Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #76 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I first read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie very rapidly and while reading made quiet moos of concern and befuddlement. There was a Miss Brodie in her prime!  Her girls were the crème de la crème!  Rose Stanley was famous for sex!  When I finished I put the novel down and took a moment to contemplate. "What a weird little book," I said to no one in particular, and closed the file on Miss Brodie.  Later, thinking this analysis unsatisfactory and contrary to the spirit of the Modern Library Revue, I decided to have another look. As this novel does have the advantage of being a little book, I read it twice more.  Today I can say confidently that it is, indeed, a weird little book.  Now, though, my use of "weird" incorporates more of the word's bewitching and macabre aspects, and fewer of its heeggh-I-don't-get-it ones. Brief books are dangerous for me, because I am a swift reader and not always a careful one. Big books, when they are not too patently formal experiments, seem better suited to my taste and temperament.  I have something of the philistine in me and short important novels, for no really good reason, threaten artsiness and unfulfillment.   They seem as though they are harder to write, and I worry their authors have more to prove.  How will you make your novel memorable when it it looks so diminutive, sitting there on the shelf?  They require an economy that is against my nature. I had been meandering through A Suitable Boy, which is familiar and soothes my soul, and I had to forcibly change gears to appreciate Muriel Spark.  This novel is not something huge and engrossing to help you forget the common round of day.  It is over quickly, and you have to pay attention all the way through.  It is a dark and lovely poem, written by the possessor of a sinister wit.  It is a deep pool in an enchanted forest. Muriel Spark wrote a very nice piece for The New Yorker in which she described her years at James Gillespie's High School for Girls in Edinburgh, the inspiration for the Marcia Blaine School of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  What I like about the piece, and what I find remarkable in contrast with this sort of creepy novel, is the lightheartedness, warmth, and happiness with which Spark remembers this bygone epoch of young ladies' education. This is an education which seems in small ways rather gruesome to me.  Most of the young men are gone, for example, because they died in the Great War, and if they didn't die they were maimed.  The science teacher tells the girls "Poor little Tommy Jones/ We'll see him no more,/ For what he thought was H2O/ Was H2SO4."  And there's Mr. Gordon, the history teacher, in connection with whom Spark writes, "The innocence of our minds and the universal decency of our schoolteachers' comportment can be gathered from the fact that he used to make me sit at the front of the class so that he could stroke my hair while teaching, without anyone thinking at all ill of him." And yet this time, which seems prime with the makings of a dark novel, inspired Spark's childhood friend to write, "we had the best life."  Spark concurs: "In spite of the fact that we had no television, that in my home at least we had no electricity all during the thirties (only beautiful gaslight), that there were no antibiotics and no Pill, I incline to think that [she] is right." Then Ms. Kay, the inspiration for Jean Brodie herself:  "In a sense, Ms. Kay was nothing like Ms. Brodie. In another sense, she was far above and beyond her Brodie counterpart."  Ms. Kay was immediately recognizable to all her former students in Spark's novel, and remembered fondly by the same. Spark records Ms. Kay's position on rain gear: Why make a wet day more dreary than it is? We should wear bright coats, and carry blue umbrellas, or green...I would like to see a gray coat and skirt for the spring, girls, worn with a citron beret. 'Citron' means 'lemon'; it is a yellow with a sixteenth or so of blue. One would wear a citron beret in Paris with a gray suit. How heavenly to come under the tutelage of Ms. Kay! Reading the happiness with which Spark described her childhood, I vacillated between thinking I had perhaps read too much grotesquery into the novel, and admiring the artistry which turns a picturesque figure of memory and the interwar spunkiness of the youth into the dubious heroines of an unsettling book.  Because I was unsettled by this book.  What I read into it is the particular weirdness and villainy of women; both the author and her subjects have that hint of the stuff for which they used to burn ladies at the stake.  The recurring sentences become incantations, some of them biblical, like an inverted cross.  And how else to take the death of stupid Mary Macgregor who, we are reminded with cruel repetition, "ran hither and thither till she died"? Poor Mary!  Miss Brodie tells the girls that silence is golden and calls on Mary to repeat: Mary Macgregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame and who, at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire, ventured, 'Golden.' 'What did I say was golden?' Mary cast her eyes around her and up above. Sandy whispered, 'The falling leaves.' 'The falling leaves,' said Mary. 'Plainly,' said Miss Brodie, 'you were not listening to me. If only you small girls would listen to me I would make of you the crème de la crème.' The novel is cruel, and often comic in its cruelty. A man exposes himself to Jenny, one of the Brodie set, as she walks by the Water of Leith. After the initial shock and the subsequent parental hindrance of Jenny's movements, the event "brought nothing but good. The subject fell under two headings: first, the man himself and the nature of what he had exposed to view, and secondly the policewoman" for whom the girls form an intense passion (the Brodie set in their sex talk sound very like the Mitford sisters in theirs). Spark, who wrote in her memoir of school that she was "destined to poetry by all my mentors," in her novel uses the tools of poetry to change the sense and meaning of prose in an unnerving way: That spring she monopolised with her class the benches under the elm from which could be seen an endless avenue of dark pink May trees, and heard the trotting of horses in time to the turning wheels of light carts returning home empty by a hidden lane from their early morning rounds. There is a rhythm to her writing, even apart from the periodic repetitions. Sandy, the saboteur of the Brodie set, the betrayer of Brodie, converts to Catholicism, joins a convent and attracts a following by writing a treatise on "the nature of moral perception" called "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace." Spark, with her incantations and her twisty prose and her new words like "unbrainfully," in her own way transfigures the commonplace on both the spiritual and literal planes: the sunset is "streaked with blood and puffed with avenging purple and gold as if the end of the world had come without intruding on every-day life."  The girls of the Brodie set compete with each other on the "windswept hockey fields which lay like the graves of the martyrs exposed to the weather in an outer suburb." And then one pretender to the Brodie set is actually martyred--the nonentical Joyce Emily, urged by Miss Brodie the fascist to venture off in aid of unspeakable Franco. The novel is not wholly sinister; it has something of the piquant flavor of Spark's happy school days.  I think it is a fine place novel too, with Edinburgh (which, as Sandy finds when she enters the convent, is actually a multiplicity of Edinburghs) making itself felt as the backdrop to the book's action.  The hills that surround them are the Pentland hills, the writers in the girls' cosmos are Stevenson, Burns, Walter Scott.  There is Scottish pride here. This novel is like Sandy's eyes--famous for being small, but photographic, and containing manifold secrets.  It is a weird little book.  I didn't quite like it first, but now I reckon it among the crème de la crème.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #25 A Passage to India

