Every new year, my husband and I quit drinking for the month. Sober January is a healthy and smug time, filled with sparkling water and peppermint tea and discussions about what kind of red wine would have gone well with the lamb shanks. This year, we’ve also given up sugar for the month. We joke that we should also take away bread, dairy, meat, salt. Anything with flavor, anything that makes us happy. Next year we will consume only paper towels soaked in water for 31 days.
A more pleasurable new year’s resolution is one that adds to your life rather than subtracts from it. One year, for instance, I vowed to wear more dresses. I did, and it was a fabulous (and feminine) year. Reading resolutions, if they aren’t too onerous, also fall under this category. For example, vowing to read a poem a week isn’t a huge challenge and, wow, how it can render a Saturday morning more ponderous and magical! A couple of years back I devoted a summer to E.M. Forster, and, aside from the splendor of reading Howards End and Maurice, I loved saying, in my best mid-Atlantic, Gore Vidal-inspired accent, “I find myself on a Forster kick lately.”
This year, I resolve to read James Baldwin’s nonfiction, in particular The Fire Next Time. The desire to read Baldwin emerged from discussions, both in-person and online, about Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I own but haven’t yet read. Beyond the obvious similarities between the two books (the letter writing device and race in America as subject matter), I’m interested in other ways these two texts interact, and where and how they diverge.
I also resolve to read David Copperfield. I’d already planned to read it this year after spending 2015 with one contemporary novel or another, and then I read Meaghan O’Connell’s Year in Reading, wherein she not only recommended many of the same books I had read and loved in 2015, but also mentioned that she was waiting for the Charles Dickens to arrive in the mail. This seemed fated. We have agreed to tackle the book together, in a kind of two-lady book club, this February.
In figuring out my own reading resolutions, I realized how much fun it is to hear about what others plan to read this year. In this spirit, I asked some people I admire to share their 2016 bookish resolutions.
David Ulin, former critic for the Los Angeles Times and the author of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, always writes about books with such perspicacity and grace. He told me he generally doesn’t believe in resolutions since he almost never follows through with them. He went on:
But when it comes to reading in 2016, my main goal is to relax. To step back from the treadmill, and to read in a more integrated way. In part, this will mean as a critic, since I plan to continue writing about books; in part, as a writer, reading books that connect to, or address, various projects; and (perhaps most importantly) in part, as a reader, reading for no agenda other than my own. I’ve long believed that reading as a writer (and certainly as a critic) condemns one never to read for pure pleasure again. What I mean is that we are reading, inevitably, from within our own processes, with an eye toward how the sausage is made. I don’t imagine that will change for me, but I want to read recklessly this year, to put books down in the middle, to start and stop and start again. I want to read old books, new books, books by friends and books by strangers, books from all across the globe. Next to my bed, where I am writing at this moment, there are two piles of books, each about a foot and a half high. I’d like to read down those stacks, which include memoir, poetry, short story collections, detective fiction, books I wasn’t able to get to until now. Will I be able to read all of them, or even most of them, this year? Unlikely. And yet, they perch there like a promise or a dare.
My friend Tess Taylor, who is the poetry critic for NPR’s All Things Considered, and who will publish her second collection Work & Days this April, also plans to follow her bookish desires, wherever they may take her:
My biggest goals in 2016 are to read deeply, to read works as a whole, and to read off the grid. I think in the whole buzzy Facebook news-cycle thing, we get caught in a book-of-the-moment phenomenon. That is totally fine for the engine of selling books but maybe not as great for the part of us that makes us hungry to write them. Wearing my book reviewer hat, I am often reading for deadline or for money. I’m glad I get the to write things, truly, but this can be far from the wayward, unplugged feeling that made me a bookworm as a kid. So this year I want to get lost more. It can be very sustaining to engage one artist deeply, for pleasure, to get the measure of the craft and the life. Right now I’m reading all of Ted Hughes. I admit that this started out of a journalistic assignment, but the poems and the letters and the mind caught my attention and suddenly I’ve been ploughing through them almost obsessively. It’s a big private enterprise, and I mostly do it late at night or first thing in the morning. For now it’s not for sale. It feels really dreamy, like it feeds the writer in me. I want to do more of that.
The Debut Novelist
Would this desire to “get lost more,” as Tess puts it, extend to someone just stepping into the publication game? The year I published my first novel, I bought and read so many other recently released first novels because I was curious about what my colleagues were writing, and because I wanted to feel like I was in solidarity with my fellow debut novelists. (Class of 2014 in the house!) I asked fellow staff writer Hannah Gersen if the impending publication of her first novel, Home Field (out in July, y’all!), was affecting her reading resolutions. Yes, she said, but in a different way. She told me she’s planning to read Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time:
Or maybe it’s better to say I’m planning to finally read the whole thing from start to finish without skipping sections. I’m not sure how much this impulse is related to being a debut novelist, but Proust is definitely comfort reading for me because I’ve read and reread certain passages at different points in my life. The idea of reading the entire novel, knitting together all those favorite scenes, a little each day, feels very grounding. Maybe I also need a break from thinking about contemporary literature, to have a kind of cork-lined reading experience.
The Book Editor
I envy Hannah’s plan and the break she will get from the now-now-now! of our contemporary book-making machine (even as she gets to be a part of it.) It also made me wonder about those working within the industry. Do you make reading resolutions if you read and edit manuscripts for a living? Turns out, you do — or at least Laura Tisdel, executive editor at Viking, does. Every year, she told me, she attempts such a resolution.
