything. But then … Coyote would make a monumentally bad president. Somehow we live in a country where people would’ve voted for him. Poor Melville, not alive to see it.
Or to take it one other direction: I felt excited in this book to have much of the revolutionary lens of boomers and millennials be focused on music. Literally, the music of the past 100 years in American life, from bluegrass to psychedelic rock to punk and forward. And that institution sure isn’t gonna fall. Punk rock isn’t going to soften to an autocrat’s lies—it’s going to gain new edge. New relevance. I suspect art’s place will grow stronger, be more necessary, the uglier civic and political life gets. Not “content.” Not “vertically integrated media.” FUCKING ART. I think all the time about that great thing from Philip Roth after he returned from Communist Eastern Europe in the late ’70s: “In America everything goes and nothing matters, while in Europe nothing goes and everything matters.” It sure feels like a whole lot matters these days.
TM: You share a lot of the same background as Mark: You were a magazine editor and a bluegrass musician—though you ended up with a job as a college professor. What was it like drawing from your own work experiences to put Mark on a path that ultimately led him back to the basement of his parents’ house?
DT: Well, I haven’t committed any acts of terrorism, domestic or otherwise. So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice. But you know I was in the middle of a long, complicated job search when I started writing Boomer1, details about which are too boring to get into here. So many of the emotions behind Mark’s character felt close for me. And I think as a novelist there’s always just that need for proper nouns and telling, specific details, and in putting Mark in a Brooklyn and a Baltimore I knew, I felt I could pull it off.
Which is to say, with regrets to Flaubert: Sure, Mark Brumfeld, c’est moi. But then Cassie Black, c’est moi, and Julia Brumfeld, c’est moi, aussi. I think to really pull off characters with as close a third person as I’ve given them, for so many pages, for me at least, there has to be a real affinity there. Weirdly and unexpectedly, I think I came to feel the closest to Julia. There’s this joke I used to think would make a good first line for a memoir: I spent my 20s trying not to become my father and woke up at 30 to discover I’d become my mom. Funny because it’s true. So sitting with Julia’s character, granting her an etiology that was kind of my teenage dream—opening for the Dead in San Francisco in the late ’60s, playing in that music scene I idealized when I was a kid—I got to live out a series of fantasies. I mean, in my imagination, imagining a middle-aged woman while sitting in my home office every day for a number of years. Weird wish to have fulfilled, I guess. But it definitely went from having Julia there as a foil, making a necessary counterargument about how millennials might feel about boomers, to her being on equal footing as a main character in the book.
TM: Here’s a lighter question to end things on: Was it fun to create the fictional media companies and literary journals (RazorWire, The Unified Theory, The Czolgosz Review) that exist in the novel?
DT: Yes! Let’s remember that this is a funny book above all. And also let’s remember that I’m a book nerd. So in starting to imagine fictional version of magazines and websites, I had to leave it all out on the field. The Unified Theory was called Les Mots Justes in early drafts, but that didn’t work, so I just left it in there as a joke. And trying to get some little trails of revolutionary breadcrumbs in there felt important, too, with one like Czolgosz, which as we learn in the book was the name of an anarchist who assassinated a president.
The RazorWire one was a little more complicated. I found myself sending Cassie on this upward trajectory, and that meant putting her in a kind of “new media” company. Just uttering that phrase, “new media,” hurts my teeth. She ends up fact checking “content” there, and now my whole body hurts. Content! What happened to art? Journalism? The essay! I worked as an editor at a big national magazine for years. For a long time we resisted having much online presence. It was one of the last magazines to publish original work online. There was this fear that doing so would kill print. But then the web really took over, and by the time I was gone, they had a web presence. Everyone did. They created “content” instead of articles, essays, stories. The New Republic bragged about becoming a “vertically integrated digital media company.” (Ahhhhccchchch!!!!) And for a while, a long while, all these moves and the encroachment of social media didn’t kill print. And now. Now here we are: Google Analytics directs us to what’s being read, and so what to read. Most folks I trust feel print will be more or less gone within a decade. Where has that all gotten us? Even the direst jeremiads in 2000 wouldn’t have said, “An autocratically inclined P.T. Barnum of a president.” And yet … As a famous lyricist once said, “Nothing left to do but smile smile smile.”
In October 2015, Hogarth Press from Crown Publishing launched the Hogarth Shakespeare project, an anticipated eight-part series in which best-selling authors retell a Shakespearean classic as a contemporary novel. Jeanette Winterson’s cover of The Winter’s Tale—A Gap of Time—was published first, almost exactly 400 years after the Bard’s death. Five more installments have since been released, with the final one—Gillian Flynn’s cover of Hamlet—expected in 2021.
Contemporizing a Shakespearean play is a fairly common undertaking. As the Hogarth Shakespeare’s website notes, Shakespeare’s works have frequently “been reinterpreted for each new generation, whether as teen films, musicals, science-fiction flicks, Japanese warrior tales, or literary transformations.” Reimagining a Shakespearean story can often be a contentious effort as well. Many critics note the difficulty of believably translating a Shakespearean conflict—written centuries before the study of psychology—into a modern setting. Supporters, meanwhile, will often point to William Shakespeare himself and his own aptness to adapt and revise stories from various sources.
Regardless of one’s personal thoughts on Shakespearean adaptations, it is hard to overlook their significance to our cultural canon, from musicals like West Side Story and Kiss Me, Kate to films such as 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man. Even having the original texts set in modern circumstances can be incredibly influential and timely, with the Public Theatre’s recent production of Julius Caesar—in which Caesar was modeled after Donald Trump—being the most notorious recent example.
As a lover of both Shakespearean drama and contemporary literature, I am an ardent follower of the Hogarth Shakespeare project. However, my interest in the project stems not from a desire to see creatively adapted Shakespearean plots; but, rather, an interest in seeing Shakespearean stories used to examine contemporary political, social, and cultural issues.
Each book in the series thus far has had varying success with this. Jeanette Winterson uses her cover of The Winter’s Tale to examine the devastating effects of hyper-masculinity and violence against women, as well as the normalcy of homoeroticism. Shylock Is My Name—Howard Jacobson’s cover of The Merchant of Venice—uses both Shylock himself and his modernized counterpart, Simon Strulovitch, to examine the past and present expectations of Jewish identity. In Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, her cover of The Taming of the Shrew, the Petruchio character attempts to woo Kate into marriage so that he can avoid deportation. The most meta cover version—Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed—has the Prospero character produce The Tempest in a prison. This Tuesday marked the release of Edward St. Aubyn’s Dunbar—his cover of King Lear—which sees Lear reimagined as the head of an international media corporation.
Edward St Aubyn’s novel, however, was preceded by Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, her cover of Othello and Hogarth’s first modernization of a Shakespearean tragedy. Chevalier’s retelling takes place over the course of a single day on a predominantly white elementary school playground, in which Ian, the playground bully, schemes to break up the budding relationship between Osei—a new student originally from Ghana—and Dee, a popular white student.
When it comes to contemporizing Shakespeare, Othello tends to be considered one of the most substantial texts to view through a modern lens, generally accompanied by The Merchant of Venice. Although Shylock is presented as the villain of Merchant, the anti-Semitism he experiences allows for a modern writer to examine Shylock’s personal tragedy as a victim of discrimination. Meanwhile, although race is not specifically mentioned as incentive for Iago’s escalating schemes against Othello, the implicit racial politics of both Othello’s interracial marriage to Desdemona and his military success as a man of color provide plenty of contemporary subjects for a modern author to examine. In his recent piece for The New York Times, “Shylock and Othello in the Time of Xenophobia,” Shaul Bassi writes, “If throughout the 20th century ‘Hamlet’ and ‘King Lear’ vied for the title of most topical political allegory, in the new millennium ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Othello’ are the plays that make Shakespeare our contemporary.”