In "What I Believe," E.M. Forster wrote: "I do not believe in belief. But this is an age of faith, where one is surrounded by so many militant creeds that in self-defense, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own." I can dig this, because I have been formulating a creed myself. I haven't really worked it all out in a tract to hand out on street corners, but my view on human life is that it is a continuous exercise in accepting two often irreconcilable values. Things are good, but also bad; things are that way, and also this. This extends from the general to the specific, from the what to the how. Examples abound. People are angelic and loathsome. Religion is sublime and horrible. Coca Cola is divine nectar and chemical scourge. As I write, the atonal scratching of some young violinist floats through my window, evidence for and against a kind of order in the universe. My philosophy, not at all novel, goes well with a glass of coke and A Passage to India. In his belief manifesto, Forster went on to say that "the people I respect most behave as if they were immortal and as if society was eternal. Both assumptions are false: both of them must be accepted as true if we are to go on eating and working and loving, and are to keep open a few breathing-holes for the human spirit." A Passage to India is a work of art by someone who understood that every facet of human life is riddled with contradiction and un-sortable muddle, and that we must carry on regardless. And, like any novel, A Passage to India has its own life outside the hands of its creator. It is in itself a demonstration of the principle that things are that way, and also this. A Passage to India is demonstrative of our very finest human instincts; it is also a problematic novel. In a novel whose plot hinges upon the existence of an unbridgeable chasm between a set of Us and Them, what I love the most is Forster's savagery against his own team. In dispatches from inside the club, Forster lays bare the grotesque attitudes of the ruling class. Nothing is more vitriolic in its way than a fed-up colonial, and while few can approach the simmering hate of George Orwell in Burmese Days, Forster's disdain for his compatriots, showcased in his astonishing prose, goes quite as far as Orwell's did toward exposing the profound poverty of the white man's burden. When Adela has made her accusation of Aziz, the English hunker down in the club: One young mother — a brainless but most beautiful girl — sat on a low ottoman in the smoking-room with her baby in her arms; her husband was away in the district, and she dared not return to her bungalow in case the "niggers attacked." The wife of a small railway official, she was generally snubbed; but this evening, with her abundant figure and masses of corn-gold hair, she symbolized all that is worth fighting and dying for; more permanent a symbol, perhaps, than poor Adela. Page after page, Forster reveals the hypocrisy and general nastiness of the noble rulers, from the young and not wholly repellent transplant Heaslop, to the ossified Old Hand in the form of the Collector ("I have had twenty-five years' experience of this country"--he paused, and 'twenty-five years' seemed to fill the waiting-room with their staleness and ungenerosity...") Here and elsewhere, Forster had it out for the Old Hand. Like most men of the world, he was protective of his traversed domains. He distinguished between real knowledge and false, those who know and those who do not, and those who know too much of the wrong thing. In his essay “Salute to the Orient,” he exhorts, "O deliver my soul from efficiency! When obstacles cease to occur in my plans, when I always get the utmost out of Orientals, it will be the surest proof that I have lost the East." He tells us about the kind of traveler least likely to "salute the Orient" properly--a fusty old-timer with letters of introduction, who returns from his journey full of riveting anecdotes: "After an interesting conversation with the Mufti, in which Henry acted as interpreter, Lucy and I proceeded to inspect the so-called tomb of Potiphar's wife." Forster is the enemy of the Old Hand, of his boring stories, his certainty, his smallness, his silly theories. Of the novel's McBryde, District Superintendent of Police and the "most reflective and best educated of the Chandrapore officials," Forster reveals that ...No Indian ever surprised him, because he had a theory about climatic zones. The theory ran: "All unfortunate natives are criminals at heart, for the simple reason that they live south of latitude 30. They are not to blame, they have not a dog's chance--we should be like them if we settled here." Born at Karachi, he seemed to contradict this theory, and would sometimes admit as much with a sad, quiet smile. The thing is, to be so seasoned a connoisseur of the Old Hand, one must likewise approach a state of Old-Handedness. This gets to the heart of both my admiration and my anxieties about this novel. How can we write across culture, or think across culture, even, in a way that is fair? The cowardly answer is that we can't. We can't think about anyone who is not ourselves in a way that is fair. We can't think of ourselves in a way that is fair. Fortunately, Forster was not cowardly. It would have been a shame had he been prevented from writing this extraordinary novel because he took a college course about the dangers of Othering. We miss out if we are frightened to write about the world, especially if, like Forster, much of what we write is at odds with the edifice of policy or public opinion. Still, there is a way that speaking of difference can inject a subtle poison into the air, especially when the playing field is unequal. Forster, the man who once wrote "Only connect!" knew this--it is in a way the premise of his novel. He was, after all, President of the Cambridge Humanists. Nonetheless, we should be mindful of the times--the early twenties--and of Forster's own status as an Old Hand; we should be conscious of the way that observations, even from subtle and sympathetic minds, acquire their own patina of ungenerosity. "Like most Orientals, Aziz overrated hospitality, mistaking it for intimacy, and not seeing that it is tainted with the sense of possession." Later, "Are Indians cowards? No but they are bad starters and occasionally jib." In our current age, during which immeasurable ink has been spilled on the purportedly forever-and-ever "Clash of Civilizations," with the East represented by the clamoring Muslim hordes and the West represented, presumably, by George Bush, purveyor of light, it is refreshing in a grim sort of way to read about the good old days, when Islam still enjoyed the (comparatively) vaunted position granted it in western Europe by the nineteenth century British orientalists. In Forster's novel, Islam is the exotic yet comprehensible religion of Fielding's friends. In A Passage to India, religious strife is a purely domestic problem. Moreover, it is the comically inscrutable Hindus who are treated most irreverently by the novelist. (Of the exasperating Professor Godbole it is written that his conversations "frequently culminated in a cow.") It's curious to see the relative ease at which "clash" models are transmuted to fit their times, how quickly they become self-fulfilling prophesy. In Forster's East v. West match, the result of which is that the well-meaning Aziz and Fielding cannot maintain a friendship, it is not humdrum religious rancor that creates a rift. In this novel, it is the old-fashioned kind of Orientalism--at once promulgated and illuminated by Forster's sympathy--that explains the troubles in this India. In this novel, the disease is the British Raj, it is the jib Indians, it is the poison of ill will and the strain of good will, it is the earth itself that keeps the two men apart: The horses didn't want it--they swerved apart; the earth didn't want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House...they didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices, "No, not yet," and the sky said, "no, not there." I like the anecdote about Gandhi on Western Civilization: "I think it would be a good idea." I'm sure that a brief sit-down with Christopher Hitchens or even an ideological and self-possessed tween would show me to myself as a waffling liberal twit, but I like to think there is no East and West. Forster would disagree. I think we would both be right. I feel a bit like the irrepressible Dr. Godbole who, when asked for his opinion about the charges against Aziz, responds thus: "I am informed that an evil action was performed in the Marabar Hills, and that a highly esteemed English lady is now seriously ill in consequence. My answer to that is this: that action was performed by Dr. Aziz." He stopped and sucked in his thin cheeks. "It was performed by the guide." He stopped again. "It was performed by you." Now he had an air of daring and of coyness. "It was performed by me."  