Three years ago I read nonfiction titles to bone up on an area of reading, and general knowledge, I was woefully uneducated about (I tackled mostly history stuff, including Operation Jedburgh by Colin Beavan and The American Revolution by Gordon Wood). Two years ago, I focused on classics I hadn’t read as a student (Middlemarch and Giovanni’s Room? Check and check!). Last year, I had a baby (*crickets*). As a relatively new mother, one with just enough sleep to begin regaining some self-awareness, I’ve found myself missing the conversations I used to have with my friends catching up over a beer or even just disappearing down the rabbit hole of a text message thread. So this year, I’m going to read books that my friends recommend to me. I know darn well I don’t have the time in my schedule or the capacity to be a book club participant, but I’m going to make a sort of book club of one: I’m going to ask the people I care about and respect to recommend a book they loved, and then I’m going to read that book and write to them about it. I’m starting the year with Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object by Laurie Colwin, which a dear friend recommended to me just before the holidays when we grabbed a long overdue coffee date together. I’m thinking of this project as a way to commune with my friends, and to discover stories and writers that might never have surfaced in my nightstand pile otherwise.
(I now have strong motivation to start texting recommendations to her!)
I get the sense that Tisdel, like the others I asked, wants to step back from the machine. Not with a beloved classic, like Gersen, and not by reading “recklessly” as Ulin suggests, or associatively, like Taylor. But by reading a particular book for, and with, and because of, a particular person. It’s reading, and talking about reading, as intimacy.
Mary Williams, the general manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, is another integral member of the book-making machine, and her resolution echoes those of the others:
Free books are one of the perks of being a bookseller. But they are also a curse; there are just so many of them. I have never been able to keep up with all the books coming out each season that I want to read. Cue desperate feelings of inadequacy. Also, the world is full of great books that came out before I became a bookseller and my professional obligation to stay current began. So my resolution is to forgive myself for the new books I can’t get to (wish me luck), and to make some time for the aging heroes lodged in the middles of stacks of unread books in my apartment. Already Dead by Denis Johnson. Stoner by John Williams. More short stories: especially Lorrie Moore and George Saunders and Lydia Davis. Basically, more reading without deadlines.
While Mary is tossing off the shackles of professional obligation to read Stoner in the break room (Oh, how I envy her! I’d love to read that for the first time all over again!), Dana Spiotta’s next book, Innocent and Others, will be released. It comes out in March, which is motivation for me to finish that stupid Dickens as fast as I can — and for Mary to put those shackles back on. While every smart person is reading her novel, what books will Spiotta herself turn to? She told me, “When I was in my teens, I loved to read any kind of novel about growing up. he Bildungsroman(s), the sentimental educations, the coming-of-age/loss-of-innocence stories. It was the job at hand, and I needed help.” She continued:
This year, since I am reaching the milestone of what is optimistically referred to as “middle age,” I want to return to those books that I read so long ago. From The Red and the Black and Jane Eyre to Manchild in the Promised Land and The Basketball Diaries. And many more books that I remember loving. Will I still love them? They are the same of course, but maybe it will be a measure of how much I have changed. What I now think is engaging and moving and beautiful. What I think is funny. What I think is true (with all my experience as a person and a reader). Or maybe not, maybe my connection to these books of my youth will be exactly the same. I wonder if my young self will be in those pages, waiting for me.
Spiotta, too, is stepping away from the publishing hoopla. She will re-read; she will look backward as a way, perhaps, to look forward.
I’m sure that all of us will succumb to diving into the latest hot new book, because it’s fun to join those conversations, and because who doesn’t want to experience what promises to amaze and rearrange us? But I hope we also fulfill our personal reading goals, too, even if it’s to not have a goal: to read for pleasure, for comfort, for connection, for knowledge about the world and ourselves.
What’s your reading resolution for 2016?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
In 1936 the University of Iowa became the first school in the United States to offer a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in creative writing. Forty years later there were only a dozen such programs in the world. Today, according to an article in the current issue of Poets & Writers magazine entitled “The MFA Revolution,” there are nearly 200 creative writing MFA programs worldwide, and at least 4,000 aspiring writers apply to these programs each year in the U.S. alone. “What is clear,” the article concludes, “is that the burgeoning network of fully funded MFA programs is rapidly becoming the nation’s largest-ever patronage system for young artists.”
Whenever the words “patronage” and “artists” appear in the same sentence, questions must be asked. Is this mass patronage system a boon for American fiction, or is it a poison pill? Do creative writing programs nurture genuine talent, or are they spawning a torrent of technically accomplished books that are devoid of felt life? And more broadly: Just what good does schooling of any kind do for a writer?
In The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Mark McGurl points out the “seemingly banal” fact that virtually all contemporary American fiction writers have attended college. “In previous generations this would not likely have been the case,” McGurl writes, “both because fewer individuals of any kind went to college before the postwar advent of mass higher education and because a college education was not yet perceived as an obvious…starting point for a career as a novelist. Rather, as the un-credentialled, or rather press-credentialled, example of the high school graduate Hemingway makes clear, the key supplementary institution for the novel until mid-century was journalism.”