The fatal misstep of New Boy, then, comes from the fact that Chevalier chose to set her retelling in 1974 Washington D.C., only 10 years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act and, from Bassi’s perspective, before Othello truly became the relevant allegory that it is today. There are only a few choice nods to early 1970s pop culture such as hippies, Oldsmobiles, and Roberta Flack, and only one fleeting reference is made to Watergate (despite impeachment proceedings presumably taking place minutes away from the playground). Instead, the main aspect of New Boy that gives it a sense of time is the overtness of the racism that it exhibits. Teachers are frequently overheard discussing Osei, expressing their relief that he isn’t in their classroom, sayings things like “This school isn’t ready for a black boy,” and commenting that Osei has given Dee “a taste for chocolate milk.” Osei and Dee’s teacher, a rumored Vietnam War veteran, functions primarily as a racist stock character, lashing out at Osei for minor infractions by calling him “boy” and telling him to watch himself. His arc appears in the final pages of the book, when he drops the novel’s one predictable and unnecessary n-word, as he yells to Osei to get off of the jungle gym.
Chevalier’s descriptions tend to hinder her storytelling as well. The most significant example of this is in her characterization of Osei’s sister, Sisi, who has begun to follow the Black Panther party back in New York. Her empowerment is described at one point as an “angry black girl performance,” and she is subsequently described as angry so often that her character appears flat and stereotyped. Chevalier’s writing can also begin to feel heavy-handed, with six instances in which characters start to call Osei black before stopping mid-word to correct themselves. Even with this occasional interruption, the word “black” is used so often that it begins to feel artificial and excessive. In Act IV, Chevalier writes:
[Osei] did not want to confront her, to have her get in his face, talking to him, telling more lies, treating him like her boyfriend, and then like the black boy on a white playground. The black sheep, with a black mark against his name. Blackballed. Blackmailed. Blacklisted. Blackhearted. It was a black day.
So how is it that Hogarth’s cover of The Merchant of Venice was so successful, while their Othello cover fell so flat? The answer appears to be because of writers that were assigned to them. Howard Jacobson is a Jewish novelist best known for writing about the struggles of Jewish characters. Jacobson reportedly asked to cover other plays before being assigned Merchant, indicating that Hogarth thoughtfully assigned the play knowing that he would modernize it in a provocative way. Meanwhile, Tracy Chevalier is a white woman best known for The Girl with the Pearl Earring, set in the Dutch Golden Age, which bares little resemblance to the conflicts of Othello. When asked in an promotional interview for Hogarth as to what attracted her to the text, Chevalier likened Othello’s otherness to that of hers living as an expat in Great Britain.
White writers opting to write about a time in the recent past when racism was more deliberate is not uncommon. Abandoning a nuanced discussion of micro-aggressions, structural and institutional racism, and white supremacy in favor of explicit and often dated racial language often simplifies the writing process, and keeps white audiences comfortable as they read. In a similar critique of Hollywood, Kara Brown noted in Jezebel last year, “Right now, Americans are only comfortable with a certain type of black person onscreen.” Although Chevalier occasionally hints at the possibility of a more complex discussion of micro-aggressions—the principal congratulates Osei on being “articulate” before telling the class to welcome him even though he is a “less fortunate” student, despite his father being a diplomat—she ultimately shies away from it.
Alternatively, in A Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson uses her own background to add to her source material and intensify the text’s conflict. In The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes rather unexplainably believes that his friend King Polixenes is having an affair with his wife, Hermione. In A Gap of Time, Winterson—known for her autobiographical writing on LGBT issues—creates a previous affair between her Leontes and Polixenes, which, as Dean Bakopoulos points out in his New York Times review of the novel, “makes Leo’s overblown rage and irrational envy at the outset even more credible than it is in the original.” Therefore, although The Winter’s Tale isn’t usually listed with The Merchant of Venice and Othello as one of Shakespeare’s most politically relevant plays, Winterson’s unique additions make it more successful adaptation than Chevalier’s take on Othello, which idly favors a more overt racism than what is featured in her source text.
The choices of writers in many cases have led to fascinating twists on Shakespeare’s works, namely Jacobson’s parallel Shylocks in Shylock is My Name and Jeanette Winterson’s gay undertones in A Gap of Time. However, in a 2015 New York Times article detailing the Hogarth Shakespeare project, Alexandra Alter wrote that Winterson’s cover was, “a promising start to an ambitious new series from Hogarth, which has assembled an all-star roster of stylistically diverse writers to translate Shakespeare’s timeless plays into prose.” As the series has gained more traction, it is hard not to notice the word “stylistically” here. Although the writings of the Hogarth team are stylistically varied, their biographies are less so. Three of the writers are American and three are British, leaving Margaret Atwood (who is Canadian) and Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø, whose cover of Macbeth is expected next year. All eight writers are white—five women and three men—with only one under the age of 50 (Flynn is 46), and three writers in their 70s. Although each author did achieve some success within their own adaptation, imagine how rewarding the series would have been had it featured writers whose backgrounds varied more drastically from Shakespeare himself. It is disappointing when a project aims to see “the Bard’s plays retold by acclaimed, bestselling novelists and brought to life for a contemporary readership,” yet the writers selected are not ultimately representative of all that contemporary society has to offer.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Early in her novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor describes protagonist Hazel Motes, leader of the Church without Christ, by the silhouette he casts on the sidewalk. “Haze’s shadow,” she writes, “was now behind him and now before him.” It’s a strange way to situate a character — skulking between his shadows — but it’s not unprecedented. In The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot’s narrator refers to “Your shadow at morning striding behind you/Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you.” Coincidence? Nobody can say for certain. But in the rare case of a critic linking O’Connor and Eliot, Sally Fitzgerald (O’Connor’s close friend) wrote that “it was Eliot and his Waste Land who provided for her the first impetus to write such a book as Wise Blood.”
Harold Bloom, the literary critic who thrives on making such connections, famously argued that great writers, burdened by what he called the “anxiety of influence,” subconsciously misread established literary giants to achieve originality. But in this case, O’Connor is not misreading Eliot. She’s answering him. The Waste Land delivers a darkly poetic proposition. Every line relentlessly reiterates the theme that, in the wake of World War One, hope had been leached from life. Existence, in the poem’s assessment, culminates in a word one rueful lover repeats in The Waste Land’s second section: “Nothing . . . Nothing. . . nothing . . .nothing . . .Nothing.”
O’Connor was a Catholic whose literary ambitions hewed to an active faith. For her, nothing could come from nothing. She embraced The Waste Land’s despair but refused to accept its emptiness. In her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” she wrote, “I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe.” This belief — informed by a desire to observe from a Christian angle — compelled her to both absorb the meaningless in Eliot’sThe Waste Land while, at the same time, offering a response. Of Hazel Motes, she once wrote, “His search for a physical home mirrors his search for a spiritual one, and although he finds neither, it is the latter search which saves him from becoming a member of the wasteland and makes him worth 75,000 words.”