He looked shyly down the sleeve of his own coat.  "And by my students. It was even performed by the lady herself.  When evil occurs, it expresses the whole of the universe.  Similarly when good occurs." "And similarly when suffering occurs, and so on and so forth, and everything is anything and nothing something," [Fielding] muttered in his irritation, for he needed the solid ground. Fielding's aggravation notwithstanding, I think Forster built up much of his novel around Godbole's philosophy. Things are that way, and also this; we must carry on regardless. This novel gives me some trouble--considerable food for thought, better to say--but I love it. I love it for its perfect writing and I love it for its courage and its sympathy. In his later essay on belief, Forster describes his own vision of what he calls the "aristocracy" of humanity: "They are sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke." If this novel isn't the work of just such an aristocrat, I don't know what is.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #4 Lolita

Normally I'm not much interested in knowing about the moment when a big book gamboled (or shuffled) onto the scene, but I like to think about Lolita hitting the shelves in its unobtrusive green wrappers.  What did the first buyer think, fondling those fragile, flexible volumes?  Who was the first person to purchase this signal event in the English language?  (A signal event in English, by a Russian, about sex with children, published by a French purveyor of mostly-filth of a pretty banal sort.) I don't have much to say about my "process," such as it is, but I'll tell you that I was feeling parched, critically speaking.  I just reread 1984 with an eye toward revueing.  George Orwell compels people to muster profundities about the current state of affairs.  He plucked all of the smart ideas about politics out of the ether and arranged them on paper for us to wantonly reinterpret to fit the times.  But what can I think or say about 1984 and these times we're in?  I love George Orwell to distraction, but he gives me a blockage. When you want the consolation of art, and not to figure out what it has to do with labor unrest in Wisconsin or the fate of Planned Parenthood, what can you read but Lolita?  When you are feeling mute, who better to remind you of the wondrous lexical depth and fecundity of the English language but Nabokov, the aforementioned Russian, writing of the aforementioned sex with children?  To whom could I turn for sweet release but Lolita (light of life, fire of loins, etc.)? Ironic that a book full of death (cf. Amis) and sex with no question of offspring imbues this particular parched reader with a sense of renewal and intellectual fertility.  Of course, said renewal and fertility don't necessarily translate to the speedy conception of pithy remarks about the book itself.  To produce even 600-1000 words on this novel in a hitherto un-utilized combination is a nervewracking proposition. Tonight I will probably dream that a scowling Martin Amis is putting a cigarette out on my neck.  Or Nabokov himself will appear and tell me that he’s having a party but I’m not invited.  And that's okay.  It's like this with any novel, but with Lolita especially: it's not what you can do for the book, but what the book can do for you. Lolita has caused so many people to wring their hands and besiege librarians on behalf of those delicate blossoms, the children.  To be sure, it is a very disgusting book.  The rape of Lolita: "a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child," after which the fiend Humbert buys "four books of comics, a box of candy, a box of sanitary pads, two cokes, a manicure set," and so on. And then, "At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently.  You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go." This is viscerally horrible.  And yet this book, with its veritable panoply of horrors, is maybe the most bracing and perfect work of art I know.  Nabokov said "for me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss."  By that arresting measure, Lolita is a triumph, the ne plus ultra of the novel form. Sometimes I get a little teleological in my interpretation of the world, but words are on my mind these days.  I went to a career fair for would-be linguists, wherein a lively presenter told the assembled that if we could give a snappy presentation in our target language, we had come to the right place.  Feeling inadequate to even a deeply un-snappy presentation in any language, I thought of Nabokov with wonder. How might his want-ad read?  If you can write a prose miracle in the target language, this is the job for you. Yet, Nabokov, in his own remarks on the novel, tells the reader My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled rich, infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses--the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions--which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way. The author's apologia for his linguistic shortcomings manages in one lengthy sentence to be finer than anything most "native illusionists" could muster. Any reviewer of Nabokov is in danger of excessive quoting; it feels rather pointless not to let Nabokov do the talking.  Here's Humbert on reproduction: "The tiny madman in his padded cell."  Now Humbert on Humbert: "I am like one of those inflated pale spiders you see in old gardens." Just as he takes English and puts it through its paces, Nabokov, "trying to be an American writer and claim only the same rights that other American writers enjoy," tells Americans of our vast spaces, our Hell canyons, our dusty cow paths: Independence, Missouri, the starting point of the Old Oregon Trail; and Abilene, Kansas, the home of the Wild Bill Something Rodeo. Distant mountains. Near mountains. More mountains; bluish beauties never attainable, or ever turning into inhabited hill after hill; south-eastern ranges, altitudinal failures as alps go; heart and sky-piercing snow-veined gray colossi of stone, relentless peaks appearing from nowhere at a turn of the highway; timbered enormities... With Humbert and beleaguered Lo we pay our entrance fee (children under twelve free) to caves and gardens and ghost towns, the spectacular majesty and equally spectacular vulgarity of the American landscape, in which the compass ever swings from the sublime to the ridiculous. What this book does for me, with its unparalleled linguistic verve, is remind me of what language and art can do.  Art restores us to life's possibilities even as it offers solace from life's trouble.  For Humbert, art is his and Lolita's single mausoleum, their brilliant and grotesque offspring: "I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art." Even if you're not a mad pervert genius, for my money there's no better refuge.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #96 Sophie’s Choice

