Nathaniel P. Gets the Fanfic Treatment: On Adelle Waldman’s “New Year’s”

Among its many other splendors, the Web has created a market for a strain of ancillary fiction that takes the characters and themes of an existing story - George Lucas's Star Wars, say, or Stephenie Meyer's Twilight - and creates a new story designed to shed light on the existing one. Fan fiction, it's called. So far, fan fiction has focused mostly on genre stories, especially sci-fi and fantasy, but there's no reason literary fiction can't have its own fan fiction - and perhaps the quickest way to kick off the trend would be for literary authors to write a little fanfic of their own. To a certain degree, this appears to be what has happened with the publication of Adelle Waldman’s “New Year’s,” a Kindle Single timed for the paperback release of her 2013 breakout novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. "New Year's" is a fully rendered work of literary fiction, just short of novella length, but the story, helpfully subtitled, “Nathaniel P. as Seen Through the Eyes of his Friend Aurit,” almost certainly wouldn’t exist, at least not in this form, were it not for the paperback release of Nathaniel P. Genre writers have been releasing these add-on stories for some time now, but this is among the first I have seen from a literary author, and it’s illuminating, both in terms of the risks a talented writer takes in rushing out a story to meet an artificial deadline, and more broadly, as an object lesson in the risks writers face when the traditional obstacles to publishing a work of fiction fall away. I am, for the record, an admirer of Waldman’s writing and of Nathaniel P., though I recognize it isn’t for everybody. Waldman’s characters live in certain self-consciously liberal neighborhoods in Brooklyn and are nearly all upper-middle-class, attractive, well-educated, and to some degree freakishly successful in the arts. There are people out there, one is given to understand, who are not quite so lucky in their intellectual capacities or their socio-economic circumstances – a phenomenon Waldman’s characters respond to by writing sympathetic essays, which they hope will land in prestigious magazines and further their careers. Waldman’s fictive universe is, in short, a bit hard to take. But she possesses a rare gift for dramatizing psychological insight, and in Nathaniel P., her first novel, she focuses on Nate Piven, a thirty-year-old novelist, who like so many young Brooklyn artists, lives in mortal terror of having to one day grow up. In Nate’s case, this terror takes the form of an abiding fear of commitment in romantic relationships – which, after all, lead inevitably to marriage and children – and in the pages of the book, we watch Nate skillfully manipulate a girlfriend into breaking up with him. It’s riveting in its way, especially since Waldman is so good at exploring the ways intelligent people can be so blind to their own monstrousness. In “New Year’s,” Waldman’s emotional radar remains quiveringly intact, but the story itself is as slack and shapeless as a Sunday morning at a Brooklyn coffee house. The plot, such as it is, turns on whether Nate and Aurit, an Israeli-born writer who was a minor character in the original novel, will become a couple. But Waldman seems only intermittently interested in this central narrative, and instead fills page after page with backstory about Aurit’s school years, which too often reads like one of those background histories actors write for themselves to help them get into character. We learn, in excruciating detail, how after her family’s immigration from Israel, Aurit was desperate to fit in with the crowd at her suburban Boston middle school, but clueless about fashion and American pop culture, found herself passed over by her classmates who saw her as hopelessly “bespectacled, bookish, [and] brown-skinned.” Later, thanks to some savvy clothing and hair choices, Aurit pulls off a “punk-inspired asexual, alternative look,” and following a pre-college weight loss, she acquires an actual boyfriend. None of this is unconvincing as social detail, nor does it make Aurit seem less worthy a subject for fictional treatment, but it does make one hanker for the, um, story to begin. When it finally does, it’s over before the reader has a chance to savor it. While hanging out together after a New Year’s party, Nate tells Aurit, “You give me feedback I don’t get anywhere else.” This is as close as a man like Nate comes to a statement of undying love, and it gives Aurit reason to think they might become more than friends. Then, all too quickly he returns to form, an overgrown man-child incapable of a mature relationship with a woman – and we’re done. What’s most maddening about this is that, setting aside that long dry spell about Aurit’s teen angst, there is a kernel of a great story here about the difference between romantic love and the platonic kind. Everyone has had a close relationship that works better as a friendship than as a romance, and at some half-drunken moment of intimacy, everyone has wondered why. “New Year’s” seems a story poised to answer this very human question, and then, for some reason, it simply doesn’t. Writing great fiction is a little like hitting Major League pitching – even the best in the game fail to get a hit seven times out of ten. But here one can’t help wondering if the ease of its publication may not have also played a role in the story’s failure to fully engage. In an analog world, Waldman might well have wanted to tell a story from the perspective of a minor character that provided insight into the protagonist of her recently published novel – to write a bit of self-initiated fan fiction, as it were – but she would have faced some thorny logistical problems. For one thing, virtually no one publishes stand-alone novellas in print. Perhaps Waldman could have trimmed it to a more standard story length – pruned some of that backstory about Aurit’s formative years, say. But even then she would have had to find a literary journal willing to take the story on its own terms, not merely as an online add-on to a paperback release, or she would have had to wait until she had enough other publishable stories to make a full collection. It is unwise, of course, to make too much of one misbegotten story. We are still in the experimentation phase with Web-only publication, and the point of experiments is that they don’t always work. One can only imagine what a restless mind like William Faulkner’s would make of a world in which an author wishing to fill in extra detail about an existing literary world need only write up the story, slap a title on it, and post it to the web. At the same time, though, when it comes to literary fiction, perhaps we should be mindful of the special demands of print. The cost of printing and distributing physical books has never stopped bad books from being published, but it does raise the barrier to entry. It creates an intermediary rank of editors, agents, and publishers whose job it is to be rigorous with authors, forcing them to make their work as strong as it can possibly be. If the Web is the future of fiction – and how can it not be? – we don’t want to stifle innovation. Still, it’s a mistake to make it too easy for writers to reach readers, because part of what makes a story good is how many hurdles it has had to jump before it finds its way to a reader’s hands.

Lee Zacharias Writes Again: On The Only Sounds We Make

Four years ago I wrote an essay here about a smallish southern city where I used to write for the newspaper by day and work on my fiction at night. It was, and is, a pleasant place for a writer to live and work, a city with a rich literary tradition but none of the self-importance of Iowa City or Brooklyn, a place content to operate under the radar and leave its writers in peace. Randall Jarrell, who taught at the state university’s local campus for many years, referred to the place as “Sleeping Beauty.” In a letter to his friend Robert Lowell, Jarrell wrote, “Greensboro leaves one alone just wonderfully.” I mentioned many local writers in that essay about Greensboro, NC, from native son O. Henry right up to the biggest contemporary brand name, Orson Scott Card. Among those many writers was Lee Zacharias, who has just come out with a collection of essays, her first, called The Only Sounds We Make. Zacharias, who had previously published a collection of short stories and two novels, brings a pair of vital skills to the enterprise of essay writing: she notices, and she remembers. These skills are invaluable to any writer, but especially so to the creator of the kind of deeply personal essays Zacharias has produced in this collection. When noticing and remembering are fused, as they are here, they can breathe life into anything, from the most intimate moments to the most cosmic subjects – the nature of light, writers’ workplaces, a father’s suicide, the visible and invisible lessons of the Grand Canyon, even the surprising allure of buzzards. One of the most poignant passages in the book comes midway through an essay called “Morning Light,” which is ostensibly about photography. Making photographs, as Zacharias discovers, requires more than an understanding of f-stops and depth of field. “To make a photograph,” she writes, “you must learn how to read light. You must develop a feel for its chemistry, its texture and color; its purity must become palpable to you. But to read light is to experience ephemerality, to know your own mortality, the fleeting nature of all things.” This effortless veering from the practical to the philosophical continues with this explanation of Zacharias’s motives for taking up photography: I learned to read light because there was a time when I needed to be without language, when I needed to travel back to that place where nothing is named and we dream in pure light and color. When I failed to publish my second novel, I believed that words had failed me, and I didn’t want to write another just because I was expected to. If I was to write again, it would be because I needed words, not because I was a writer. She stopped writing for two years, then wrote another novel, which also failed to sell. “How, without whining, is one to describe the way her world dims?” she asks. “It’s as if she’s been a member of a club; then one day she tries the clubhouse door to find the lock has been changed.” She continues: And so I taught myself to speak another tongue. For a decade marked by the faltering of my career, my father’s suicide, my son’s troubled adolescence, the decline of our remaining parents, and the sudden irreversibility of aging, I made photographs. Zacharias, who taught in the creative writing program at UNC-Greensboro for many years and edited The Greensboro Review literary journal, eventually came back to writing. But 32 years would pass between the publication of her second book and her third, a novel called At Random. Now, a mere year later, comes The Only Sounds We Make. Zacharias tells me she has finished another novel and is at work on a new one set in western Michigan during the Depression. It appears she has relocated the key to the clubhouse door. Zacharias’s writing about her childhood and her difficult parents is some of her best. In the essay “Mud Pies” she tells about her early years on the South Side of Chicago and her family’s eventual flight to a raw new suburban development in Hammond, Indiana. Zacharias’s writing is supple but never flashy, and she is typically clear-eyed about how this massive social convulsion touched her life: “I would not pretend that I actively miss Chicago lest I be accused of sentimentality – I was not yet five years old when I left – yet I do feel nostalgia, the kind Pete Hamill speaks of in his book about Lower Manhattan, Downtown. Sentimentality is about lies, he says, nostalgia about ‘real things gone,’ not so much about what we remember, but itself ‘an almost fatalistic acceptance of the permanence of loss.’ The body cannot remember a lie.” The essay ends on this grace note: I used to believe that my nostalgia was so intense because I felt I had lost something I never possessed. But the truth is that we do not possess our lives.  As true exiles know, we stand too easily to lose them, and in the end we are all just passing through. It is what we remember of the journey that we possess. I own a little girl sitting on a curb in Chicago in the barefoot sandals her mother always made her wear with socks, and in the curious stillness of that moment when she looks up from her mud pie and cocks her head in wait, I know that what she is waiting for is something to remember. Zacharias’s parents, who eventually divorced, were a couple of tough customers. Her mother was “manipulative,” “overbearing,” and “exhausting,” and yet “no mother’s love could have been more unconditional.” Her father was a misogynist, a tightwad with no close friends who, to top it off, was ashamed of his daughter’s vocation. “He was ashamed not just of the writing itself but of the fact that I wrote,” Zacharias says. “He didn’t see the point. He kept a log of his gas mileage, but he never kept a journal...He had beautiful handwriting, but no use for words.” Hard to believe that such a couple’s daughter would become an accomplished writer, but Zacharias’s life is a reminder that there is no template, no blueprint for making writers. They come from anywhere and nowhere and everywhere in between. After her father fired a .357-caliber bullet from a Bulldog revolver into his own head, Zacharias was able to write words that seem nearly heroic, yet she makes them sound simple, even humble, possibly inevitable: “My father was who he was. He died how he died. But because he was my father I loved him.” There is levity in these pages, too, most notably on the day of Zacharias’s second wedding, when she and the groom stood in their living room with a minister who was an old friend. The only witnesses were their dogs, one of whom spent the ceremony vigorously humping the minister’s leg. The minister kept shaking his leg, trying to soldier on. “His voice quavered with the effort,” the bride reports, “and every word he read sounded like a sob.” The dozen essays in this collection appeared in a variety of journals, including Antaeus, Southern Quarterly, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Humanities Review. My favorite, “Buzzards,” was reprinted in The Best American Essays 2008. It is an astonishment, with glints of etymology, zoology, mythology, photography, family dynamics, and the various roles buzzards have played in the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, Federico Garcia Lorca, Darwin, Hemingway, Faulkner, and the Bible. Despite her wide reading on these mysterious unloved birds, Zacharias fails to mention the timeless opening of Jim Harrison’s novella, Revenge, so I’ll quote it here: You could not tell if you were a bird descending (and there was a bird descending, a vulture) if the naked man was dead or alive. The man didn’t know himself and the bird was tentative when he reached the ground and made a croaking sideward approach, askance and looking off down the chaparral in the arroyo as if expecting company from the coyotes. Carrion was shared not by the sharer’s design but by a pattern set before anyone knew there were patterns. Zacharias’s sin of omission is forgiven because she knows all about the ancient patterns. And because she can write lines like these: “What I discovered when I took a close look at the hidden world all around me is that each of its creatures is as serious about its life as I am about mine.” And these: “I do not dream of vultures. I have never dreamed of flying, though as a child, lying in the dark, awake, voiceless, listening to my parents fight, I used to dream of escape. Perhaps that’s why I grew up to be a writer.” Perhaps. Probably. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Lee Zacharias is back inside the clubhouse. She has published a splendid book of essays and she has more books in her. And that’s very good news for us all.