In a dazzling essay in the London Review of Books called “Get A Real Degree,” the brainiac Elif Batuman deftly fillets McGurl’s claim. “According to the internet,” she writes, “writers have, in fact, been going to college for hundreds of years.” In a footnote she lists dozens of writers, from Balzac to Joyce to Graham Greene, and the universities they attended. She concludes: “I have been able to find only a handful of famous novelists who, like Hemingway, avoided university in favour of journalism.” She names Defoe, Dickens and Twain. (The deftness of this filleting job is greatly enhanced by “according to the internet” – sly shorthand for “as any high school sophomore with a laptop could have found out.”)
Batuman, a Harvard grad with a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Stanford, argues persuasively that the problem is not that virtually all American fiction writers go to college and that growing numbers of them then go on to grad school; the problem is that they study the wrong things. She comes down squarely in favor of writers studying literature as opposed to studying how to make fiction. After conceding that the creative writing program is equally incapable of ruining a good writer or transforming a bad one, she asks: “Why can’t the programme be better than it is? Why can’t it teach writers about history and the world, and not just about adverbs and themselves?”
One result of the creative writing boom, according to McGurl, is that MFA grads are producing “more excellent fiction…than anyone has time to read.” Which, according to Batuman, is precisely the problem: “That’s the torture of walking into a bookshop these days: it’s not that you think the books will all be terrible; it’s that you know they’ll all have a certain degree of competent workmanship, that most will have about three genuinely beautiful or interesting sentences and no really bad ones, that many will have at least one convincing, well-observed character, and that nearly all will be bound up in a story that you can’t bring yourself to care about. All that great writing, trapped in mediocre books! Who, indeed, has time to read them?”
McGurl’s spurious claim about the place of college and journalism in writers’ lives brought back my own experience as a young man trying to figure out a way to reconcile my urge to write with the need to make a living. As it turned out, college and journalism figured largely in the solution.
I went directly from high school to Brown University in the fall of 1970 because that was what was expected of me, the grandson of a distinguished professor and son of a college graduate who became a newspaperman and then a successful Detroit auto executive in the post-war boom years when all Detroit auto executives were successful and almost always sent their children to college. I knew even then that I wanted to be a writer – a real writer, a novelist – and so in my freshman year I was thrilled to win a coveted spot in a course called “Writing Fiction” taught by the late R.V. Cassill, who had just published a fat bawdy novel about the Profumo scandal called Dr. Cobb’s Game. The things I remember most vividly about Cassill are that he wore a beret, he chain-smoked Gauloise cigarettes, and he tried to seduce my girlfriend. I guess he was part French.
His weekly classes – now they’re called “workshops” – were torture, a dozen bright sensitive kids sitting around a room tearing apart each other’s stories and egos. In the requisite end-of-semester written summary of my performance and prospects, Cassill needed all of eight words to cut my heart out: “Mr. Morris works hard but possesses limited talent.” I haven’t set foot in a creative writing classroom since.
Cassill’s evisceration did have one positive result. It made me realize that since college couldn’t teach me how to write, I would have to teach myself. I would have to keep reading copiously, of course, but I would also have to live, to gather “experience” I could write about. I was still under the spell of the worst advice anyone ever gave an aspiring writer: Write what you know.
So I dropped out and took off, traveling cross-country and working jobs as a farmhand, racehorse groom, dishwasher and fruit picker while writing an apprentice novel that achieved the one thing such exercises can be asked to achieve: it gave me the courage to keep writing. In time, my resume would grow to include jobs as a bartender, New York City bicycle messenger, telemarketer, porn actor and Nashville disc jockey. Always I was writing on the side, only rarely about my personal experiences.
It wasn’t until many years later that I came to understand that “experience” was beside the point. It was Flannery O’Connor who set me wise. “The fact is that anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days,” she wrote in a collection of essays called Mystery and Manners. “If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.”
One hot dusty day I found myself high up in an apple tree in Sonoma County, California. As I twisted a fat green Gravenstein apple off a branch and laid it gently in my canvas shoulder bag – “Treat ’em like eggs,” was the foreman’s mantra – a voice whispered to me: Do you really want to do this kind of shit work for the rest of your life? I knew the answer. No, I wanted to be a writer, which meant I needed to find a way to get paid to write while continuing my apprenticeship as a novelist. I needed to get a newspaper job. Which meant I needed to get a college degree.
So after a two-year hiatus I went back to school, where I studied whatever interested me – geology, drawing, French novels, Russian history, Italian neo-realist movies, anything but creative writing. I also put together an independent-study project – I spent my senior year researching the history of the city of Providence and writing a book-length monograph. With an eye toward life after graduation, I published a handful of articles in the student newspaper. School wasn’t my death as a writer, it was my birth; and it would not have happened without the guidance and support of inspiring teachers, access to magnificent libraries, and every student’s most precious gift, free time.
When I finally graduated, Nixon had recently flown away in disgrace to San Clemente and every swinging dick in the land ached to be the next Woodward and/or Bernstein. It was a buyer’s market and I was selling untested goods. I spent nine months roaming up and down the Eastern seaboard, from the Adirondacks to Savannah, pounding on doors at podunk newspapers and listening to one editor after another tell me: “Come back when you’ve got some experience.” It was all I could do not to shout at them: “How the fuck am I supposed to get any experience if nobody’ll give me a job?!” Finally the publisher at a small Gannett daily in a Pennsylvania backwater gave me a shot – a job covering local school boards for $140 a week, and don’t even think about asking for overtime pay. Of course I jumped at it.