Sophie's Choice is a sensational novel.  I do not mean sensational in the strictly complimentary sense.  Yes, this novel is a barnstormer.  But when I think sensational also think tawdry, exploitative of our baser emotions. I think the storyline has percolated pretty well through the American cultural consciousness; I hadn't read the novel until this year, but I knew of the titular choice.  Without giving it all away to the uninitiated, the novel is about a love triangle in Brooklyn in 1947: Stingo the callow Southerner, Nathan the manic Jew, and Sophie the beautiful Pole--a Holocaust survivor (and a Catholic). I loved the first chapter of Sophie's Choice, wonderful first-person stuff about a young Virginian trying to make it in the big city.  I had just finished The Moviegoer, and I was thinking this was kind of like The Moviegoer goes to New York.  I do, on occasion, love the self-deprecating, over-educated, over-sexed men of literature.  It would be downright un-American not to--they are the majority of our modern literary output. I stayed up well past my bedtime to finish Sophie's Choice.  I read its 500 pages in a day and a half.  I was gripped, to be sure; I laughed, cried, and so forth.  How could I not cry?  It's about the Holocaust. But upon completing the novel and reflecting a bit, I felt a little sleazy about the whole thing.  It's not just about the Holocaust, for starters.  There are two main narratives at work in this sad and sensational story: Sophie's Auschwitz horrors, and Stingo's penile travails.  Yes--Sophie's Choice is a My Dick novel par excellence.  These two narratives trot along side by side until the final chapter, when they converge in a seedy hotel room in Washington.  In this chapter Sophie reveals her horrible choice, and Stingo, hitherto afflicted with virginity, finally gets relief for his long-suffering member. And what relief!  "The stiff prick slid in and out of that incandescent tunnel...Smothering for minute after minute in her moist mossy cunt's undulant swamp."  I'm not a prude; I think there should be sex in novels.  However, while I'm not certain how it is best achieved on the page, I feel quite certain that "mossy cunt" and "undulant swamp" are not the ideal epithets.  I mean, Jesus.  Also, it's just so cheesy--the release of her secrets, the release of his orgasm.  It reminded me of the supremely ill-advised end of the film Munich, where the scenes of the athletes being shot to death alternate with scenes of Eric Bana in his sexual extremis. I don't wish to discount the agonizing reality of youth's frustrated desire, or of our collective tortured relationship with sex--a vivid demonstration of the expression "This is why we can't have nice things." I also know it's a trope: young, inexperienced man taken in hand by a foxy, damaged older woman--his life changed forever.  I've read about it, notably in A Widow for One Year (which takes a fair number out of pages of Styron's book, I think). It just strikes me as a shame that Sophie has to go to Auschwitz, and then come to America and get raped on the subway, and then get beat up and peed on by her unhinged boyfriend, and all the time her pal Stingo gives her his sympathy and his friendship and his stupendous boner. Sophie's walking up the stairs, down the stairs, to the Maple Court bar, carrying this immense sadness, and she's also this walking amalgam of melons, peaches, hams.  She's food, for God's sake.  The "former starveling" with a residual iron deficiency, has got an ass like a "fantastic, prize-winning pear."  I suspect that there are classier ways to express the ubiquity and complexity of sex in human experience.  Through Stingo's narrative, we can't help but see Sophie making her blonde, luscious way through the concentration camp, surrounded by leering lesbians and grabby third-reichers. I am not insensible to the way that sex is tied up in everything.  I know we can't put sex things in one box  (ahem) and our horrors and sadness into another.  And it's on the record that William Styron was not insensible to Sophie's uncomfortable position as a veritable grocery store of feminine delights.  Maybe he did want to leave us thinking about the razor's edge that separates good, healthy libidinousness from the cold, rapey world. Still, in detailing Sophie's bottom, and Stingo's youthful urges, and the confused role he played in the tragedy of it all, I'm not entirely sure if the novelist is aware of how grotesque it sometimes comes across. I'm not saying Stingo is implicated in her ruin or anything.  He's not a Nazi; he's a kid with a conscience and a boner.  I get it.  It's not wrong to have a boner.  It's just that the juxtaposition of elements in this story is such that, sometimes, it serves neither Styron's art nor the gravity of his subject. I said  the novel was a barnstormer and I meant it.  It's an engaging read.  I think the primary reason I'm hung up on all the boner stuff is that stupid ending, which really drove home the fact that half the book was about said boner.  Maybe if Sophie's big finale hadn't started with that mossy swampy coitus, I wouldn't be left musing on her pear-like posterior and how much Stingo wanted to squeeze it.  Maybe then I would be be thinking more about Sophie's horrible choice, which was probably some real woman's choice.  But then it wouldn't have been so sensational, I guess.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #48 The Rainbow

I have not historically cared for D. H. Lawrence.  His books are not, on the surface, about anything, and they are full of poetic flights, everyone alternately feeling a deadness inside and flinging himself down to rub his parts on the grass.  It is the very essence of abandoned, high-flown prose about feelings. My disinclination to read his books was such that I had to make myself a captive audience to get through this one.  Realizing that my job affords me a weekly fifteen hours during which I might listen to something, I put a recording of The Rainbow on the iPod, and erased everything else. It took me a little while to get my bearings, since I'm unused to reading with my ears.  I wandered off during the first poetic flights, thinking about groceries, and marveling at D.H. Lawrence's ability to communicate so graphically the idea of sex without using any of the words employed in the 21st century to discuss the subject.   In spite of my initial wool-gathering, I found that listening made all the difference. The reader of my version had a weathered, spittle-rich voice with a very good sense of pace.  Previously, I might have read something like this and decamped for greener pastures: Their life and interrelations were such; feeling the pulse and body of the soil, that opened to their furrow for the grain, and became smooth and supple after their ploughing, and clung to their feet with a weight that pulled like desire, lying hard and unresponsive when the crops were to be shorn away.  Trapped as I was, I started to really listen, lulled by her interesting voice and her knowledge of how the sentence should be read. After several hours, I started to think that D.H. Lawrence had his hand in a lot of things.  Obviously, feelings.  I've never read a novelist so willing to go for broke, to agonizingly hash out people's feelings, especially with regard to their traditional loci (sex, babies, sex, romantic discord, sex).   Lawrence the novelist might have been a good person with whom to talk over a breakup ad nauseum, or a surprising same-sex interlude.  He might have made a good family therapist, although with perhaps a somewhat limited repertoire of solutions: "Your husband is jealous of the baby, madam. I suggest a babysitter for the evening." As I listened, I found he had things to say on a whole wealth of subjects.  Housing developments and coal towns, the countryside, modern education, smart house parties, and the virtues of staying in bed for the entire day with one's lover.  He writes all these things in the context of how they make us feel.  I had written him off because I was put off by his poetic flights.  Thinking it over, I wondered how else one could write about all those feelings without a flight of some kind.  It is a puzzle.   The relative marvel of Lawrence's depiction of interior life was driven home when I watched Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio thrash around in Revolutionary Road, expressing with volume what they couldn't express with anything else.  