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14. Since peace was tardy, I made it come by force. Burqa of skin, by Nelly Arcan

5 Apr

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I’m so glad I’ve grown out of being a girl. Am now a woman. Am no longer an object, enchanting or otherwise. Though now I have a daughter, so there is always cause for concern. I say that because there was a time when I was very interested in portrayals of the female body and sexuality, and would have really taken this book, in its rawness and pain and confusion, personally. It’s nice to see beyond the horizon of your body, though I remember not being able to.

Burqa of skin is a posthumous collection of essays by the Francophone Canadian novelist Nelly Arcan, whose first two book titles, Whore and Crazy will give you the idea of how Arcan related to stereotypes about women, the simultaneous frenzy of assumption and rejection with which she took on our historical labels. Whore is autobiographical, as was all of her writing; Arcan worked as an escort as a young woman. She killed herself in 2009 at the age of 36.

I suppose it’s telling that even after reading the book I don’t quite understand what the phrase burqa of skin means.  Arcan’s writing is smart, biting, claustrophobic but slightly incoherent. In the essay “The Child in the Mirror” she writes with vivid, visceral horror about her own skin, how it shamed her as a child, how it grew greasy and needed to be chastised, treated and tamed with masks and products. Arcan, like many  young women, saw herself as a surface, and felt the alienation between the surface and the interior, the self and the object. Skin, for her, seems to be symbolic of embodiment, in all its horror. (She found it horrifying.) But I can’t find a place in the book where she actually uses burqa of skin. The quote below mentions burqas, but  doesn’t entirely shed light on it:

The landscape she saw most often was a vision, blinding and clear, of women veiled in long blue burqas—blue like the low and omnipresent sky of American deserts—slicing the Earth, the golden orange, at full throttle, well over the speed limit, astride Harley Davidson motorcycles on and endless desert highway, someplace like Nebraska.

The burqa here seems freeing. But still, somehow I suspect that Arcan’s burqa of skin is just her own skin, a fabulously distorted and generic garment made of the cultural feminine, which utterly conceals her at the same time as she is naked  wearing it.

I’m kind of making that up, but maybe I’m right. These essays are on mothers and daughters, mirrors, speed dating, suicide, with the second half of the book devoted to Arcan’s obsessive musings on a scandalous interview she did on the Canadian television station CBC, in which the male interviewer and other panelists made fun of her cleavage instead of talking about her writing. (It’s painful to watch, here in French.)

I’d sort of like to read Whore. I’m not sure how she stacks up as a cultural philosopher, but she’s very good at writing about the body. Here’s a passage I liked:

 

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Wow!

If only she weren’t dead, she could date Houellebecq.

 

12. Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer

3 Apr

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In April 1992, a young man from a well-to-do East Coast family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. Four months later his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters.

Thus begins the Author’s Note to Into the Wild, one of Jon Krakauer’s greatest books and a harrowing true story. Like Into Thin Air (Krakauer’s eyewitness account of his disastrous 1996 expedition to Mount Everest), Into the Wild started as a magazine article. The young man found in Alaska’s name was Chris McCandless (his real photo, above), and two years earlier he’d given 25k in savings to charity, abandoned his family and friends, burned the money in his wallet and set out on an itinerant project to live off the land, adopting the name “Alexander Supertramp.”

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There was a movie version of the book a few years ago, which I remember vaguely finding macabre without knowing much about the story. I think I’d thought it was a camping trip gone awry, and not the much more interesting tale which it turns out to be. McCandless deliberately rejected society, severed all his ties, abandoned his property, security, loved ones, food and shelter, for the allure of nature and the experience of pure unfiltered existence. Here’s a passage from a letter he wrote to a friend before the Alaska trip, urging him to adopt a similar lifestyle:

So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. 

In the service of this idealism, McCandless went into the woods in Alaska without food and with little research or preparation. Krakauer reconstructs the story from his diary, letters, photographs and exhaustive research and interviews with people who encountered McCandless along the way. Once he got into the woods, his path out was cut off by high spring floods. In his attempts to live long-term feeding himself off the land, he poisoned himself to the extent that he became too weak to gather food. He starved to death a few weeks before anyone happened by the area.