In both Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, O’Connor — as Harold Bloom would expect one to — evokes Eliot’s wasteland by replicating its prominent themes. She transplants the desolate urban iconography of The Waste Land’s to the small rural enclaves of the American South. O’Connor’s southern landscape is the “upsidedown half of the world,” a sad and painful sprawl of land where “each weed that grew out of the gravel looked like a live green nerve.” At times her landscape seems on the verge of exploding into flames and, in least one instance, at the end of The Violent Bear it Away, does just that. But in the midst of this desolation and conflagration she confronts Eliot’s dried-up nothing with a flood of something. Decisively, if jarringly, she proposes a vision — albeit a strange vision (Eliot once said of O’Connor, “She has certainly an uncanny talent of high order but my nerves are just not strong enough to take much of a disturbance”) — of human redemption.
Eliot delivers the ruins. O’Connor preserves them, navigates them, and then, inspired by Catholicism, discovers in them an original form of grace.
Whatever anxiety O’Connor experienced over mimicking Eliot (probably not very much), she didn’t attempt to hide it. In O’Connor’s second (and final) novel, The Violent Bear It Away, the 14-year-old Francis Marion Tarwater receives from his aging uncle, with whom he lives in a countrified wasteland, careful instructions on how to bury his large dead body when he eventually keels over in their isolated abode. After digging what the uncle insisted had to be a proper hole (“I want it ten foot”), Tarwater was then, according to the uncle’s directions, instructed to “prop me with some bricks so I won’t roll into it and don’t let the dogs nudge me over the edge before it’s finished. You better pen up the dogs.” In The Waste Land’s single reference to burial, a soldier home from war in London sees a former comrade walking across London Bridge and asks, “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” And then: “Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to man/Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again.”
In both instances, in both wastelands, dogs are banished from the graveside. They will not be set loose to complete Antony’s famous order, delivered in Act III, Scene I of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, at Caesar’s funeral, to “let slip the dogs of war.” That act would miss the point in these mirrored wastelands because, as both Eliot and O’Connor suggest, whatever justice is to be attained is, alas, pointless. The body is interred. The play is over. Death is death. Dust is dust. The dogs must be locked away.
Perhaps the only prospect worse than death is, for both authors, eternal earthly life. It’s a prospect that both Eliot and O’Connor symbolize in the form of a shriveled, miniaturized body. The Waste Land opens with an epigraph that declares (in part): “Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere.” Translation: “Now I myself with my own eyes saw the Sybil of Cumae hanging in a jar.” According to myth, the Sybil of Cumae asked Apollo for eternal life but, in so doing, forgot to ask for eternal youth. Wish granted, the Sybil ages forever, shrinking to the point that she fits in a glass jar. The image is reliably referenced later in the poem as a symbol of existential hopelessness (“You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.”)
What worked for Eliot worked for O’Connor. In Wise Blood, Enoch Emery, the trickster sidekick whose friendship Haze Motes rejects, steals a mummified dwarf (displayed in a glass case) from a local museum and delivers it to Sabbath Lily Hawks, the nymph lover of Motes, in a paper sac. Enoch wants Motes, despite his bad attitude, to have the desiccated and shrunken mummy as a “new jesus” symbol for his Church Without Christ. Earlier in the novel, when Enoch first sees the mummy, he approaches it cautiously, after reading a sign on the wall that tells him “he was once as tall as you or me.” As with Eliot’s Sybil, the mummy has diminished in size over time. The scene ends when a mother walks into the museum with two boys, both of who approach the glass and peer at the blackened figure.
O’Connor, again in Wise Blood, practically completes Eliot’s scene for him. In Eliot’s epigraph (which inexplicably switches to Greek), two boys approach the Sybil in the jar (some think this was the inspiration for Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar), just as the boys do in O’Connor’s museum. They ask her, “What do you want?” and the Sybil replies, in true Eliot fashion, “I want to die.” O’Connor grants the Sybil her wish when, after Sabbath showed Motes the mummified new Jesus, he “snatched the shriveled body and threw it against the wall.” Upon impact, “the head popped and the trash inside sprayed in a little cloud of dust.”
Few words are more evocative of The Waste Land than that carefully considered word: dust (a mote of dust). If there is a line that best captures the depth of the poem’s existential terror it comes when the narrator promises, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” — or, as O’Connor suggests, maybe in the shattered head of a purloined dwarf.
O’Connor’s novels also follow Eliot’s lead on the theme of blindness. The inability to see, partially or completely, pervades The Waste Land. The “hyacinth girl,” from section one, describes a moment of potential romantic happiness when the girl notes of her possible lover, “we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,/Your arms full and your hair wet.” It’s one of the poem’s only moments of hope. But it’s immediately dashed when the hyacinth girl recalls how, quite suddenly, “I could not speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither/Living nor dead, and I knew nothing.” Later in the same section, the prophetess “Madame Sosostris,” consults her “wicked pack of cards” — is there any hope in there? — and finds a Phoenician sailor with “pearls that were his eyes” as well as a “one-eyed merchant.” The merchant on the tarot card carries something possibly significant on his back, but it turns out to be something for which Madame Sosotris must confess, “I am forbidden to see.” Some prophetess — she’s without foresight.
Sight, or lack thereof, is even more central to inner mechanics of Wise Blood. Hazel Motes, who can see normally when we meet him, eventually blinds himself in an act of spiritual rage. Motes’s antagonist, the preacher Asa Hawks, also sees normally, but fakes blindness as a ruse to foster donations. When naming her characters, O’Connor must have had in mind “seeing like a hawk” and the biblical “why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (And maybe even King Lear.) Either way, the theme of compromised sight is even in peripheral scenes. When Motes and Sabbath encounter a caged black bear at Tennessee gas station (don’t laugh, I once saw a caged ostrich an east-Texas gas station), we learn that “the bear had only one eye.” Enoch Emery’s landlady was “almost totally blind but moved about by an acute sense of smell.” Sabbath Lily says to her father about Haze, “I like his eyes. They don’t seem to see what he’s looking at, but they keep on looking.”
The similarities continue in other areas as well. They appear when Tarwater is raped in The Violent Bear it Away, and in Tarwater’s sadistic baptism (which results in drowning the feeble initiate). But, in the end, O’Connor isn’t content with simply mimicking Eliot’s hellscape of despair. Instead, she yanks us in the opposite direction — from a ghastly landscape to a strange paradise of redemption. And she does so in a way that, indeed, made her a true original — at once devout, humorous, and spiritual. It is in that last description of Motes’s eyes — “but they keep on looking” — that O’Connor’s faith intervenes, her Catholicism asks to be honored, and she lays an eccentric basis for hope.
Eliot ends his poem with a spiritual assessment of a wasted land that’s so devoid of life (specifically water) that it even dries out any prospect of Christ’s resurrection and, by extension, the rest of humanity. “After the agony in stony places/The shouting and the crying/Prison and palace and reverberation/Of thunder of spring over distant mountains/He who was living is now dead/We who are living are now dying.” To be sure, Motes doesn’t escape death. He dies in the back seat of a cop car. But before his death, after his blindness, as his spiritual vision intensifies towards something, he takes to staging his own crucifixion (wrapping himself in barbed wire and filling his shoes with rocks), and attempts his own conversion experience through a painful form of redemption.
The book ends with Motes’s corpse propped in a chair at the home of his landlady. Her name — evoking the water that never quenched The Waste Land — is Mrs. Flood, and her final observation — that she thinks (with her eyes shut) she sees “a pin point of light” in his dead eye sockets — is the twinkle of hope that you can search for throughout The Waste Land and never find. It is O’Connor’s way of answering, and escaping, The Waste Land. It is her way of resurrecting Motes, and ensuring that his quest for meaning never loses significance.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
For the epigraph to his brisk, entertaining book on professional marathon running, Ed Caesar chooses a passage from Julius Caesar (no relation): “There is a tide in the affairs of men, / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…” Brutus’s speech sets the mood well enough, though considering what transpired at the recent Berlin Marathon, Caesar might have also looked for a quote from the same play’s punning cobbler, a “mender of bad soles.”