The Other Kind of Country People: On Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God

1. Picked up by a deputy police officer, a man claiming to get lost ghost-hunting in the woods was actually cooking meth. A man who won a competition to party with the Breaking Bad cast and crew was busted for manufacturing narcotics. A Hialeh, Florida, official pulled over by the cops secreted a meth pipe in his rectum. Even forgoing the bleakest cases, meth fact is stranger than meth fiction. It's fair to ask why a young writer would take on a subject when the finished novel will be less astonishing than the day's headlines. (Granted, if that was a requisite, all fiction would go unwritten.) Some plucky writers, I assume, hope their writing acquires by association some of the drug's features: highly addictive, vivid extra-sensory illusions, the intimations of ruin and transcendence. The story of a thirteen-year-old heir to a family drug operation, Katherine Faw Morris's Young God takes its title from a song by Swans. When they recorded “Young God,” Swans was still in its most harrowing, dissonant period before Michael Gira made slightly less harrowing, less dissonant music later in that decade. The song takes the perspective of Ed Gein, the serial-killer inspiration for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho movies. The macabre lyrics, as bellowed by frontman Gira, are all jagged edge: I don't know where I am I'm dancing in my corpse I don't remember anything I'm wearing your flesh Your flesh is my face I love your face Though Morris's writing shares some of that song's dark, cryptic tone, the novel has a conventional five-act structure. In spare, piquant prose, we watch as the protagonist Nikki flees a Department of Social Services home and seeks out her father, Coy Hawkins. Nikki might not have courage, but, as Lorrie Moore once described a very different character, she has “bitterness and impulsiveness, which could look like the same thing.” The first scene begins at a perch overhanging a swimming hole (formatting is consistent with the book): This is the jumping off place. everywhere else is the wrong side. Nikki bends at the knees and moves her feet one by one. With a lunge she grabs the head of the shrub. Now the river flings its white froth at her. The falls roar in her ears. “i'll go first.” “No,” Nikki says. “Just walk down on the path,” Wesley says. “No.” “Nikki,” Mama says. “God,” Nikki says. Since she is going to die she would like to be remembered, spoken of in the backs of cars in words that shudder. Nikki pictures this. she turns the shrub loose and stands up. “Nikki.” she slips a step and then jumps. Years after her mother commits suicide (in a mordant parallel, by leaping to her death) and a stay in DSS, she decides to return to her father's house. The father, Coy Hawkins, is an appealingly grotesque villain, formerly “the biggest coke dealer in the county,” now a fading specter. The narrator says, “iN her MoUth his name is shiny and bitter like a licked coin.” Tragically, she find her father's expressions of sympathy as inexplicable and unfamiliar as his paroxysms of violence. In her conversations with her father, she is both naïve and clinical: “is it BeCaUse oF the eCoNoMY?” “What?” “That you're a pimp?” Coy hawkins laughs with his head thrown back. “What?” Nikki says. she laughs, too. Though she doesn't think it's funny. “You used to be the biggest coke dealer in the county.” Coy hawkins rests his elbow on the bench seat. He looks at her. “You were,” she says. “everybody's on pills now,” Coy hawkins says. “so?” “This is my new thing. This is the future.” Nikki looks out at the motel parking lot. her teeth are grinding. As in Winter's Bone, the devastation caused by the meth trade in this rural North Carolina region has unsettled all the usual social structures that might constrain the impulses of a smart, ruthless teenage girl. Either novel could be mistaken for professing a kind of feminism, but I would prefer to call it selective misanthropy. Each chapter is a fresh descent. Nikki endures the rape and murder of her friend, the mutilation of a rival drug dealer, and a dangerous stick-up. She becomes aware of how he has made her vulnerability a weapon:  “i don't need you,” he says. [...] all NiGht she sits oN the CoUCh in the dark with her mind racing. he does need her. He couldn't have gotten into that apartment without her, for one thing. she pictures the black girls, with their mouths wide open, but she doesn't hear them scream. Watching her father's casual brutality, of course, Nikki becomes more jaundiced about life generally, and more cynical about family ties specifically. Violence is something she masters, but Morris isn't particularly interested in a sociology of the drug trade or criminal pathology. Instead, Young God unfolds unselfconciously, as character study. One of the strengths of the novel is how Nikki's emotional disfigurement is subtle and teased out patiently over the course of the novel so that, until the final pages, neither the reader nor Nikki herself fully grasp what heinous acts she is capable of doing in order to restore her family's status.  The unconventional capitalization and grammars, as in Sapphire's Push, is meant to convey the main character's lack of formal education, though I found it mostly distracting. In her first novel, Morris also allows a few quirks to clutter the prose. For instance, “muscle,” “chin,” and “shoulder” are all used as verbs. Those choices might be naturalistic, but I thought they were fussy diversions from a taut, concise plot. 2. What “young god”? Nikki does possess the sort of inarticulate, elemental impulses (rage, pity, hatred) that used to drive the gods of ancient Greek mythology and the Old Testament. It's clear that her godliness is some mix of her ability to take life and her Nietschzean amorality. Paradoxically, her omnipotence is representative of the narrowness of her worldview, like the narrator of Ted Hughes's poem, “Hawk Roosting:” Now I hold Creation in my foot Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly — I kill where I please because it is all mine. There is no sophistry in my body. Why a “young god”? Throughout his career, Kenneth Burke pointed out the perversity of metaphor. In the essay, “Why Satire,” he quoted the phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Burke suggests that this aphorism has discomfiting implications for our perspective on “need” and “motherhood.” If a meth-dealing teenager is a “young god,” how radically changed is Morris's secular world from O'Connor's “Christ-haunted” South. The central metaphor of Morris's novel — Nikki as god — is a provocation, sure, and one that indicates a rift in Southern literature. Though their works diverged widely in subject matter and method, Faulkner, O'Connor, and McCullers wrote novels and short stories in riot against the modern assumption of the rational, knowable self, and that self's ability to master history and nature. Their skepticism about modernity has been so widely embraced – by thinkers who have no interest in Sutpen genealogy, and those who might think of the Southern Agrarians as little more than a historical curiosity — that it seems de rigueur. Perhaps the concerns of O'Connor, et al, were prescient, and prescience is obsolescence in a flattering alias.  The novels of Daniel Woodrell, William Gay, and Morris have a much narrower philosophical scope. Young God is a strong entry in the tradition of the Southern Gothic Novel (redneck noir subcategory), but, while reading it and after watching the HBO series True Detective, I began to wonder if the genre still has any explanatory power for contemporary America. Stripped of its context and without invigorating it with new significance, that familiar mood has become an affectation. The style is still there, nestled between the derelict churches and the epic violence, but without the expansive critique that ran like a quicksilver thread through Wise Blood and Absalom! Absalom!  Late in Young God, the narrator repeats her father's words: “This is the future.” Then, Nikki disposes of a body by hacking it into pieces. I suspect the Southern Gothic Novel (like many of the characters that have populated it) will have an even less tranquil afterlife. 