I felt embarrassed for them, and I was suddenly deeply aware of the poverty of film (and especially that film) when it comes to showing our interior lives.  Leonardo shouts "I don't feel special" and does it with the typist, and Kate likewise shouts and embraces the neighbor.   These people don't have a chance against D.H. Lawrence (or Virginia Woolf), who has pages and pages to spend talking about the inside.  Lawrence is sometimes boring because hearing about other peoples' feelings is sometimes boring, like hearing about their dreams.  And Lawrence seems too repetitive because people tend to have the same storms of feeling over and over, even if we should all know better. It's not all abandoned prose about womb-pangs and electric lights in the soul, either; sometimes Lawrence comes out with something snappy, like Anna thinking that  society is a "ridiculous armada of tubs jostling in futility." Still, though, I'm only a frail convert to Lawrence's charms.  Back at home, I switched back to print for the last chapters and was confronted with the hard truth that I find some of his prose pretty painful: He was a screen for her fears. He served her. She took him, she clasped him, clenched him close, but her eyes were open looking at the stars, it was as if the stars were lying with her and entering the unfathomable darkness of her womb, fathoming her at last. It was not him. It's just not my style.  But I've come to appreciate what he can do.  I am ready to go back to him; maybe I will fathom him at last.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #14 I, Claudius

I like to read novels, obviously.  Until recently, I very seldom read anything but novels.  Until recently, I preferred my facts to be folded into stories, particularly those featuring sexy ladies or illegitimate children or going to Oxford.  Occasionally I would read an "historical novel," especially if it was by James Michener, especially if I found it in a hotel lobby.  I read it, assumed it to be full of true things, and resolved to remember one of them should the subject ever come up in conversation.  For example, if anyone mentioned South Africa, I might recall Michener's seminal work The Covenant, which I found a hotel in China and read on the train.  Then I could say  "The Broderbund, so evil, so sad," and hope that the conversation ended soon. I confess: all I know about Alexander the Great I learned from Mary Renault (and how). That was then.  My life is different now; now I read with a notebook for writing down dates and important facts about caliphal succession.  I notice, and probably my classmates do also, that I am vague on the finer points of Important Things in History.  I sound, I suspect, like a person whose educational keystones are hundreds of novels, a shaky reading of Edward Said, and liberal blogs filled with rather broad humor. Then again, perhaps a familiarity with novels does not leave one so unsuited for the study of history.  Evidently, many historical sources are novels of a type, except more boring. I, Claudius is a special novel, one of my favorites.  Not only is it my go-to source for Roman history, it is a masterpiece of the form--the novel, I mean, not its degraded cousin, the historical novel.  I, Claudius is also sort of a miracle, something that Robert Graves, who identified as a poet, wrote simply as a way to make fast money.  The things I have done to make fast money include working in a toy store, answering lewd customer service emails, and editing someone's college paper about the movie The Piano with Holly Hunter. What Robert Graves did was read scores of historical texts in the original Latin and Greek.  He then used said texts to write a riveting first-person narrative about the history of Rome 44 B.C. to 41 A.D., subsequently making a boatload of money because it was so infinitely readable.  Then he wrote a sequel, Claudius the God and his Wife Messalina, a seamless continuation of the first book.  This is when people who wrote things other than Teen Paranormal Romance could get a contract for a sequel.  Imagine it. All I know about Roman History I learned from Robert Graves, and it can be summed up as follows: Livia convinces Augustus, first emperor of the Roman Empire, to leave his first wife and marry her; she then uses her position of power to poison almost everybody.  Tiberius, meanwhile, is doing something so perverted they can't even tell you what it is.  Common consensus holds Claudius the Stammerer (the narrator) a nitwit, but he is smarter than everyone and ends up in charge before marrying (for political reasons) his own awful bag who brings him down.  There is the eternal wrangle about whether Rome should be a Republic or have an Emperor, familiar to those of us who have seen the movie Gladiator.   Romans had different ideas about family than modern people do, so everyone is constantly adopting adult children and marrying one another, which is sometimes confusing.  Furthermore, everyone has one of four possible names, plus some extras, in varying order, but Graves does a remarkable job of keeping it relatively simple. I, Claudius and Claudius the God have the uncanny effect, true of other well-written historical fiction (I'm thinking specifically of Mary Renault's Alexandriad, and among them, The Persian Boy) of sounding delightfully modern.  And it was written two thousand years ago, in 1934.   For historians with a sense of perspective and the linguistic chops, ancient sources can feel alive.  For most of us without those things, reading translations with little or no context given or effort made to sex things up, primary sources are forbidding.  Robert Graves was patently a scholar--consider his massive cross-referenced mythological compendium, The Greek Myths.  He was also a great artist.  Some of us need Robert Graves or a person like him to read the sources, synthesize, and make them live.  James Michener doesn't count; there's a reason James Michener's books are always getting left in hotel lobbies. Knowing that Graves considered himself a poet foremost, I have tried to read his poetry, but prose is closer to my heart.  Graves's (partial) autobiography Goodbye to All That is another one of my favorite books.  It describes his experiences at school and in World War I, in a wry, warm way.  It's the perfect autobiographical writing, the sort that makes you wish the author was a personal friend.   Then again, illustrating the eternal problem of historical sources and selective inclusion therein, I read (not in his autobiography) that Graves could be very grumpy, and had woman trouble.  But serious woman trouble, as in he had a long-standing menage-a-trois with his wife and another woman, and decided he liked his wife better, and the other woman threw herself out of the window.  Then he changed his mind about the wife and hobbled off with the other lady after her bones knitted together.  Kind of like a Roman!  Except in Rome, his new paramour would have convinced him to exile the wife to a malarial island, so she would get a fever and die.  That's history--you'll find it in Graves.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #11 Under the Volcano

