“All fiction writers write out of their deepest, most intimate personal experiences, even if some of them try to deny it or disguise it,” Susan Choi tells me over coffee at the Ashland Place food court in Brooklyn, a loud yet somehow uncrowded space that she playfully refers to as “the mall.” Her writing space is just around the corner, but it hasn’t had heat for a while, thus the mall is providing a booming pop music soundtrack to our conversation. “I’ve never read a really good fiction writer who wasn’t writing from something they had felt personally, even if the story seems different from anything they have lived,” she says.
Choi’s fifth novel, Trust Exercise, examines the ways that writers choose to represent and distort their own stories. “Trust Exercise was my side project while I worked on my ‘real’ book, which I have yet to finish,” she confesses. “I’m a big believer in consistent engagement with a project, but a lot of interesting things happen when you step back. I kept disengaging and then something would bring me back, but my perspective would be altered in some unexpected way.”
The result is a wildly inventive novel that is told in three distinct parts, the second and third blowing up and reframing what came before. The first part is set in a suburban high school theater program in the 1980s, where two students, Sarah and David, fall in love under the watchful eye of their drama teacher, Mr. Kingsley, the kind of blowhard who insists that the proper way to spell the word theater in Middle America is theatre. When a group of British exchange students visit the school to stage a precocious production of Candide, the world becomes a little bit bigger for Sarah and David and their classmates. That’s all readers should know at the start.
“There are limited ways to talk about the plot,” Choi says. “I’m still figuring out what they are.”
To avoid wandering into spoiler territory, I ask about Choi’s own theater background. Much like the characters in her book, she attended a drama program—in a high school in Houston, where she grew up. “It was exotic for me, because I was supposed to be the smart kid,” she says. “My parents wanted me to attend a rigorous academic high school, and I rebelled and auditioned in a single mad flair of individuality and self-confidence. Then, horribly, I got in. I was so ill-suited for theater. Every time I had to go on stage I was mortified. So I became a techie, which is the happy refuge of every kid who loves theater but can’t stand being on stage.”
But Choi insists that her own experience was nothing like the one she depicts in the novel, using a modern-day TV metaphor to make her point. “I think of this book in terms of Stranger Things: this school is like the upside-down version of the school I attended, where, for the most part, I was really happy.”
I ask Choi whether she’s ever frustrated by the fact that many readers assume that a protagonist written by a female author is nothing but a stand-in for the author herself. “It’s something I became inured to with my last book [2013’s My Education], because it also takes place in a world I know, which is the world of unhappy graduate study,” she says. “But yeah, it’s an interesting conundrum for women writers. We get it much much more.”
My Education may be set in grad school, but it shares with Trust Exercise a tight grip on the unrelenting angst of obsessional first love. The students in Trust Exercise are told that they’ll never feel emotions quite as strongly as they do right then and there in high school, but the heroine of Choi’s previous novel does not seem any wiser or less passionate.
“I wrote both books thinking a lot about youth,” Choi says. “In My Education, I was interested in the youth of early adulthood and how different it feels from later adulthood. Looking back on your first chapter of adulthood, you seem like a teenager.”
The teenagers in Trust Exercise are similarly foolhardy in love and are taught by their theater teacher to revere Shakespeare above all. “Think of Romeo and Juliet, the most romantic tale ever,” Choi says. “And how old were they? That was on my mind—that these relationships that are culturally romanticized have their influence on young people. When you’re young, you’re capable of repurposing experience into a much more self-mythologized narrative than you are when you’re older.”
Mr. Kingsley also has a fierce influence on the way his students see the world. “A friend asked if I’d ever be able to write a novel that didn’t take place in some kind of school environment, and I hadn’t even noticed I’d been doing so until that point,” Choi says. “Clearly I’m preoccupied with the student-teacher relationship, with charismatic teaching, with what that sort of power does.”
I ask Choi whether she’s ever had a teacher as pretentious as Trust Exercise’s fictional drama teacher. “I had wonderful writing teachers who, if anything, were too hands off, too confident of my abilities to tell me what to do.” She leans closer to me. “But I know people who’ve studied with writing teachers who are incredibly tyrannical and dictatorial. I have in my possession a sheet of dictates that a very well-known writer and writing teacher used to issue to their students. The dictates are bizarre and petty and detailed. They were not at all ironically dictated—they were handed down by this writing teacher as the way to write serious literature.”
In contrast, Choi does not have a capital P process. “I almost never think thematically when I’m writing anything,” she says. “I’m usually writing about the rudiments of a circumstance, and following it. I usually don’t know how my books are going to end, or even what will happen in the middle.” She says she began Trust Exercise with the aim of writing something sleek and short. “I’d been reading a lot of Muriel Spark, and all her novels are less than 200 pages—slim—and she has brusque, aggressive openings to her books, where she grabs you by the neck and throws you in, and you just have to figure it out. I really wanted to do that.”
Though the final version of Trust Exercise runs more than novella length, Choi grabs readers right away, immersing them in the fixations of artistic students—the kind who claim to be too serious for musicals but are riveted by Andrew Lloyd Weber. “Trust Exercise is set in the 1980s, which is when I was a teen,” Choi says as the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” begins playing over the mall’s loudspeakers, as though she’d summoned it. “I remember the ubiquity of the Cats sweatshirt,” she says. “If you wore a Cats sweatshirt, it meant that you’d gone to New York and gotten it yourself. It was an incredible totem to have.”
Choi says she wanted to evoke a lack of worldliness in the Trust Exercise students. “My own teen has so much more knowledge of the world than I did at that age,” she says. “Maybe it’s being a New Yorker, maybe it’s growing up in the 21st century and with the internet—we love to blame the internet for everything.”
Trust Exercise is meant to be more provincial. “I wanted to depict teenagers who had never even met anyone who was from outside their city, let alone outside of their country,” Choi says, noting that much like her characters, she was incredibly naive as a teenager. “My sense of sexuality at the time was that we were both more precocious in terms of behavior than now, and much more innocent in terms of context and a larger understanding of everything having to do with sexual life and identity. We did everything and knew nothing. We thought we knew, but we knew so much less than we even realized.”
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
“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.”
The narrative circumstances of Nash’s penultimate scene, which reads like Quentin Tarantino, has an Italian nobleman being executed for the violent revenge he took upon his sister’s rapist. On the scaffold, the nobleman declares that “No true Italian but will honor me for it. Revenge is the glory of arms and the highest performance of valor,” and indeed his revenge was of an immaculate quality. He’d first forced his sister’s assailant to abjure God and condemn salvation, and then, satisfied that such blasphemy would surely send his victim to hell, he shot him in the head. A perfect revenge upon not just the body, but the soul. Nash presents such passion as a ritual of decadent Mediterranean vendetta, simultaneously grotesque and inescapably evocative.
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.
I am a chaotic reader. Is there a hidden logic in my scattered interests? Whenever somebody asks me about my recent reading, the first temptation is to discard the question with a pedantic answer: “I reread Ulysses.” Truth is, I only read Ulysses once, some 30-odd years ago.
This year, however, I returned to a major classic to teach a seminar. The Spanish-born Mexican poet Tomás Segovia achieved a new and astonishing rendition of Hamlet. One of the great side effects of translators is that they can renew a masterpiece. You Americans can have a “new” Don Quixote, and we Mexicans can have a “new” Hamlet. Segovia, who died in 2011, was a great poet. He translated some hundred books. His shadow boxing for Hamlet was the Spanish version of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. After such a titanic feat, he approached Shakespeare’s play with special attention to the music of words. On the rule, translators try to deliver the same content in a different language. But this not always includes finding an equivalent to the sound of words. Each language has its own rhythm, its own metric. Segovia translated Shakespeare “as if” he was using the rhythmic stanzas of, lets say, Gonzalo de Berceo. The outcome is awesome, both refreshing and loyal to the original poetic intention: the musical flow of English assumes the flow of Spanish.
Translation forces you to achieve a paradox. Obeying the primal message means to adapt it to your own culture. Literal translations are terrible. In order to achieve a genuine literary effect, you have to change some things. A very modest example: in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare speaks of the nine lives of a cat. For a mysterious reason in Spanish, cats have just seven lives. Two lives have to be lost in translation in order to sound natural in my language. Nine-life cats aren’t convincing in this poor part of the world.
Aside from Hamlet, I read other books. I don’t want to boast with a list nobody can fact-check. Suffice it to say that I embarked on a psychedelic trip. I am writing a play on Timothy Leary’s sojourn in Mexico. When he was expelled from Harvard, he came to Mexico and founded a kind of Club Med of the mind at the Catalina Hotel in Zihuatanejo. In the company of some 30 followers he organized sessions to enhance human perception. This attracted attention from the Mexican and American authorities (allegedly, an FBI agent took part in the sessions). Leary was approached by Mexican politicians and this lead to a very interesting exchange. According to Leary, Mexico had a great chance to become “the psychedelic Switzerland,” the haven of chemical recreational drugs. Mexico had the opportunity to legalize drugs and control them, following the example of the vernacular Indian communities. Otherwise the whole business would be run by the drug lords, as it eventually happened.
My play takes place at the Catalina Hotel in Zihuatanejo in those experimental days. I read the catalog of the De Young Museum about the Summer of Love exhibition, the novel The Girls by Emma Cline, the collection of essays Leary on Drugs, Leary’s biography Flashbacks, The Harvard Psychedelic Club by Don Lattin, Timothy Leary: A Biography by Robert Greenfield, and reread Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs, Island and The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley, among other stuff.
I read other books with no cannibalizing intentions. One of them: the formidable Cowboys’ Grave, by my late friend Roberto Bolaño. It was published in 2017, 13 years after his departure. I remember the sad farewell I attended at Les Corts crematory in Barcelona, in 2003. Who could have said that so many years later Roberto would still be the most productive writer of my generation?
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Raja ne gami te raani
Chaana veenthi aane
Kya karega kaaji
My mother spouted these words during another one of our marriage talks, which seem to be the ultimate tangent in any family conversation now. As more of my friends tie the knot, younger generations of my family dive into romantic exploits, and I near 30, there seems no escaping it.
Roughly translated, the folk saying means:
A king makes a queen [of any who he fancies]
Even if she’s making cow pies
And what can the priests do
In it lies the implied sense of manhood’s rule over anyone he sets his eyes on, regardless of what his educated elders have to say about it. It’s a folksy saying, innocent and dated, but it cuts to the core of where I stand in the world: An Indian-American man, instilled with and expected to live up to societal duties to establish my castle and spread my seed.
The cultural disposition of just “going along” with these things to please the family — as a writer, it feels antithetical. Would I write something just to please the culture?
In speaking of the social role of literature, Indian writer Govardhanram Tripathi wrote in the preface to his novel Saraswatichandra, “Both women and the novel desire to be beautiful, but our fulfillment of this desire just be a means to achieve higher goals. Striving for mere aesthetic pleasure is not only understandable, it is futile — and indeed it could be harmful — to attain that step and not rise upwards.”
Tripathi’s belief was that the novel should project an ideal future, but should remain in-step with the quotidian, avoiding any real radical divergence. That’s not good for society. It’s not good for the family. Literature, like all art, becomes an avatar of the cultural identity, and in Indian publishing, the country’s complicated relationship with autonomous female narratives continues.
It is no secret that this idea lies at the root of a larger social ill in India today. The headlines are flush with stories that range from men whistling and pawing at women walking down the street, to, at their most vile, incidents like Delhi’s 2012 bus gang rape, or last New Year’s Eve in Bengaluru, where 1,500 police officers couldn’t control thousands of drunken revelers snatching at the clothing of women trying to get home.
I used to have an easy target: Bollywood. Entire plotlines of lovesick boys chasing their consorts through forests and mountains, their affections easily reciprocated after a song-and-dance number, have brainwashed generations into thinking that romance starts with lighthearted stalking, and flourishes through female obligation. But Bollywood, whose male stars are propelled to near-mythic status, revered as Gods walking the earth, gestures towards a deeper ritual of masculinity worship that is central to the Indian condition.
Many cultures are built on a similar patriarchal notions that codified into the social fabric in different ways. In India, many will claim that female equality had been the norm in Vedic times, citing principles like ardhangini, that men and women are complementary halves of a whole. They will point to the images of Goddesses, and professing an insult to wife or mother is unconscionable. Somewhere along the way — Muslim empires, British colonials — it all got messed up.
Literature however, preserves a record of women perhaps, yes, having a voice and role — but one dictated by the whims of men.