What To Expect When 30 Women Write About Giving Birth: On Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers

Two years ago, when I was expecting my first baby, I searched for an anthology of birth stories and was surprised to discover that none existed. I could find birth stories online on parenting websites and mommy blogs, I could stumble upon birth stories in memoirs and novels, and I could read stories of natural birth in Ina May Gaskin's Spiritual Midwifery, but I couldn’t find what I really wanted, which was a book that was just birth stories without any advice or particular agenda attached. Labor Day: True Birth Stories By Today’s Best Women Writers is the book I hoped to find, and the question of what took so long for it to appear is one that its editors, Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon, address in their introduction. They point out, first of all, that birth is now a big business, thanks to increasing options surrounding fertility, pregnancy, and labor: A vast and diverse industry has grown up around birth in the United States, from “boutique” labor and delivery suites that offer mani/pedis and vaginal-rejuvenation therapies to “alternative” birthing centers that provide the chance to labor without drugs or medical intervention. Henderson and Solomon also note popular culture’s current obsession with birth and pregnancy, from reality TV shows like A Baby Story to gossip magazines with arrows pointing to celebrity “baby bumps” to public hand-wringing over the length of Marissa Mayer’s maternity leave. Once a private conversation, pregnancy and birth are part of a public debate about women’s changing roles in the family and in the workplace: ...behind the world’s fascination with airbrushed bellies and dramatized labors, we sensed a more urgent narrative forming, a conversation about the choices available to mothers in the twenty-first century. We watched as “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” became the most circulated article in the history of The Atlantic, as TIME magazine made “Are You Mom Enough?” a catchphrase, and as Mitt Romney unleashed binders of outraged women into the Twitterverse. The essays in Labor Day reflect this anxious atmosphere, sometimes for comic effect and other times with earnest soul-searching. In her essay, “What To Expect When You’re Not Expecting,” novelist Marie Myung-Ok Lee sums up the politics of modern birth this way: “I was realizing that choosing one thing over another would be, basically, a referendum on what I believed, my earliest documented statement on parenting. Earth mother or high-tech urban mommy? Breast or bottle? Rooming in or nursery? Drugs or just say no?” Lee’s words may sound overwrought, but I remember feeling the same pressure when my doctor asked me if I had any thoughts about my “birth plan,” a concept unique to this particular moment in women’s health. If Labor Day had existed when I was pregnant, I am honestly not sure if it would have helped me to answer my doctor's question or left me feeling even more confused, but I’m certain I would have read every single one of these essays anyway. Most birth stories I know were delivered second-hand; they’re a little fuzzy around the edges, a little watered-down, and often simplified so as not to frighten. But there’s nothing watered-down about the stories in this volume: they are blunt, wistful, confessional, wise, loving, sorrowful, witty, and sometimes eerie. And then there’s the fact that novelists, poets, and memoirists are at the helm of these essays. These are women with a lot of storytelling tools at their disposal. Putting aside my personal connection to the material (if that is even possible), it was interesting to see how each contributor attacked what is basically an open-ended creative writing prompt: Tell the story of your birth. Tell the truth. Contributors to Labor Day include The Millions’s own Edan Lepucki, as well as many writers discussed and interviewed in these pages: Dani Shapiro, Joanna Smith Rakoff, Lauren Groff, Lan Samantha Chang, Cheryl Strayed, and Heidi Julavits — to name just a few. These women offer a wide variety of birth experiences. There are home birth and hospital births and even a birth in a car. There are women who labor for hours and those whose labors come quickly, or one case “precipitously.” There are emergency surgeries and scheduled caesareans. There are transcendent births and disappointing ones. Despite the diversity of experience, I sometimes felt like I was in an echo chamber. Many of the writers in this volume reside in Brooklyn or progressive Brooklyn-ish communities and as a result, have similar attitudes toward labor and delivery. These are women who believe in research, planning, and more often than not, a labor without medical intervention or painkillers. The ideal of natural birth hovers over these essays, a goal to strive and train for. Those who are able to go through with it are often (but not always) exultant. During her 43-hour labor, Cheryl Strayed was transported: “I was blown away and forever altered. Aware of physical capacities and spiritual realms I hadn’t known existed before.” For Rachel Jamison Webster, natural birth was empowering and even healing: “a knowledge of my own strength — and my mother’s and her mother’s — was born.” Eleanor Henderson, Gina Zucker, and Heidi Julavits all report a heady feeling of accomplishment after their unmedicated births. But Julavits also describes an existential dread with the birth of her second child, despite a successful natural delivery: “The first birth proved a challenging athletic event, but I didn’t have to press my face against the cold glass of self.” For those who do not manage to give birth naturally, there is often regret after delivery. For Edan Lepucki, the disappointment runs deep because natural birth is not just a cultural ideal, but something that is valued in her family: “If the female body is built to give birth, and if every other woman in my family can give birth naturally, then why did I have to meet my baby with an oxygen mask over my face, half my body so numb it became not my own?” Dani Shapiro wryly invokes the natural birth ideal when her long labor becomes decidedly medicalized: “Pitocin. Epidural. Two things I’d been told to avoid at all costs by my granola-crunchy mommy friends who have urged birth plans and doulas and acupuncturists and evening primrose oil...” For many contributors, the labor is too long or the pain is too great or the situation is too dicey and so natural birth is ultimately abandoned, a negotiation Lauren Groff summarizes with her admission: “I had wanted a natural childbirth, but when the anesthesiologist came into the room with the epidural, I kissed his hands.” Another ideal that shows up in many essays is that of the “birth plan.” This is a group of accomplished women, after all. They are accustomed to planning. Several of them finish big projects shortly before birth; others educate themselves on every aspect of the birthing process; others clean houses and bake — or at least plan to clean and bake. But then things that could not be anticipated begin to occur and the writers must adjust. A persistent theme throughout these essays is the difficulty of letting go of expectations. Gina Zucker observes that all her planning for birth was a bit like her planning for her wedding: “The details I’d obsessed about for months became beside the point afterward.” Marie Myung-Ok Lee calls labor a metaphor for life: “You can have your beliefs, your expectations, your plans, but when it comes, it just comes and does what it wants.” Ann Hood takes a rueful, novelistic view: “How we plan! And how hopeful and ignorant we are! With such certainty we move through life, making decisions — however impulsively — and moving steadily forward.” Labor Day will no doubt be marketed to expectant mothers and touted as the perfect baby shower gift, but I think that it might be just as helpful, if not more helpful, to read these stories after birth. Before giving birth, I looked to birth stories as a way to prepare for the unknown, an idea that now strikes me as wishful thinking. But after giving birth, the stories I heard from other women helped me to make sense of what had just happened — and who I was after what just happened. It’s a process Claire Dederer describes in her essay, “Not Telling”: The birth story, I believe, is not so much about the baby as about the mother and her wonder and horror at the whole crazing fucking incomprehensible transformative gestalt alteration she’s undergoing. The birth story is an expression of the dying throes of an egoism that is in the process of being brutally impaired. The interesting thing about Dederer’s essay is that she doesn’t actually tell the story of the births of her children. She doesn’t tell them, because she’s told them before, in her memoir, Poser, and she regrets having told them, because the stories are no longer hers, they are now for her readers. “Maybe they helped someone else become a mother,” Dederer muses. I was fascinated to read these words, because Dederer’s birth stories are among the ones I stumbled upon, when I was looking for birth stories. Her stories stuck with me, and they helped me, and I’m glad that she is no longer so lonely in telling them. Image credit: Hamed Saber/Flickr

Meanwhile, in a Dark Forest: On Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale

1. Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale — his third novel, but the first available in English — begins as a chronicle of an unusual upbringing. A small boy is being raised by his father in Denmark, and for reasons that are initially unclear, the father keeps them moving from town to town. Early on, the boy is transported through the streets of Copenhagen in the front basket of his father’s bicycle: My dad stands up in the pedals; I can see his head above me. “What, then, extraordinary stranger, do you love?” he says and looks down at me. I know what to reply. “I love the clouds — the clouds that pass — yonder — the marvelous clouds.” They’re speaking lines from "The Stranger," a poem by Charles Baudelaire that takes the form of a brief conversation. The poem begins: “Tell me, enigmatic man, whom do you love best? Your father, your mother, your sister, or your brother?” and progresses through a series of questions and negations. The stranger replies: he has no parents, no siblings, no friends. Does he love his country, then? No, he is “ignorant of the latitude in which it is situated.” He hates gold and God in equal measure. But he does love beauty, “goddess and immortal,” and the clouds. Beauty and freedom. He’s essentially untethered from human society. The problem, of course, is that while the boy knows the stranger’s responses by heart, the responses express sentiments that belong to his father, not to him. The boy's being carried along in his father's strange life. His father is committed to living outside of mainstream society. He works odd jobs and keeps his son out of school. There are early intimations that the father’s grip on reality is shaky, but he’s genuinely kind and an attentive parent. The boy — we never learn his real name, but let’s call him Peter, which is a name he uses occasionally — knows that they’ll always keep moving, but he knows also that his father will never leave him behind. There are moments of transcendent beauty and joy. Bengttson’s prose is clear and unadorned, and he strikes a fine balance between momentum and careful character development. In the evenings, Peter’s father tells him a story. It’s a fairy tale about love and exile, but the line between the fairy tale and their real lives is unsettlingly blurred. In their real lives, his father counsels the boy to stay alert and watch for signs of the White Men. Sometimes they move when his father thinks the White Men are close. The White Men aren’t evil, his father tells him, but they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. In the nightly fairy tale, the White Men are helpers of the White Queen. Every night my dad tells me a little more of the same fairy tale. The story of the King and the Prince who no longer have a home. The King and Prince have gone out into the world to find the White Queen and kill her. With an arrow or a knife, a single stab through her heart will lift the curse. They’re the only ones who can do it because the King and the Prince are the last people who can see the world as it truly is. Only they haven’t been blinded by the Queen’s witchcraft. This uneasy life continues, until catastrophe strikes: a young and charismatic politician draws the father’s attention. She’s a reform-minded populist, a gifted speaker who appears often in the press. Peter’s father goes from interest to obsession to setting out for the capitol building with a knife. He has found the White Queen. 2. Who will you become? It's an intriguing question, both in coming-of-age novels and in life. To me, one of the darkest and most interesting aspects of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch was the slow drift whereby the half-orphaned Theo, unloved and longing for his lost mother, starts to resemble his shady and unreliable father instead. Laura van den Berg sums up the problem beautifully in "Lessons, a short story included in her recent collection The Isle of Youth. The story concerns four teenaged cousins, who have left their survivalist pentecostal parents in the isolated Midwestern settlement of Elijah and set out into a new life of armed robbery: At first Dana thought leaving Elijah meant getting away from how things were on the farm, but now she thinks the past is like the hand of God, or what she imagines the hand of God would be like if God were real: it can turn you in directions you don’t want to be turned in. A Fairy Tale is a fascinating and often brutal meditation on alienation and trauma. “What separates man from any other species,” Peter’s father told him one evening, before it all came undone, “is his ability to adapt.” But in A Fairy Tale, adaptation is precisely the problem. We see Peter in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and it’s clear by the second section that he hasn't been entirely successful in finding a way to live in the mainstream world. In adolescence and in adulthood, Bengtsson presents him with a cool remove that makes him appear somewhat shell-shocked. Herein lies the one flaw, in my opinion, in an otherwise virtually flawless novel. The spare coolness of Bengtsson’s prose style is effective, particularly in the almost eerie detachment with which he describes the book’s few moments of overt violence, but this translates at times to a frustrating distance from his narrator. We’re allowed to draw close to Peter in childhood, to glimpse his thoughts and fears, but the adult Peter is something of a cipher, the first-person narration notwithstanding. By the time we see Peter in adulthood, he’s managed to build a life for himself. But he’s living as a stranger in the world, in a manner eerily reminiscent of his father. He lives under an assumed name and has few ties to society. In Bengtsson's remarkable novel, past is never entirely behind us.

Undomesticated: On Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia

1. Consider that phrase, “domestic fiction.” So close to “domesticated,” it carries the connotation of a house-broken pet: eager to please, discreet, companionable, sulky but essentially submissive. It's a usefully misleading cover for a mode that is more often fraught and claustrophobic. When Anthony Lane describes Henry James's Portrait of a Lady as a “disturbance of the peace” and a “horror story,” he could be talking about domestic fiction generally. Reissued this month as a NYRB Classic, Joan Chase's During the Reign of the Queen of Persia won the PEN/Hemingway Prize for First Fiction in 1983, two years after Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping and one year after Bobbie Ann Mason's Shiloh and Other Stories. Upon publication, those three novels were individually considered as feminist reworkings of domestic fiction -- as political statements -- though each author had ambitions that extended into questions of the self against the demands of community. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas once answered the question “What does it mean to be Jewish?” by saying: To be Jewish is not a particularity; it is a modality. Everyone is a little bit Jewish, and if there are men on Mars, one will find Jews among them. Moreover, Jews are people who doubt themselves, who in a certain sense, belong to a religion of unbelievers. God says to Joshua, “I will not abandon you nor will I let you escape.” In, Housekeeping and Chase's first novel, as well as Paula Fox's The Widow's Children and Hilary Mantel's Every Day is Mother's Day, the Family is a kind of Lévinasian paradox: its members will not abandoned nor will they be allowed to escape. These fragile communities are knitted together by doubt, intimidation, suspicion, timidity, and egotism. To better understand why they stay in co-dependent relationships, Fox, Mantel, and Chase anatomize their protagonists' intellectual contradictions and follies stoically, without a hint of sentimentality. If there is an arch-theme to the genre, it would be the way each of us can become ensnared by our own solipsism. In The Widow's Children, one character stays in an impoverished, acrimonious marriage because she has convinced herself of her own superiority over her condition, “that they were only 'broke,' that rescue was on the way -- always on the way.” 2. The “Queen of Persia” is a grandmother in a small Ohio farming town. She has four daughters. Her four granddaughters are all born within two years of each other to mismatched parents. The male characters -- the malevolent grandfather, one hapless trumpet-playing uncle, and another enigmatic uncle who is a failed writer -- are palpably uneasy around their daughters and wives. The women assume the responsibility of preparing the young girls for the austere life they will inherit. Chase's novel is narrated by the four young granddaughters, “we.” This unorthodox conceit works subtly, but it also leads to a telling choice. There is no reference to “Mom” or “Dad,” only to Aunt Libby and Uncle Dan, insisting on a tone of estrangement between the children and their parents. When their individual anonymity is disrupted, one of the girls is lifted out of the group and treated like an outsider. Occasionally, the narrators skip over subjects that perhaps are not comprehensible for pre-teen girls. (They have a sexual encounter with a cousin that is obliquely depicted.) The tone is cautiously wistful, as if this past still has a grip on its survivors. A signal choice in this novel is the manipulation of time. During the Reign of the Queen of Persia and Toni Morrison's Sula (1977) cover the same territory, well, literally. Sula opens with a landscape of rural Ohio: In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom. One road, shaded by beeches, oaks, maples, and chestnuts, connected it to the valley. This is the beginning of Chase's novel: In northern Ohio there is a county of some hundred thousand arable acres which breaks with the lake region flatland and begins to roll and climb, and to change into rural settings: roadside clusters of houses, small settlements that repose on the edge of nowhere […] These traces of human habitation recede, balanced by the luxuriant curving hills, cliffs like lounging flanks, water shoots that rapidly lose themselves in gladed ravines. As opposed to Morrison's description, the present doesn't dominate the memory of 1950s Ohio; the past has been carefully circumscribed. Morrison's historical landscape is besieged by real-estate developers and social forces of change. Chase's landscape doesn't register the present. It appears elemental, hardly concerned with human beings at all. The first chapter of During the Reign is set in motion when the oldest granddaughter, Celia, experiences puberty, “a miracle and a calamity.” Sexuality shuffles the motives of everyone around the young girls, who only dimly seem to understand why. Her mother, Aunt Libby, becomes fiercely devoted to making sure she doesn't ruin her chances for marriage. A half dozen men woo her. Her fiancé later betrays her. In what feels like 10 pages, Celia's adolescent beauty and verve quietly shrink: “[Her mother] still fretted over Celia, a set habit, focusing now on her health, for rather quickly the bloom of Celia's face and figure was gone. She looked wilted by misfortune.” Celia marries the quietly pining boy she wasn't interested in and moves to Texas. When the father of two of the girls visits the farm, a large “country-style” breakfast sparks memories of his own childhood. After breakfast, the girls wait for him in the barn. Their private ritual the narrators describe is a re-enactment of his childhood. He performs the role of a Mr. Higgenbottom, a teacher “as mean as Silas Marner, as severe as God, and as relentless as the devil.” He gives each girl a word to spell. Eventually, the girls misspell “symbol” and “conscience” and he whips them with a stick. They rationalize that he hits them less hard than he hits his own hand. The father, Neil, eventually let them go: We are released then, forget again, and begin to descend the levels of the barn, down through the shafts of sunlight, and then we run off down the pasture lane into the woods, walking by the stony shallow stream until it is deeper and it runs clean. We slide into the water; our dresses fill and float about us as though we have been altered into water lilies. Neil, though, follows them to the stream, where they tackle him and pile onto him. Restless and mysterious, he seems to vanish into the air, and the girls call his name. The narrators then say, “Then we forget again, dreaming.” This odd father-daughter set piece is echoed in a later Chase novel, The Evening Wolves (1990). The father in that novel imitates the big bad wolf. Drawn to the dangerous wolf, the daughters are unable to resist approaching and being mauled by the wolf. Both scenes, with the apologetic victim and the physically violent adult, are unsettling. The father-uncle and the girls are caught in a pantomime of private history that they can't seem to extricate themselves from. Like the abusive grandfather lurking in the background, Neil allows the grief of his own past to impinge on his own daughters' youth. Their childhood isn't innocent and it isn't painless, Chase suggests, but he shouldn't add to their suffering. 3. The novel then spools backward, to the marriage of the grandmother and grandfather, a man hardened by his Depression-era struggles. He is an abusive drunk who slowly recedes to a bench in the barn, among the cows that he is dedicated to. He sells off the cows silently and dies, un-mourned. For the first three-fourths of the novel, the girls have only touched on the trauma that has shaped their young lives, as if their consciousness has ricocheted off it. The reader learns that Grace, mother to two of the girls, has already died from cancer by the time Celia is married in the first chapter. The novel tests an old cliché -- that the dying can teach us how better to live -- before the narrators discard it. They also reject the faith-based consolations of their Aunt, a Christian Scientist. None of us sang, our sorrow accomplished. We heard the footsteps of the men who carried the coffin and the closing of the car doors. We went outside with the others, blinking our eyes as if we'd walked into first light. Without a comprehensible past or imaginable expectations, we had entered into another lifetime. We held hands. That fragile and incomprehensible past looms in this story, a centripetal force in the narrative of their lives. The painful recollection of her slow death resonates throughout the house. The gurgling sound that Grace makes during one of her last nights, as she tries to breathe, is the same sound the sink drain makes. Amy Hungerford has argued that Robinson's Housekeeping is preoccupied with how grief paradoxically enlarges the memory of the dead and starves the self's presence. Alternately, the group chorus of During the Reign of the Queen of Persia seem untethered by time, reordering events and maintaining the inscrutability of their own motives. Unbound from a linear construction of time, this group of agnostics are connected by the tenuous thread of Lévinasian doubt and by grief. One reason that Chase has slipped into obscurity, while her rough contemporaries Robinson, Mason, and Mantel have ascended, is the relative infrequency with which she publishes. Seven years elapsed between During the Reign of the Queen of Persia and The Evening Wolves. It has been 23 years since her short-story collection Bonneville Blue. “The success of Persia was part of what made it difficult for me to begin a second novel,” she told Contemporary Authors Online. “But I think just being published was equally constraining. For the first time I was aware of an audience as an integral part of the process which makes a book a book. After that it was harder for me to focus on my material and fictional intentions without hearing other voices and responses.” I also suspect that her lack of productivity owes something to her lapidary style and unhurried structure. Near the end of the novel, the Queen makes arrangements concerning the house, which she keeps secret from the entire family: “We were as separated from her,” the narrators say, “as always, living on there, awaiting her decisions, with everything that happened heightened with the poignancy and solemnity of an old tale.” That poignancy and solemnity is the effect of deliberate, patient craftsmanship. Moreover, the craftsmanship here is consummate.