Krakauer reconstructs the events with precision and insight, and his sense of narrative  is like liquid crack.  He has to be the best writer of reportorial nonfiction working today. It was only after a few chapters that I realized that the book was about how we as a society relate to such stories. Krakauer relates that his original Outside Magazine article provoked a storm of spite and outrage from ordinary people, many of them wilderness lovers, who felt that McCandless was a fool, disrespectful of the mountains and of nature, and deserved to die. I felt that way a little bit myself reading the story, especially concerning how cruelly McCandless rejects and abandons his parents and sister, and the many people who came to love him along his travels. In some ways he has the vibe of a sociopath, and seems like the kind of idealist who becomes a terrorist.

Krakauer doesn’t think so, though. He writes movingly of how he related to McCandless. Krakauer is a mountain-climber, has taken his own terrible risks with his life for the ephemeral rewards of adventure. He keenly feels McCandless’s youth. In a great chapter about one of his own young adventures, an attempt to climb a never-before-climbed face of an Alaskan mountain called the Devil’s Thumb, Krakauer writes “I knew that people sometimes died climbing mountains. But at the age of twenty-three, personal mortality—the idea of my own death—was still largely outside my conceptual grasp.” He views it as a tragedy that this by all accounts talented, honorable, hard-working and life-loving guy died so young. At the same time, he paints a balanced portrait of the family, the people hurt and the moral complexity of McCandless’s tale.

One of the most interesting parallels between McCandless’s life and Krakauer’s is that both men had brilliant, autocratic fathers who, while trying to force their sons to achieve got more than they bargained for. I’m going to close with a wonderful Donald Barthelme quote that Krakauer uses to lead the chapter about his attempt on the Devil’s Thumb. It’s not exactly about mountain climbing or starving to death on a bus, but it is about fathers and sons, and maybe that’s the same thing, right?

But have you noticed the slight curl at the end of Sam II’s mouth, when he looks at you? It means that he didn’t want you to name him Sam II, for one thing, and for two other things it means that he has a sawed-off in his left pant leg, and a baling hook in his right pant leg, and is ready to kill you with either one of them, given the opportunity. The father is taken aback. What he usually says, in such a confrontation, is “I changed your diapers for you, little snot.” This is not the right thing to say. First, it is not true (mothers change nine diapers out of ten), and second, it instantly reminds Sam II of what he is mad about. He is mad about being small when you were big, but no, that’s not it, he is mad about being helpless when you were powerful, but no, not that either, he is mad about being contingent when you were necessary, not quite it, he is insane because when he loved you, you didn’t notice.

It’s important to notice.

11. Submission, by Michel Houellebecq

29 Mar

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Submission is a meaning of the word Islam in Arabic, and is also the title of a 2015 novel by French provocateur Michel Houellebecq, freshly translated into English by our own Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review. The book is about a near-future Paris in which, following fighting in the streets by armed militias, a moderate “Muslim Brotherhood” party takes political power. It has the tragic claim-to-fame of having been published on 7 January 2015, the date of the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, and having to some extent predicted events of the March 2016 Paris Terror.  As the title indicates, the book’s central theme is the giving-way of one form of society to another, the collapse of what Houellebecq identifies as “atheist materialism,” or secular democracy, or the values of the Enlightenment, to a resurgent global religiosity, spearheaded by Islam.

A review of the novel in my copy of Bookforum tells me, basically, that we’re not supposed to take Houellebecq seriously as an idea man. He’s been called a misogynist and Islamophobic, and has been taken to trial for inciting racial hatred (he was acquitted). He says things we’re not supposed to say with obvious button-pushing glee, from quotes like this about what even moderate Muslims want :

For these Muslims, the real enemy—the thing they fear and hate—isn’t Catholicism. It’s secularism. It’s laicism. It’s atheist materialism.

To something more subtle like this, from the POV of a professor at the Sorbonne, which tells girls in burkas they don’t belong at the Sorbonne:

…what did those two virgins in burkas care about that self-proclaimed analist, Jean Lorrain? did their fathers realize what they were reading in the name of literature?

But, you know, I surprised myself by loving this book anyway. I thought Submission was a ravishing good read, beautifully written, very difficult to put down, and also hilarious. I appreciated my literary encounter with those two hot topics of our time, misogyny and Islamophobia, though I may have drawn different conclusions than the author intended me to. Or not. It’s hard to tell with Houellebecq, whose hot topics tend to be the sort people bring their own strong opinions to.