The uber-mensch is no doubt Krishna, who toyed with the bathing Gopis by stealing their clothes along the river bank. His love story with Radha is our Romeo and Juliet, without the familial strife. Krishna of course, is a supporting player in the epic The Mahabharata, chronicling the battle between the cousin clans of the domineering 100 Kauravas against the heroic five Pandavas.
The tale’s pivotal moment comes during a game of dice, where the Pandava King, Yudhishthira, is cheated out of his kingdom by his cousins. One by one, he stakes his own throne, then each of his brother’s estates, and finally their polyamorous wife, Draupadi. At this point, Draupadi is dragged by her hair into the main hall, and the Kauravas begin pulling at her clothes, crying that if she can be married to five men at once, what’s the point of covering up? As her linen is torn from her, she prays to Krishna, who blesses her with a never-ending strand of clothing so that she doesn’t experience the ultimate shame of nudity, and in doing so, seals her holiness in the annals of myth.
Now, it’s important to mention that Draupadi is revered across India as a goddess in her own right, and celebrated as a feminist figure. But what of the feckless Pandavas, her husbands, who sit by and watch, unable to act because they’ve “rightfully” lost her?
The Pandavas, we are told, are virtuous, stalwart, underdog heroes — but at every beat they seem to buck their superlatives. They give in to the cheating and hostile bureaucracy of their cousins. Throughout the epic, they all fall prey to various vices: Yudhishthira loves to gamble; Bhima is a bully with seemingly insatiable bloodlust, brutally dismembering, crushing, and decapitating several characters through the story. Arjuna famously has a crisis of faith and confidence moments before battle, prompting Krishna to recite the Bhagavad Gita (and only then fights because Krishna tells him to). And there’s poor pretty-boy Nakula and dutiful Sahadeva, victims of vanity and pride, who barely register in the tale.
Indian children are raised on similar tales of kings wandering the wilds and happening upon village nymphs, struck with cupid’s arrows and picking up new wives. These are our mythical heroes and role models. We’re told they act out of honor and passion; when their actions are questionable, it is waived by divine destiny.
Through time, the examples multiply: the poet Kālidāsa in the 5th century dramatized the story of Shakuntala, another forest nymph who ensnared King Dushyanta. Their offspring Bharata founds the dynasty leading to the Pandavas.
Upon the Muslim invaders, the culture ripens with more stories of star-crossed lovers: Leila and Majnun; Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal (of the Taj); or the Hindu warrior Bajirao and his lover Mastani, who commits suicide upon hearing of his death in battle, an act of Sati, where Hindu widows are bidden to throw themselves onto their husband’s funeral pyres. (Let’s add that Sati herself is a goddess, and first of two consorts to Shiva.)
The folk saying Raja Ne Game Te Raani is also the title of a popular contemporary Gujarati stage play, about a middle-aged couple whose three daughters run the household instead of learning wifely duties from their mother. It takes a strong-willed servant — male, of course — to show the daughters their rightful way and bring peace to the home.
Modern feminism in India has often been dictated by men, first by colonialists trying to tame “savage” rituals like Sati, and later by Gandhi and other reform leaders hoping to envelope women’s liberation as a component of Independence. Today as women wrestle control of their own narratives, men tax them by attacking their moral standing. When the women assaulted in Bengaluru reported to the police and caused a national uproar, the politicians were quick with stock answers — they shouldn’t have dressed immodestly, they should have known better, it was New Year’s — what did they expect? Karnataka State’s home minister G. Parameshwara remarked, “They try to copy westerners not only in mindset, but even the dressing, so some disturbance, some girls are harassed, these kind of things do happen.” #NotAllMen trended the next few days, as if India’s stalwart Pandavas threw their hands up and claimed, “Hey, don’t look at me.”
The lack of women’s agency in their own narratives was chronicled famously by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their seminal work, The Madwoman in the Attic, examining writers like Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, and Emily Dickinson, and noting that even the most prominent women writers worked under the shadow of their male counterparts. They pose the question, “If the pen is a metaphorical penis, with what organ can females generate texts?”
As in most cultures, the Indian woman writer has often been placed in the position of being reactive to male hegemony. For every Mirza Ghalib there is a Begum Zeb-un-Nisa; both prized Mughal-era poets, only one imprisoned the last 20 years of her life for being too freethinking. For every Munshi Premchand, an Ismat Chughtai; both crafting socio-realist fiction about female sexual identity, yet only one summoned to court on grounds of indecency.
In her autobiography My Story, the late writer Kamala Das characterizes her life living under a conservative father and later a conservative arranged husband. She tries to dutifully please both of them, but they fail to ignite any intellectual and emotional connection with her. Even after achieving literary prominence, she writes in the preface: “This book has cost me many things that I held dear, but I do not for a moment regret writing it.”
There is no shortage of amazing writing coming out of India today. Novels about cultural displacement by authors of Indian descent like Jhumpa Lahiri, Kiran Desai, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, and their contemporaries have found global success. A diaspora bubble shifts the critical focus of diaspora writers away from gender, and makes it a battleground for class. In the eyes of India’s patriarchal culture wardens, their work is now Western, immoral, published by the big New York and London houses, printed for English-only eyes. It’s not Swadesi, not of this land. Their stories are dictated by a migration and divorce from a culture that then remains untouched, unchanged.
Meanwhile, writers like Arundhati Roy and the late Mahasweta Devi who remain in India are often perceived more as leftist activists than storytellers. It’s a longshot to assume their rich, nuanced works have any traction with India’s cricket-playing, paan-chewing working class. The current Hindu nationalist government staunchly opposes voices that threaten a particular religio-nationalist narrative (in one example from outside the country, University of Chicago professor Wendy Doniger’s book on Hindu sexuality was banned in India). Writers like Anjum Hasan, Anita Hair, and Anuradha Roy battle for bookshelf space against the likes of Chetan Bhagat, whose simple prose about cricket and call centers flies off the shelves. They are competing with Shobhaa De, a former model and Mumbai socialite, dubbed the “Jackie Collins of India,” whose bestselling tawdry Sex-in-the-City-esque tales serve to titillate schoolboys as much as give a feigned sense of female success in books.
Recently Bollywood has trended toward women-centric stories. Films such as Pink, Queen, Gulaab Gang, and Piku have all been smash hits at the box office, yet come with the stamped approval of male directors, male co-stars, and plotlines circling around and back to the women defying fathers, marriage, rape, or ignorance. And again, we find that any directorial voice — say a Mira Nair or Deepa Mehta — looks to markets abroad to find a platform.
Admittedly, I am also covering here only the writers who have risen high enough in the Indian literary scene that I, as an American, can identify them. There’s much to be said of small presses like Zubaan and Women Unlimited, as well as authors writing in one of India’s many regional languages. But in an increasingly globalized country, the success of English-language publishing remains the most profitable benchmark, which only threatens to further limit Indian women’s narratives.
In speaking of literature from South Asia, I admit this is a cursory overview of a millennia-spanning history. But as an Ahmedabad-born immigrant in a growing diaspora, my identity remains its product — through literature, through film, through every custom.
We pray to the feminine image with ultimate, unreciprocated piety, but in practice it’s considered a two-way street. We elected a woman prime minister before it was common to do so, then brutally assassinated her at the gates of her own home. Bollywood’s current screen queen, Deepika Padukone, drew scorn for a Vogue short film by proclaiming sex was “my choice.” A woman with power is a woman unchecked. Woman is either heretically subversive or divinely transcendent; there is no middle ground.
In a workshop in my early 20s, my writing was torn down over one prevalent problem: All of my female characters were immaculately beautiful, endearingly personable, cherished by my protagonist — like a goddess, and were just as intangible. I resist marriage, not because I detest the prospect of a devoted relationship (or the lavish wedding party), but because I’m uncertain of my own place in it, suffering from what Harold Bloom dubbed, “the anxiety of influence.” How does one escape the ills of heritage without leaving it behind entirely?
When the conversation arises — and it does with growing frequency — my family talks as if it’s already a done deal. Just say the word and we’ll find the girl. Do it for us. You’re a great catch — you even know how to cook! Most Indian girls don’t bother to learn anymore.
I’ve stood in the corner of those banquet halls, watching grooms draped in dowries, riding in on stallions and carried to the mandap on shoulders of their brothers. It was nauseating.
As of now, even the best of us may have to settle with the fact that we are reserved Pandavas, and no more or less righteous.
The Disrobing of Draupadi, Wikimedia Commons
Pop quiz: Whose signature is the rarest in the world? Answer: William Shakespeare’s.
Yes, the playwright who created Hamlet (1603), Romeo and Juliet (1597), and King Lear (1608), irrefutable master of English literature and stronghold of the Western canon, left behind no manuscripts and no letters — no handwritten trace of his copious life’s work, unless you count the long-disputed three pages of a manuscript at the British Library referred to as “Hand D” that may very well be his. Only six confirmed Shakespearean signatures survive, all on legal documents; his will contains the two additional words “By me.”
If any fragment with Shakespeare’s handwriting came to light, it would generate international headlines, and that scrap would be worth millions. In this sense, Shakespeare truly is the “holy grail” of the rare book world — not that anyone is actively looking. Shakespeare died in 1616; as the focus of scholars, collectors, and forgers for nearly 400 years, it’s impossible that anything of his might have slipped by unnoticed.
Or is it?
On the morning of April 29, 2008, George Koppelman, a former IBM software developer who founded Cultured Oyster Books about 15 years ago, ate a late breakfast in his New York City apartment and then sat down at his desk to begin the day’s work. He logged on to eBay and input some search terms that produced a curious result: a 16-century English folio dictionary with contemporary annotations. Neat, but not necessarily remarkable. Except, said Koppelman, the annotations “seemed to me as if they were intentionally entered as poetic fragments.”
The volume was a 1580 second edition of John Baret’s Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictionarie, not a dictionary as strictly defined, but more of a polyglot’s reference — each English word is listed alongside its French, Greek, and Latin equivalents. Whoever had owned and annotated it displayed a keen interest in language, so much so that Koppelman was captivated. He called his friend, Daniel Wechsler of Sanctuary Books in New York City, and told him about the auction listing. It was premature even to utter the name Shakespeare, but between the two of them they decided that “the combination of it being an Elizabethan dictionary with at least some degree of involvement from an owner of the period was enough to spark serious interest, and we had several conversations on how much we ought to bid,” said Wechsler.
Rare booksellers hazard situations like this all the time. “We knew that there was a slight chance it could be very special, but also that there are hundreds, even thousands, of anonymously annotated books from this period that go virtually unnoticed,” said Koppelman.
They placed a high bid of $4,300 and narrowly won it. If it was the Bard’s book, it was certainly a bargain-basement price. When the bubble-wrapped folio arrived in the mail shortly thereafter, both men realized they had a long road ahead — “not days, weeks, or even months, but years,” in Wechsler’s words. As respected dealers (both members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America), it would have been career suicide to make any hasty pronouncements about having purchased Shakespeare’s dictionary on eBay. Instead, they discreetly dove into the type of meticulous, multifaceted research experienced almost exclusively by PhD candidates.
First, perhaps, to reconcile the history: where was Shakespeare in the 1580s, and could he have owned this book? Shakespeare was born in 1564, raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, and married, at the age of eighteen, in 1582. Few records of his life survive, so his biography is largely the work of scholarly projection. No one knows exactly when he arrived in London, but the mid-to-late 1580s is the accepted estimate. That he worked in the theater and mingled with a “literary” crowd, even among the small circle of commercial printers, is also largely believed. Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker, “The printer Richard Field, a fellow-Stratfordian of around the same age, whose family was closely associated with the Shakespeares, was very likely a companion in Shakespeare’s early London scuffles.” Field didn’t publish the Alvearie — though he did later print the earliest editions of Shakespeare’s two long poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece” — but he likely did lend the playwright editions from his shop, which he used while writing, according to another Shakespeare biographer. Educated guesswork and isolated facts they may be, but it does appear that the Bard was in the right place at the right time to have had access to the Alvearie.
Next, the booksellers explored the handwriting. Elizabethan handwriting appears peculiar, even illegible, to modern eyes. (It’s worth noting that the Wikipedia entry for paleography, the study and interpretation of historic handwriting, is illustrated by a picture of Shakespeare’s will, indicating how difficult the script is to read.) Scholars tell us that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have used secretary hand, a loopy style accomplished with strong up and down strokes of the pen, although there is so little evidence where Shakespeare is concerned that’s it tough to pin down what his penmanship was like. The annotations in the Alvearie, however, are not in secretary hand; they are in the slightly more readable but still sloping italic hand that was just beginning to emerge. Does this alone discount Shakespeare as annotator? The booksellers argue two points: 1) the Alvearie notes are in a mixed hand, and 2) annotations by their very nature are brief, so it makes sense that the annotator would have eschewed the flourishes of secretary hand while jotting in the margins.