I’m convinced I would not have gotten even that dismal job offer if I hadn’t possessed a college degree. I still recall the job interview, the way the publisher’s eyes got big as dimes when I told him I had a bachelor’s degree in English from an Ivy League school. The days of Defoe, Dickens, Twain and Hemingway were long gone by then. A college degree was a bare-bones requirement for even the lowliest cub reporter’s job, and in retrospect I can’t say that that turned out to be an altogether bad thing. Newspaper writing flourished from the 1960s until the Internet caused newspaper executives to commit mass hari-kari beginning in the 1990s. (For a hilarious gloss on this unpretty group suicide, I refer you to Jess Walter’s novel The Financial Lives of Poets.) I worked on daily newspapers off and on from 1976 until 1996, and I became so convinced I was part of a golden age that I deluded myself into believing it was destined to last forever. But even during those golden years – or, rather, that long twilight – there were gruff, unsettling voices of dissent.
One of the loudest belonged to Lewis Grizzard, a booze-marinated Atlanta columnist who made a fortune writing best-selling comedy books that trafficked in the author’s cracker upbringing and his disdain for anything that smelled of sophistication, including college graduates, feminists, Yankees and anyone who could write grammatical sentences of more than eight words. A typical Grizzard book title was Chili Dawgs Always Bark at Night.
Grizzard had a lucrative side career as a lecturer and stand-up comic, and I remember being sent to cover one of his performances at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. This would have been in the early 1990s, when Grizzard’s fame was at its peak, shortly before the booze and a faulty heart ganged up to kill him at the age of 47. That night in Durham, inevitably, he got off on the topic of how newspapers had gone to hell. Why, reporters wrote on whispering machines called computers instead of on clattering manual typewriters! Newsroom floors were spongy carpet instead of creaky hardwood! The green eyeshades and spittoons were gone – and, by implication, so were the pints of sour mash in bottom drawers! To top it off, newsrooms were crawling with college boys – and, sweet baby Jesus, college girls! (Grizzard’s spiel conveniently omitted the fact that he held a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia.) “When I walk into the average newsroom today,” he moaned, “I don’t know whether to write a column or ask if I can take out a loan.” Of course the audience lapped it up like corn liquor.
Grizzard was not alone in lamenting the passing of romance from the newspaper business, the death of the supposed good old days of “The Front Page” and “Get me rewrite, sweetheart!” What the nostalgists failed to realize – or admit – was that most American newspapers before the mid-1960s were dreadful, full of factual errors, dry writing and dreary layouts. Those computers and college educations Grizzard despised so much helped produce the best written, best edited and most visually attractive newspapers in the history of American journalism – not to mention the flowering of magazine writing, non-fiction books and the uneasy but fruitful marriage of fiction and journalism by the likes of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Marshall Frady, Gay Talese and many others. Computers and college educations didn’t kill the American newspaper; on-line car ads and real-estate listings and classifieds did, with a generous assist from newspaper executives who were pie-eyed drunk on years of artificially fat profits.
Furthermore, those newsroom Hemingways with their high school diplomas and their hip flasks were, for the most part, hacks. I know this, second-hand, because my father worked on newspapers in the 1940s and ’50s and he told me stories. The exception who proved the rule, according to my father, was a colleague at the Washington Post in the early 1950s. His name was Al Lewis and he was a legendary police reporter – even though he was barely able to write English prose. He and my father collaborated on a series of articles about a D.C. racketeer that nearly won a Pulitzer Prize. That is, Lewis did the legwork and my father, a fine writer and lightning fast typist, did the writing. Lewis’s street smarts wouldn’t have amounted to much without a college boy like my father to distill his raw knowledge into readable prose. It was Al Lewis, incidentally, who broke the story about a break-in at the Watergate complex in the early hours of June 17, 1972.
So I’m dubious when people fret that school is killing writing – that college boys ruined newspapers and the growing horde of creative writing MFAs is ruining American fiction today. Flannery O’Connor graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and spent some time at the Yaddo artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and neither experience bleached the color, the humor, the horror – the felt life – from her fiction. Sometime in the early 1960s she wrote: “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher… In the last twenty years the colleges have been emphasizing creative writing to such an extent that you almost feel that any idiot with a nickel’s worth of talent can emerge from a writing class able to write a competent story. In fact, so many people can now write competent stories that the short story as a medium is in danger of dying of competence. We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class.”
Elif Batuman adds in her essay: “In technical terms, pretty much any MFA grad leaves Stendahl in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read.”
As if to prove their point, last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review carried a review of a slim new novel called All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang. It’s a story, according to the review, of the paths followed by “two budding poets” who come together at “a prestigious unnamed writing school in the Midwest.” Chang, the reviewer notes, is a 1993 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been its director since 2006; she has received fellowships from Stanford, Princeton and Radcliffe; and her new novel poses “provocative” questions: “What is the relationship between talent and craft, genius and mediocrity? Can writing be taught? Does anyone ever improve? Yet the central characters in All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost are neither mad enough, wise enough nor even, so it seems, well-read enough, to dare answer them.”
It’s bad enough that Chang has written about a cloistered world she knows too well. It’s worse that her story is one that you almost certainly can’t bring yourself to care about. What’s worst of all by far, though, is that her characters are not even well-read enough to answer a bunch of inane questions. Apparently they’ve been too busy at their prestigious writing school studying adverbs and themselves.