When It Becomes Clear What It Is That They Will Be Doing, I Will Be Very Interested in Their Doings: On The Best of McSweeney’s

In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers describes the origins of his first publishing endeavor. The first ad (well, it was a sticker, but whatever) read thusly: SCREW THOSE IDIOTS. MIGHT MAGAZINE. In typically postmodern (and neurotic) response to this, Eggers realizes that something's amiss about the sticker: "It's unclear who is being screwed. Who are the idiots that should be getting screwed?" He imagines a few ways in which this ambiguity could have been avoided: MIGHT MAGAZINE SAYS: SCREW THOSE IDIOTS. Or "SCREW THOSE IDIOTS," SAYS MIGHT MAGAZINE  Or SCREW THOSE IDIOTS ("THOSE IDIOTS" NOT REFERRING TO THOSE BEHIND MIGHT MAGAZINE, THE MAKERS OF THIS STICKER, WHO ARE GOOD PEOPLE AND SHOULD NOT BE SCREWED.) The whole point of the marketing strategy was to intrigue people, to make them think, "What is Might?...I do not know, but when it becomes clear what it is that they will be doing, I will be very interested in their doings." One could have easily said the same of Mr. Eggers at that point in his career. Who is this young, ballsy writer? Though older than the rest, Eggers’s debut came along with a group of writers we could call the Undergraduates –– young, precocious authors with daring, audacious styles. Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Mark Z. Danielewski, and Z.Z. Packer all made their debuts around the same handful of years. (The Graduates, of course, being David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Jeffrey Eugenidies, et al.) Eggers, here, would be that older guy in the class, somehow funnier and smarter than everyone else, even if he never ends up graduating. For Eggers definitely did not graduate with his class. No, he dropped out and started his own ventures. Who would have been able to predict the trajectory of Eggers's career? From that original (but now in some ways dated) first book, Eggers has since stepped in nearly every field relating to writing: he published two story collections (one of which is flash fiction), novels, and two nonfiction works; he co-wrote two screenplays; he has written comic strips and essays and song lyrics; he founded The Believer, Wholphin, and 826 National, a non-profit that helps kids with writing; and he edits the annual Best American Non-Required Reading series, with the help of students. He's been nominated for numerous awards (including the Pulitzer and the National Books Critics Circle Award) and won others (including the Salon Book Award and the American Book Award). But by the far the most influential contribution Eggers has made on the literary landscape is McSweeney's, the so-called "Quarterly Concern" that has, for the last 15 years, produced some of the most original fiction and nonfiction out there, all packaged in some of the most beautiful and innovative book designs ever printed. Who is this young man? We didn't know, but when it became clear what it was that he was doing, we all became very interested in his doings. McSweeney's could be called aggressively progressive. Not only are the stories often unconventional, experimental, and unique, so are the issues themselves. Some are conceptual designs, as in Issue 21, the cover of which has a little flap and if you pull it out it makes the cover connect to the back, creating "an unending panorama, a revelatory 360-degree immersion into a packed and pointy world." Or Issue 26, which came in three small, postcard sized books and were "based on the World War II-era Armed Services Editions released by the Council on Books in Wartime, under the auspices of the U.S. War Department's Morale Branch." Or Issue 33, which was presented as a full-blown newspaper called The San Francisco Panorama. Others featured extremely original (and sometimes downright odd) theme: Issue 31's aim to unearth "neglected or deceased literary forms," such as the pantoum, the whore dialogue, the Socratic dialogue and Graustrarkian Romance (whatever the hell that is), or Issue 32's challenge for authors to "travel to somewhere in the world...and send back a story set in that spot fifteen years from now, in the year 2024." Even the issues without a conceptual design or a creative theme are elegantly and beautifully rendered. Behind this progressive innovation lies an old-fashioned love of books as objects. McSweeney's, I think, deserves much credit (and should, in various ways, be followed) for figuring out a way to make printed works not only relevant but also wholly separate from the latest digital iterations. You can't ever make an e-book as gorgeous to look at or as wonderful to hold in your hands. And to those people who think covers and jackets and designs don't matter, well I say this: Screw those idiots. Same goes for those who dismiss the entire enterprise of McSweeney's as a hipster outlet for quirky nonsense and youthful haranguing. We have now The Best of McSweeney's, a 600+-page anthology that samples from everything they've put out in the last decade and a half. I would defy anyone to read this thing cover-to-cover and still maintain that McSweeney's has contributed nothing to the world of creative art. As the back of the books promises, The Best of McSweeney's gives us "a fascinating glimpse into recent literary history." This is true for more than just the merit of the pieces included (though they are nearly all great), but for the unexpected insights their inclusion brings out. This book is simply brimming with priceless inside looks into the workings of contemporary writers. Many of the stories are introduced by their authors, giving us a little bit of backstory into the creation of the thing. Wells Tower's presents us with two versions of the same story, "Retreat," which appeared in Issues 23 and 30, respectively. Each contain the same characters, the same essential setup, and even much of the same lines. Only the perspectives are different, but boy does that change the whole of it. In explaining why he struggled so much with this story, Tower cites "all the long-form nonfiction" he'd been writing. Here, he explains one difference between fiction and non-: Nonfiction –– even 'literary' nonfiction –– call for tools and processes that are pretty much useless when it comes to making short stories. In metalworking, they have this term, 'cold connections,' which is when you take two pieces of metal and rivet. A few smart bashes, and you've got a bracelet with lots of nice bangles on it, and you've spared yourself the hot, tedious business of soldering and sweating joints. In a pinch, nonfiction can squeak by on cold connections. Tower's two iterations of "Retreat" (as well as his comments on them) offer a fascinating example of how much one can do with a single premise. We are later, of course, to see Tower's "Retreat" reappear in his collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, and we now know which version he prefers (the second one, FYI). Many of the stories here ended up in well-acclaimed collections, and one of the great aspects of this anthology is getting to see them in earlier drafts. David Foster Wallace's story "Mr. Squishy" appears here, and one very subtle change that occurred between its appearance in McSweeney's (under the pseudonym Elizabeth Klemm, a moniker everyone saw straight through)and its inclusion in Wallace's Oblivion is worth noting. When "Mr. Squishy" graced the pages of Issue 5, the opening line read: "The Focus Group was reconvened in another of Reesemeyer Shannon Belt's 19th-floor conference rooms." In Oblivion, it reads: "The Focus Group was then reconvened in another of Reesemeyer Shannon Belt Advertising's nineteenth-floor conference rooms" (italics mine). Besides spelling out 19th (Wallace often used shorthand, acronyms and abbreviations in order to fit as many words in as little space as possible) and clarifying just what "Reesemeyer Shannon Belt" did as a company, the addition of the word then is hugely significant. It completely changes the opening line, albeit in a small way. In the first version, the line functions as a beginning; in the final version, we join a narrative already in progress. We missed what came before then, as if the story had been going on long before we came to it. Other highlights: a rare short story from Zadie Smith, taken from the issue that pitted McSweeney's against They Might Be Giants. A section of comics from Issue 13 featuring funny and poignant pieces by Chris Ware, Daniel C. Clowes, Joe Sacco, and Adrian Tomine. Andrew Sean Greer's hilarious account of his and his husband's experience at a NASCAR event in Michigan (from the San Francisco Panorama issue). We get Jonathan Ames's "Bored to Death," inspiration for the HBO series of the same name, George Saunders’s "Four Institutional Monologues," one of which only recently (despite the story being published in 2000) appeared in his latest collection, Tenth of December, and a trio of stories from International writers, deriving from issues dedicated to Norwegian, South Sudanese, and Indigenous Australian fiction. But this being McSweeney's, there's a lot more than stories. Included here are also the best letters they've ever received, from the likes of Sarah Vowell, Peter Orner, and John Hodgman.  There are four pantoums from the "neglected and deceased" forms issue, as well as a few 20-minute stories, which are exactly what they sound like: stories written in 20 minutes flat (although Aleksandar Hemon admits that his took 30). In other words, this is a fun and eclectic anthology, perfectly in keeping with the McSweeney's philosophy, which Eggers explains in his Introduction thusly: "That's what we look for –– writers who make us feel like they're seeing their world, whatever that is, with fresh eyes, and who allow us to experience it through their words." McSweeney's, like Eggers himself, regularly provides the world with interesting and unique perspectives –– from different cultures, different personalities, and different aesthetic approaches. It does what all literary journals should aim to do. That is, be bigger than the sum of its parts, yet still allow each part to stand on its own. It's a hard line to walk, but McSweeney's, with its irreverent attitude and pure love of good writing, manage to do every issue, every year. Despite some notable exclusions (no Joyce Carol Oates? no Yannick Murphy?), The Best of McSweeney's is a triumph, not only as a stand-alone book, but also (and especially) as a testament to the power of the short story, the essay, the experiment. A tribute, too, to the power of one person's vision, proof that writers can influence the world outside the borders of their prose. Eggers, lucky for us, has a great deal of passion for the work of other people, for supporting new writers and celebrating neglected ones. His and his colleagues’ (Jordan Bass and Eli Horowitz, the two editors of McSweeney's) is an essentially artistic project but underneath that is a layer of fierce morality, one that believes in the rights of people and the importance of their stories.
Essays, Reviews