Koppelman and Wechsler faced the most formidable — and gratifying — challenge in analyzing the actual text of the annotations. This entailed combing through each line of text, examining every speck of inky evidence. They categorized these annotations as either “spoken” annotations, meaning the annotator added full words, and “mute” annotations, meaning the slashes, circles, and bits of underlining made by him. Additionally, one of the blank leaves at the back contains an entire page of manuscript notes — words, phrases, and translations.
And this is where it got interesting for the duo, because, as Koppelman had noted upon first viewing select annotations, there seemed to be a reason that certain words were underlined or translated. The annotations were enigmatic, but following Koppelman’s earlier hunch about the poetic nature of the fragmentary phrases, the two booksellers have been able to demonstrate connections between some of the odd words and phrases that particularly interested the annotator with similar words and phrases that crop up in Shakespeare’s work. For example, a line in Hamlet reads, “Oh that this too too solid Flesh, would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” The use of the word “resolve” perplexes in this context, unless you have Baret’s Alvearie handy, which defines “Thawe” as “resolve that which is frozen.” Moreover, the anonymous annotator showed his special interest in this word, inserting a “mute” annotation beside it.
The booksellers can offer up any number of such examples to prove their contention that Shakespeare himself marked up this book — the annotator’s fascination with “dive-dapper,” a small English bird that appears in Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis,” or how the annotator penned the weird hyphenated word Bucke-bacquet, which turns up in The Merry Wives of Windsor six times, on that blank back leaf — but it is impractical to describe the extent of their six-year investigation in a few paragraphs. Which is why they decided to write a book.
In April 2014, Koppelman and Wechsler went public with their findings. They published an illustrated book and accompanying website titled Shakespeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light, which boldly claimed that their humble copy of Baret’s Alvearie had languished in obscurity, “never previously studied or speculated upon,” and that having now been discovered and scrutinized was ready to be adored for what it was: a book annotated by Shakespeare. Their goal was to present their argument “in measured and non-polemical ways,” along with illustrations of the annotations that would invite readers to join the debate — but it was a risky proposition.
Before publication they had reached out to a small group of scholars and rare book trade colleagues and were “prepared for a variety of responses, including the most obvious one, which would be disbelief,” said Wechsler. Their reputations as rare book dealers would be put on the line. It was, said Wechsler, “an enormous risk, and that forced me to weigh all of the possibilities very carefully before I came to value the evidence in the annotations as confidently as I do.” Koppelman agreed, adding, “We would have been seriously naïve not to know what we were getting ourselves into. Neither one of us is what you would call an attention seeker.”
That said, the discovery did make international headlines, and the mixed reactions came in rather swiftly. The book world especially awaited acknowledgment from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., home to the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare research material, including 82 First Folios. Michael Witmore, director of the Folger, and Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at the Folger, issued a joint response called “Buzz or honey?” in which they wrote, “At this point, we as individual scholars feel that it is premature to join Koppelman and Wechsler in what they have described as their ‘leap of faith.’” It wasn’t an outright rebuttal; they noted that, “Shakespeare and other early modern writers used source books like the Alvearie to fire the imagination.” But proving that he used this one, they said, was going to require much more expert analysis.
Fair enough, said the booksellers. They had expected skepticism and even snap judgments, but by throwing the door wide open with a monograph that reproduces the annotations for all to see, they hoped to encourage research and debate. To that end, they update their blog with fresh insights, arguments, and counterarguments. So far, they remain confident that Shakespeare was the mystery annotator. “Of course we don’t deny the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of ever fully proving our belief,” said Wechsler. “But we feel the argument for our conclusion has only been strengthened with new revelations and further research.”
It may be an insurmountable hurdle for some that this book — found on eBay, no less — contains the Bard’s marginalia. Had it been located in some neglected annex at the British Library, acceptance might have come more easily, but even the idea that an artifact of this caliber has been overlooked for nearly half a century is, perhaps, too much to absorb. Said Wechsler, “I think people fail to realize how many old books have survived and how many discoveries are still possible.”
Still others — a cynical crowd — might imagine that it’s all a ploy, not for fame but for financial gain. After all, if it were Shakespeare’s reference book, it would easily be worth enough to break the auction record for a printed book, currently holding at $14.2 million for the 1640 Bay Psalm Book. (The most expensive First Folio clocked in at $6.2 million, obviously without any authorial notes in manuscript — Shakespeare had been dead for seven years before this authoritative collection of his work appeared in print.) But selling the book quickly was never their aim, according to Koppelman and Wechsler. “Ideally, the book will eventually find a home as an important book in the collection of an institution such as the British Library or the Folger,” said Koppelman. “Regardless of where it goes next, we feel the most important thing is to be patient and encourage debate.”
In October of this year, 18 months after their initial announcement, the booksellers issued a second edition of their findings that includes more textual examples and “evidence that we believe is important to share and helps to solidify and advance the credibility of our arguments and our claim,” according to their blog. Readers who commit to the full 400-plus-page tome will undoubtedly credit the rigorousness of their approach and the guilelessness of their presentation.
As professional booksellers, Koppelman and Wechsler are always on the hunt for rare books. At the same time, this one was perhaps more than they bargained for. If another treasure turned up on his doorstep, what would he do? “As fulfilling as this has been, I would be tempted to put the book down, leaving the thrill of such a discovery for someone else to discover,” said Koppelman. Wechsler concurred. “I think it’s pretty safe to say I won’t ever find myself wrapped up in a find on par with this one.”
It’s true, our bardolatry is such that any discovery associated with William Shakespeare makes international headlines. In November 2014, media outlets clamored to cover the news that Saint-Omer library, a small public library in northern France, near Calais, found in its collection a First Folio (1623), the first published collection of 36 (out of 38) Shakespearean plays. It appears that the Saint-Omer library inherited the book when a nearby Jesuit college was expelled from France centuries ago and left the book behind. According to professor and Folio expert Eric Rasmussen, a Folio comes to light every decade or so, but this one was particularly surprising, and in good condition, even though it lacks the portrait frontispiece that typically signposts a Folio. Like the De revolutionibus editions traced by Owen Gingerich, First Folios are closely tracked, examined, and cataloged for textual or printing variations or marginalia — this one, for example, contains stage directions and the name Nevill inscribed at the front. “It’s a little like archaeology,” James Shapiro, a Shakespeare expert at Columbia University, told The New York Times. “Where we find a folio tells us a little bit more about who was reading Shakespeare, who was valuing him.” This addition brings the total number of extant copies of the First Folio to 233.
Excerpted with permission from Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places, to be published in December by Voyageur Press. Rare Books Uncovered contains 52 remarkable stories of rare books, manuscripts, and historical documents unearthed in barns, attics, flea markets, dumpsters, and other unexpected places.
As part of their Literary Ladies Cage Fight series, The Butter pitted two of Shakespeare’s most well-known characters against each other, staging contests between Hamlet’s Ophelia and Romeo and Juliet’s Juliet. Who won, you ask? Only one way to find out. You could also read Stefanie Peters on women and Shakespeare’s plays.
When Evelyn Waugh was in his early 20s, he was plagued by writerly despair. After sending a few chapters of his first novel to the writer Harold Acton and receiving a less-than-praising response, Waugh burned up the entire draft. He’d just quit a miserable job only to have a more promising one fall through. His friends all seemed to be launching into successful lives, while he was not. Recalling a line from Euripides’s Iphigenia in Tauris, “The sea washes away all human ills,” he copied out the quotation in Greek, carefully checking to ensure every accent was correct, and left it on the beach one moonlit night, beside all his clothes, while he swam out to sea to end it all.
But in a perfectly Waughian moment, as he swam he felt a sting in his shoulder. Then another. And another. The water was full of jellyfish. Their attack was so painful, he turned and swam to shore, donned his clothes, tore up the note, and went back to being alive. It’s a wry story as Waugh recounts it in A Little Learning, the autobiography of his early life, but also a surprisingly poignant one, underscoring how easy it could have been for a temporary despondence to result in something as permanent as death.
Perhaps Waugh told the story of his thwarted suicide so wittily to distance himself from the awful feelings he’d experienced those decades earlier. We who work with words know facetiousness can mask a host of harder emotions. When I began my first novel in my mid-30s, I tried to make light of the feelings I found myself struggling with by flippantly asking my then-colleague, the novelist Pete Rock, whether writing fiction caused manic-depression or merely mimicked the symptoms of manic-depression. He answered, “Yes,” a cleverly enigmatic but also oddly confirming response. What I was feeling, he seemed to say, was common among writers.
But that commonness isn’t always comforting. The association between writers and despair looms so large that the artist Aaron Krach once spent a week checking books out of the New York Public Library, stamping the title page of each with the phrase “The author of this book committed suicide,” then displaying the results at an art gallery before returning the items to the library, where they presumably continue to circulate. Looking over the names of the 50 or so authors he included, my first response was to wonder how many others he’d missed.
Killing one’s self is a hell of an occupational hazard. But I’ve come to believe that writing can also be a way to resist suicide. I discovered this strategy through a sort of terrible, wonderful accident (much like swimming into a sea of jellyfish), while working on a novel about a woman whose newborn daughter dies, and who is then given another infant to nurture in the most physically and emotionally intimate way possible: by breastfeeding her. What, I wondered, would her relationship with this child be like? That was the story I meant to explore.
But this character wasn’t entirely my invention. I found her in Romeo and Juliet: early in the first act, William Shakespeare has Juliet’s nurse briefly relate the backstory of her own child’s death, a seeming digression that serves as a subtle augury of Juliet’s fatal romance with Romeo. Rereading the play decades after initially encountering it in high school, I was surprised and fascinated by the nurse’s emotional depth, and by the glimpse Shakespeare gives us into her personal history. In this scene and throughout the play, Shakespeare makes the nurse comic and tragic, bawdy and big-mouthed (she has more speeches than any of the other characters except the eponymous young lovers). I wanted to think and write about the world from her perspective. So I set out to imagine the 14 years that came before the five days in the play, as she might have told them.
I began writing fiction as a means to address social issues. My first novel is based on the life of an inspirational but mostly forgotten historical figure, a former slave who became a spy during the Civil War. I wanted to make her heroism better known, and to help readers understand how blacks and whites worked together in the anti-slavery moment. When I started drafting Juliet’s Nurse, I wondered whether it would do something as meaningful as that first book. I worried that this compelling character, and the initial pleasure of riffing on Shakespeare, might be keeping me from telling a more important story. But as I immersed myself in the project, I confronted the fact that Romeo and Juliet, the most famous play in the English language, is also our most famous literary work about suicide. Whatever I wrote would inevitably draw me there.
Euphoria is probably the best word to describe how an author feels when the writing goes well. Most of the time, however, the writing is hard, sometimes impossible. The terrifying sense that the creative process is always out of your control — or perhaps that it actually isn’t, in which case the hard-to-impossible stretches are a reflection of your immense shortcomings as a writer — takes a psychological toll. But I think there’s another reason authors suffer so much emotional turmoil. To make what we write any good at all, we must put ourselves fully into our characters. We have to feel what they would feel, so we can distill those imagined emotions into words on the page, words we hone over and over to evoke an empathic echo in our readers. For Juliet’s Nurse, I needed to delve into dark terrain.
Authors call up inspiration from incredibly varied sources, including ones we don’t know we’ve been keeping in reserve. Years ago, I spoke on the phone with a relative with whom I hadn’t had any contact in over a decade; during the call, she told me that her partner had recently committed suicide. She described the strange wave of emotions common to survivors of suicide. I might have expected grief, even guilt, but she talked also about anger and resentment — feelings she’d been told about in support groups yet still felt surprised to find herself experiencing, given how much she loved and missed the person she’d lost. There is a long passage at the end of Juliet’s Nurse, after (spoiler alert!) Juliet has killed herself, that transposes those emotions to 14th-century Verona, where my novel and Shakespeare’s play are set. Looking back at that passage now, I realize it’s structured like a play’s soliloquy, a speech that allows the audience to discover a character’s emotions, at the very moment the character is discovering them. It was the moment I discovered them, too. The novel I find I’ve written is a sort of anti-suicide note, because my protagonist has her own relationship to suicide. As this passionate woman recounts “bit by terrible bit, every awful thing that ever happened” to her, her life is revealed to be a choice, or a series of choices, not to kill herself.