Like Elif Batuman, I’ll pass. School can’t kill writing. But who, indeed, has time to read such books?
Oh, what a vileness human beauty is,
Corroding, corrupting everything it touches.
-Euripides, Orestes, 126-7
With such painstaking awe is the beauty of The Red and The Black’s Julien Sorel detailed that one might think Stendhal was describing a woman. We are treated to countless descriptions of Julien’s “fine complexion, his great black eyes, and his lovely hair, which was curlier than most men’s…” We learn that his eyes sparkle with hatred when he is angry, and indicate thought and passion when he is at peace. “Among the innumerable varieties of the human face, there may well be none more striking,” Stendhal suggests, almost matter-of-factly.
In The Greater Hippias, Plato argues that beauty is good and the good is beautiful: the two are identical. Superficial though the ancient Greeks might have been, even later Christian philosophers like Castiglione held that only rarely does an evil soul dwell in a beautiful body, and so outward beauty is a true sign of inner goodness.
Stendhal would have agreed. With Julien’s high Napoleonic ideals and his violent, even physiological, reactions to all things base or hypocritical, he has “a soul fashioned for the love of beauty.” But life does not turn out so well for this young romantic because, predictably, Julien “was barely a year old when his beautiful face began to make friends for him, among the little girls…”
Fictional characters enjoy exaggerated attributes, but few have the sort of beauty that marks Julien Sorel, where the beauty is not only essential to his character, elevating his soul, but outside of it, dictating his destiny. If beauty can be distilled from its specific fictional forms, does it have a cogent power of its own in literature?
1. The Most Beautiful Woman in Fiction
If there were ever a fictional beauty contest of sorts, the stand-out winner might very well be Remedios the Beauty from 100 Years of Solitude. Naive to the point of saintliness, Remedios the Beauty unintentionally causes the deaths of several men who lust over her. But despite being entirely uninterested in feminine wiles, dressing in course cassocks, and shaving her head:
…the more she did away with fashion in a search for comfort and the more she passed over conventions as she obeyed spontaneity, the more disturbing her incredible beauty became…
Under the Platonic model there is a “scale of perfection ranging from individual, physical beauty up the heavenly ladder to absolute beauty.” And in that lofty vein, Garcia Marquez describes Remedios the Beauty as though she were beauty manifest, in too pure a form for this Earth, and she leaves her novel by mysteriously ascending to the sky, like a spirit.
What exactly was it that made Remedios the Beauty so “disturbingly” beautiful? For one, it had very little to do with the worldly practice of seduction. Writes Neal Stephenson (about another beautiful character) in The System of the World:
Faces could beguile, enchant, and flirt. But clearly this woman was inflicting major spinal injuries on men wherever she went, and only a body had the power to do that. Hence the need for a lot of Classical allusions… Her idolaters were reaching back to something pre-Christian, trying to express a bit of what they felt when they gazed upon Greek statues of nude goddesses.
Still, the ascending beauty of Remedios the Beauty struck me as close to paradoxical. She might have been beauty in essence, but her absolute beauty was something she achieved, namely, by renouncing her beauty through eschewing feminine clothing and, more vividly, shaving her head.
There is a curious relationship between hair and destiny in literature. Chaucer, like Hollywood, is known for casting women by their hair color, but he is far from the exception. In keeping with the practices of Remedios the Beauty, the most reputable beautiful women in fiction part ways with their hair altogether at some point, such as Maria “the cropped headed one” in For Whom The Bell Tolls (whose name is an arguable allusion to the Virgin Mary by Hemingway), or Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, who hides her hair under a rag for much of her life (and is reputable to her readers, if not always to the townsfolk of Eatonville). Even fictional literary scholar Maud Bailey from A.S. Byatt’s Possession picked up on the strange connection between hair and destiny for beautiful women: she kept her head nearly shaved in her early teaching days, recounting Yeats’ “For Anne Gregory”:
Never shall a young man
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.
But Julien Sorel never made such sacrifices. It would be most remiss to compare him to the saintly Remedios the Beauty, as he dabbles in vanity, employs manipulative mind-games, and continuously – though not malevolently – makes full use of his preternatural sex appeal in pursuit of his romantic ambitions. Rather, Julien is far better suited to a category of characters with a starkly different literary reputation…
2. The Second Most Beautiful Woman in Fiction
Notable beautiful women with such a lust for life include Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, who “had that indefinable beauty that results from joy, from enthusiasm, from success” and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with her “mysterious, poetic, charming beauty, overflowing with life and gayety…” But the most beautiful of all is The Return of the Native’s Eustacia Vye:
Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity… Her presence brought memories of such things as Bourbon roses, rubies, and tropical midnights; her moods recalled lotus-eaters… her motions, the ebb and flow of the sea; her voice, the viola. In a dim light… her figure might have stood for one of the higher female deities…
Eustacia’s textual description is not exactly an exercise in restraint. On Hardy goes for two pages, describing the curve of her lips, her “pagan” eyes, the weight of her figure – and two paragraphs alone devoted to the sheer bounty of her dark hair, of which “a whole winter did not contain darkness enough to form its shadow.”