The book’s protagonist, Francois, is a French academic with a specialty in the 1800s French decadent author Joris Karl Huysmans. He says in the opening line that “For all the years of my sad youth Huysmans remained a companion, a faithful friend; never once did I doubt him…”.  After defending his dissertation, Francois realizes “that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me.”He’s a stand-in for his society, one of the “remaining Western social democracies,” (quote also from the first page) for whom the best part of their existence, Houellebecq believes, is also behind  them. Francois at his best has the virtues of art-appreciation and intellectual curiosity, but mostly he’s callow, radically isolated, degraded, sees the women around him only as sex objects, drinks too much, eats microwave food. He can find nothing to value, and no one to value him. He’s riding on the fumes of history.

Here he is, in all his glory:

My life would have been truly tedious and dreary if I hadn’t, every now and then, fucked Myriam. I pulled over at a service station called Mille Étangs—Thousand Ponds—just after the exit to Chateauroux. I bought a chocolate-chip cookie and a large coffee at La Croissanterie, then I got back in the car to have my breakfast and think about the past, or nothing at all.

Erotic memories of an ex-girlfriend—the best memories of Francois’s life, no less—are juxtaposed with eating a cookie from a service station. It’s a witty and vicious illustration of the banality of consumer culture, which turns people into products and love into a sugar high. I also laughed at this:

My attempt to interest myself in the natural beauty of the region was obviously doomed to failure.

Francois, in his transparent loathsomeness, is funny. But his despair is real, and his story is, for all its satirical elements, a search for meaning.

When the Muslim Brotherhood takes over France and deprives Francois of his rote existence as a teacher at the Sorbonne he has to come up with something other than suicide. He tries to find love (getting back together with an ex-girlfriend, frequenting prostitutes…) and fails. His somewhat vague stirrings of political consciousness suggest to him that maybe good old-fashioned patriarchal marriage where the woman stays home and cooks a nice meal was a better way of life. Or perhaps religious faith was. He tries half-heartedly to embrace traditional values by experimenting with Catholicism, but also discovers he cannot. Mainly, it seems, because he can’t deny himself the fruitless pleasures religious faith would prevent. (He leaves a spiritual retreat at a monastery because he’s annoyed that he’s not allowed to smoke.)

But Houellebecq, it seems, can’t believe in faith for his modern man. He closes the story in an explosion of spite. In newly Islamic France, polygamy is legal, and the old elite seamlessly shares power with the new. Francois is offered a plum teaching position and a couple of teenage wives if he’ll convert to Islam, which cheers him up. Is this an extension of the idea that a return to “traditional values” is actually a good thing?  Or meant as vicious satire, not of women or Muslims, but of the protagonist and the French intellectual classes he represents?

Either way it’s a satisfyingly cynical demonstration of one boys’ club handing the reins of power to another. It also draws satisfying parallels between Francois’s atheist-materialist pornotopia and a religious system that runs on women’s bodies (as the version of Islam in this book seems to).  And—I’m not sure Houellebecq means to be making this impression—but it felt to me like Francois’s misogyny was the key to his despair. Why blame a failed society for his isolation when there’s a closer, more direct explanation: He’s totally blind to any qualities of the women around him other than their sexuality. No wonder he’s lonely. His condition is less a reflection of his society than of himself.

For what it’s worth, Karl Ove Knausgaard, reviewing the book for the New York Times, sort of agrees with me.

Francois doesn’t find much relief in art, or not enough, at least. But I think that possibly Houellebecq does. You can tell by the carefulness of his craft, and the deliciousness of those explosions of spite, and passages like the following, that make a greater attempt at spirituality than anything Francois finds in the monastery.

The beauty of an author’s style, the music of his sentences have their importance in literature, of course; the depth of an author’s reflections, the originality of his thought certainly can’t be overlooked; but an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes well or badly hardly matters—as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed present in them.

There is presence in this book. It’s obnoxious, despairing, cynical, but I really liked it.