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare kills every character the nurse loves. In a single speech, she refers first to her own daughter, then to her husband, who are both dead. During the course of the play, Juliet’s cousin Tybalt, whom the nurse describes as “the best friend I had,” is slain. And in the final scene Shakespeare gives us, Juliet commits suicide. Imagining what it would be like to experience those losses, I couldn’t help but wonder why the nurse didn’t just give up. Why not succumb to grief and despondence, and end her own life?
On a practical level, the answer is that my novel is first-person narration. She can’t die because she’s telling the story. But to make that story emotionally true, I needed to make living despite all that loss her decision. Perhaps it’s because my own foulest moods have taught me how quickly a wave of despondence can come, how easily it overwhelms all other emotions, that I needed the nurse’s story to posit survival as less a matter of dumb luck than it is in Waugh’s memoir. His jellyfish serve as a deus ex machina, an exterior force randomly averting his death. This connotation is writ large in the recent appropriation of Waugh’s story in the film Birdman, in which Riggan Thomson, the main character, tells his ex-wife he tried — and failed — to kill himself in precisely this way decades earlier, at the height of his Hollywood career. Suicide in Waugh is literary — laced with irony, framed by dramatic and poetic allusions (to Euripides and to A.E. Housman), and told by a retrospective narrator whose anecdote self-consciously turns on the literal merging with the metaphorical as he departs the beach and “climbed the sharp hill that led to all the years ahead,” the words that end his autobiography. Birdman makes suicide into what a film does best: something visually spectacular, from the images of jellyfish that appear in the opening titles and in a later dream-like sequence to the multiple times during the film when (spoiler alert), Riggan appears to commit suicide, only to be saved. These are the most stunning and heart-stopping sequences in Birdman, yet they imply that when we are most at risk, special effects are what will somehow save us.
That is both an alluring and a dangerous message. Each year, 40,000 Americans die through suicide — but 25 times as many attempt to kill themselves. Among teens and young adults, the rate of suicide attempts is even more staggering, 100 attempts to every death. Significantly, nearly all of those who try but fail to kill themselves do not end up dying later of suicide. These data points indicate that the moment of despondence doesn’t last, that many who survive the attempt also survive the impulse that led to the attempt, discovering that they very much want to live. In the face of such statistics, it might seem like we should all hope for jellyfish — some external force to avert death and restore the desire for life. But I think we need to work, and write, ourselves to something less contrived than a deus ex machina.
On the most basic level, we tell stories to construct meaning. Even in genres like historical fiction or science fiction, we are articulating a way to understand the world and our experiences in it. So what happens when the stories surrounding us conflict with our deepest emotions? In our pleasure-driven culture, we are bombarded by promises that happiness is always attainable, that painful feelings are avoidable — through drugs or therapy or rampant consumerism (I used to pass a billboard every day on which a famous actress was shown driving a luxury convertible under the tagline “Fire your therapist!”). Yet the rate of deaths from suicide is rising. Perhaps these constant suggestions that we can and should always be happy make any episode of unhappiness feel all the more overwhelming. But those feelings don’t have to be so devastating, if we can find stories that help us understand them differently.
As I imagined myself in the nurse’s place, I concluded the novel by having her ponder why she never made the devastating, deadly choice that Juliet did. Or rather, by having her consider why Juliet’s actions seem so alien to her. Telling this story as though I were a woman living in 14th-century Italy, I confronted the fact that, for most of human history, life has been difficult and loss has been prevalent, yet people survived. I don’t mean to suggest we should idealize that past, or shun those tools and treatments to cope emotionally that we now have that they didn’t. Nor can I say that with this literary act I shielded myself from any further bouts of my own despondence. It still comes, swift and terrible, but I feel less helpless in it. By writing this character’s story, I discovered that when suffering is an expected experience, it can be less devastating, because suffering and survival don’t have to be thought of as things that are in opposition. Rather than relying on jellyfish, I found in the novel a means to remind myself, and I hope my readers, that suffering and loss are always inevitable parts of life. We can endure the stings, and make it back to shore.
Image Credit: Flickr/Sam Howzit.
On an August 2013 episode of The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast, author Donald Antrim read and discussed Denis Johnson’s short story “Work.” Antrim said he remembered the liberation he associated with reading the story when it was published in The New Yorker in 1988: “At the time, I was trying to write stories myself, but they were somewhat dead and I think I felt a little lost…I think reading Denis Johnson had to have something to do with a sense of permission, a sense of freedom to do something that I didn’t understand fully and didn’t know how to imagine or envision.”
Antrim’s revelatory experience of reading the stories in Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son – a linked collection that follows the drug-addled wanderings of a narrator known as “Fuckhead” — is far from unique. In 2012, Illustrator Jane Mount compiled My Ideal Bookshelf, a collection in which 100 contemporary cultural figures shared the books that mattered to them most. Jesus’ Son was tied alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses as the third most selected book. They both only trailed behind Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
On The New Yorker podcast, Antrim goes on to describe some of the unusual techniques in Jesus’ Son that have rattled so many readers and writers. Antrim notes the clipped and disoriented structure to many of the stories and scenes. He remarks on the speed of the narrative transitions. He says that there’s “an incoherence in the thought process that actually has a coherence.”
Then, as is the case on each episode of the podcast, Antrim reads the selected story: “I’d been staying at the Holiday Inn with my girlfriend, honestly the most beautiful woman I’d ever known, for three days under a phony name, shooting heroin. We made love in the bed, ate steaks at the restaurant, shot up in the john, puked, cried, accused one another, begged of one another, forgave, promised, and carried one another to heaven.” Antrim proceeds through a story in which the narrator and his friend Wayne go to rip copper wire from an abandoned house. Then Wayne visits his wife while Fuckhead waits in the car. Then they go to the bar where they spend all the money they just made scrapping the copper wire. The story ends with Fuckhead gawking at the angelic bartender. “I’ll never forget you,” he thinks. “Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.”
New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman tells Donald Antrim about how she recently interviewed Denis Johnson at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She says, “I asked him about this book, about Jesus’ Son…he’s quite dismissive of it when he talks about it now, and he said it’s just a rip-off of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry…” Antrim says that he’s never read Red Cavalry, and the discussion of Jesus’ Son, on its own terms, continues on.
But what does Denis Johnson mean by calling his most iconic book a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry — a classic of early 20th-century Russian literature? Johnson’s book features a ragtag cast of addicts in rural America, engaged in efforts of drug procurement and petty crime that almost always go wrong. Red Cavalry, on the other hand, features the title army during the Russian-Polish campaign, the Soviets’ first military effort toward spreading Communism to the rest of Europe. In terms of locations and circumstances, the books are radically different. But, on closer look, they actually do share a lot in common.
“The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head,” Babel writes in the opening story of Red Cavalry (as translated by Peter Constantine). “The stench of yesterday’s blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill.”
In an introduction to Red Cavalry, Michael Dirda writes, “Violence and brutality mingle with a surreal, sometimes poetic beauty…This juxtaposition of an elevated literary style with coarse soldier’s talk, of strikingly original analogy with harsh naturalistic observation, lies at the heart of Babel’s achievement. In every way the stories yoke together opposites.”
Jesus’ Son actually works with a similar set of tools. “The sky is blue and the dead are coming back,” Johnson writes. “Later in the afternoon, with sad resignation, the county fair bares its breast.”
Using “elevated literary style” alongside “harsh naturalistic observation,” both writers convey haunting and brutal landscapes. Babel: “Stars slithered out of the cool gut of the sky, and on the horizon abandoned villages flared up. With my saddle on my shoulders, I walked along a torn-up field path…” Johnson: “There’d been a drought for years, and a bronze fog of dust stood over the plains. The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed, wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground…”
Both books feature frequent and intense poetic violence. Babel writes of Dolgushov who lies in the mud with his exposed heart beating and his intestines spilling out. “[He] placed his blue palms on the ground and looked at his hands in disbelief.” Johnson writes of McInnes, who’s been shot in the stomach and is dying in the backseat of a car. “[He] was white and sick, holding himself tenderly.”
Both writers seem to be geniuses of metaphors on the sky. Babel: “The moon hung over the yard like a cheap earring.” Johnson: “The sun had no more power than an ornament or a sponge.”
What gets quickly lost when I put particular sections side-by-side like this is how radically different each book still really is. In a Red Cavalry story, a young Jewish soldier will accost an old woman and murder her goose to prove he’s not an intellectual sissy. In a Jesus’ Son story, a drugged-out hospital orderly will try to save a litter of “bunnies” in the desert to prove he’s not a fuck-up. “It’s a name that’s going to stick,” his friend Georgie tells him after he sits on and kills the rabbits. “‘Fuckhead’ is gonna ride you to your grave.”
Considerable narrative overlaps between the two books also exist, but they tend to be circumstances that are realized in newly distorted ways.
In one Red Cavalry story, the narrator transcribes another soldier’s letter home about, among other things, his brother Fyodorovna being “hacked” to pieces. “I wrote it down without embellishing it,” the narrator says, “and am recording it here word for word.” In Johnson’s “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” the narrator carefully shaves the face of another man in rehab, while that man tells him the story of each of his scars. “Are you going to change any of this for your poem?” he asks. “No,” the narrator says, “It’s going in word for word.”
Babel’s “Ivan and Ivan” and Johnson’s “Two Men” both feature men hitching rides who are perceived-to-be-faking deafness. Kirill Vasilyevich Lyutov shouts, “Are you deaf, Father Deacon, or not?” Fuckhead says, “Look…I know you can talk. Don’t act like we’re stupid.”
“What sort of person is our Cossack?” Babel wrote in his 1920 Diary. “Many-layered: looting, reckless daring, professionalism, revolutionary spirit, bestial cruelty.” He stops, and then writes, “Omit the ‘revolutionary spirit.’” The same things might be said of Fuckhead. In “Out On Bail,” he steals and cashes Social Security checks from a dead tenant’s apartment, but he says he’s always believing he should be finding an honest way to make a few dollars, always believing he’s “an honest person who shouldn’t be doing things like that.” In “Dirty Wedding,” he mourns the death of his ex-girlfriend Michelle, who he once abandoned at the abortion clinic for a hooker at the Savoy Hotel: “[Michelle] was a woman, a traitor, and a killer. Males and females wanted her. But I was the only one who ever could have loved her.”
One of the more pronounced elements of both books is their narrative messiness. In The New York Times book review of Jesus’ Son, James McManus wrote, “The narrator’s inability to construct a ‘well-made’ story, or even to keep the facts of his life straight, expressively parallels the rest of his dysfunctional behavior.” McManus is talking about how Jack Hotel dies of a heroin overdose at the end of “Out on Bail,” and how, in the next story, Hotel returns, smokes hashish, and remarks, “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” as McInnis bleeds out in the back of the car. An early story in the collection is titled “Two Men.” Later in the book, in “The Other Man”, the narrator begins: “But I never finished telling you about the two men. I never even started describing the second one…”
In “Emergency” — the prescription-pill-loaded narrator — undermining the entire story he had been telling up until that point — stops and reflects, “Or maybe that wasn’t the time it snowed. Maybe it was the time we slept in the truck and I rolled over on the bunnies and flattened them.” He decides, “It doesn’t matter. What’s important for me to remember is that early the next morning the snow was melted off the windshield and the daylight woke me up.” In the final pages of the story, the narrative logistics turn impossible. Fuckhead and Georgie return to the hospital, possibly the same day they left. Then the narrator remembers how, just hours earlier, they had picked up their AWOL friend, Hardee, and how Georgie swore he’d get him across the border: “I think I know some people,” Georgie said to him. “Don’t worry. You’re on your way to Canada.”
Red Cavalry — in oftentimes strange and beautiful ways — is also haphazardly constructed. In “The Story Of A Horse,” Khlebnikov, a self-proclaimed white-stallion enthusiast, fails to reclaim his horse from Savitsky. Khlebnikov spends several days crying and writing a petition for his horse on a tree stump. At the end of the story, he’s discharged from the army as an “invalid” for his poor health and battle wounds. Ten stories later, in “The Continuation of the Story of a Horse,” the narrator reminds the reader of the disagreement between Khlebnikov and Savitsky, then transcribes a pair of no-hard-feelings correspondences between them; the horse only receives a brief and fairly inconsequential mention. “Thirty days I have been fighting in the rear guard, covering the retreat of the invincible First Red Cavalry and facing powerful gunfire from airplanes and artillery,” Savitsky writes to Khlebnikov. “Tardy was killed, Likhmanikov was killed, Gulevoy was killed, Trunov was killed, and the white stallion is no longer under me, so with the changes in our fortunes of warm Comrade Khlebnikov, do not expect to see your beloved Division Commander Savitsky ever again.”