Like Julien Sorel, Eustacia Vye is naive, egotistical, self-serving, and obsessed with the idea of Paris, “the centre and vortex of the fashionable world.” She is far too human to achieve the Platonic ideal of beauty, “transcending sex, sensuality and ‘mere’ physical beauty” to “the region where gods dwell.” Nevertheless, Hardy gives a nod to “the fantastic nature of her passion, which lowered her as an intellect, raised her as a soul.”
And like Julien Sorel, Anna Karenina, and Emma Bovary, Eustacia – mired by the societal constraints on her free will – ponders:
But do I desire unreasonably much in wanting what is called life – music, poetry, passion, war, and all the beating and pulsing that is going on in the great arteries of the world?
3. The Curse of Beauty
The short answer: Yes. Without question. All four romantic leads bring about varying degrees of generalized suffering and to some degree their own demise, whether in gruesome and painful detail, like Emma Bovary, or only in critical speculation, like Eustacia. In literature, as it turns out, it is dangerous to be ambitious just as it is dangerous to be beautiful, but to be both ambitious and beautiful is fatal.
Helen of Troy is the prototypical example that ancient aesthetic philosophy ascribed a darker tone to female beauty than it (generally speaking) did to male beauty. Historian Bettany Hughes writes, “Rather than positioning Helen’s beauty as a worthy gift of the gods – ancient authors… saw her peerless face and form as a curse.” And yet, the power of Julien’s beauty proves to be as inevitably corrosive in The Red and The Black as it does in the respective novels of our beautiful female characters.
In fact, that sheer absence of a double standard to a great extent saves The Red and The Black from losing its modern flavor. As P. Walcot acknowledges the ancient Greek belief in “the male’s inability to resist… the immense power that the female wields through her sexuality,” so, too, are Julien’s female admirers Madame de Rênal (despite being married!) and Mathilde de La Mole (despite being solely motivated by boredom!) judged equally helpless in succumbing to their desire for him.
In part this arises from an amount of sympathy that Stendhal clearly harbored for women (he apparently had a beloved sister), even wealthy, spoiled, bored young women like Mathilde: in reference to her, he quotes from the Memoirs of the Duke d’Angouleme, “The need of staking something was the key to the character of this charming princess… Now, what can a young girl stake? The most precious thing she has: her reputation.”
Julien Sorel, conversely, escapes Stendhal’s goodwill far longer. From Diane Johnson’s introduction to The Red and the Black:
This accounts for the side of Julien that is calculating, flattering, insincere, and inwardly hostile even to people who intend to help and love him – indeed, he is an early example of an anti-hero of whom, at first, even Stendhal cannot approve. (emphasis added)
4. The Cure of Youth
But The Red and The Black has an unexpected twist: Julien gets to die like a martyr. There is hardly a consensus on this interpretation, but I read his death as something akin to a happy ending. Julien somehow manages to give everyone what they want from him – in particular, his most affected conquests. He returns the pious Madame de Rênal’s love and fulfills the passionate Mathilde’s Gothic fantasies while (outwardly) rejecting neither of them. But more amazingly: he reaches a sort of inner peace. He listens to his own heart which – unbelievably – instructs him to be truthful, sincere, to love the woman who most deserves it, and to carry the sole blame and make the entirety of amends for all the misfortune his (prior) self-indulgent, romantic nature hath wrought. Rather than marking a fundamental lack of character, Julien’s selfishness can be dismissed as mere youthful indiscretion.
Having sought the mystery behind the divergent destinies of Julien and his beautiful female counterparts in terms of the role of beauty in fiction, I come to find that it resolves itself in another, altogether more disconcerting thesis: that perhaps the nature of the young romantic hero in literature is eventually malleable, whereas the nature of the young romantic heroine in literature is essentially fixed.
Towards the end of her life, it occurs to Anna Karenina, “I am not jealous, but unsatisfied…” Emma Bovary and Eustacia Vye have similar exits: their earthly desires resist satiation, but congeal and turn ever more destructive. Their three fates recall the following canto from Dante’s Inferno, which warns of a female beast:
And has a nature so malign and ruthless,
That never doth she glut her greedy will,
And after food is hungrier than before.
And so beautiful women in literature are brought to ultimately ugly ends.