 

 

 

 

8. Writing from a front row seat at a mass murder: The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov

11 Feb

Andrei Platonov is one of the giants of Russian literature, a writer from the revolutionary period who passionately believed in communist ideals but was critical of party leadership, and whose work was suppressed. Between 1918 to 1921 as a young man from the city of Voronezh in Central Russia he published poetry and essays in venues like Red Countryside and Smithy, a union magazine for metal-workers. (Amazing publication titles, from the modern perspective.) He achieved much local success and was a director of the Voronezh Union of Proletarian Writers in 1920. However, after living through the famine of 1921, in which the political disturbances of early Bolshevik Russia combined with a severe drought killed six million people,  Platonov said that he “could no longer be occupied with a contemplative activity like literature,” and applied his technical abilities to infrastructure, spending the next several years on building dams, draining ponds and building a hydroelectric plant.

Kotlovan, or The Foundation Pit was published only in part in 1931 and is Platonov’s story of the de-kulakization of 1929, when Stalin ordered millions of prosperous peasants to be murdered or exiled to facilitate the formation of collective farms. According to the Afterword of my NYRB edition of The Foundation Pit, Platonov and Vassily Grossman were the only two contemporary writers to write about the purge, and “Platonov’s account is firsthand. No other Soviet writer of his generation had a better understanding of the life of the peasantry in the 1920s.”

The Foundation Pit‘s characters represent the different types playing their part in the de-kulakization of a village near a generic small town, where workers are building a utopian housing project. There’s Chiklin, a strong, hard-working proletarian man who represents the communist ideal; Prushevsky, a technocrat with no enthusiasm for how things are turning out; Kozlov, a weak, spiteful man using the new order to cause trouble; Zhachev, who believes in the new government’s ideals at the same time as he exploits them for personal gain; Nastya, a little girl who is the dream of the communist future; and finally Voshchev, a thoughtful worker-drifter trying to understand the meaning of what he sees around him, who probably represents the author.

A “foundation pit” could be the beginning of a great new structure or it could be a journey  down into hell, a movement in exactly the wrong direction, and it’s fairly clear from the beginning that the latter is the meaning Platonov wishes to emphasize. The ecstatic, strange, wonderful part for the contemporary reader is that he chooses to do that primarily through the manipulation of language. His Russian is half-technical, half-broken, as if it’s being spoken by an alien, or as if it’s deliberately hiding meaning in the crevasses of syntax, where the censors could not follow.

Here’s the first paragraph:

On the day of the thirtieth anniversary of his private life, Voshchev was made redundant from the small machine factory where he obtained the means for his own existence. His dismissal notice stated that he was being removed from production on account of weakening strength in him and thoughtfulness amid the general tempo of labor.

Platnov could say On his thirtieth birthday which is what “the day of the thirtieth anniversary of his private life” means. He could use worked for “obtained the means for his own existence.” There’s no need to say that the strength is “in him”. A person being fired for “thoughtfulness,” a quality that’s supposed to be good, is odd and is put forth in a slightly mixed construction with “tempo.” Can a person even be thoughtful “amid” a tempo? The paragraph is bewildering, carefully planned, and brilliantly introduces Platonov’s main theme of progress or movement (that tempo of labor) that is senseless or cancelled out.

At first I thought the book was satire. Voshchev, drinking in a depressing bar after his dismissal, goes over to the window “to take note of the beginning of night,” hears a brass band “pining; getting nowhere” and then sits:

“…down by the window, in order to observe the tender darkness of night, listen to various sad sounds, and feel the torment of a heart surrounded by hard and stony bones.”

That bit about the heart is purplish… until you know that themes of hearts surrounded by bones—i.e., life already gripped by death—run throughout the book. A clenched heart jumps into a man’s “cramped” throat before he dies. A man is hit in the heart and dies with a cracking of bones. The language seems like it might be purple until you remember that Platonov was writing from a front-row seat at a mass-murder.

And then all claim to satire falls away. Here’s a character sleeping:

Kozlov was barefoot and sleeping with his mouth open; his throat was gurgling as if the air of breath were passing through dark heavy blood; and out of his half-open, pale eyes were emerging occasional tears—from a dream or some unknown yearning.

It’s creepy, terrible, dehumanized, and not at all funny.

Here’s another one, for my collection of disturbing passages about horses:

“Are you alive, dear breadwinner?”