About 10 miles into that September Berlin race, the insoles of Eliud Kipchoge’s running flats began to slip out the back and flop around. It looked as if two neon appendages had sprouted out of his calves — perhaps some revolutionary technology designed by Nike to reduce wind drag? Despite this freak occurrence, Kipchoge won the race in a time of two hours and four minutes flat, just one minute or so slower than the world record (2:02:57) and a mere four minutes from breaking the two-hour mark. Surely the latter is within reach barring a similar wardrobe malfunction?
Not exactly. The two-hour marathon, 26.2 miles run at 4:35-per-mile pace, won’t be accomplished anytime soon, which Caesar, a journalist, acknowledges implicitly in the title: Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon. Elsewhere he calls the land beyond the two-hour barrier “the Narnia of Distance Running.” Seconds don’t come cheap in elite racing, and the two-hour marathon, at least when Caesar was writing his book, was still 218 seconds away:
What’s 218 seconds? It’s a pop song; a long commercial break; the time it takes to soft-boil a small egg. In marathon terms, however, those 218 seconds are a lifetime.
To produce a solid, let alone world-record, performance, everything has to go exactly right. The best marathoners usually compete only twice a year at a handful of fast, flat marathons (Berlin, London, Dubai). If a runner has an off day, if it’s too hot, cold, windy, rainy, if the pacers, who are world-class runners themselves, don’t hit their assigned splits, or if, say, a shoe disintegrates, then the attempt has to wait another six months.
Fear not, though; our best scientists are on the case. The Sub2hrProject in Newcastle, England, has been “launched…to ‘identify and nurture’ a runner who could break two hours within the next five years.” Mike Joyner, a professor of anesthesiology, calculated in a 1991 paper that “given ideal conditions, and the ideal runner,” a 1:57:58 marathon was possible. (And that’s without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs.) Joyner based his prediction on physiological factors, while David Martin and Holly Ortlund used the historical correlation between the 10,000-meter and marathon world records to predict that the first sub-two-hour marathon would occur between 2029 and 2032. I can’t imagine the pressure that the world’s best marathoner will feel in 2032: If not for personal glory, break two hours to defend the honor of predictive statisticians everywhere!
I agree that the time will eventually fall, if only because, as with the 1950s pursuit of the four-minute mile, fate has conspired to align an arbitrary distance with a tempting target: just imagine having a “1” in front of your marathon time. If this logic sounds faulty, so be it, for even in such a hyper-regimented sport, there is an element of the irrational in distance running. As Caesar writes in one of his uncharacteristically overwrought moments: “Human beings are more than hearts and lungs and legs, and the quest for virgin territory more than a battle of swift feet.”
Caesar devotes a chapter to the always colorful history of the marathon (always more fun reading about than running). He starts with the hemerodromos (i.e., running messenger) Pheidippides’s fatal journey from Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C., the best “creation myth in sports,” up through 17th-century England, where Samuel Pepys chronicled “endurance races taking place between the servants of the rich” around Hyde Park, an OSHA violation if there ever was one. For the 25-mile race run at the first modern Olympics in 1896, a Greek financial backer offered his daughter’s hand in marriage “for any local man to cross the finish line in first place.” (A Greek, Spyridon Louis, did eventually win, but he opted for “free meals and haircuts for life” instead of the daughter.) The first man to cross the line of the 1904 Olympic marathon in St. Louis hitched a ride from miles 9 to 20; a forbear of Rosie Ruiz, who in 1980 would hop on the T and emerge to “win” the Boston Marathon. The actual winner in St. Louis, Thomas Hicks, downed on course a “cocktail of brandy, egg whites, and strychnine,” an early version of the nauseating energy drinks widely available today.
The modern marathon distance — twenty-six miles, three hundred and eighty-five yards — was established at the 1908 Olympic Marathon so that the royal family would be optimally positioned to watch the start at Windsor Castle and the finish from their royal box in White City Stadium. They were treated to quite a race between an Italian pastry maker, Dorando Pietri, the American Johnny Hayes, who trained on the cinder track on the roof of Bloomingdale’s, and a South African named Charles Heffernon, who was leading with two miles to go before he cramped up after drinking a glass of champagne. (Brandy and strychnine is one thing, but champagne is just unprofessional.) Pietri took over the lead, then collapsed during the final lap in the stadium and was disqualified for being dragged across the finish line. A tough blow for the Italians, who would have to wait until 2004 in Athens to win an Olympic marathon; there Stefano Baldini prevailed after the leader, Brazil’s Vanderlei de Lima, was tackled by a defrocked priest with four miles to go. Sometimes the sport seems governed by Murphy’s Law.
Caesar also gets us up to speed on the current state of the marathon: “Since 2002…not only had two minutes fallen from the world record, but the distance appeared to have changed genre” from a “pure endurance event” to a “speed-endurance event.” Apart from this shift, the model whereby an elite runner spends the first part of his career on the track before moving to the marathon seems to be evolving. Haile Gebrselassie, the great Ethiopian champion, did just that, dominating at the 5,000- and 10,000-meter distances before becoming the first man to break 2:04 in the marathon, at the age of 35. Gebrselassie believes that track work in his 20s laid the foundations for marathon success in his 30s (“If you cut a young tree for timber, you cannot succeed,”) though the 25-year-old Gebrselassie might have had a greater potential for running faster.
Major marathons generate and pay out big money, which isn’t to say that the elite marathoners are stars. Caesar describes the average, presumably Western viewer tuning in to watch the start of an elite marathon:
What you see is a parade of gaunt, lithe black men with low numbers on their vests, arrayed in the lurid uniforms of shoe companies. Their names are as good as indistinguishable, and their stories mysterious.
Caesar attempts to remedy this by profiling Geoffrey Mutai, one of the marathoners leading the charge to lower the marathon record. He couldn’t have chosen a nicer — and faster — guy, even if the humble, soft-spoken runner doesn’t quite pop off the page. We first see Mutai trying to get in the zone before the 2012 Berlin Marathon by summoning “the Spirit,” or what the French cyclist Jean Bobet described, in typically sensual Gallic terms, as la volupté: a state of “speed and ease, force and grace.” The Spirit does arrive, and he wins.
Mutai is from Equator, a town in Kenya’s Rift Valley perched 9,000 feet above sea level. He is a Kipsigi, “a subtribe of the Kalenjin, part of a Nilotic family of tribes who emerged from the Nile Valley centuries ago, and who now utterly dominate distance running…the most extraordinary sample of geographically concentrated dominance in any sport.” Caesar outlines some of the cultural and genetic explanations for their success: Kalenjin runners have a comparatively active childhood and tend to be “extremely slender below the knee;” their diet is “nearly perfect for an endurance athlete;” they were born at altitude but have sea-level ancestry, an optimal combination for heart and lung efficiency, as David Epstein pointed out in The Sports Gene; and the financial rewards are enormous. Caesar also mentions but pays less heed to evolutionary arguments about Kenyan prowess, from the more plausible — cattle raiding conferred reproductive benefits on the swiftest over long distances — to the absurd — painful Kalenjin circumcision rituals “bred toughness” over the centuries, culminating in an athletic population capable of producing a specimen who can run endless 4:40 miles without flinching.