In another story, the same vivid and incredibly specific metaphor shows up twice: “Trunov had already been wounded in the head that morning. His head was bandaged with a rag, and blood trickled from it like rain from a haystack,” the narrator reports early in the tale. Later he says, “At that moment I saw Trunov creeping out from behind a mound. Blood was trickling from his head like rain from a haystack and the dirty rag had come undone and was hanging down.”
Babel was an active soldier in the Red Cavalry army while he was writing many of his stories. The dangerous and dismal conditions under which the material was gained likely made smooth story construction quite difficult, even if that ever was an ambition. “Under machine gun fire, bullets shriek, a dreadful sensation, we creep along through the trenches,” Babel wrote in his 1920 Diary. “Some Red Army fighter is panicking, and, of course, we are surrounded.” Similar to what McManus describes in his review of Jesus’ Son, in Red Cavalry it’s also fitting that tales are so surreal and fractured. Johnson, meanwhile, was originally writing Jesus’ Son as a piece of memoir. He said, “Originally, in fact, I wasn’t even going to publish it. But then I added a lot of things that never happened to me, though almost everything in there actually happened to someone I know or heard about.”
The conditions under which the books were written share another important similarity: both were written with a sort of wild-eyed desperation. Babel joined the army, on the advice of his mentor, Maxim Gorky, to find material for his writing in the hopes of getting published. “My birthday,” Babel wrote in one of his early journal entries, “Twenty-six years old. I think of home, of my work, my life is flying past. No manuscripts. Dull misery.” In 1990, Johnson after a rough stretch and a rocky conclusion to his second marriage, owed $10,000 in taxes. He called his editor at FSG: “I told him, ‘I’ll make you a book of short stories; all you have to do is pay off the IRS.’”
Jesus’ Son vaulted to a cult popularity among contemporary readers and writers that’s hard for many other individual story collections to measure up against. Maybe Flannery O’Connor achieves a similar level of cultural cachet with A Good Man Is Hard To Find. Maybe Ernest Hemingway does with In Our Time. Jesus’ Son, though, was the collection chosen more frequently than any other in Jane Mount’s My Ideal Bookshelf. Similarly, on The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast, Denis Johnson has been the most selected writer — three times with all three stories from Jesus’ Son. On a 2009 episode, before Tobias Wolff read “Emergency,” Deborah Treisman laughed and said, “I’ve had three other writers ask to do this very story while I put it on hold for you.”
Is what Denis Johnson said true, though? Is Jesus’ Son just a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry? “Rip-off” seems to be the wrong word. It borrows heavily, yes, but it seems to me Jesus’ Son is less a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry than West Side Story is a “rip-off” of Romeo and Juliet. Or, in keeping with the Johnson-Babel theme of stark and brutal poetry, Jesus’ Son is less a “rip-off” of Red Cavalry than Apocalypse Now is of Heart of Darkness. With any of these works, even adaptation or re-creation seem to not entirely be the right words; in each case, the follow-up deviates wildly from what might be considered its source material. In Jesus’ Son, the stories and execution certainly have a lot in common with Red Cavalry and — in considering them closely — it seems right for Johnson to acknowledge his debt. But do the similarities diminish any of the virtues of either book? Even more than in the case of the most liberal of re-creations, adaptations, or “rip-offs,” it seems to me that each book is still its own radical thing.
After Treisman tells Antrim, on the 2013 podcast, that today Johnson is dismissive of the stories in Jesus’ Son, Antrim says, “Well, he has his own attitude about what he did a long time ago. I have a tendency to write things off after 20 years, too. I’m not a particularly good judge of what I do. Maybe he’s not a particularly good judge, over time, of what he’s done.” Antrim pauses in thought, and then adds, “And that’s probably as it should be.”
Today we celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. Why are we celebrating it? A simple answer is that Shakespeare’s plays still speak to us. But for me, as for so many women since Shakespeare wrote his first play in around 1590, my response to his plays is complicated by my gender. Virginia Woolf wrote in the first draft of To the Lighthouse that “man has Shakespeare & women have not.” This is true. At the same time, this is not true.
Women Making Shakespeare, a new anthology from The Arden Shakespeare series edited by Gordon McMullan, Lena Cowen Orlin, and Virginia Mason Vaughan, illustrates both sides of this paradox. The anthology was designed as a tribute to Ann Thompson, the general editor of the Arden series, who edited the massive Arden volume of all three texts of Hamlet with Neil Taylor, and who throughout her career has broken new ground in feminist criticism of Shakespeare, especially with her 1997 anthology (with Sasha Roberts) Women Reading Shakespeare 1660–1900. Thompson has also, in her role as general editor of the Arden series, dramatically increased the number of women editors of Shakespeare’s plays. Her work and her influence are worth celebrating because even today’s statistics on the numbers of women editors and commentators of Shakespeare are as damning as the VIDA statistics.
The anthology contains short essays on anything related to women and Shakespeare — as characters, as actresses, as critics and scholars, as educators, as suffragists and feminists, and as readers — over the past 450 years. I would like to pose some questions that plumb the variety the anthology offers: what does reading Shakespeare mean for women? Was Shakespeare proto-feminist or patriarchal? Has anything changed in 450 years?
We might investigate these questions through the history of Juliet. Shakespeare’s Juliet is bold, Romeo’s equal. She initiates their relationship, telling Romeo “take all myself” before she even knows for certain of his interest or commitment, bubbling over with her desire past the bounds of what might be considered correct behavior, and yet her frankness, as she calls it, is what makes her magnetic. And she talks and talks — of all Shakespeare’s heroines, only Cleopatra and Rosalind have more lines. Juliet might be another Rosalind, were this not a tragedy; I can imagine her saying, with Rosalind, “Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.”
Juliet defies her father’s plan to arrange her marriage, equivocating to Paris to avoid suspicion, and bravely agrees to the Friar’s plan to fake her death and rescue her from her family’s tomb. Shakespeare lets Juliet, rather than Romeo, describe their wedding night: “O, I have bought the mansion of a love / But not possessed it.” And in the last couplet of the last scene, the play becomes the story of “Juliet and her Romeo.” While the Friar chides Romeo for his “womanish” tears, Juliet stands out as the more mature partner. This is Juliet’s play.
Juliet’s equality with Romeo may have been underscored at its original performances by the fact that young men played both roles. But the thing about Shakespeare’s women, the reason why we still love Rosalind and Juliet today, is that they don’t read on the page or on the stage like young men in drag, trying to show what a second gender is. These are true-hearted women. Juliet is frank, and petulant, and brave, and chatty, and loving. She is authentic.
Restoration theater brought women actresses onto the stage for the first time — a woman played Desdemona for the first time in 1660 — but it also brought changes in how women were presented on stage. The prologue to the 1660 Othello declared: “I come . . . To tell you news, I saw the Lady drest; / The woman playes to day, mistake me not, / No Man in Gown, or Page in Petty-Coat; / A Woman to my knowledge.” Thus began the tradition in which actresses’ bodies were voyeuristically put on display and actresses became equated with prostitutes. At the same time, Juliet’s frankness, especially about sex, became seen as unseemly. A 1679 version of Romeo and Juliet, Thomas Otway’s Caius Marius, cut the wedding night speech and instead called marriage “lawful Rape.” Lavinia, the Juliet-figure, wakes just before her lover’s death, but in a state of confusion that elides Juliet’s strength and intelligence.
In 1744, Theophilus Cibber’s abridged Romeo and Juliet kept Otway’s alterations and, further, condemned Juliet’s exchange with Romeo in the balcony scene; her mother, suspicious of Juliet’s aversion to marriage with Paris, supposes it must be because Juliet has done something to compromise her chastity: “What sensual, lewd Companion of the Night / Have you been holding Conversation with, / From open Window, at a Midnight hour?” she demands. To be disobedient is to be unchaste.
Both Cibber and David Garrick, in his 1750 version, rewrote the closing couplet, deleting the line that foregrounds Juliet “and her Romeo,” and Garrick further deleted any hint that Juliet knows anything about sex. By 1797, with Ann Radcliffe’s novel The Italian, a retelling of the play, Ellena is propriety itself when she learns that her lover has overheard her beneath her balcony. She turns pale, shuts her window, and doesn’t speak to him. In 1845, Charlotte Cushman played Romeo to her sister Susan’s “beautifully confiding and truly feminine” Juliet — in other words, perfectly demure, perfectly silent, a model of Victorian womanhood.
Shakespeare was increasingly appropriated around this time to provide models for womanhood. Often these were paired with arguments for better access to education for girls, Kate Chedgzoy argues in her essay in this anthology, as with Mary Lamb, who composed her Tales from Shakespeare (1807) with her brother Charles partly as a way of “redressing the limitations of the education on offer to girls.” Girls could not read Shakespeare directly (what if they read Juliet’s wedding night speech?), but they could read the tales as mediated through an educator. Lamb herself later became a tutor to Mary Cowden Clarke, teaching her Latin and to read verse. Cowden Clarke’s The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines (1850) had a similar aim, but it is worth noting that each girl’s story is framed as a march from girlhood to education to marriage. The purpose of education is not, at least primarily or overtly, to give women a voice and power for self-definition; the track of womanhood offered through these Shakespeare tales is girl to teacher of children (or apprentice mother) to mother.
In Juliet’s case, as treated by Cowden Clarke, her education is at fault for her eventual tragic end. Ignored by her parents through her girlhood, her faulty education accounts for her outspokenness and self-will, and it is these qualities, not her star-crossed fate, that lead to her death. This was the same period as Henrietta and Thomas Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare (1807), in which many of Juliet’s lines are scrubbed and she becomes more submissive; and of Helen Faucit, an actress who, at the same time that William Charles Macready was restoring the performance of Shakespeare’s original texts, deleted even more of Juliet’s lines than usual. Her performances were called “types of noble womanly nature” and a reviewer commented: “her delicacy of taste and elevation of thought have succeeded in banishing from [Shakespeare’s] characters…all that, from the change of manners, sometimes in the hands of others, has become painful. Such is the atmosphere of purity with which she is surrounded, that nothing at variance with it can enter…” And yet actresses at this time were still equated with prostitutes.
The idealization of Shakespeare’s heroines as “types of noble womanly nature” had the effect, as Lois Potter notes in this anthology, of simplifying, Bowdlerizing, the plays. But it also simplified and silenced the women. A noble, virtuous Juliet, as in Faucit’s portrayal, was, compared to Shakespeare’s original, a silent woman. Let me return to one of my original questions: was Shakespeare a proto-feminist or was he patriarchal? My history of Juliet thus far suggests that he was, somehow, a sixteenth century feminist. Now let’s look at The Taming of the Shrew.
It is almost unbelievable that Katherina does not have more lines than Juliet or Rosalind. She is outspoken. She is argumentative. She is everything we love about Juliet and Rosalind cranked up a few notches. But on her character and her play, female editors have been almost universally silent. There have been two female editors of the play so far: Ann Thompson and, commissioned by Thompson for the Arden series, Barbara Hodgson.
What do we do with Shrew? A woman is physically abused by her husband until she shows symptoms of Stockholm syndrome, and only then, the play seems to suggest, will they live happily ever after. Bianca, the woman who is not abused during her wooing and wedding, shows signs of becoming a shrew and a scold afterward. Which method is being held up as ideal?
Farah Karim-Cooper’s essay in Women Making Shakespeare notes that some modern productions have found the only way to make the play palatable to modern audiences is to set it in the past. The guilt we feel over Katherina’s treatment by Petrucchio is only palatable at a distance of 450 years. But she also provides some hope in context: ideal sixteenth century wives were both obedient and silent. Obedient Katherina becomes, but never silent; the play ends with a lengthy speech from Katherina. She has a voice! It is possible that Shakespeare is unravelling the courtship rituals that called for a false hierarchy between men and women that would be immediately undermined or reversed within marriage. Bianca has the appearance of submission — but which would you rather have as a marriage partner? Nevertheless, there remains the troubling feeling that this play, and therefore Shakespeare, approve of Petrucchio’s behavior, and the abuse and silencing of a woman in the name of ruling a wife.