The horse was dozing in her stall, having lowered her sensitive head forever; one of her eyes was feebly closed, but she did not have enough strength for the other and so it was left looking into the dark. The shed had grown cold without equine breath and snow had begun to fall inside, settling on the mare’s head and not melting. Her master blew out his match, embraced the horse’s neck, and stood there in his orphanhood, smelling in memory the mare’s sweat as when they were ploughing.

“So you’ve died have you? Well don’t worry—soon I’ll croak too. It’ll be quiet for us.”

Not seeing the man, a dog came into the shed and sniffed at the horse’s hind leg. It then growled and sank its teeth into her flesh, and tore itself out some beef. The horse’s two eyes shone white in the darkness—she was now looking through them both—and she moved her legs a step forward, not yet forgetting to live because of the pain.

“Maybe you’ll enter the collective farm? Go ahead then, but I’ll wait,” said the master of the yard.

This is a great passage for its gothic horror, and also a relevant one to the collectivization process, since the peasants en masse killed and ate their animals rather than let them be collectivized. In this case, the horse seems to have died on its own, but even that natural process has been disturbed—disturbance of natural processes is another major theme of the work, along with displacement of ideas and qualities into nature. The horse comes to life again, if only to feel pain.

The foundation pit gets deeper. Construction does not progress. The kulaks are put onto a raft in the winter and sent to their deaths. Eventually the poor souls who were taken onto the collective farm go to the foundation pit and dig as if they are digging their own grave, a reading which the odd, wonderful syntax equally allows for:

The collective farm was following him and, without stopping, was digging the earth; all the poor and middle peasants [i.e. those not killed as kulaks] were working with such zeal of life as if they were seeking to save themselves forever in the abyss of the foundation pit.

“Save themselves forever” could mean salvation, or it could mean storage for a corpse. I think Platonov means the latter.

On a last weird note, there’s a Platonov festival in Voronezh in the summers that looks kind of cool.

Time will eat up all the use. A post on the translation of Kotlovan, or “The Foundation Pit” by Andrei Platonov

6 Feb

The strange, futuristic, experimental genius of Andrei Platonov will get its own blog post—and wow, experimental fiction geeks, gird yourselves, this book is bending my mind in all the good ways—but first, I’d like to address the New York Review of Books’ 2014 translation, by Robert Chandler & Olga Meerson, of Platonov’s 1930 classic, The Foundation Pit (Kotlovan, in Russian). I’m reading my English version simultaneously with an original Russian version, and have been amazed by seeing what the translators, and the NYRB, were up against. The Foundation Pit could be a case study in impossible translations, further complicated by the persecution of writers in the Soviet Union.

The NYRB had a difficult primary decision to make, in terms of which version of the book to use, since The Foundation Pit was published only in part in the 1930s, and then suppressed. The version of the manuscript most commonly used in Russia, (and the one I’m reading in Russian) is from the writer’s daughter’s archive. In an appendix to the NYRB edition, the translators explain that this commonly-used one “reflect[s] an earlier stage in the evolution of the text” and also contains additions and deletions by a third party that were supposed to make it more acceptable for publication. The “greatly superior” manuscript version Chandler & Meerson have chosen to work with, which was first published in Russia in 2000, reflects later changes made by Platonov, and restores some of the lost material, particularly the raunchy bits. I’m going to refer to these two versions as “daughter’s archive” and “NYRB/more recent” to help the reader keep it straight.

On paper it makes sense to use the NYRB/more-recent version, since we can presume it’s the one the writer intended. But reading both side-by-side, complications arise. There are continuity issues in the NYRB/more-recent version that it seems the writer would have fixed if he’d intended it to be published. Things like the character Chiklin appearing on page 12 without previous introduction, “The engineer told Chiklin…” a sentence begins. Who is Chiklin? Huh? In the daughter’s-archive version, Chiklin is identified earlier as an earth-worker. Another example is a spot on page 13 in the NYRB/more-recent edition where the line reads,  “Annulling nature’s old order, Chiklin felt unable to understand it.” That’s an obscure line to begin with, and made more obscure by the fact that Platonov apparently cut material from the daughter’s-archive version where Chiklin asks questions about the earth he’s digging, giving us some explanation for what he doesn’t understand and deepening the joke.