There is much debate about each of these explanations, but Caesar sees Kenyan dominance as a numbers game. A combination of genetic and socioeconomic factors has created the right conditions for world-class marathoners to emerge: “Of the hundreds and thousands of men and women who attempt to have careers as professional runners, these particular athletes play the music of their lives most sweetly.”
Mutai was one of 11 children, overcoming an abusive relationship with his father and a bout of teenage drinking to dedicate himself to the sport. He left Equator to train alongside a group of self-coached runners in the remote village of Skyland (Kapng’tuny), this during a time when the region was beset by violence stemming from the disputed 2007 Kenyan presidential election:
On long runs, the athletes didn’t know whom they would meet. The marathon runner Wesley Ngetich was killed during the violence by poison arrow. The world marathon champion Luke Kibet was severely injured when he was struck by a stone.
Mutai himself narrowly escapes being attacked by a machete-wielding mob just two months before his first international marathon in Monaco. Caesar effectively captures the bemusement that Mutai feels when transported from this alternately ascetic, roiling environment to the Riviera: “Mutai found the place ridiculous. People in Monaco drove their cars in tunnels and treated their dogs in hospitals…Here he was, in this odd place where rich mzungus [whites] lived crushed together, and he had a chance to change his fortunes.”
Which he does. Mutai wins the race and goes on to become a world-class marathoner. In 2011, led out by the front-running American Ryan Hall and pushed by fellow Kenyan Moses Mosop and a strong tailwind, he produced the fastest marathon ever run at the time, 2:03:02. (Though the challenging Boston course, for officious reasons not worth getting worked up over here, is not world-record eligible.) Even after raking in prize money from subsequent victories in Berlin and New York, he continues to retreat to a small cottage with no running water and three roommates during peak training periods, heading out up to three times a day — between naps — to run on “God’s own racetrack: the dirt roads of Skyland.”
This may sound crazy to the millions of Americans forced to listen to their coworkers droning on about their marathon training, but Caesar could have gone into more detail about Mutai’s workouts. Unlike the pair of books by Chris Lear on collegiate runners (Running with the Buffaloes and Sub 4:00), Caesar doesn’t delve too deep into the specifics of the training program, but rather outlines the building blocks — long runs of around 20 miles that get progressively faster and hills, lots of hills, which “[stay] in the legs longer” than track work. Another staple is the “fartlek,” a Swedish term meaning “speed play” that has been reliably making me giggle for decades. (It involves a continuous run alternating between faster and slower paces.)
Really though, the Kenyan training strategy is simple: “We start slow…and then we pick [go fast].” And perhaps we’re overcomplicating what’s needed to run a two-hour marathon, such as devising new shoe technology or constructing a sheltered course with a more forgiving surface than asphalt. Why not cover the first half in one hour or so, and then, in the lapidary parlance of these extraordinary athletes, pick? Easier said than run.
“All that he doth write / Is pure his own.” So a 17th-century poet praised William Shakespeare. This is not actually true.
Shakespeare was a reteller. Cardenio, also known as The Double Falsehood, which I’ve written about before for The Millions, was a retelling of the Cardenio episode in Don Quixote. As You Like It retold Thomas Lodge’s romance Rosalynde, The Two Noble Kinsmen comes from the Knight’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Cressida from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. The Comedy of Errors is Plautus’s Menaechmi with an extra set of twins. The Winter’s Tale retold Robert Greene’s novella Pandosto without the incest. Much Ado About Nothing is Orlando Furioso, although Beatrice and Benedick are original. King Lear, Hamlet, and The Taming of the Shrew may be simple rewrites of earlier plays. In fact the only of Shakespeare’s plays to have original plots were The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. What makes Shakespeare, well — Shakespeare, is not his plots, but his language.
This month, Hogarth Press published the first entry — The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson — in a new collection of novels by today’s major practitioners that each rewrite one of Shakespeare’s plays. Tracy Chevalier will be retelling Othello; Margaret Atwood The Tempest; Gillian Flynn Hamlet; Edward St. Aubyn King Lear; Anne Tyler The Taming of the Shrew; Jo Nesbø Macbeth; and Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice. This is not a new endeavor, although it does seem to be a uniquely 20th- and 21st-century phenomenon. (The Romantics preferred to think of Shakespeare as an artless genius working under pure inspiration.) But as scholars have begun to recognize the extent of Shakespeare’s own retellings — and collaborations — modern writers have taken a page out of his book by rewriting his plays. (I’ll mention here the newly announced project by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays into contemporary English, but that seems to stem from a different impulse.)
Perhaps this narrative is too simple. It is not as if, after all, writers in the last century suddenly discovered Shakespeare as a source and influence. For the past 400 years, Shakespeare’s poetry and plays have become as much a part of the common language and mythology as the King James Bible. In a sense, Noah’s flood is as much a foundational myth of our culture as the Seven Ages of Man. Like Marianne Dashwood and John Willoughby, we use Shakespeare as a way to understand and connect with each other. There is so much of Shakespeare woven into Moby-Dick, for instance, that the allusions and the words and the quotations feel like the warp and woof of the novel. The same could be said for just about anything by Milton, Dickens, Austen, Woolf, Frost, Eliot — in fact I could name most of the writers in the English and American canons, and, indeed, abroad. Borges, to name just one example, found in Shakespeare a kindred spirit in his exploration of magical realism; and Salman Rushdie’s definition of magical realism as “the commingling of the improbable with the mundane” is a pretty good description of some of Shakespeare’s plays — A Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind.
Let’s take, for an example, Woolf’s Between the Acts, her last novel. It is a book seemingly made entirely of fragments — scraps of literature spoken and overheard; parts of the village pageant, around which the novel centers, either omitted or the voices of the actors blown away by the wind; characters speaking to each other but failing to understand, or only managing to half-articulate their thoughts. In the midst of all this, Shakespeare is ever-present, a source for the poetry on everyone’s lips, inspiration for part of the pageant, and a symbol of what ought to be valued, not just in literature and art, but in life.
One of these piecemeal phrases that becomes a refrain in the book and in the consciousness of the characters is “books are the mirrors of the soul.” Woolf turns it around from meaning that books reflect the souls of their creators to meaning that the books we read reflect what value there might be in our souls. The person who is drawn to reading about Henry V must have that same heroism somewhere in him; the woman who feels the anguish of Queen Katherine also has some of her nobility. The younger generation of Between the Acts reads only newspapers, or “shilling shockers.” No one reads Shakespeare, although they try to quote him all the time. Shakespeare becomes a substitute for what they cannot put into words themselves, their “groanings too deep for words.” The worth of Shakespeare that emerges in Between the Acts is as a tap for the hidden spring in each of the characters that contains the things they wish they could say, the thoughts that otherwise they would have no way to communicate — instead of mirrors, books are the mouthpieces of the soul.
Shakespeare’s plays are a touchstone, and the way we react to them, the way we retell them, says more about us than about him. For example, Mary Cowden Clarke in 1850 created biographies for Shakespeare’s female characters in The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines. Each are made paragons of virtue and modesty, reflecting Victorian morals and values. But Clarke was also coopting Shakespeare for her own interest in women’s rights, using his stories of women with agency and power, and clothing them in Victorian modesty in order to provide an example and a way forward for herself and her female readers.
