Archive for February, 2012

On last gasps

Last week, after a few promising days of tenuous warmth and lovely sunshine, we got hit with an evening snowstorm. I woke up to pillowy piles of snow outside, branches of trees weighed down by ice. Just as I was starting to get used to the idea of spring!

Interestingly, the last gasp of winter echoed my own internal landscape. I had made some decisions, some of them major ones, the kind that shape your next few years. “A next few years” used to be vague and promising to me in their openness. Now they have an urgency to them; I want time to have a shape, and to matter.

Maybe it’s this urgency now that makes me double-think, rethink, tunnel back around, doubt — to want to go back to what I know instead of plow ahead to the wide-open unknown. But you know, snow melts, time goes forward, and so do you, one step at a time.

Love Letters to Novels: “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton

The hardest thing about this entry was picking exactly which Edith Wharton book to write a mash note about. I really do love many of her books, and even as I write this, I feel slightly guilty that I’m not writing about The House of Mirth or The Custom of the Country, both of which are amazing books, featuring Wharton’s signature mix of incisive social commentary, well-considered prose and an ironic take that can swoop to devastating effect into tragedy with a deft turn of phrase.

But I’m a romantic, and The Age of Innocence is a grand, tragic love story above everything else, and it hit my heart in a way that I can’t forget. Wharton gets the push and pulls of falling in love right, of how two people can come to deeply love one another, even if they never really quite touch. And she renders it with a command of classical craft, within a near-perfect structure and polished, elegant language. On its own, the story of the doomed romance between society man Newland Archer and the divorced “foreigner” Countess Olenska would be kind of a potboiler (of a very classy, restrained sort, of course), but it gets its power from the grasp that Wharton has of the milieu they live in — upper-class New York society in the early-to-mid 1800s — and her ability to situate her lovers within this rarefied, but ultimately stifling, sphere.

There’s such rich, loving detail of this slice of the world — you can practically feel the silks and velvets of the evening gowns, the smell of lilies in a conservatory — but Wharton never loses sight of the subtext of this deeply tribal world, and how it shapes the emotional lives and impulses of its inhabitants. Americans like to presume they are independent and free, that they command deeply individual destinies. Wharton powerfully portrays that this isn’t the case, that no matter what our emotional realities are, we are still social creatures and shaped in many ways by the mores of the world around us. It is just that relative privilege allows us the illusion that we are freer than we actually are.

Besides the absorbing, emotionally subtle love story, The Age of Innocence, to me, is a story about patriarchy and its mechanisms, and how even those who benefit most from it can suffer under it. Newland is part of a certain stripe of “gentleman,” and he sits near the apex of the top of the pyramid of the powerful and wealthy. Sure, he’s likely a bit more sensitive than most, and fancies himself more enlightened (and part of the book’s genius is how the veil falls from his eyes in his respect, and how he realizes his own social training has contributed to his emotional tragedy). But he’s still Mr. Fancy Pants, if you know what I mean. That I came to care for him, and felt the pangs of his sorrow as if they were my own, is really a testament of Wharton’s ability to trace the emotional development of Newland so well. And it’s a pretty indicting comment on a society that the villains of the story are the women the system aims to “protects.”

These days, of course, divorce isn’t social suicide, and Newland and Ellen could (maybe) find some modicum of happiness under more relaxed social mores. Wharton’s work, being so attuned to the social settings of her time, are of a time and place that no longer exist, perhaps adding to their grandeur and romanticism. But it still makes me think — especially when I think about all those fiery right-wing female political pundits — of how a society can convince its biggest victims to act against their own best interests. The ending of The Age of Innocence will always slay me as a romantic, but as I read it again as I’m older, I see how the romantic tragedy is also a tragedy of social and political dimensions, existing within a system that has never really quite gone away, which makes me even sadder.

And the ending of The Age of Innocence? Never fails to kill me as well.

Love Letters to Novels: “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley

I don’t really talk much about my “spirituality,” but if someone asked me about it, I would hand them this book as well as a Buddhist pendant and a My Little Pony unicorn. That would pretty much sum it up.

The truth is that, deep down, I am a moon-worshiping pagan hippie Goddess type at my core who likes nature and enjoys the idea that sex and death are part of a wondrous, immense fabric of the cosmos. Or something like that. Plus, I’m a feminist, and I like to think that Great Big Universe supports that in some way that is absolutely incontrovertible. (You can’t argue with Great Big Universe, right?) What’s the most feminist religion you can think of? That would be part of it, for sure.