450 Years of Juliets: On Women Making Shakespeare

Today we celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. Why are we celebrating it? A simple answer is that Shakespeare’s plays still speak to us. But for me, as for so many women since Shakespeare wrote his first play in around 1590, my response to his plays is complicated by my gender. Virginia Woolf wrote in the first draft of To the Lighthouse that “man has Shakespeare & women have not.” This is true. At the same time, this is not true. Women Making Shakespeare, a new anthology from The Arden Shakespeare series edited by Gordon McMullan, Lena Cowen Orlin, and Virginia Mason Vaughan, illustrates both sides of this paradox. The anthology was designed as a tribute to Ann Thompson, the general editor of the Arden series, who edited the massive Arden volume of all three texts of Hamlet with Neil Taylor, and who throughout her career has broken new ground in feminist criticism of Shakespeare, especially with her 1997 anthology (with Sasha Roberts) Women Reading Shakespeare 1660–1900. Thompson has also, in her role as general editor of the Arden series, dramatically increased the number of women editors of Shakespeare’s plays. Her work and her influence are worth celebrating because even today's statistics on the numbers of women editors and commentators of Shakespeare are as damning as the VIDA statistics. The anthology contains short essays on anything related to women and Shakespeare — as characters, as actresses, as critics and scholars, as educators, as suffragists and feminists, and as readers — over the past 450 years. I would like to pose some questions that plumb the variety the anthology offers: what does reading Shakespeare mean for women? Was Shakespeare proto-feminist or patriarchal? Has anything changed in 450 years? We might investigate these questions through the history of Juliet. Shakespeare's Juliet is bold, Romeo's equal. She initiates their relationship, telling Romeo "take all myself" before she even knows for certain of his interest or commitment, bubbling over with her desire past the bounds of what might be considered correct behavior, and yet her frankness, as she calls it, is what makes her magnetic. And she talks and talks — of all Shakespeare's heroines, only Cleopatra and Rosalind have more lines. Juliet might be another Rosalind, were this not a tragedy; I can imagine her saying, with Rosalind, "Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak." Juliet defies her father's plan to arrange her marriage, equivocating to Paris to avoid suspicion, and bravely agrees to the Friar's plan to fake her death and rescue her from her family's tomb. Shakespeare lets Juliet, rather than Romeo, describe their wedding night: "O, I have bought the mansion of a love / But not possessed it." And in the last couplet of the last scene, the play becomes the story of "Juliet and her Romeo." While the Friar chides Romeo for his "womanish" tears, Juliet stands out as the more mature partner. This is Juliet's play. Juliet's equality with Romeo may have been underscored at its original performances by the fact that young men played both roles. But the thing about Shakespeare's women, the reason why we still love Rosalind and Juliet today, is that they don't read on the page or on the stage like young men in drag, trying to show what a second gender is. These are true-hearted women. Juliet is frank, and petulant, and brave, and chatty, and loving. She is authentic. Restoration theater brought women actresses onto the stage for the first time -- a woman played Desdemona for the first time in 1660 — but it also brought changes in how women were presented on stage. The prologue to the 1660 Othello declared: "I come . . . To tell you news, I saw the Lady drest; / The woman playes to day, mistake me not, / No Man in Gown, or Page in Petty-Coat; / A Woman to my knowledge." Thus began the tradition in which actresses' bodies were voyeuristically put on display and actresses became equated with prostitutes. At the same time, Juliet's frankness, especially about sex, became seen as unseemly. A 1679 version of Romeo and Juliet, Thomas Otway's Caius Marius, cut the wedding night speech and instead called marriage "lawful Rape." Lavinia, the Juliet-figure, wakes just before her lover's death, but in a state of confusion that elides Juliet's strength and intelligence. In 1744, Theophilus Cibber's abridged Romeo and Juliet kept Otway's alterations and, further, condemned Juliet's exchange with Romeo in the balcony scene; her mother, suspicious of Juliet's aversion to marriage with Paris, supposes it must be because Juliet has done something to compromise her chastity: "What sensual, lewd Companion of the Night / Have you been holding Conversation with, / From open Window, at a Midnight hour?" she demands. To be disobedient is to be unchaste. Both Cibber and David Garrick, in his 1750 version, rewrote the closing couplet, deleting the line that foregrounds Juliet "and her Romeo," and Garrick further deleted any hint that Juliet knows anything about sex. By 1797, with Ann Radcliffe's novel The Italian, a retelling of the play, Ellena is propriety itself when she learns that her lover has overheard her beneath her balcony. She turns pale, shuts her window, and doesn't speak to him. In 1845, Charlotte Cushman played Romeo to her sister Susan's "beautifully confiding and truly feminine" Juliet — in other words, perfectly demure, perfectly silent, a model of Victorian womanhood. Shakespeare was increasingly appropriated around this time to provide models for womanhood. Often these were paired with arguments for better access to education for girls, Kate Chedgzoy argues in her essay in this anthology, as with Mary Lamb, who composed her Tales from Shakespeare (1807) with her brother Charles partly as a way of “redressing the limitations of the education on offer to girls." Girls could not read Shakespeare directly (what if they read Juliet’s wedding night speech?), but they could read the tales as mediated through an educator. Lamb herself later became a tutor to Mary Cowden Clarke, teaching her Latin and to read verse. Cowden Clarke’s The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines (1850) had a similar aim, but it is worth noting that each girl’s story is framed as a march from girlhood to education to marriage. The purpose of education is not, at least primarily or overtly, to give women a voice and power for self-definition; the track of womanhood offered through these Shakespeare tales is girl to teacher of children (or apprentice mother) to mother. In Juliet’s case, as treated by Cowden Clarke, her education is at fault for her eventual tragic end. Ignored by her parents through her girlhood, her faulty education accounts for her outspokenness and self-will, and it is these qualities, not her star-crossed fate, that lead to her death. This was the same period as Henrietta and Thomas Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare (1807), in which many of Juliet’s lines are scrubbed and she becomes more submissive; and of Helen Faucit, an actress who, at the same time that William Charles Macready was restoring the performance of Shakespeare's original texts, deleted even more of Juliet's lines than usual. Her performances were called "types of noble womanly nature" and a reviewer commented: "her delicacy of taste and elevation of thought have succeeded in banishing from [Shakespeare's] characters...all that, from the change of manners, sometimes in the hands of others, has become painful. Such is the atmosphere of purity with which she is surrounded, that nothing at variance with it can enter..." And yet actresses at this time were still equated with prostitutes. The idealization of Shakespeare's heroines as "types of noble womanly nature" had the effect, as Lois Potter notes in this anthology, of simplifying, Bowdlerizing, the plays. But it also simplified and silenced the women. A noble, virtuous Juliet, as in Faucit's portrayal, was, compared to Shakespeare's original, a silent woman. Let me return to one of my original questions: was Shakespeare a proto-feminist or was he patriarchal? My history of Juliet thus far suggests that he was, somehow, a sixteenth century feminist. Now let's look at The Taming of the Shrew. It is almost unbelievable that Katherina does not have more lines than Juliet or Rosalind. She is outspoken. She is argumentative. She is everything we love about Juliet and Rosalind cranked up a few notches. But on her character and her play, female editors have been almost universally silent. There have been two female editors of the play so far: Ann Thompson and, commissioned by Thompson for the Arden series, Barbara Hodgson. What do we do with Shrew? A woman is physically abused by her husband until she shows symptoms of Stockholm syndrome, and only then, the play seems to suggest, will they live happily ever after. Bianca, the woman who is not abused during her wooing and wedding, shows signs of becoming a shrew and a scold afterward. Which method is being held up as ideal? Farah Karim-Cooper's essay in Women Making Shakespeare notes that some modern productions have found the only way to make the play palatable to modern audiences is to set it in the past. The guilt we feel over Katherina's treatment by Petrucchio is only palatable at a distance of 450 years. But she also provides some hope in context: ideal sixteenth century wives were both obedient and silent. Obedient Katherina becomes, but never silent; the play ends with a lengthy speech from Katherina. She has a voice! It is possible that Shakespeare is unravelling the courtship rituals that called for a false hierarchy between men and women that would be immediately undermined or reversed within marriage. Bianca has the appearance of submission — but which would you rather have as a marriage partner? Nevertheless, there remains the troubling feeling that this play, and therefore Shakespeare, approve of Petrucchio's behavior, and the abuse and silencing of a woman in the name of ruling a wife. When actresses were first allowed to perform publicly in England, they generally did not address the audience directly in a prologue or epilogue. As Sonia Massai notes in this anthology, when they did, their speeches stressed the "exceptional quality" of the occasion. Then, as this essay traces, for much of the history of women's performance of Shakespeare, actresses were associated with prostitutes, even up to the Victorian era. Ailsa Grant Ferguson's essay takes this history up to World War I, talking about Gertrude Elliott's work to legitimize female performance and management through the creation of "the Shakespeare Hut" to entertain soldiers passing through London. This all-female Shakespeare was acceptable because it was "war work," because it was patriotic, and because, the actresses for the most part being middle aged, their performances were positioned as maternal care, and thus a-sexual, for the very young men about to go to the front. One of the last essays in the anthology, by Kevin A. Quarmby, talks about the contemporary performance trend of "sexing up" Goneril in King Lear, and suggests that both in contemporary criticism and in performance, transgression by a woman, even political transgression as in Goneril's case, is still seen as equivalent to sexual transgression. Because Goneril betrays a man (Lear) politically, therefore she is also a whore. This makes her little better than a cipher — sexualizing her deprives her of her right to a legitimate political voice, and therefore silences her. What has changed in 450 years of performing, reading, writing Shakespeare? The history of women interacting with Shakespeare's plays is also the history of women's rights, suffrage, and of the feminist movement. It is a history of women being silenced and of finding ways to speak out anyway. Shakespeare has been, and is, an uneasy ally in this history. He complicates but also enriches our idea of what a woman is. Too often we are still Katherinas, forced to compromise our dignity in order to retain our voice, or else our insistence on speaking is blamed for our tragedies, like Juliet. But the reason why we still read Shakespeare's women, is that they are women. Goneril, Juliet, and Katherina are finally not ciphers. Whatever else they may be, they are true women, and they have true voices. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Short Stories, Italian Style: On Francesca Marciano’s The Other Language