Like its protagonists Yvonne and Geoffrey, Under the Volano and I were just reunited after a long separation. I read other books, it's true; I cheated with this novel's close friends and relatives. But I had my own problems, and Under the Volcano makes itself hard to love. It's brilliant and tedious, winsome and unbearable, moving and maddening and sad. I feel close to Under the Volcano because I wrote my undergraduate thesis about it. Together we drank the hair of the dog while reflecting on life's failures; together we threw away our minds. Specifically, the thesis was about Under the Volcano and The Divine Comedy. While Dante urged me to strive up, up, up toward heaven's crooning saints and brightly-lit pinwheels, Malcolm Lowry lit my cigarette and told me it's always nighttime inside the bar. It was a confusing period in my life. When I left school, thesis haphazardly completed, I was sick of Lowry and his monumental fuck-ups and his wasted life and his ragged, mostly unreadable oeuvre. I never wanted to think about him again. I came back because I wanted to remember what it was that had so arrested me about Under the Volcano six years ago. My recollection of the novel was blurry, obscured by memories of the college years. So I reread it and understood that this is a book you must come back to again and again. That's true in the literal sense; when you read the last page you are compelled to start from the beginning; the novel is a wheel. But go back to it months and years later. The real power of this novel is in its inevitability. There is something especially sad and bitter about the jaded heartbreak of the foregone conclusion. Moreso than most novels, Under the Volcano is veritably handcuffed to its author. Malcolm Lowry's general failure at life management and his frequent misfortunes are nearly impossible to set aside while thinking about this novel. The man's alcoholism was legendary. I remember reading that he underwent a ghastly detox technique wherein he sat in a small room lit with only a red lightbulb while doctors injected him with a powerful sick-making compound for days. After a week, he escaped and went on a two-day bender, during which he drank everything. Apart from the staggering drinking problem, Lowry's possessions and manuscripts tended to get lost or catch on fire. Then, when he finally managed to squeeze out a real masterpiece, it got a withering "Briefly Noted" in The New Yorker: "...for all his earnestness he has succeeded only in writing a rather good imitation of an important novel." Under the Volcano was the only output of Lowry's where he was able to step outside of himself for the sustained period of time necessary for creation. The novel could only be about a person ruined by alcohol, because alcohol was the major disaster of Lowry's own life.  Under the Volcano has the curious effect of quite vividly and painfully transmitting the alcoholic's grinding, ever-present need to drink. Perhaps this says more about my own variety of temperament, but I found myself putting down the book to Google whether there was a mezcaleria in my neighborhood (pero no). Even while reading in horror about the Consul (Geoffrey) unable to put socks on his alcohol-sodden, neuritic feet, I was gripped by his craving for fiery booze and five hundred cigarettes. In his Consul, Lowry also managed to write the frenetic, mostly incoherent scholar of arcane texts that Lowry himself patently was. The Consul is obsessed with Kabbala, among other things; his fevered interest, his drinking, and his references' very opacity render him unable to finish, or start, the definitive text he alleges to have been working on for years. Lowry, with his fetish for certain large and complex texts and systems of belief (e.g., Dante, Buddhism), was similarly unable to extricate himself from his head and his sources to write consistently good work. Lowry's self-awareness, much in evidence as he labored over this novel, is the more heart-rending given his own untimely and ignoble end, choking on his vomit from overdose (which was, according to various people, an accident, a pseudo-suicide, or a maybe-murder). The New Yorker's brief note notwithstanding, Under the Volcano's power is not strictly in the unavoidable comparisons between its protagonist and its author. Quite apart from its autobiographical significance, it is beautifully constructed and written, although the prose can be frustrating, and the whole experience is disorienting (like being drunk, then really drunk, then sober, then drunker than before). Its difficulty is also its success, I feel more than ever after this recent reading. I love the opening pages of the novel, the retrospective Laurelle and the farcical Dr. Vigil, the inversion of Dante's sober and silver-tonged Virgil: "I sended a boy down to see if he would come for a few minutes and knock my door, I would appreciate it to him, if not, please write me a note, if drinking have not killed him already." I love how sensory the novel is, the things it allows you to see and smell and feel, even the aching limbs and the clamoring hangover that follow an all-night bender. Among other things, it's a novel of place, with Quauhnahuac (Cuernavaca) a character unto itself. As with Dante, geography is important to Lowry, and as with Dante, the geography is sometimes confusing; it seems to defy the laws of physics. The place teems with ravines and hills and roads that, no matter where one goes, seem to lead (titularly) to the volcano. Sweeping statements are dangerous, but I'm feeling bold this evening; I'm drinking paisano-flavored Carlo Rossi. So here goes: In my little universe, Under the Volcano and Lolita are the alpha and the omega of twentieth century literature in English. I don't mean necessarily that we need employ the bogus notion of "best," simply that between them they exemplify the artistic possibilities of literature. Between them, they define things that literature sets out to do and does. At the level where theme and style converge, Under the Volcano is the great hangover of the Western Hemisphere of the forties, worn out from its newly concluded horrors. Lolita is its bright, shiny, hopelessly corrupt new dawn. The novels' respective styles, influences, and preoccupations between them cover a lot of ground. Even their authors neatly occupy two important provinces of the literary lion: Nabokov the eerily prolific, the presentable, the consummate virtuoso; Lowry the wreck, the shit-show, the consummate artistic temperament. The Formalist quibbler will argue that Lowry should remain outside his text, that it must stand on its own merits. I think the novel has plenty of formal merits, but I still reject this position. How can I not think about Malcolm Lowry? He steps off the page of this novel and says, "Please understand me." Like Dr. Vigil says of the Consul, "Sickness is not only in body, but in that part used to be call: soul. Poor your friend, he spend his money on earth in such continuous tragedies." That's real prescience; that's heartbreaking.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #58 The Age of Innocence

Some books are so a part of one it seems a folly to write even a paltry 700 words on their virtues. The Age of Innocence, which in my personal pantheon outshines Catcher in the Rye as the consoling novel for angsty and literate youth, confirmed my adolescent suspicion that people spoke and lived in codes.  Immured in boarding school, that life was dictated by iron and mostly disagreeable statutes was patently obvious to teenaged me.  But The Age of Innocence went beyond these; it spoke to the rules within rules--the ways that people prevent one another (especially girls, it seemed) from doing what they like, and the cowardice that stops people from going against the grain.   I don't know if Edith Wharton intended this book to be read at as an epoch-spanning indictment of society's bloodless crimes, or if she really thought that the immutable canon of the 1870s was finished and gone.  One introduction I have seen instructs us to read The Age of Innocence less as a protest novel and more as a biting satire and a send-up of the gilded age.  To be sure, it is a deeply sardonic novel; but if Wharton intended only to be a period satirist, she's made a fool out of me.   Wharton's novel and its more dramatic precursor, The House of Mirth, knew with what my jangled adolescent nerves suspected; Wharton wrote the things that people know but won't say.  Affirmed by these novels and fancying myself an Ellen (or even, horribly, a Lily Bart), I went about doing as I thought I pleased, garnering disapprobation.  My messy room and demerits and cigarette smoking obscured (from myself, at least) my inner Newland, the realities my own coded speech and behavior and dress, the cruelties I served up to others.  In the grand scheme of things, mine was rather a charmed adolescence.  Perhaps I rankled against against society, against school's constraints.  But like Newland, I hardly wanted to leave.    