The Mists of Avalon plays into this side of me. And, it is a rip-roaringly awesome retelling of the Arthurian stories through the perspective of the women in the story: Morgane Le Fay, Guinevere, the Lady of the Lake, like some crazy great early British girl gang. It also details the historical moment when Christianity was just starting to take hold in England, with plenty of political intrigue and war and pagan rites. And there is enough sex and death to make this quasi-Goth happy.

I first read The Mists of Avalon in high school; a friend told me about it, and lent me her copy to read. I read it in like two days, completely sucked in, and my English teacher wondered what happened in my life that would make my weekly essay assignment so bizarre and ferociously feminist. This book happened, that’s what, although I’d be confused, too, if one of my good students suddenly turned in this huge, semi-coherent argument against the Christian patriarchy and the subjugation of female sexuality.

Of course, I’ve gotten fancier and well-read about feminism, women, sexuality, spirituality and many other things, but reading book was a moment in my life where all these different strands of feelings, experience, thoughts and theories coalesced into one epic story. That is the gift of great fiction — to make whole and coherent a great mass of consciousness, using the threads of emotion and narrative to pull it together. That’s what I love about a good story — when it’s well-woven, it’s a beautiful fabric of the cosmos, one that can pull together and give shape to inchaote spiritual urges and emotional longings. If this book only had a unicorn, it’d be perfect.

Love Letters to Novels: “D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths”

It’s almost Valentine’s Day! I know what we should do…write mash notes to novels and books we’ve loved over the years. I’m going to spend the rest of February writing about the authors and stories that have stolen my heart and become companions of my soul. What are some of the literary soulmates you adore to pieces?

I have a very clear memory of seeing D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths on the display shelf at the local library when I was about four, and I have very clear memories of picking it up, opening the pages and being instantly riveted by an oddly gentle yet ferocious drawing of some crazy man swallow a bundled-up baby whole, like a giant calzone.

I also remember thinking, What is this? and read on, learning about Kronos and the other Titans, and reading more and more about some of the oldest stories ever told. I became instantly enchanted by these strange, outsized stories of gods and goddesses. This was the first book that I just fell in love with; I checked it out again and again from the library, until my parents finally got the hint and bought a copy of it for me for my birthday. I read it all the time until it finally fell apart. My parents are kind of pack rats, but I’ve never been able to find it among the boxes of nostalgic rubbage in the basement. My guess is that it was sold in a garale sale some time along the way, and the thought makes me a little sad, though I hope it’s found a fine home somewhere else if that’s the case.

Athena, Artemis, Apollo, Dionysus, Aphrodite, Hermes: they were like my first soap opera, with all their sexploits, jealousies, rivalries and inexplicable passions and rages. They weren’t like the Buddhist folk tales or Bible parables that surrounded me, which I found really bizarre and inexplicable. But the Greek pantheon strangely made sense, likely because they broke down archetypes into deeply familiar patterns and dynamics that even I could see as a small kid: I knew an Aphrodite kind of chick even in kindergarten, and there was something of Athena and Zeus in how I related to my dad as a girl, which is why I adored her at the time. (I kind of feel way more Artemis/Aphrodite as an adult: running in a forest under the moon and free love are way more up my alley now.)

You could say D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths (and the one on Norse myths, which I read a bit later) sparked a lifelong interest. I went onto other mythology books, like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and read a lot of the classics that came out of myths, from Ovid, Hesiod, all those dudes. But the knowledge that’s stuck to me longest and deepest comes from this book.

A few months ago, I noticed my oldest nephew reading a book about Greek myths, kind of a snazzy-looking modern encyclopedia that was all “Zeus! Dude of lightning!” He’s into all those Rick Riordan books and wanted to learn more about Greek gods and goddesses and myths. Of course I had to buy D’Aulaire’s for him, being a dorky adult. (Note: there is no way any adult is cool to a 12-year-old boy.) I was a little worried that it would seem fusty and boring to him; you know, kids these days. But he dug it and read it in one swoop, he said. He even let his teacher borrow it! I was psyched, of course; I love that the magic of some books never dies. Because gods and goddesses are eternal. And a picture of Kronos eating a baby is still kind of like, Whoa, no matter how old you are.