Stendhal was apparently a noted womanizer and in that light, The Red and the Black, reads a little like a projection of his greatest fantasies. There is in the first place the iconoclastic Julien Sorel, who triumphs over a coterie of boring, conventional nobles for the love (and virginity) of the fair Mathilde de la Mole. It’s not a leap to imagine Stendhal dreaming of the same for himself.In the book, Stendhal also introduces an incredible stratagem for wooing women. It emerges when Julien seeks love advice from the Prince Korasoff of Russia under desperate circumstances. Julien is in love with the imperious Mathilde, who lets him climb up the gardener’s ladder to her room on two occasions but then has all sorts of moral/class remorse the next day and eviscerates him with vicious rebukes which are sadly only referenced and not spelled out (a major deficiency of the book).The Prince entrusts to Julien a set of 54 love letters that previously aided a Russian general in the conquest of an English maiden and which, if deployed correctly, are like a romantic weapon of lore, so powerful that none can resist it. Julien’s instructions are to send the letters at prescribed intervals. The plan is described as such:”‘Here I am transcribing the fifteenth of these abominable dissertations; the first fourteen have been faithfully delivered to Marechale. And yet she treats me exactly as though I were not writing her. What can be the end of all this? Can my constancy bore her as much as it bores me?'”Like everyone of inferior intelligence whom chance brings into touch with the operations of a great general, Julien understood nothing of the attack launched by the young Russian upon the heart of the fair English maid [reference to the previous use of the letters]. The first forty letters were intended only to make her pardon his boldness in writing. It was necessary to make this gentle person, who perhaps was vastly bored, form the habit of receiving letters that were perhaps a trifle less insipid than her everyday life.”So that’s the ruse, to send love letters and to make them so innocuous and boring at first that they will not elicit a rejection, but will at the same time habituate the intended to the correspondence. Slowly, the temperature is turned up; the epistolary fire builds, and by the 54th letter, love and desire floweth over.I’ve been out of the dating world for awhile now, so I’m prepared to accept that this is not the unstoppably brilliant strategy I think it is. But I do think it is pretty brilliant, and I suspect it would even work today. I’ve encouraged one of my most eligible bachelor friends to try it with all the single women he knows, even in passing. It obviously all depends on the quality of the letters, but out of a sample of 20 recipients, I’d expect there to be at least five who would be intrigued at the very least.Much of The Red and the Black is based on real events; I wonder if such a packet of letters was rumored to exist in Stendhal’s time or if it might be unearthed today. Even if found, it would surely require some updating. In fact, it would be a fun exercise to try and write a pre-fabricated sequence of love letters for today’s dating world.
I took Stendhal’s The Red and the Black along on a recent trip to Paris. It’s only now though that I’m back in Philadelphia that young Julien Sorel has finally arrived in La Ville-Lumiere.It took me awhile to get into the book. I began it hoping for the same pleasures I recently found in Middlemarch, but it quickly became apparently that it’s for different reasons that Stendhal’s classic is still read today. It lacks, or does not even attempt, Eliot’s perspicaciously drawn characters and lyrical insights. Sorel, though by turns beguiling and irritating, is drawn more as a cipher than a real person. Instead, The Red and the Black is a determinedly political novel, engaged in direct and often obscure conversation with the 19th-century French society to which it was submitted.Nevertheless, halfway through, The Red and the Black has me gripped. It is exhilarating to read a novel so urgently engaged with the culture and society of which it’s a part. The Red and the Black feels like an act of revolution, and it is not hard to imagine the discomfiture it must have caused among the King’s court and clergy. At the same time, it is just this potency that gives The Red and the Black the quality of an artifact. It is nearly impossible to imagine a novel having anything approaching Stendhal’s intended effect on contemporary society, French or American. All polemical notes have already been sounded and absorbed and we’re too inured to blush much anymore.
On the last Sunday in November, book critic Adam Begley scooped Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd for the top spot in the New York Times most emailed list. Not with a review though. Instead, he wrote an excellent piece about Florence for the travel section, in which he recommended E.M. Forster’s Room with a View as a kind of literary guidebook to the city. The Florence piece came several months after Begley employed the same tactic to tour Sicily, that time with Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s The Leopard in his pocket.Those two pieces inspired me to think about other novel-city pairings. Last June, The Millions ran a guest post from novelist Joan Silber, in which she detailed some of her favorite books for enriching a trip abroad. Here I have something slightly different in mind: novels that allow you to follow Forster’s advice to leave the guidebook at home (and instead replace it with a great work of fiction). So, without further ado:The American southwest: Try Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House for its stark descriptions of a New Mexico mesa.If you don’t know Boston already, let Henry James introduce you with The Bostonians, his story of love and politics in the 19th-century city.It feels cheap, I know, to make John Grisham your tour guide, but I devoured The Client on a boat trip up the Amazon and don’t regret it a bit. If, for some reason you’re looking to weigh down your trip to Brazil, go with Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes and TropiquesSee the Windy City through the eyes of Dreiser’s classic Sister Carrie, which renders a teeming, if not always hospitable portrait of Chicago.I like Graham Greene for Cuba, with Our Man in Havana. Greene recurs a lot in this list, so in order to get it out of the way all at once: London (The End of the Affair); Mexico (The Lawless Roads or The Power and the Glory); Switzerland (Doctor Fischer of Geneva); Vienna (The Third Man); Vietnam (The Quiet American)There’s still no better guide to Dublin than James Joyce (The Dubliners).Greece: Bring along The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller.E.M. Forster’s good for Florence. He’s also good for intrigue in colonial India: A Passage to India.It’s always a decision, do you want to see a place through the eyes of a perceptive foreigner or a local? In Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and The City you get both.Jerusalem: Mark Twain voyages to the ancient capital in The Innocents Abroad. How can you resist?London: OMG. Ready to party? Try and keep up with Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies. A jaded post-colonial? Nick Hornby’s About a Boy. Prefer to delve into immigrant life? Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. Or, if you take your London straight up, there’s no better pour than Bleak House by Dickens.Try Joan Didion’s Miami if you have half a mind not to come back.I can think of nothing finer than New York in the hands of E.B. White: Here is New York.Paris: Again, are you going for the expat experience or the genuine article? If the former, go with James’ Portrait of a Lady or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. But for my money, see the city like a native. Stendahl’s The Red and the Black.The great Russian novels are like a trip abroad no matter where you read them. Try Crime and Punishment or Gogol’s “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” for St. Petersburg.Switzerland has inspired some great books in addition to the aforementioned Greene. There is Twain again with A Tramp Abroad and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.I conclude the list with wanderlust. Books and foreign places are a fitting pair. There will always be more of both than there is time. This is of course anything but an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear what books you recommend in lieu of a tour guide.