The women in Francesca Marciano’s globe-trotting new book of short stories are in search of transformation. They buy new clothes, remodel houses, look up ex-boyfriends, and travel to foreign countries as they attempt to change their lives. They don’t always know why they hunger for change. In the collection’s moving title story, “The Other Language,” a young Italian girl, Emma, feels compelled to learn English after her mother’s death. She hears “the clipped authoritative language” while on vacation with her newly-widowed father and bereft siblings and begins to spend all her time with two English boys in her effort to learn what she thinks of as “the other language.” When she finally speaks English it comes “like a flow, an instantaneous metamorphosis.” She experiences English as a means of escape: “She didn’t know what she was getting away from, but the other language was the boat she fled on.” Years later, as a naturalized American, Emma wonders how much the trajectory of her life is owed to a childish impulse. “The Other Language” may well be the most autobiographical story in this collection, because for Marciano, writing in English is a kind of freedom. She’s Italian, a screenwriter who writes for film and television in her native tongue, but for novels and short stories, she uses English. In a recent interview for Publisher’s Weekly, she said the practice began when she had trouble writing her first novel, Rules of the Wild. A friend suggested that she try writing it in English, a language Marciano knew well, and which made sense for Rules of the Wild, a story about English-speaking journalists living in Kenya. Three novels later, Marciano is still writing in English, and she’s still writing about foreigners living abroad. The Other Language is Marciano’s first collection of short fiction, and it was my introduction to her. A friend recommended the stories to me, and I fell for them immediately, parceling them out, one a day, to make the book last longer. Part of the appeal is the glamorous subject matter. Marciano has lived all over the world, and her stories encompass her experiences, taking place in Africa, the U.S, India, and of course, Italy. Her protagonists are usually women who are alone in some way, untethered from their domestic routines, if only temporarily. This collection often reminded me of Andrea Lee’s short story collection, Interesting Women — a title that could have worked for this book, too. Lee, who is around the same age as Marciano, also writes about women living abroad, and both women have a sensual, casually graceful prose style. But the strongest parallel between these two writers is autobiographical: their lives are, in a way, mirrors of one another. Lee is an American writer who has lived most of her adult life in Italy, while Marciano is an Italian writer who has lived her much of her life abroad, including a decade-long stint in the U.S. These days, Marciano lives in Rome, and Italian culture remains her home base, even as she clearly admires and even revels in the American way of life. American writers have long had a love affair with Italy (Henry James, Edith Wharton, and John Cheever, to name just a few) and so it’s interesting to witness that love (or is it infatuation?) from the other side. Here’s Emma, from “The Other Language” during her first extended visit to America: She admired the ease Americans had with their bodies, how they used objects and moved around the furniture with a freedom Europeans never had. How they took their work to bed, ate take-out food in the car, how they put their bare feet on the table, walked inside a bank in their shorts, used their cars as a cluttered closet where they could toss in just about everything. In another story, “Quantum Theory,” an Italian woman visiting Manhattan feels welcomed in a Starbucks, of all places, where “sleepy youths in cotton T-shirts lounge in the ample armchairs holding laptops on their knees, busy with their Facebook pages, their backpacks and jackets spread on the floor as if it were a living room.” To me, an American who has been smitten with Italian culture since a freshman-year screening of Fellini, images of messy cars, soiled take-out containers, baggy shorts, and the hot mess of freelancers and teenagers that is a New York City Starbucks only conjure up feelings of American self-loathing. But Marciano seems sincere in her appreciation of our American informality. At the same time, she’s well aware of the way Americans fetishize Italian style. In one of her funniest stories, “The Italian System,” an ex-pat Italian teacher decides to author a self-help book for Americans who want to live like Italians. The book, which sounds a bit like French Women Don’t Get Fat, educates Americans on the Italian way of life, one that embraces fresh ingredients, fresh air, wine, ritual, and above all, nonchalance: “Nonchalance is the key factor: the less you try, the easier it will be to feel as stylish and charismatic as the Italians are, deep down in their skin.” The irony is that the Italian teacher is writing the book at a time when she feels deeply vulnerable. After seven years in Manhattan, a place that initially made the Italian teacher feel “light, full of promise,” she feels lost, her ambitions stunted by her ex-pat status: “After all these years, [she] still felt self-conscious, afraid of making a faux pas.” She writes the book as a way of regaining confidence, and her tactic works — until she returns home for a visit. Back in Rome, she finds that her ritualized, traditional version of Italy is a product of her own nostalgia. Even her mother has embraced new customs, drinking Diet Coke with lunch instead of wine. In another story about wavering self-confidence, “Chanel,” a documentary filmmaker, Caterina, buys a Chanel dress she can’t afford while visiting Venice with her roommate Pascal, who is about to leave her to pursue a love affair in Paris. Caterina’s nature is pragmatic while Pascal’s is optimistic to the point of delusional, and she buys the dress as a way of emulating his free spirit. She plans to wear it to an awards ceremony, where she will receive a small prize for one of her films, but in an O. Henry-ish twist, she can’t wear the dress after all, and it hangs in her closet unworn for years. The dress, at first a symbol of hope and positive changes to come, becomes a reminder of missed chances and lost opportunities. Caterina grows to hate it, likening it to a corpse and “an old virgin — untouched but no longer fresh.” But Caterina cannot bring herself to get rid of it, and in the story’s final scene, the dress’s true value is revealed to her. A new dress, a change of scene, a spontaneous invitation — Marciano understands that these are the superficial actions people take in order to get at the deeper impulses they cannot name, and which perhaps have been developing for years. Her characters are often surprised by the way their lives are overturned, even as they are the ones to initiate the upheaval. In “An Indian Soiree,” a divorcing couple looks back on their out-of-nowhere break-up as “like being a dream.” In “The Club,” a Scottish widow, describing her happy marriage to a Kenyan man, finds she is still angry about the prejudice she and her husband endured, the years of being excluded from country clubs, restaurants, and even hospitals: “It struck her how certain feelings, no matter how deeply buried, would still come up in a matter of seconds, as if woken up by a siren.” And in “Quantum Theory,” Marciano’s most shamelessly romantic story, one that turns on repeated chance meetings between long-lost lovers, a woman is shocked by the immediacy of her feelings: “Nothing has changed — the excitement, the fear, the desire — it’s all still there, unevolved, unexpired. Still dangerously alive, as if it has only been asleep inside her.” Reading Marciano, I was reminded of an old writing teacher’s adage, “Bewilderment is the most human of emotions.” Marciano allows her characters their bewilderment, their curiosity, and above all, their vulnerability. The result is a collection of stories that is as entertaining as it is humane.