To take another example, Mark Twain retold Julius Caesar (actually, just Act III, Scene i) in “The Killing of Julius Caesar ‘Localized,’” but he used it to address the bully politics of his day. Shakespeare’s play becomes a news squib from the “Roman Daily Evening Fasces” and the title character becomes “Mr. J. Caesar, the Emperor-elect.” Twain’s Caesar successfully fends off each would-be assassin, “[stretching] the three miscreants at his feet with as many blows of his powerful fist.” The story also makes a claim about Twain’s status as a writer compared to Shakespeare: by mentioning Shakespeare as a supposed citizen of Rome who witnessed “the beginning and the end of the unfortunate affray,” Twain mocks the popular reverence for Shakespeare; he ceases to be a poetic genius and becomes merely a talented transcriber. But by doing so, Twain mocks himself as well; he is, after all, transcribing Shakespeare.
To turn to novels, I could mention Woolf’s Night and Day, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Robert Nye’s Falstaff, John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, Rushie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, and a long list of others. In a way these are their own type; rather than appropriating Shakespeare, or quoting or alluding to Shakespeare, they purport to re-imagine his plays. Jane Smiley’s retelling of King Lear is probably the most well-known. A Thousand Acres manages to capture the horror of Lear. It is modern in that there is no ultimately virtuous character. Cordelia, or Caroline, becomes naive and blind and prejudiced as any other character in the play, and Larry Cook’s strange relationship to his daughters and the way it blows up says less about power and pride and love and aging than about abuse and bitterness. It is both horribly familiar and also fits surprisingly well into Shakespeare’s play. It becomes part of the lens through which we now must view Lear. It enriches our reading of Shakespeare while also giving us a new view of ourselves. And oh is it a cold hard view.
For her entry into the Hogarth series, Winterson had first pick, and chose The Winter’s Tale, which she says has always been a talismanic text for her. In The Gap of Time, Winterson has written what she calls a “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale. It’s a jazzy, news-y retelling, set insistently in a realistic world. Whereas Shakespeare takes pains to remind us that his play is just a play, Winterson’s emphatically tries to set the action in our own world. Hermione, for example, an actor and singer, has a Wikipedia page. Her acting debut was in Deborah Warner’s adaptation of Winterson’s novel The PowerBook, and she has performed at the Roundhouse Theatre in London. Leontes lives in London, where he is a successful businessman with a company called Sicilia, and Polixenes, a video game designer, lives in New Bohemia, which is recognizable as New Orleans. The characters are renamed with short, jazzy nicknames: Leontes becomes Leo; Polixenes is Zeno; Hermione is Mimi; the shepherd and clown who discover the lost Perdita become Shep and Clo. Only Perdita and Autolycus retain their full names. (Autolycus is the best translation of the book: he becomes a used car salesman trying to offload a lemon of a Delorean onto the clown.)
Shakespeare’s play is focused almost equally on the parent’s story and then the children’s, but Winterson’s focuses almost exclusively on the love triangle between Zeno, Leo, and Mimi. Whereas Shakespeare leaves open the possibility that Leontes may have some grounds for jealousy (though if we believe the oracle of Apollo, no room for the possibility of Hermione being guilty of adultery), Winterson is explicit that a love triangle does exist, but she inverts it. It is Leo who loves both Mimi and Zeno, Leo who has slept with both. And it’s clear that though Mimi chose Leo, there was a distinct connection between her and Zeno. Winterson even takes a hint from Shakespeare’s source in Pandosto and makes Leo consider romancing Perdita when he meets her. “As someone who was given away and is a foundling, I’ve always worked with the idea of the lost child,” Winterson has said. The part of Shakespeare’s tale that spoke to Winterson was the origin story, why the child was lost.
Shakespeare’s play, because it doesn’t insist upon existing in a realistic world, is full of wonder and mystery. It’s that magic that happens when you hear the words “Once upon a time.” The closest Winterson’s version gets to that place is in the scenes that take place inside of Zeno’s video game, when Zeno and Leo and Mimi play themselves but also become something a little grander, a little wilder, a little more numinous. But there is little of Shakespeare’s language present. Winterson’s The Winter’s Tale is as much a retelling of Pandosto as Shakespeare.
Why do we return again and again to Shakespeare’s plays, why do we keep rewriting them? Is it in hope that some of his genius will rub off? Are we searching for new possibilities for interpretation, hoping to mine new ore out of well covered ground? Or are we going toe-to-toe, trying our strength against the acknowledged genius of English literature? Perhaps it is simply that creativity is contagious. When a piece of art inspires you, it literally in-spires, breaths into you. It makes us want to create new art. Or, maybe it’s a more basic instinct. From the beginning of our lives, when we hear a good story, a story that as Winterson says becomes “talismanic” for us, what do we say? “Tell it again.”
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
I probably shouldn’t admit that I keep an Excel spreadsheet to track what books I’ve read in a given year. The file spans seventeen years, a book lover’s rap sheet, for sure; at my best, I was reading just under 50 books a year, a rate that I felt proud of. Unfortunately, I’ve been reading steadily fewer books over the years. I’m sure Excel could generate an instructive and depressing chart to illustrate this. After the birth of my daughter, I fell from tallies in the forties to the thirties. My son’s arrival in 2011 bumped me down to the twenties. Last year I was grazing the treetops just a few dozen feet above rock bottom.
I was once more casual about books, and I expected far less of myself as a reader. I read whatever was at hand, and I rarely tracked what I was reading. This changed—predictably—in college, when I joined a freshman class where I felt like everyone else had read everything important, while I had read nothing worthwhile. One boy in my Latin class seemed to have read Julius Caesar while in the cradle. Nietzsche was invoked often in late-night bull sessions at the dorm, and I knew the name, but could do little more than nod along. In one class, the professor and the students agreed The Great Gatsby was the solid-gold standard of all modern lit—tossing off references to the high-hatted lover, the ash heap, and West Egg, as if these were people and places they all knew personally as kids.
Looking back now, I can see how some of the people I thought knew everything had in fact just gathered enough knowledge to sound impressive. Such a nuanced understanding eluded me at the time, although such an insight even then would not have really made me feel better. I was a young man of no pedigree coming from the backwaters of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I was contending with the ex-pats of the East Coast and the better-bred urbanites of the Midwest’s larger cities; all that mattered was what it felt like I had not done, had not read, did not know.
Being prone to rash vows, I swore then that I would henceforth read everything that mattered. That I would embark upon the reading journey of all reading journeys. I’d just have to read everything. Fair enough: except I didn’t really know where to begin. And I didn’t really have time to get started in between integral calculus and seeking out new friends. I made no real progress until the arrival of summer vacation, when I returned home to work as a messenger in a law firm.
For weeks I stumbled blindly through books by William Blake and Carl Sandberg, but nothing really clicked till I opened a copy of the ever-controversial Lolita. Before then, I often said that I wanted to a writer but that I’d probably be a lawyer because it was more practical. After reading Nabokov, I had an epiphany on the order of anything out of Dubliners: I cared more about art than legal arguments. And I admired Nabokov more than any learned attorney. Nabokov was a perfect specimen of art made man. His voice and tone were pitch perfect; he was deeply learned and sophisticated, and he had the charm to make a deeply disturbing story into a thing of terrible beauty.
That summer I put Lolita in the hands of everyone I knew. I urged it onto a girl I was trying to impress. I gushed to the point of self-abasement with strangers at Barnes & Noble. I even convinced my 85-year-old grandmother to read it. She surprised me by diving in so deeply that she read with a copy of a French-English dictionary at hand, the better to unlock the meaning of each filigreed phrase.
I was startled by her deep engagement with the text. Here was a woman who had not finished her last year of high school, and yet she could settle into Nabokov’s wordplay with a verve all her own. The night that I fetched the book from her, after she had finished, we sat in her kitchen in the dim light of a hanging pendulum lamp; we were surrounded by tall piles she had made of newspapers that she intended to read. She lived alone, as my grandfather had died the year previous. We spoke until well after dark, something that had never happened before. The world was full of new surprises.