When it was written, The Age of Innocence was about the olden days, the creaking conventions of which had long since been left by the wayside.  The specifics would have been easily recognized by 1920s readers; some of them escape me today.  Of Ellen Olenska's estranged husband, it is said: A half-paralysed white sneering fellow--rather handsome head, but eyes with a lot of lashes.  Well, I'll tell you the sort: when he wasn't with women he was collecting china.  Paying any price for both, I understand. Oh, snap?  But while the novel serves as an exquisite period piece filled with details of costume and decor (not for nothing is Wharton's book with Ogden Codman Jr. The Decoration of Houses still in print today), it is timeless in its representation of the difference between inside and outside.  Social conventions are discarded or exchanged; what remains is the chill a person feels when he or she understands that she has committed some transgression against the herd.  The currents of social disapproval run deep, swift, and cold.  This is not a state of affairs peculiar to the upper crust; every crust has rules, a code.  Sex is a particularly sticky wicket, even in our current, infinitely enlightened times.  Were Ellen Olenska on Jersey Shore, she would be the pasty, sober blonde in a ruffled one-piece.  In high school, she's the one whose hand the boys won't hold.  Maybe she said some things on MySpace that rubbed everyone the wrong way.  First this awesome guy Newland defended her when everyone was being whack, but in the end he couldn't handle the drama (and he just wanted to do it with her anyway).   It's all the same!  The only difference is that in some crusts epithets like "slut" are freely employed and punches thrown, rather than everyone quietly declining a dinner party invitation. Fortunately, getting older significantly reduces (one hopes) the paranoia that accompanies everyone's adolescence.  I no longer kick ineffectually at society's traces while living in terror of a social misstep.  Perhaps I've become a complicit member of the herd, but my nerves no longer jangle.  Still, though, I read this novel (and The House of Mirth) as the work of someone who was deeply sensitive to the effects of collective mores on individual happiness, and to society's censure of otherness.  And this expressed with razor insight, with wry humor, with delicious irony, in elegant prose.  What a book this is.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #62 From Here to Eternity

I was excited to begin this From Here to Eternity by James Jones, because I like Pat Conroy and this book is Conroyesque in appearance--a robust octavo with a military motif.  Books are like people, and it's nice to meet someone new, someone different from you.  Seven hundred pages, though, isn't an affirming human experience shared on a subway car.  Seven hundred pages is, at best, a dear friend and at worst, a co-worker, the kind who sends you political forwards.  If I extend this metaphor any further, I'll end up like James Jones.  Suffice it to say that several pages in, I was worried. By page six I'd read enough about a soldier named Prewitt, a bugler and boxer and all around badass, to know that I had thrown in my lot with a monstrous Mary Sue.  And this Prewitt, a regular army man in Oahu 1941, is not a regular Mary Sue (he's a Yogi, for one).  The thing about Prew, is Prew's got a code.  Basically the code is this: if Prew likes to do it, he mustn't do it (except for drinking, and sex with his woman's roommate).  Robert E. Lee Prewitt is a complicated man, a heroic anti-hero: The reason was, [Prew] wanted to be a bugler.  Red could play a bugle well because Red was not a bugler.  It was really very simple, so simple that he was surprised he had not seen it standing there.  He had to leave the Bugle Corps because he was a bugler.  Red did not have to leave it.  But he had to leave, because he wanted most of all to stay. I read this and put a post-it in, just to sort of be like, "oh my gawd," to no one in particular. So Prew's this bugler, who's also a boxer, and he gives up boxing because he punched a feller too hard.  Then he gives up bugling, on account of liking it so much, and he transfers to this unit where to get ahead all you need to do is box, or perhaps bugle.  And the craven effete officer Holmes is beside himself to have a boxer, for reasons of army politics, but Prew is not boxing for any man.  So Prew gets the Treatment. This I like!  This is an effective premise--a battle of wills!  (Remember The Chocolate War?  That's actually the young adult version of this novel, but better executed.)  Also, Prew's reason for not boxing, unlike his purported reason for not bugling, is perfectly reasonable; he promised his mother.  Around this time we get to the romantic intrigue, and a vibrant picture of barracks life in Hawaii, pre-Pearl Harbor.  There are lots of characters, like Milt the Warden, a lovable first Sergeant, and Maggio, the spunky sidekick--the Seth to Prew's Ryan, if you will--and a whole zany crew.  There's a respectable tension and army brutality and things are humming along, a la The Lords of Discipline.  Sometimes I even found myself thinking, "Poor old men.  They do have it rough." And I was entertained; in spite of, maybe because of, the preponderance of sentiments like "You know what's weak? Chicks" and "You know what's the best? Punching."  It's a yarn and a half, I can honestly say. But James Jones was trying to do more than entertain, and eventually things get insuperably heavy and sometimes unbearable.  In this novel Jones wants to condemn war and celebrate war and condemn men and celebrate men and condemn women and celebrate women.  He wants to lay bare the evil of capitalism, uphold the worker and the grunt.  He wants to immortalize the army.  It's very clear that he wants to do of it.  But that's a tall order for any novelist, and From Here to Eternity cannot begin to carry these themes. Nor can Prew, whose seems to have been born from an eery and earnest prophesy of The Big Lebowski ("Sometimes there's a man... I won't say a hero, 'cause what's a hero? But sometimes, there's a man," etc.). Jones's tenuous command of his medium is another major hindrance.  He tells a pretty good story, but my god, he savages the written word: Here is your Army, America, he sleepily wanted to tell Them, here is your strength, that You have made strong by trying to break, and that You will have to depend on in the times that are coming, whether You like it or not, or want to or not, and no matter how much it may hurt Your pride.  And here in Number Two was its cream, sifted and resifted and then sifted again, until all the dry rot had been winnowed out, all the soft spots squeezed out, all the rotting gangrene that all the social columnists were so afraid of excised out, so that only the firm hardy remainder of the most absolute of toughness, that would not only hold its own but would triumph, in a whole world of toughness, was all that was left now. Suffering shit!  It's a miscegenation of metaphors!  The whole novel is like this, ripe for parody--Peter de Vries wrote a great one in 1951. Jones strains for meaning, yet avoids being held to any particular message by overburdening the story with messages.  And he eventually abandons the commitments he makes to pithiness by throwing up his hands to say, "What does anything mean, after all?  What are we, anyway?" Verily we have few answers to these questions; we are good and bad and confused all around.  But to end like this is a cop-out from the man who created a tortured bugler, a Wobbly Jesus, and a literal truckload of used sanitary napkins.  He went for broke with his saints and symbols, so I expected something, maybe a coherent point of view.  Instead I got awful prose and a dismal, unsatisfactory ending, which diminished the fun I'd had during the yarny parts. From Here to Eternity isn't a forward-happy co-worker; I can't go that far.  It's like someone with whom you have a booze-fueled conversation at a party.  The conversation starts out great, but you get drunker, and dumber, and it goes on way too long.