Transylvanians Gone Wild: On Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy

1. The first volume of Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy opens as the protagonist, Count Balint Abady, is carried “peacefully and gently” in his carriage to a sumptuous ball. Having recently returned from diplomatic service to his native Transylvania and luxuriating in the memories evoked by the landscape, Balint is not concerned with making good time: Soon Balint’s old fiacre, moving slowly, was overtaken by all sorts of other vehicles, some driving so fast that he could only occasionally recognize a face or two before they too were swallowed up in the dust. Our first portrait of our hero is of him being passed by, slightly out of sync with and nostalgic for a world speeding toward oblivion. One could also read Balint’s glacial pace as a self-reflexive statement, a reminder for us to settle in for the extended pleasures of the three-part epic about to unfurl. The trilogy, published last year in two volumes by Everyman’s Library and translated by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, is a political novel, a melodrama, and a masterful social comedy. Written by the aristocrat, painter, and statesman Miklós Bánffy, the volumes were originally published between 1934 and 1940, just before Hungary was about to be torn apart by yet another world war. Then lying in the southeastern portion of Hungary (and now a part of Romania), Transylvania had for centuries been “a highway whose path was trodden by countless nomads who came that way and then passed on.” Its rulers maintained a fierce independent streak whether as a semi-autonomous vassal state under the Ottomans or as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which explains Abady’s sensitivity to the perception that Transylvania is “just one of a string of otherwise insignificant provinces.” (One Budapest woman asks him, “Lots of bears where you come from, aren’t there?”) It is worth noting that another great chronicle of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s implosion, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, concerns a family with origins in a similarly peripheral territory -- Slovenia. The central love story concerns Count Abady and the “strange, independent” Adrienne Miloth, a striking beauty married to a chillingly refined monster, Pal Uzdy. (Uzdy -- insane, sadistic, and a crack shot -- wouldn’t be my first choice of a man to cuckold, but then certain Transylvanian counts are known to have eccentric tastes.) Brutalized as she is by her domineering husband, it takes the entire first volume for Adrienne to respond to Abady’s cautious advances with anything less than revulsion. The further two volumes track the lovers’ frustrated efforts to wed and give Abady a much-desired heir. The secondary protagonist, Laszlo Gyeroffy, Abady’s cousin, is an orphaned musician (he and Abady are conspicuously fatherless). As Abady muddles his way through Hungarian politics and peasant intrigues, Laszlo first becomes an elotancos, or “leading dancer and organizer” of all the balls in Budapest, a combination of bandleader, socialite, and perfect wedding guest. Letting his musical talent go to waste, he becomes known for his reckless gambling and drinking, two habits which set him on a debauched decline even as a succession of smitten and rich women attempt to save him. Bánffy portrays the nobility with Dickensian verve. One family is marked by their “aggressive belligerent noses, noses like sharp beaks; eagle beaks like Crookface, falcon beaks like Ambrus; all the birds of prey were represented, from buzzards and peregrines down to shrikes.” He likens Aunt Lizinka, an octogenarian regular on the Transylvanian party circuit with a limitless desire to spread poisonous gossip, to a “dirt volcano whose daily eruptions splattered all within reach.” And Ernest Szent-Gyorgi (Neszti), the  “beau ideal of the fin de siècle man,” expresses himself almost solely through his “extra organ of communication,” a monocle: He wore the rimless eye-glass attached to an almost invisible silken thread, and when he put it up to his eye he could express an infinite variety of opinion merely by varying the gesture: comic surprise, irony, increased interest or incipient boredom, appreciation of a woman’s beauty or reprimand for a man’s presumption…His timing was inimitable and it was widely recognized that Neszti’s monocle was as much the symbol of his sway as was the scepter of kings. These and other perfectly drawn caricatures, including an Austrian lothario nicknamed Nitwit, a rich Croatian known as the Black Cockatoo, and a lisping chauvinist who resembles an “enraged hamster” when dueling with sabers, are predictably present at social gatherings to liven things up. 2. The trilogy’s love affairs, dances, and shooting parties unfold during the years leading up to WWI, when, as Hugh Thomas writes in his introduction, “European civilization committed suicide.” (The volumes, They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided, get their portentous titles from the Old Testament episode in which a feasting King Belshazzar receives some dire messages written on his wall.) When the novel begins in 1904, the domestic political situation is in turmoil, as indeed it will be until the outbreak of war. A coalition of doggedly nationalist opposition groups has essentially shut down the government. Enter Abady, elected as an independent candidate to the Hungarian Parliament and hailing from one of the region’s oldest aristocratic families. His diffidence and deeply felt sense of noblesse oblige causes his fellow aristocrats to feel a “latent hostility” towards him. Abady resists “the idea of being tied to a party line and obliged to follow a party whip,” which allows him to float among the various factions, gaining confidences or creating distrust along the way, all the while staying true to the European political novel tradition of the protagonist being the least interesting and most naïve character. (Abady doesn’t realize that his reelection to Parliament resulted from the bribes of his mother’s crooked estate manager, who wants nothing more than to see the young lord spend more time in Budapest so as to leave him in larcenous peace.) Abady strives towards the sublime but finds himself mired in the ridiculous: dysfunctional legislative scenes, buffoonish pranks, the collapse of his well-intentioned efforts to establish a co-operative on his mountain holdings, officious wrangling over duels that are themselves absurdly anticlimactic. He is disgusted by the crass political maneuverings he encounters in Budapest and the corrupt practices in his home province, which he sees as his duty as a nobleman to correct. His political speeches go largely ignored, and the wary Romanians in his mountainous forest district listen politely but resolve to wait the “strange lord” out until he returns to his Denestornya estate or Budapest. There’s an extraordinary episode in which Abady tries to intervene on behalf of a group of Romanian peasants under the thumb of an unscrupulous moneylender. Like most of his attempts to intervene, he fails, and the peasants take it upon themselves to breach the offender’s citadel and mete out an older, and brutal, form of justice. Abady reads about the attack from the serene Italian village of Portofino, where “it was hard to believe in the bitter winter up in the mountains, the all-enveloping snow, silent men striding forth in a blizzard, in cruel murder and mysterious comings and goings in the all-embracing darkness.” Despite Abady’s sporadic headlong rushes into local and national politics, he generally lacks the sustaining energy to be more than a spectator. And spectate he does. If it’s impolite to stare, then he and his countrymen are the rudest people on earth. One Hungarian woman compares Transylvanians to “birds of prey, hawks, always gazing into the far distance, to the horizon, and never noticing what lies at their feet, what is close at hand.” Abady constantly proves her right, prone as he is to “staring into the face of destiny, the inexorable destiny that would in time overwhelm his beloved country.” The trilogy ends as Abady, traveling to a front line regimen at the outbreak of the First World War, looks back on his beloved land from up high: All his life lay before him, his whole past, everything...a deep bitterness came over him as he stood there alone, high above the world he had known and which was now doomed to perish...The whole world beyond the horizon seemed to be in flames.” What he has been dreading has finally come into view. 3. This might not be the thing one wants to hear before embarking on a 1,500 page quest, but the trilogy is marked by a narrative desultoriness that applies to both its human and political dramas. The novels are in a some ways about widespread distraction and inaction in the face of an impending catastrophe. The second installment, for example, concludes with the following recapitulation: “And so ended an era in which nothing whatever had been achieved.” Comedy plays a large part in this narrative chronicle of distraction; indeed, the trilogy is a work of social comedy about the perils of the comic. Bánffy has a conflicting relationship with comedy. He clearly admires the “true Transylvanian sense of the absurd” most memorably displayed during a scene in which a crusading Frenchman visits Kolozsvar (Cluj-Napoca) to establish a Transylvanian Branch of his Anti-Dueling League. One of the hosts, an ex-officer known for his love of dueling, has no idea what their honorary guest is promoting and promptly becomes enraged upon hearing his favorite pastime derided as “pure barbarism.” The absurdity continues when a dispute breaks out that can only be settled with, yes, a duel, which is carried out in the same hall at which the anti-dueling event took place. One of the combatants, nose broken and head bandaged, gamely appears at the train station to see off the Frenchman, who is told that the poor man fell down the stairs. “What bad luck, Highness, what bad luck!” These and other sketches of Transylvanians gone wild demonstrate a benign ridiculousness, but Bánffy also sees the corrosive effects of comedy. (Tellingly, one of the novel’s villains, Pal Uzdy, occasionally bursts out in strange, meaningless laughter.) When a newly-appointed Prefect is pelted with eggs in Parliament, Abady laughs along with the others before becoming overcome with sadness: “He thought only of the fact that an innocent man had been humiliated, and that it was callous and distasteful that everyone should think the whole affair a tremendous joke and nothing more.” His Hungarian colleagues think most everything is a tremendous joke, a quality directly related to their failure to take the gathering international storm seriously: The sad truth was that all of them found anything that did not concern their own country fit only for mockery and laughter. To them such matters were as remote from reality as if they had been happening on Mars; and therefore fit only for schoolboy puns and witty riposte. Abady mistrusts his countrymen’s love of the comic as a form of irresponsibility. Late in the novel, he enjoys himself when his friends stage a drunken mock-trial of a bottle of brandy for the liquor’s numerous crimes, but senses that such silliness is indicative of a larger political folly and dangerous myopia. And thus, towards the end of the novel, Bánffy delivers a terse judgment as unequivocal as the one written on the wall at Belshazzar’s feast: “Everyone was guilty, all the upper strata of Hungarian society.”