After that summer, I would never again pretend to care about a career in law: I was mesmerized by the idea of finding, reading, and maybe even writing consequential books. I didn’t have a future path for gainful employment, but I did have The List, and that, at the time, felt like enough.
I call it the List, but its full name is The List of Every Book I Need to Read before I Die. The rules of The List are simple. Rule 1: the List is never written down. It can only be kept in one’s head because only thought can hold the list of everything worth knowing, because the entire universe is worth knowing, and the universe is infinite. Rule 2: you cannot remove a book from the List until you’ve read it entirely—because until the last paragraph, anything can happen.
I have not bothered with any more rules because those two have proved trouble enough.
Those first years of exploring the books of The List were like the beginning stages of love; when you and your beloved discover a shared appreciation for lazy afternoons on a blanket in Central Park, forgetting everything else exists; when you are startled and overjoyed at the simplest coincidences; when it feels like the entire world is made for you to discover its hidden connections and contradictions.
I remember in particular when I fell for the work of William Faulkner in March of 1998. We’d been introduced before, but always at the wrong time and place. This time, I was particularly weak and needy: my graduation was nearing, and having abandoned law school, there were many legitimate questions about where I’d live and how I’d afford living. I was also physically ill with a late winter cold. Into this ailing world, there arrived a Modern Library double-edition of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.
Faulkner was brash, confident, and utterly unconventional in all the ways that I was vulnerable to. He was not proper and neat, like Nabokov. He broke things. He seethed. I did nothing for two days but lie in bed and power through both novels. Once I could stand again, I became the evangelist of yet another Great Book. You have to read Faulkner, I kept saying. Have you read this guy? You have to read this. The man has no limits!
One evening at a small party on the patio deck of a nearby apartment, I was introduced to another graduating senior, a woman who had just completed her honors thesis. I inquired about the topic. She said, simply: “Faulkner.” I am not lying when I tell you thunder rumbled in the distance: it had just finished raining. I put my hand on the railing to steady myself.
“Explain something to me,” I said, eager to dive in, “Why does Faulkner put a tiny picture of an eye in the text of The Sound and the Fury? Why is there a tiny coffin hidden in the lines of As I Lay Dying? What’s it all mean?”
This woman glanced at the cloudy skies, as if hopeful for rain but quick. “I don’t know,” she said. I think in retrospect that perhaps she thought I was in the opening stages of a come on. Maybe I was, in a manner. We were all drinking and we were all young and I was desperate to find a way forward that could join the world of reading to the real world of adulthood and being.
My way forward, eventually, led to New York for an MFA program that fall. And while there I began to meet more people tunneling through books, working their own Lists. To my great joy, among these people I could actually talk about what I was reading, and what I thought of Great and Important Books. Yet we were all also very busy and protective of our writing time, as we were all supposed to be composing Important Novels of our own. Also, I was still a laggard. I was reading fistfuls of Hemingway and Dostoevsky, but I still hadn’t read Moby-Dick, and whenever Jane Austen came up, I’d pretend to hear someone calling in another room.
Around that time I returned home again for the holidays and visited my grandmother. She was not living in her house any longer during the winters. Instead, her children prevailed on her to occupy a small cottage on a plot that my uncle owned near a deep pond called Gun Lake. The rooms where she lived were sparsely furnished; she brought little more than her clothes, a television, and dozens of books, which she stacked on the floor near a portable heater.
On a snowy Christmas Day, she and I sat on the divan near the windows where outside my uncle was shoveling snow and we talked about New York City, and what my life was like, and what I was reading there, what new authors I had to tell her about. I found these dialogues somehow more affecting than most of the ones that I had in New York because they were the most honest and true; neither my grandmother nor I had read everything we wanted to read, and we were both serious about fixing the score on that point.
This new relationship surprised me, but it was not without precedent. As a boy, after raking leaves or performing the prerequisite chores to help out, I would sit at my grandmother’s kitchen table with a finger to a page in her 2,128-page unabridged Webster’s dictionary, quizzing her on words while she baked. Pie-eyed; melancholy; puny—these were words we laughed over. This connection had matured into a kind of partnership when I was an adult, and we could speak honestly and like fellow travelers who met up from time to time.
After I finished graduate school, I kept up the tradition of the List; despite stepping away from a community of fellow readers, I did not find myself reading less. If anything, I began to read more. I crossed names off the List and added names on to replace the ones that have passed. I met and became smitten with the likes of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster and Yukio Mishima.
Around the time that I got married, I fell hard for Graham Greene’s serious novels. During the settling in period of my first home, I binged on John O’Hara. The joy of those books is intermingled with the joy of those periods of my life. Sometimes, I wish just as much that I could forget all the Graham Greene novels and begin The End of the Affair again for the first time. I wish I could read with unspoiled eyes the startling first chapter of BUtterfield 8. But you can’t go back.
I was eating dinner with friends on the Upper West Side in January 2010 when my father called and told me that my grandmother, Valerie Cote, had died. Like a character from countless novels or plays, I was to return home. And home I went, packed up with heavy feelings and the sense that a long, winding conversation had been interrupted—and would never resume again.
At the time, I was reading a book by Nam Le called The Boat. The Boat is a collection of stories, about which I can now remember almost nothing. I carried the book in a knapsack on the 11-hour drive home; and during the three days that I spent in Michigan, I know that I took the book out a few times, but I never really read it with any comprehension or joy.
Instead, while home I helped my parents empty out the apartment where my grandmother lived her final days. We threw out tattered clothes and sun-bleached furniture. There was very little worth keeping. She did not really seem to care about possessions. Except for her small horde of books. She was alone but not alone. In the collection of books near where she died, I recognized many books that she had carried unfinished around for ages, such as Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels. She had neglected the real world at the end and lived in the world of the book, and yet she still did not finish her List.
If it stimulated her, the reading, if it propped her up at the end, as her body failed her, as the light went out, I can’t say for sure. I can, however, say for certain that standing in her apartment while my mother vacuumed and my father packed up boxes, I felt no trace of her presence. It was as if she’d already been gone for ages. I suspect I would feel the same if I stood in Borges’s tiny flat or Proust’s bedroom. It is possible to stop living in the world long before you stop living.
So, then, what is it all worth, all this reading? Is it all just a delusion, a way of killing time, before time kills you?
I don’t think so, and my proof comes—ironically—via one last list. This list is a partial one, a mere sampling from the titles of the books that I took from my grandmother’s apartment and added to my own library on the shelves of my home in New York. This is the list of the place where my List, the list of a boy born in 1976 and still alive, overlaps with my grandmother’s List, the list of a girl born in 1915 and who died in 2010; despite our differences, we share a set of books that neither of us have ever read but both of us feel like we should and hope that we will read someday, somehow:
The last book in this partial list, This Side of Paradise, belongs to a set of hardcover F. Scott Fitzgerald novels which includes The Great Gatsby. And mention of Gatsby returns me—borne back ceaselessly on the tide of nostalgia—to the period in my life when I finally tasted of that great book, the golden apple of American literature, or so I’d been told to expect. I was almost twenty-three, and I read the book all at once over the course of an evening; from the start, Gatsby’s story sent a frisson of recognition through me, like when you approach a murky portrait in a dark room and discover that you are looking at a dusty mirror.
As every reader of Fitzgerald’s finest novel knows, Jay Gatsby fashions a new life out of the void of his past. Born in the Midwest, he rejects his birthright, changes his name, and moves to New York. He pursues an impossible dream. He remains slightly lost, ever in love with an ideal. He comes East to start fresh, but how do you escape the lonely heart you carry within you? Short answer: you don’t.