When actresses were first allowed to perform publicly in England, they generally did not address the audience directly in a prologue or epilogue. As Sonia Massai notes in this anthology, when they did, their speeches stressed the “exceptional quality” of the occasion. Then, as this essay traces, for much of the history of women’s performance of Shakespeare, actresses were associated with prostitutes, even up to the Victorian era. Ailsa Grant Ferguson’s essay takes this history up to World War I, talking about Gertrude Elliott’s work to legitimize female performance and management through the creation of “the Shakespeare Hut” to entertain soldiers passing through London. This all-female Shakespeare was acceptable because it was “war work,” because it was patriotic, and because, the actresses for the most part being middle aged, their performances were positioned as maternal care, and thus a-sexual, for the very young men about to go to the front.
One of the last essays in the anthology, by Kevin A. Quarmby, talks about the contemporary performance trend of “sexing up” Goneril in King Lear, and suggests that both in contemporary criticism and in performance, transgression by a woman, even political transgression as in Goneril’s case, is still seen as equivalent to sexual transgression. Because Goneril betrays a man (Lear) politically, therefore she is also a whore. This makes her little better than a cipher — sexualizing her deprives her of her right to a legitimate political voice, and therefore silences her.
What has changed in 450 years of performing, reading, writing Shakespeare? The history of women interacting with Shakespeare’s plays is also the history of women’s rights, suffrage, and of the feminist movement. It is a history of women being silenced and of finding ways to speak out anyway. Shakespeare has been, and is, an uneasy ally in this history. He complicates but also enriches our idea of what a woman is. Too often we are still Katherinas, forced to compromise our dignity in order to retain our voice, or else our insistence on speaking is blamed for our tragedies, like Juliet. But the reason why we still read Shakespeare’s women, is that they are women. Goneril, Juliet, and Katherina are finally not ciphers. Whatever else they may be, they are true women, and they have true voices.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
My high school’s theater department put on two Shakespeare plays a year, and when I was old enough to audition, I ran to the front of the line – not to read for the part of Juliet in that year’s headlining Romeo and Juliet, but rather for her lesser known, and much more intoxicating complement, the lady Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Miraculously, I got the part. At the time, I was young and knew little of the play save the recent Kenneth Branagh-Emma Thompson adaptation, but quickly found myself madly in love with this character: a strong-willed, funny, independent wordsmith. For years, I envisaged Beatrice and her ilk as the exemplar of female empowerment in literature and theater, and yet while I’ve personally fixated on the Beatrices that have populated the centuries, I’ve done so because it is clear they were the exceptions to the rule. The rule, in fact, was Juliet. It was Beatrice’s younger cousin, Hero. It was Bianca and Disney princesses and anything that presented an ingénue as a leading lady. Sadly, for every Scarlet O’Hara, there is a Melanie Hamilton offsetting an absurdly independent protagonist. Clearly this paradigm is what has propelled literature forward, but lately, as I’ve explored my bookshelves, it seems as though this requisite stock character, as antiquated as its stock cousins, is finding its way off the pages of great novels, leading me to believe that she has been graciously euthanized by literary fiction. And thankfully so.
The ingénue in contemporary fiction is a powerful mirror against which society is reflected, and its notable absence is indicative of ambitious thirst for change. That there has been a gradual evolution on the page that is sadly not reflected even off the page for female writers, female politicians, and female business leaders is significant in this long-awaited evolution. Pinning down the issue to the paltry representation of women writers in reviews and literary journals as explored through the latest VIDA counts extrapolates the problems women writers face in representation, coverage, and reviews, and there is much work to be done to establish equality. Yet this lack of real estate does not mean that there is a deficit of powerful female characters written today.
When looking directly at the content of contemporary fiction, however, I am as excited as I was when I got the part of Beatrice back in the mid-1990s. Writers, both male and female, are creating strong, authentic characters who can stand on their own. There may be criticism on the outside, but directly on the page, this glorious affirmation of strong-willed women drives me as a writer, as a lawyer, and as a woman, to know that we are represented on the page, whether instantly likable or not. As an aside, perhaps the hotly contested debate currently surrounding this question in fact hinges on the lack of ingénues populating today’s great novels. A simple glance at titles reflects this: The Woman Upstairs, Look At Me, Gone Girl, State of Wonder, On Beauty, We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Hours, and even in non-fiction with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. None of these books apologizes for anger, frustration, strength, manipulation, power, emotion, sensuality. And mostly, none of these books requires a supporting ingénue waiting in the corner, ready to cry foil to a Lizzy Bennett or Jane Eyre or even Catherine Earnshaw.
In contemporary society and fiction, women run companies, perform surgeries, and question their desire to even have children. Dr. Marina Singh and Dr. Anneck Swenson battle wits in the South American jungles of State of Wonder, almost inverting the stereotype by making an ingénue out of the missing male doctor, Anders; Eva Khatchadourian begs people to question her “traditional female values” by often wishing she never had a child in We Need to Talk About Kevin; and women of three generations dominate The Hours, portraying this very evolution of the literary female character in a single brilliant narrative. I could continue to list the novels, but it would probably exceed my word count, so instead, it’s probably better to review how we got to this point.
It’s not that strong women were absent from literature in the past, but rather that they were welcomed with antithetical reception: if not written amongst a flock of female stereotypes (read, “the villain,” the “mother,” the “nurse”), they may have needed the ingénue as a foil to the less commonly recognized strong women of the time. In contemporary culture, however, no one denies the presence of strong, successful, complex women in every facet of society, and likewise, readers are not shocked when they turn up in great literature. It is simply that contemporary literary fiction portrays a realistic society so that ingénues are no longer needed within the texts — as foils or otherwise.
When looking back at some of our most beloved “strong women in literature” from Shakespeare to Victorian England to the early 20th century, almost none of these women is allowed to exist on her own, almost as if the supporting ingénue (or another stock female character) must balance the strong woman so that society may rest. This seesaw of female identity so portrayed in literature of the past seemed necessary in order to propel forward movement. By having the rare and special woman on one end and the stock female (usually the ingénue) on the other, their interaction pushed the story forward, enabled the game of wits to persist, and flexed the narrative into motion.
Beatrice, the gloriously witty self-effacing, proud bachelorette of Much Ado About Nothing, vows never to marry and is teased, mocked, and pitied as a result, countered by the requisite companion ingénue in the banal Hero. Kate of The Taming of the Shrew, who we all know and love as the girl who just didn’t want to fit in, is deemed eponymously shrewish by her unabashed expression, and of course, is, of course, neutralized by her ingénue of a sister, Bianca. Portia, the brilliant heiress of The Merchant of Venice, stands initially as a stellar example of intelligence, power, and leadership, but in order to fulfill her needs as an ingénue, she must impersonate a man. Although pillars of force, these women cannot be fully portrayed without a veil of disbelief, either by unrivaled presentation beside a flattering ingénue or the forced portrayal of a man, so that societal equilibrium of the time is restored.
Fast-forward to early 19th century England, not far from the domination of yet another female monarch, and strong women in literature are still not singularly permissible. Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice, the presumed model of the era, is a wonderfully suspicious, intelligent representation of female strength, yet still must be presented beside her exhaustively ingénuesque sisters, so that we all know how rare and special a creature she is. Lizzy Bennett is sublime, and I share a name and nickname with her, so I can’t help but beam with pride whenever she is listed amongst the feminist wonders of the literary world; but the sad truth is that she is so well cited because she is the outlier. Society does not yield a sea of stereotypes in order to hone in on a strong woman, and nor should literature require this pool of ingénues, out of which we may select and conclude that, indeed, Ms. Bennett is different.
Even in late 19th/early 20th century literature, women who battled this stereotype were plagued with depression and expropriated labels. In England, Virginia Woolf wrote of depression and isolation, while in America, Charlotte Perkins Gilman openly divorced her husband, but not before writing about post-partum depression in an incisive story that had never been seen before on the page. Sadly, these women committed suicide, and their autobiographical roles were neither accepted nor credible by the male literary establishment, reflecting yet another mirror of their times. Their characters, however, have lived on, refusing to succumb to literary archetypes. Had they been written as ingénues, they would have evolved into that other stock character of “the madwoman in the attic.” Unfortunately, by removing the label of ingénue and refusing to share the scenes with a classic ingénue, these characters and their architects met a tragic end.
Now, however, strong female characters reign aplenty in literature without their necessary ingénue escorts, slowly eroding the role of that stock accompanying character. It’s not that these strong female characters newly exist, or that they suddenly gained mass appeal, but rather that they are surviving on their own. They are flawed, beautiful representations of women that provide depth, understanding, and sympathy, regardless of their periodic unlikeable actions. They bear their identities proudly, and never require an accompanying convention to confirm their individuality, so that the role of the primary and supportive ingénue is no longer required.
I recently went to hear Isabel Allende speak about her latest novel, Maya’s Notebook. At the Q&A, a young aspiring female writer rose to ask a question that surprised a majority of the audience. “You write a lot of strong women in your books,” she said, before asking, “Has there been anyone who has influenced you?” Allende either didn’t understand the question or wanted to emphasize the lunacy of it, and after three attempts replied: “Do you know any weak women?” Needless to say, a resounding uproar of applause emerged from the previously unobtrusive audience. This is not a topic that is far from the consciousness of the literary establishment, nor is it one that should be. It is so prevalent on people minds and hearts precisely because of its relevance. Readers don’t want to see any more ingénues or stock characters. They want to see the people that they know, the strong women who populate their lives, because, as Isabel Allende so bluntly and perfectly stated, there really aren’t weak women.
I’m not naively suggesting that contemporary fiction has conclusively banished the ingénue from its pages; nor am I claiming that the character is close to her coffin in certain genres, but I am suggesting that that she should be. Fiction, as any vital art form, serves a purpose to reflect society in its emotional, environmental, and political nuances. It informs us, teaches us, reflects humanity in its reverie. If the ingénue, which may be dying in literary fiction, begins to fade in all genres of contemporary literature, if we accept the evolution of the young female protagonist in literature, we may stop expecting women off the page to play that stock role, as well. By exiling the word to the trash bin or perhaps feeling a little bit guilty whenever used, we might continue to represent women as they are – likeable or not. Powerful characters who sometimes want love, sometimes want power, ache with ambition and passion, refuse to be called ingénues, or any other pile of stock stereotypes. They are merely women who need no other label.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
When you read a book, it is a story within the story. The French call this mise-en-abîm: the condition of being between two mirrors with an abyss of yous staring back.
My grandmother had a dressing room wallpapered in mirrors. As a child, I liked to stand in the center and slowly move my arms up and down. Like synchronized swimmers in underwater flight, an infinite number of mes moved as one. It made me question my reality like Alice through the looking glass. Was I me? Or was that me once reflected? Twice reflected? Three times? Maybe they thought they were me just as much as I did. Maybe those mes had their own adventures. It was the first time I felt fully confronted by the unsettling nature of existence and its possible layers of life.
Being a reader is similar. You turn the page of the fictional story while an hour of your own passes. The characters breathe, laugh and cry, and so do you. When you finish their tale, you close the book and set it aside, dreaming of their ever-after, while stepping out into yours. But you don’t leave the story as you found it. No, it’s forever changed. The evidence is there: a chocolate smudge, a tea stain, beach sand, dandelion spores, a stray hair, a note, a name, a message. The story has been splintered into a duplicate image, a reflection of you in bits between the pages.
My eighth-grade English teacher decided it’d be a good idea for us to do an introductory unit on Shakespeare. The directions were simple: pick a play and read it. My family owned a weathered volume of The Complete Pelican Shakespeare on the highest shelf of our bookcase. I’d never cracked the spine, favoring colorful copies of Judy Blume and Sweet Valley High still smelling of press glue and Scholastic shipping peanuts. TCPS was my dad’s college copy from the United States Military Academy at West Point. It looked similarly militant, bound in tar black and as thick as a Bible. Nonetheless, I was excited. It was an emblem of maturity to read Master Shakespeare, and I knew exactly where I was headed: Romeo and Juliet.
So I climbed the bookcase and freed the old whale from its dusty catacomb, carried the thing to my bedroom and plopped it open on my desk. What I first remember was how thin the pages were—like edible rice paper. It was this gossamer taction that made a pulpy envelope stand out. It bulged the fine print from fifty pages deep. There, between the Merry Wives of Windsor and All’s Well That Ends Well. I pulled it free and felt the weight of age, ripe for the booklouse taking. The bottom edge had yellowed where it’d spent decades with a foot outside the covers. It was addressed to my father. The seal torn open. A moment of distinct deliberation. It was not my letter to read. However, simply putting it back and moving on to “Two households, both alike in dignity” seemed an insurmountable task for a curious thirteen year old.