Modern Library Revue

Modern Library Revue: #71 A High Wind in Jamaica

I had no notion of Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica before I read it.  I had never even heard of it before I saw it on the Modern Library list, which is unusual in that the Modern Library list is full of known, if unplumbed, quantities.  I've encountered no reference, read no synopsis, skipped no assignment, endured no cringing moment with the combative, be-sideburned, aesthete of my nightmares.  So I was very curious, and after months spent in an (admittedly low-grade) fever of anticipation, when it arrived in its plain brown wrapper I fell upon it, and read it right away. I want not to resort to the repellent vernacular of the internet meme, but my reaction to the book is difficult to express otherwise, so, Wow.  Just....wow. This is a nasty, wicked little book.  It's wonderful. Maybe everyone knows about this book already, the plot I mean, and I just missed that page in the dictionary of cultural literacy.  For those of you who were likewise not hip to the dark magic of this novel, it's about a group of children on a pirate ship in the Caribbean.  Which it makes it sound like a fairy tale, a riff on Peter Pan.  When I read the introduction to my copy I thought, "This sounds ludicrous."  And it sort of is ludicrous.  But rather than weave a swashbuckler about cutlass-wielding badduns, Richard Hughes made his pirates real men--weak, minor, foolish villains who nonetheless make (sometimes) fairly decent nannies. A great feature of the book (oddly like To the Lighthouse in this regard), is the almost parenthetical, and thus hugely shocking, treatment of important and horrifying events.  So I can't tell you about specific goings-on.  I will tell you that the story opens, titularly, in Jamaica, where things are colonially swampy and humid and decrepit, with excessive foliage and rotting aristocracy and covert racial violence.  The fecundity is palpable--the seen-better-days Britishers have five children, and vicious cats abound.  And then, through this corrupt Eden a destroying wind blows.  The children are sent off to England, and safety. Enter pirates. These pirates!  These children!  Separately and in concert, they are, sometimes, unbearably cute.  The children become friends with the ship's pig: They grew very fond of him indeed (especially Emily), and called him their Dear Love, their Only Dear, their Own True Heart, and other names.  But he had only two things he ever said.  When his back was being scratched he enunciated an occasional soft and happy grunt . . . When a particularly heavy lot of children sat down on him at once, he uttered the faintest ghost of a little moan, as affecting as the wind in a very distant chimney, as if the air in him was being squeezed out through a pin-hole. One cannot wish for a more comfortable seat than an acquiescent pig. 'If I was the Queen,' said Emily, 'I should most certainly have a pig for a throne.' 'Perhaps she has,' suggested Harry. 'He does like being scratched,' she added presently in a very sentimental tone, as she rubbed his scurfy back. The mate was watching: 'I should think you'd like being scratched, if your skin was in that condition!' 'Oh how disgusting you are!' cried Emily, delighted. But the idea took root: 'I don't think I should kiss him quite so much if I was you,' Emily presently advised Laura, who was lying with her arms tight round his neck and covering his briny snout with kisses from ring to ears. 'My pet! My love!' murmured Laura, by way of indirect protest. The wily mate had foreseen that some estrangement would be necessary, if they were ever to have fresh pork served without salt tears. He intended this to be the thin end of the wedge. But alas! Laura's mind was as humoursome an instrument to play as the Twenty-three-stringed Lute. Richard Hughes knew what he was about with this cuteness; in a 1969 New Yorker interview he describes borrowing the various children of his friends (which included Robert Graves, according to the introduction to my copy), for research.  "Children are vulnerable, like pirates," he remarks, and in this novel he exploits their respective vulnerabilities with great tendresse.  But the inane, creepily accurate patter of the children, and the farcical Mr. Mom-style antics of the pirates are the ground beneath which hums a constant current of anxiety, a current that flares without warning into terror, disgust, and profound sadness.  For every charming vignette--the children's conflation of "pirate" with "pilot," for example, or the Captain admonishing them about the precarious state of their drawers--there is an element of horror.  Sexuality and perjury and murder.  And that's just the pirates.  The responsible adults fail to pass muster, in different ways. To be sure, there are few ways to interpret kidnapping.  No one is inclined to be sympathetic to the vicious pirates who have ensnared the young.  But there is something shameful and perverse in the adults' (the regular adults', I should say) bloodlust, their fixation on the lascivious details of captivity.  Miss Dawson, the refined young woman who takes Emily in hand upon the children's rescue, presses her for details on their bondage.  "She saw that Emily did not want to talk about the horrors she had been through: but considered it far better that she should be made to talk than that she should brood over them in secret."  Young miss imagines the children "Chained, probably, down there in the darkness like blacks, with rats running over them, fed on bread and water."  To divert Emily, she "took her down to her cabin and showed her all her clothes, every single item--it took hours." I left A High Wind in Jamaica feeling sad about the great adult poverty of understanding--the gulf between us and our childhood selves and one another, and our fragile grip on reality. It's not that children are special pure angels, "If we saw the world through their eyes there would be no wars" and that kind of drivel.  I read Lord of the Flies.  And Hughes' children at their best are charming rather than lovable, and at their worst they are vile.  But this novel does not reassure us that children grow up to be good and noble.  In Hughes' bright, cynical light, the great institution Adulthood is revealed too as a load of rubbish.  It's bracing, actually, his cynicism; it's a wry and unusual vintage.  This novel is not uplifting, but it's very good.