Scott Esposito is the editor of The Quarterly Conversation and the host of the literary blog Conversational Reading. His writing on books has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Chattahoochee Review, and the Rain Taxi Review of Books, among others.I must begin this with a caveat. As a judge of Three Percent/Open Letter’s translation of the year award, I’m going to be reading some 15 books over the next month. Undoubtedly, some of these books will be among the best books I’ve read this year, so this list will be necessarily lacking some excellent titles. But here are the best books I’ve read in the first 11 months of this year.I started off the year with Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, one of the greatest and most lasting books to come out of the 18th century. It’s an often hilarious, sometimes ribald account of a young, impoverished orphan who falls in love with a woman far above his station. For about 800 pages their love is thwarted by the young lady’s father, and I’m sure everyone can guess the end. Besides being an indispensable step on the novel’s path from the epic to what we would recognize today as “normal” realist fiction, it’s a thoroughly engrossing tale that’s plain fun to read. Fielding’s flowing sentences and sharp irony know no boundaries of time.I can best express my admiration for The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares by saying that I’ve already convinced roughly 20 people (that I’m aware of) to read this book. It’s rare that I evangelize this energetically for a novel, but Morel is the kind of book I want to share. For more about it and Bioy, aka Borges’s best friend, protege, and collaborator, read my essay from The Quarterly Conversation.For a long time Gunter Grass was a large gap in my reading, but now he is one that I have successfully filled – with his mammoth novel The Tin Drum. I can best sum up this book by saying that it is a family saga that I think could only have been written during the 20th century. It is the story of a 29-year-old man who has somehow constrained his growth to the proportions and form of a 3-year-old boy, and he tells the story of his family from his padded room in an asylum in which he drums lucrative, award-winning musical recordings on, what else, his tin drum. Anyone who thinks they know the definition of the word imagination should read The Tin Drum, because they really don’t know what the word means until they see some of the things Grass comes up with in this novel.I really don’t understand why Manuel Puig is not more famous than he is. He’s easily one of the giants of 20th-century Latin American fiction, and his novels are both plotty enough to entertain and deep enough to argue over. Many consider Kiss of the Spiderwoman his masterwork. Anyone wanting to finally find out about one of David Foster Wallace’s favorite novelists, a man who somehow managed to interrogate Lacan’s theories of the mind, homosexuality, feminism, and gender relations via engrossing plots, should start with this novel.Ford Madox Ford is my new favorite neglected author. On the power of his two best novels, he is easily one of the greats of the 20th century, yet few of his 80-some books are available today and he is not often read. It’s too bad. Ford was the founder of The Transatlantic Review, a legendary literary journal that’s partly responsible for Ernest Hemingway’s career. He’s also the author of at least two books that should stand with the greatest novels of the century. The Good Soldier reads like a Kazuo Ishiguro book written by James Joyce. For my money, it’s the best unreliable narrator novel I’ve ever read. Parade’s End is a different beast: a mammoth novel of Britain during World War I that partially looks backward to The Good Soldier but partially looks forward to modernist innovations a la Virginia Woolf.Along with Gunter Grass, Thomas Mann was another major gap in my reading (Death in Venice doesn’t count). I got interested in Doctor Faustus, Mann’s saga of the classical composer Adrian Leverkuhn, when the music critic Alex Ross declared it his favorite book on classical music. Why would someone such as Ross label a work of fiction the best book ever on classical music? The answer is that Mann’s book can teach you at least as much about serial composition and classical music aesthetics as it can about why Germany fell prey to Nazism, the Faust legend, and Adorno’s thoughts on literary theory. Which is to say, a lot. Faustus is a very rigorous read, but it is an incredibly rewarding one, a book that simply shows no weakness whatsoever and sets very high standard. I’m quite tempted to say that out of everything I read this year, this one book stands above them all.Quick, name 5 famous authors from Central America. Okay, name one. For those who had trouble answering, you should find out about Horacio Castellanos Moya’s novel Senselessness. The book is a paranoid, dirty, somewhat pornographic rant by an unbalanced man who has been tricked into the politically controversial and somewhat dangerous job of editing a 1,400-page report on atrocities that occurred during Guatemala’s civil war. (The report is real, and people did die to create it.) But even if Moya had written about a perfectly sedate gentleman who did the laundry, I still think I’d read it, as he writes the best first-person, run-on sentences this side of Carlos Fuentes.Another noteworthy Latino, recommended to me by Moya’s English-language translator, is the Cuban author Alejo Carpentier, whose novel The Lost Steps I enjoyed this year. The novel is something of a modernist search for the great Amazon/Latin American foundational myth, a 300-page Conradian journey from New York City to the farthest reaches of the Amazon river basin. At many points, Carpentier’s descriptions of Latin American cities and natural landscapes are simply awesome – they actually make me feel like I’m back there again.There are also a few greats that I would be remiss in not mentioning, but that hardly need me to introduce them to you. So, instead of begging you to bathe in their glory, I’ll simply list them here and note that they are as good as you’ve been told. They are: 2666 by Roberto Bolano, Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust, The Castle by Franz Kafka, The Red and the Black by Stendhal, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, and All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.More from A Year in Reading 2008