I carefully unfolded the letter and recognized my mother’s handwriting. Dated November 1, 1976. Two years before my parent’s marriage and four years before my birth. My stomach double-dipped. “My Love,” it began and went on to speak of longing across great distance, present obstacles, and promises of eternal devotion. Such things I’d only ever heard in epic ballads and fairy tales. I knew my parents loved each other, but up until that day, I’d thought it rather orthodox—their love story. Nothing like the ardor of Penelope and Odysseus, the fire of Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy, the potency of Scarlett and Rhett, or the yearning of Daisy and Gatsby.
Understand, I kept a journal list of eulogized paramours. Marianne Dashwood was my literary kindred, both of us basing our amatory knowledge on illusions. Yet here was reality, and I reimagined my mother: young, beautiful, unmarried and besot with an equally young, handsome lieutenant hundreds of miles away. No bestselling romance couldn’t equal such ripe character fodder.
I tried to move on to Romeo and Juliet, but my mind was far from Verona. It’d taken root in an austere military dorm where my father must’ve run his fingers over that very page, read the words and felt his heart hiccup, then quietly tucked it away beneath layers of sonnets and what some consider the greatest love story ever told.
I had cried every time I’d seen Romeo and Juliet performed, but the first time I read it, my emotions seemed corked. They were tapped later when my father kissed my mother as she served steaming plates of rice and beans. Perplexed but knowing my penchant for pathos, she merely shook her head and said, “Sarah, eat your supper, love.”
I’m drawn to used bookstores like a fruit fly to summer cantaloupe. I seek out these harvest stalls and spend hours flittering about the book rinds, deciding which to crack open and possibly drown in.
In Norfolk, Virginia, my one-bedroom apartment was on the city’s only cobblestone street appropriately named Freemason. Within a week of moving in, I discovered a used bookstore two blocks over called Bibliophile Bookshop. Its entrance was blockaded by hundreds of dog-eared books, a “4 for $1” cart outside, and a salty-haired proprietor who kept the door open in the balmy harbor July and played concertos on his radio.
On one such sticky afternoon, I buzzed the stacks. You’ve got to go deep for the good stuff. All the pretty, contemporary titles are placed at the front for the quick buyer, who is not me. I dig, burrowing down to the pappy volumes that smell like they’ve been dipped in lake water. It was here in the dredges that I found my piece of gold. A vermilion cover plucked from the pile; its inner pages hung on by sinewy threads. The thing looked a bloody mess. I could barely make out the title from the pockmarks, scuffs and stains: Anna Lombard by Victoria Cross. Two strong female names that deserved attention. But before I’d read one word penned by Ms. Cross, a penciled dedication brought me to a full stop. Unmarred by all that had injured the rest of the book, it read: To Edith, Always remember. Love, Mummy. The kind of simple inscription anybody might write. It was the “Always remember” that resonated. Always remember what?
I laxly flipped Anna Lombard pages, my imagination spinning its own tale of what Edith’s Mummy wanted her to remember. Then something fell out. My instinct assumed I’d broken the last bit of binding and the rest of the pages would soon flutter to the floor. I was wrong. At my feet was square, sepia photo with scalloped edges. I saw the back script before the image: Mummy & Loretta before she passed. 1941. On the flipside were two women sitting on a park bench, faces mapped with laugh lines, arms pretzeled to each other. One of these women was Mummy. I studied the faded expressions, and despite rational deduction that both were now deceased, I agonized over to whom the message referred. Who was the “she” that passed? Loretta or Mummy? It ached to think it was the latter—Edith’s Mummy who wrote that she must “always remember”… something, which had to be of great meaning, sentimental or profound, for her to have said so.
I tried to read the first chapter of Cross’s novel but couldn’t sympathize with the main character, Gerald Ethridge, and his faithful love to Anna Lombard. My head and heart were already immersed in another narrative: Mummy and Edith and Loretta. Women who lived real lives and left the tangible proof of their story here—in my hands.
I wanted that book. I still want it. Years later, I can’t get it or them out of my mind. But I didn’t buy it for the proprietor’s $8 price tag. I worried that if I took it from that place, moved it with me to another city or state or country, whatever it was that Mummy wanted Edith to remember, wouldn’t be. Maybe Edith or her kin were somewhere still in Norfolk. This book with all its treasures belonged to them. So I lodged the photo as securely as I could deep inside, wrapped the cover over and placed it on a high shelf where I thought it’d be safe from further ruin or imprudent hands. Someplace where if the right person saw the crimson spine and title, they would remember whatever it was they were to always.
Some will say it’s narcissism and perhaps they are correct, but I leave breadcrumbs of myself in every book. Train and plane tickets are my favorites. I use them as bookmarks and then purposely abandon them.
Recently, I let a friend borrow Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski. When returning my copy she asked, “Were you in Dallas last September?” She was surprised when I said I wasn’t. “It’s just—I found this in your book.” She thumbed through my copy and retrieved a ticket stub. I eyed it and remembered that I’d transferred planes in Dallas on my way home to Virginia. I read the novel on the flight, I explained. She sighed. “Mystery solved!”
I laughed and then felt bad. I hoped her imagination hadn’t been as relentless as mine—that she’d been able to fully engage in Berlinski’s novel without my story nagging at the edges of her dreamscape. But my friend is very much like me, so she’d probably stayed up pondering my mysterious travels more than the fictional Dyalo village and the Walker family trials. I made a mental note to siphon my books’ contents before lending—for the sake of my friends’ reading experiences more than myself.
And yet, my habit continues. I was at a café reading and eating grilled chicken skewers not too long ago. At the end of the meal, I slipped my sauce-splattered receipt in the back of the book. For safe keeping, I told myself, but truthfully hoping that one day, years from now, I’ll rediscover it and remember the taste of sweet rosemary and hickory smoke, the heated blue of El Paso summers, the person I was when I first ventured into that novel’s territory.
These bits of my day-to-day are life fragments, evidence that I was here. My library isn’t simply a collage of ink and paper. It’s stuffed with these secret stashes. And I use a variety of items: empty envelopes, expired coupons, recipes, gum wrappers that make the pages fruity fresh, photographs, baggage claims, postcards, birthday cards, To Do lists, sticky notes scribbled by my husband with messages ranging from Gatsby’s out of dog food to I love you, have a beautiful day. All stuck in the pages.
I’d never consciously appraised this book littering behavior until the Berlinski episode. I wondered if I was alone in my bizarre fascination, then I was introduced to the Forgotten Bookmarks blog. Michael Popek, a used-bookstore bibliophile, posts all the lovely discoveries he finds in his shop’s acquisitions. I spent more time than I care to admit scrolling through his online treasure chest, captivated by the notes, tickets, letters, photographs, drawings and recipes—the layers of stories in the stories at large.
As an author and reader, I’m routinely juggling viewpoints, seeing through the eyes of my characters, others’ characters and my own. It’s a somewhat schizophrenic existence. So I question where I stand in the mise-en-abîms: At the top of the watery abyss looking down or at the bottom looking up? Or maybe I’m one of the many reflections between, moving her arms in rhythm with the others, yet uniquely me with a story indelibly my own.
Image credit: Pexels/Suzy Hazelwood.
Whatever your feelings about Twilight, you have to admit that the breadth and scope of the Twilight phenomenon is spectacular. Boy wizards aside, literature-inspired hoo-ha of this magnitude just doesn’t come along that often. To begin with, there is the dizzying array of memorabilia: Twilight band-aids, duvet covers, water bottles, umbrellas, jewelry, wallets, life-sized wall decals, as well as the standard t-shirts and movie posters. Kristen Stewart, the actress who plays Twilight heroine Bella Swan in the film adaptations, has expressed astonishment that rather mundane items of clothing she’s spotted wearing sell out in hours. There’s a Twilight make-up line that includes a pinkish gold-flecked lotion that promises to give “Twihards,” and anyone else, vampirically luminous skin (according to the editors of Lucky Magazine, “it’s gleamy but not over-the-top-Edward-in-sunlight-sparkly”). And that’s not to mention the Twilight fan blogs (oh, TwilightMomsBlog!) and the legions of YouTube videos posted by less satisfied Twilight readers burning, beating, and taking chainsaws to their copies of the best-selling novels (Breaking Dawn, the fourth and last book in the series, sold 1.3 million copies in the first day; total sales of all of the books are at upwards of 40 million, and since the final installment came out last year, all four books in the series have remained in USA Today’s top 10 bestsellers). And then there are the sell-out midnight shows whose fangirl audiences reportedly squeal with delight when the lights dim. The father of one of these fans told me that his 14-year-old daughter had taken to signing her text and email messages “Twilight,” instead of her name.
The books have also had a startling effect on the small town of Forks, Washington, the setting of Meyer’s series. Tourism has been booming. Last year, the mayor of Forks declared the weekend of September 12-13th to be Stephenie Meyer Day Weekend (September 12th is Bella Swan’s birthday). This year, the weekend’s events include a birthday breakfast for Bella, tours of Forks High School (where Bella was supposed to have been a student), a Twilight character look alike contest, and a sunset bonfire at the Quileute Reservation, on the same beach where, in the novels, Bella meets Jacob Black, a Quileute teenager, who becomes her best friend, a werewolf, and the rival of the beautiful teenage vampire Edward Cullen for Bella’s affections. By all accounts, this year’s celebration was a massive success, nearly doubling Forks’ population of somewhere around 3,000 and drawing visitors from as far away as England and Japan.
Marveling at all this on the eve of the second Twilight movie’s release, I found myself thinking of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded. Pamela, published in 1740, was the first best-selling novel in English; it is the story of a teenage servant girl who resists her aristocratic master’s increasingly violent sexual overtures, eventually wins his heart and becomes his wife. It was the first novel to inspire the sort of frenzy that Twilight is inspiring right now. Like Twilight, Pamela spawned themed merchandise: Pamela tea cups and tea towels, Pamela prints and painting, Pamela fans, Pamela playing cards. Pastors recommended the book from the pulpit and European intellectuals as well as private citizens sang its praises. Rousseau, for one, reported weeping copiously over it. There wasn’t any declaration of a Pamela Day, but one famous and oft-repeated anecdote about the Pamela mania verges into the kind of confusing of the fictional and the real that the Forks’ Twilight celebrations offer. There are many anecdotes dating back to the eighteenth century, in which Pamela’s wedding is taken as fact or publicly celebrated. In one of the best known, from an 1833 address given by Sir John Herschel at Eton, a blacksmith in a small village in Windsor got hold of a copy of Pamela
and used to read it aloud in the long summer evenings, seated on his anvil, and never failed to have a large and attentive audience…At length, when the happy turn of fortune arrived, which brings the hero and heroine together, and sets them living long and happily according to the most approved rules—the congregation were so delighted as to raise a great shout and, procuring the church keys, actually set the parish bells ringing.
These readers were practicing the English custom of ringing church bells to celebrate and announce a marriage–though in this case, the marriage of a fictional hero and heroine: Pamela and her former master, the landed squire named Mr. B.
Pamela was revolutionary in its day and Richardson was both celebrated (as by the Windsor townsfolk) and reviled for the novel’s “leveling” tendency. Servants and common laborers were widely considered a lesser order of being in the eighteenth century—there to serve the pleasure of their masters, whatever that pleasure might be. The idea of a titled landowner marrying his maid—when he might sleep with her with impunity—was considered scandalous and subversive, to say the least. Historian Lynn Hunt’s recent book, Inventing Human Rights, claims that novels like Pamela were foundational in the development of the idea of human rights that surfaced explicitly in the French and American Revolutions of the late eighteenth century.
On the surface, then, it would seem that the similarity between Twilight and Pamela, between Bella and Pamela, ends in their popularity and the mania they inspire(d). But these twin phenomena, one sitting at each end of the history of the novel, I think, share more. By an admittedly cynical and reductive reading, Twilight and Pamela are the same book, the same archetypal female fantasy: a poor or undistinguished girl is chosen as “the one” by a handsome, rich, aristocratic man who sweeps her off her feet and takes her out of her (more or less) grubby, mundane, low-born life. And the cynical reading goes further. These are not merely Cinderella love stories; in fact, they are not love stories at all. By the cynical reading, these novels are only about class, about becoming rich, becoming one of the rarefied beautiful people.
A year after Pamela’s publication, Henry Fielding published Shamela, a parody of Richardson’s novel motivated by the belief that Pamela didn’t resist her master’s attempts to rape her out of fear or a moral certainty that her desires were just as important as his, but because she thought she might get more out of him if she held out. Fielding’s sham Pamela is a hypocrite, a wily girl on the make—after money, finery, and social position that she was not entitled to by birth or by her incredible virtuousness (which Fielding tells us is only a ruse designed to ensnare Mr. B, her master.). Pamela protests too much on Fielding’s reading: he suggested that Pamela’s belaboring of the spiritual peril that Mr. B’s advances threaten her with, combined with her obvious attraction to him, didn’t quite ring true.