My grandmother was eleven when The Great Gatsby was published. Like a Jazz Age bon vivant, for a brief period in her teenage years she wore her hair short and danced the Charleston at a trendy club in downtown Kalamazoo. Her name at the time was Ruby Herrick. Years later, after marrying my grandfather, she took his last name—Cote—but she also did something unusual. She began to go by a new first name: Valerie. This was the only name I knew her by. I was a teenager before I learned that she’d once been known as Ruby.
She never left Kalamazoo, despite her name change. She never had to run, or never could. In contrast, I did not change my name, but I did flee to the East. And I do have my own ridiculous ambitions, especially when it comes to The List. I have fashioned a new life in a new city in the quest of an ideal, although I would be hard pressed to sum up all I am after in words. Jay Gatsby probably wouldn’t have been able to say precisely what he wanted, either. He also was a lover of books, by the way—as the owl-eyed man at a party at his house points out in the novel. Except none of the pages in Gatsby’s books are cut. Unlike my grandmother, he never read a single page. He had a different kind of List.
So, now, here I am, after seventeen years of reading my way through my List, and I am reading still, but not as often; and why is that? Perhaps I am too busy. Perhaps I am entering into a period when I can’t fit in time for reading, and so I am deferring much of it for later—as my grandmother began reading with a vengeance after her children were grown and her husband was away at the club with his semiretired friends.
Or, perhaps, the number of books I read has dropped to a low now because after years of accumulation, I have gathered up enough stories and views and perspectives that I can at last wade through life with some confidence. I am no longer that 18-year old cub so cowed by what all the others around him have done. I see ways into the world other those of the milieu that I was born into; certainly there are countless more ways of seeing, but for now I can ease off the throttle.
I’ll never quit, of course. For me, reading is an act of personal tradition, something that belongs to me as deeply as a genetic signature; it is a kind of ongoing, hereditary faith. The images, characters and stories that I have gathered up are the templates for the stories, narratives, and analogies that help me interpret the world—like an ivy using a trellis to catch and claw its way to the light. I am not any more trying to gain admission to a mandarin club or rise up in standing against my rivals. I am going to read, and read, and the reading itself is and will have to be enough.
Reading is solitary and personal, but you aren’t necessarily alone in it. In some ways, we are all reading together; even if we are also reading alone. The List is infinite. My life is finite. I don’t need to finish everything. Finishing isn’t even the point.
Image via Longborough University Library/Flickr
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
“Oh, March, come right upstairs with me,” beckoned Emily Dickinson. “I have so much to tell.” She liked March: it brings, she wrote, a light like no other time of the year, a color “that science cannot overtake / But human nature feels.” But she also knew the dangers of the life that March’s thaw awakens: when the “snows come hurrying in from the hills” they can flood the banks of that “Brook in your heart” that “nobody knows.”
We don’t know quite what to do with March. We’re excited and frightened by its power and variability. Do we really think that the lion it comes in as can lie down with the lamb it becomes? It seems appropriate that halfway between the month’s two ends, where the lion and lamb meet, are the ides of March, full of Shakespeare’s storms and portents. Julius Caesar, set in middle March, even contains one of each of the month’s mascots: a “surly” lion, strolling unnaturally through Rome, and Brutus, who describes himself as a “lamb / That carries anger as the flint bears fire.”
Oddly, the best-known novels with “March” in their titles have nothing to do with the month: Middlemarch, though it sounds like a synonym for the day of Caesar’s death, refers to a town, not a time. (It’s really a fall book more than anything.) And in 2006, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to Geraldine Brooks’s March, about the March girls’ absent father in Little Women, while one of the finalists it beat out, E. L. Doctorow’s The March, already the winner of the NBCC and PEN/Faulkner prizes, is the story of Sherman’s sweep through the South, which took place in the fall, not the spring of 1864.
Here is a selection of recommended reading for a moody month:
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (1599)
There may be no literary character more famously forewarned than this would-be emperor, who, in his own play, is spoken of far more than he speaks himself and dies halfway through the action, on March 15.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)
In the early morning of March 20, a “puny, seven months’ child” named Catherine is born; later that morning her sickly mother, Catherine, dies, and her true love, Heathcliff, dashes his savage brow against a tree in fury and sorrow. Sixteen years later, young Cathy celebrates her birthday with a ramble on the moors, where she meets that same Heathcliff and Brontë’s tightly wound drama turns inward once again.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)
On a Friday in March at the stroke of midnight, the widow Copperfield bears a son into “a world not at all excited about his arrival,” thereby beginning — with “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” — Dickens’s favorite of his novels, and his most personal.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
Celebrate the Southern Hemisphere’s autumnal equinox with Captain Nemo, who unfurls a black flag bearing a golden N and claims the Antarctic continent in his name before resuming the undersea peregrinations that are his fate: “Disappear, O radiant orb! Retire beneath this open sea, and let six months of night spread their shadows over my new domains!”
“A Scandal in Bohemia” by Arthur Conan Doyle (1891)
The first Sherlock Holmes story published in The Strand contains perhaps the most memorable day in Holmes’s career, a certain March 21 in which the detective finds himself outwitted by a diminutive opera singer and would-be blackmailer named Irene Adler, or, rather, as she becomes during the day, Mrs. Irene Norton, or, as Holmes begins to refer to her, “the woman.”
The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson (1941-45)
With the first stirrings of spring, set sail from Scandia in search of plunder with Red Orm and his restless Vikings on their yearly raids in Bengtsson’s epic, based on the Icelandic sagas but fully modern in its detached good humor.
Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)
Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom novels grew, a book at a time, into an unplanned epic with each book tied to a season. The first one begins, appropriately, in spring, with Rabbit still young enough to feel the aches of age for the first time.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961)
Binx Bolling’s story is set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, which comes late that year, in March, but Binx does his best to avoid the hoo-ha, distracting himself instead by driving along the Gulf Coast with his secretaries and going to the movies, whose “peculiar reality” contrasts with the potent sense of unreality he’s burdened with.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (1970)
Margaret Ann Simon’s twelfth birthday, on March 8, starts out perfect but ends up rotten. Sixth grade (or at least books about sixth grade) would never be the same.
Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed (1976)
The novel’s final page claims it was finished a minute after midnight on Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, and it is certainly a book made for Carnival, upending history while never forgetting it in a gleefully anachronistic plot that puts Lincoln and Stowe alongside fugitive slave and poet Raven Quickskill and grant-funded “ethnic dancer” Princess Quaw Quaw Tralaralara.
The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (2000)
To the classic March fictional birthdays above add that of six-year-old Ludo Newman, the precocious hero of DeWitt’s brilliant debut, an intellectual and emotional adventure worthy of comparison with Ludo and his mom’s favorite Kurosawa film, The Seven Samurai.
What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman (2007)
“The Bethany girls. Easter weekend. 1975.” Two sisters, one fifteen and one nearly twelve, took the bus to Security Square Mall in suburban Baltimore and never came back. Until thirty years later, when one returns in a twisty and character-rich mystery that holds a solution few of its survivors thought they’d live to see.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (2007)
The Kingsolver family chose to begin their “food sabbatical” — a year of living only on what they grew, or close to it — in late March, with the arrival of the first Virginia asparagus. By the following March they were looking forward to reclaiming a few imported luxuries in their diet but were otherwise well fed and gratifyingly educated by the acre that had sustained them.
Image via iowa_spirit_walker/Flickr