In Pamela’s case, I think Fielding goes too far. A marriage to a landed, titled man would have been quite literally beyond the wildest dreams of a servant like Pamela, even assuming that she possessed the sort of calculating wiliness that Fielding attributes to her. In fact, if she were as wily as Fielding drew her, Shamela would have known that she’d never become Mr. B’s bride. (Only by the rules of Richardson’s quasi-allegorical plot can Pamela’s virtue be rewarded as it is.) But in the case of Meyer’s Bella Swan, I think Fielding’s hypocrisy reading might stand. Like Pamela (and Pamela is more convincing), Bella insists that what she values, particularly in her beloved vampire Edward, is spiritual: “Edward had the most beautiful soul, more beautiful than his brilliant mind or his incomparable face or his glorious body,” she tells us.
But why, if the spiritual is supposed to be paramount, are the Twilight novels so distractingly full of money – literally, piles of cash – and the things money can buy? “There was enough cash stashed all over the house to keep a small country afloat for a decade,” Bella reports of the Cullen family home. This cash buys Bella an acceptance to Dartmouth, a special order Mercedes (a model preferred by drug dealers and diplomats for its bulletproof glass—Edward’s very protective), a Ferrari, lots and lots of couture clothing, and a faux rustic cottage in the woods that I came to think of as a version of Marie Antoinette’s hameau (the little faux farmhouse where the queen and her ladies played at being peasants). All of this, Bella claims to resent or to feel uncomfortable accepting.
But the idea that the Cullen wealth holds no appeal to Bella, when it is Bella herself who draws so much attention to it in her first-person narration, just doesn’t stand. When, at the end of the fourth book, she finally admits a little pleasure in the jaw-dropping, head-turning spectacle that this wealth allows her to become, it feels like she is finally admitting what she’s felt and wanted all along—a pleasure that anyone, most especially a teenage girl, would feel:
He took the calf-length ivory trench coat I’d worn to disguise the fact that I was wearing Alice’s idea of appropriate attire, and gasped quietly at my oyster satin cocktail gown. I still wasn’t used to being beautiful to everyone rather than just Edward. The maitre d’ stuttered half-formed compliments as he backed unsteadily from the room.
Of course, the idea here is that it’s (spoiler alert) Bella’s newly enhanced physical beauty that stuns the man (she’s become a vampire at this point, and vampires are more beautiful in order to attract their prey, i.e. humans), but Meyer/Bella lingers on the clothes—the things money can buy.
Bella’s compulsive observation of the Cullens’ beauty and their beautiful things does not come to seem a metaphor for spiritual superiority but a conflation of material wealth, physical beauty, and moral elevation. While the books suppose to be about a perfect, otherworldly love (this love could be metaphor: it certainly doesn’t exist in the real world), the material intrudes constantly (cars, money, clothes), suggesting that beauty and money and blessedness and happiness are all one, confused and interchangeable.
This pernicious lie that is at the heart of Twilight. When I see pictures of young girls waiting in line to buy these novels or tickets to the movie, this is why I get angry. I don’t get angry because Meyer’s recycled the classic female fantasy of the most desirable boy picking the girl he never will in real life (I love My So-Called Life, while knowing all too well that Angela Chase (Clare Danes) would never have gotten Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) in “real” life), I get angry because Meyer didn’t seem to trust the unbelievable love between Bella and Edward as sufficient to hold her readers’ interest. Love, apparently, needs to be tarted up in designer clothes, given sparkling six-pack abs, armed with platinum credit cards and Ferraris before we’ll recognize it. For all of its heavy-handed allusions to Romeo and Juliet and Wuthering Heights, Twilight is, in the end, fatally invested in the shallow materialism and the youth and beauty worship that continue to define and corrode American popular culture.
It’s scarier than vampires.
It sells Middlemarch short to call it a novel of manners, although if viewed from just one angle it is. The novel describes the precisely ordered life of the eponymous village in feudal England, where every resident can be placed on a grid according to his annual income and the quality of his lineage. There are characters with small parts in Middlemarch, but no minor ones, so fully drawn are all of George Eliot’s creations. Principally the story concerns the life of Dorothea Brooke, a young and beautiful women of the upper class whose spiritual discontent leads her astray in marriage. There is also Tertius Lydgate, a cocky and ambitious doctor come lately to town, and Mr. Bulstrode, a new money banker with a mysterious past. Each chases love, money, and respectability in proportion to his needs and finds that the strictures of society, even more than the dictates of his conscience, shape the person he will become.In the middle of all this stands Eliot, whose presence is unmistakable as the energy that makes this fictional world go round. Writing of one character who has just lost his temper, the narrator says, “Will was not without his intentions to be always generous, but our tongues are little triggers which have usually been pulled before general intentions can be brought to bear.” This is typical of the way Eliot annotates, observing wisely on the fraught behavior of men, like the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life who tells George Bailey all about his life. James Wood, in How Fiction Works, called this perspective “authorial omniscience,” and it has the tendency to feel antiquated to us, a relic of a simpler time when the whole world might be understood according to such strict and unvarying codes.There are, in any story, always two competing forces, an individual’s will and social prerogative. When the two are held to be fixed and immovable, you get the best melodramas, like Romeo and Juliet. It’s a simpler class of story, one we respond to but no longer really believe to accurately describe things as they are. On the other end of the spectrum you have today’s conditions of storytelling, where neither individual identity nor the social order have any fixed anchors, resulting in all manner of existential confusion when the two mix together. Middlemarch, however, exists somewhere in between and the result is as pure and exacting as ballet.About halfway through the book, as a husband and wife contemplate the suitability of a young man for their daughter, Eliot writes, “A human being in this aged nation of ours is a very wonderful whole, the slow creation of long interchanging influences.” It is just that interchange of influences that Eliot sketches in Middlemarch and she does so with a fluency for human behavior that is quite often breathtaking. Take for example this small scene, describing the Vicar Farebrother after a brief interview with the eligible Mary Garth:As the Vicar walked to Lowick, any one watching him closely might have seen him twice shrug his shoulders… The Vicar was holding an inward dialogue in which he told himself that there was probably something more between Fred and Mary Garth than the regard of old playfellows, and replied with a question whether that bit of womanhood were not a great deal too choice for that crude young gentleman. The rejoinder to this was the first shrug. Then he laughed at himself for being likely to have felt jealous, as if he had been a man able to marry which, added he, it is as clear as any balance-sheet that I am not. Whereupon followed the second shrug.Here, Eliot is able to slow the world down enough to capture not only that the Vicar would shrug twice, but exactly why he would do it. The resolution with which she is able to observe her characters reminds me of great baseball hitters who see in slow motion what appears to the rest of us to be impossibly fast. Such is Eliot’s ability to dip into the torrent of human experience and master it.As commanding as Eliot’s view is, it is not static. Her central characters – Dorothea, Lydgate and Bulstrode – live contingently, always on the edge of transformation. Throughout the story they come to have a keener understanding of their own desires, a process of self-understanding that occurs through dialogue with other characters and the unerring rebound of the social order. Society itself is fixed (although Eliot does critique feudal landholdings and insincere religiosity) and in this, Middlemarch describes a world that is no longer ours. But the dialectic of her characters is timeless. Dorothea tests her spiritual longing against an unexpected passion. Lydgate wrestles with his professional ambitions matched against a wife who would seem to spoil him at every turn. Bulstrode struggles to reconcile his religiosity with more base urges, a desire for money and a fear of shame. As the characters try and evolve they arrive at inexact and unintended places. But that they do is not an indictment of the rigid social order. It is instead an exposition of human frailty, of our inability to know our own desires let alone to conquer them. Far from just a novel of manners, Middlemarch is a monument to the fraught lives of women and men. It is, quite undeniably, great.
Reese wrote in with this question:I’m a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA focusing mostly on literature. Over the summer I’m attempting to do an independent study of suicide in art and literature. The only thing is, I’m having trouble formulating a reading list. While I can certainly think of a lot of novels that feature a suicide or two in them, I’m really looking for books that focus prominently on the subject. So far all I’ve got is John Barth’s The Floating Opera and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, in addition to A. Alvarez’s study of suicide, The Savage God. Any suggestions? I’d be much obliged.One of my favorite short poems is Langston Hughes’ “Suicide’s Note”:The calm,Cool face of the riverAsked me for a kiss.And I offer it as an epigraph to our reader in search of literary works that take suicide as a central theme or plot event. Here, with a few notes, is a (by no means comprehensive) list in roughly chronological order.Sophocles’ Oedipus and AntigoneVirgil’s Aeneid (Dido’s suicide in the fourth book)Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet (Ophelia’s suicide), and Romeo and JulietFanny Burney’s late eighteenth century novel Cecilia has a striking public suicide in one of London’s pleasure gardensAnna Karenina, which pairs nicely with James Joyce’s micro-Anna Karenina “A Painful Case” in DublinersWilkie Collins’ The Moonstone has a suicide involving a quicksand pit called “The Shivering Sands”The Suicide Club, Robert Louis Stevenson (three short stories)The Awakening and “Desirée’s Baby,” Kate ChopinVirginia Woolf’s Mrs. DallowayVladimir Nabokov’s Pale FireAlice Munro’s “Comfort”Sylvia Plath is the patron saint of suicide lit: The Bell Jar and, among her poetry, particularly “Lady Lazarus” (But you might also check out Anne Sexton’s work and that of Ted Hughes’ second poetess-wife to die by her own hand, Assia Wevill)”A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” J.D. SalingerAh, yes, and Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé” – as beloved as the Hughes and almost as short:Razors pain you;Rivers are damp;Acids stain you;And drugs cause cramp.Guns aren’t lawful;Nooses give;Gas smells awful;You might as well live.Happy Reading![Ed note: got more suggestions? Leave a comment]
My Shakespeare intake is up sharply this season. So far, I’ve attended about one performance every six weeks. Two comedies (a .333 average), three tragedies (.500), and even one romance (.167). My mother, a high school English teacher, must be pleased with the numbers I’ve been putting up. And I’m prepared to testify before any grand jury that will have me that the only performance-enhancing drugs I’ve touched have been brewed from the choicest hops and barley.Here in New York, it’s possible to indulge in Bardolatry whenever you want. At least two Shakespeare productions are running on any given night. And of course, the plays are meant to be seen, rather than read. Or so say the experts. This week’s Shakespeare-in-the-Park performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream left me wondering, though… are they right?Having read AMND thrice and having seen four previous stage productions, I was surprised at how many great speeches I’d managed to forget. “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / are of imagination all compact,” Duke Theseus theorizes. “Be as thou wast wont to be,” Oberon tells a sleeping Titania, on the verge of reconciliation. “See as thou wast wont to see.” On a more Global level, though, the Shakespeare-in-the-Park production was a mess – part Broadway razzle-dazzle, part Three Stooges routine, part Ibsen. Rather than mining the subterranean connections between the play’s disparate tones and textures, director Daniel Sullivan seemed hellbent on obliterating them.Yes, it was free, on a beautiful night in the Park, and yes, there is fun to be had picking holes in any performance. But the contrast between this Dream and Michael Grief’s Romeo and Juliet (this summer’s other Shakespeare-in-the-Park offering) suggested a crucial lesson for any director of Shakespeare: one must surrender to the imperatives of the material, rather than trying to bend it to one’s will. Such a surrender does not slough off the burden of interpretation; indeed, it requires it. But Grief’s decisions about the nature of love and lust, the relative costs of innocence and experience, and the place of the individual in society, flowed from Shakespearean preoccupations; whereas the current production lacks a point-of-view on love, on imagination, or on anything at all. Sullivan’s rope tricks and glowsticks threaten not just to jazz up but to gloss over A Midsummer Night’s Dream.Grappling with the big questions Shakespeare wrestled into blank verse can yield a refreshlingly classicist take on a play, like Grief’s, or something as riotously new as the Wooster Group Hamlet. In the case of slightly weaker source material, such as The Taming of the Shrew, strong direction may produce something in between, like Propeller’s excellent staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music… while commenting on our own times.When a director aims to displace the Bard’s magic with its own, however, I’d just as soon save my money, drag out my brokeback Riverside Shakespeare, and stage a play in the round of my own mind. Which doesn’t mean I’d ever pass up tickets to any live performance… provided someone else is buying.