I don’t know the back-story, but such issues make me wonder if the NYRB/more-recent revision was complete. The daughter’s-archive version is more polished. (It has line-reps and minor errors as well). This is probably unorthodox in the world of translation, but I wonder if these two versions couldn’t be reconciled, either using the NYRB/more-recent but fixing the obvious continuity issues, or annotating the daughter’s-archive version to include major missing scenes. It’s an interesting puzzle, and I’m not sure which I’d choose if it were up to me (which, ha ha, it is obviously not).

Another bizarre note: There are end-notes in the NYRB edition, but without corresponding numbers on the text. Did someone forget?

All of that about which manuscript to use, however, doesn’t get to the difficulties with the actual translation of the words. Let’s go back to,

“Annulling nature’s old order, Chiklin felt unable to understand it.”

In Russian it’s “Упраздняя старинное природное устройство, Чиклин не мог его понять”,

which could be more literally translated as “Abolishing the old natural construction, Chiklin could not understand it.”

No matter how you translate it that’s a weird sentence. Platonov has been described as a linguistic cubist. He was using words wrong in a systematic way to a variety of ends. You can’t abolish construction, so, the translator has the difficult job of choosing not just the right word, but a word that will be wrong in a similar way to how the word is wrong in Russian.

Reading the Russian and English translation side by side, it’s apparent to me how much is lost. Calling soil “the old natural construction” is humorous because Platonov is spoofing the Soviet lingo of his time, which applied mechanical and industrial terminology to all of life’s processes. Nature is just another worker. The translation loses that shade of meaning. But it also invents annul in place of the more literal abolish. Annul is stilted and legalistic and odd in just the way the spirit of Platonov’s prose is. Annul is a great choice.

Platonov was a devoted communist. Post-Revolution he’s like a cyborg using the Soviet Union’s new and unfamiliar jargon to examine his own human soul—a use for which the jargon was not meant. It’s amazing, brilliant and deeply sad, and much of the texture is created by the odd word choices and gappy syntax through which meaning falls like flung coins. The translators capture that, while doing a very good job of making the prose “read” smoothly. There are insertions and inventions, but if you look very carefully at the options, each one seems correctly weighed.

Here’s another example of how difficult the decisions must have been:

“‘We need more hands,’ said Chiklin to the engineer. ‘This job’s a killer. And time will eat up all the use.'”

And here’s the Russian “Мало рук, – сказал Чиклин инженеру, – это измор, а не работа, – время всю пользу съест” (p 26).

Literally translated, the Russian says: “Too few hands” said Chiklin to the engineer. “This is death-by-starvation, not a job. And time will eat up all the use.”

The translation is stilted and a little bit dorky (“a killer!”), but it renders the moment as smoothly as it reads in Russian, and preserves the best strange part, which is that bit about “time will eat up all the use.” The line barely makes sense in either language, but is an essential Foundation Pit construction. Platonov is using “use” as something like “useful force,” a concept you’d find in revolutionary social theory, but he maroons it in a bit of dialog where a worker is explaining how a utopian construction project is failing. It’s a great coinage and the most important part of the sentence. On the other side of the scale, the translators lost измор, which means “death by starvation,” (of course Russian has a word for that) and lost the echo between “death by starvation” and “time will eat up.” It must have been painful, but that literal translation clunks, and you can’t have too many of those.

(For more on how awful literal translations are, read this brilliant takedown of  Pevear & Volkonsky in  Commentary Magazine.)

I will eventually write a post about The Foundation Pit itself and blow everyone’s minds out their ear….. For now, I will leave it that Chandler & Meerson have done a wonderful job.

 

 

7. White Matter, by Janet Sternburg

24 Jan

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The lobotomized were our mothers, and our mothers’ mothers.

Of all the ways the world of medical care has gotten worse, one way it’s gotten better is the end of lobotomy as a treatment for depression and mental illness, especially as it was practiced on marginal and at-risk populations, like depressed single women in the 1940s and ’50s. It’s easy to forget at this remove that lobotomy was once a legitimate, even popular treatment for mental illness, and that its inventor won a controversial Nobel Prize in 1949. The procedure, according to the Wiki definition, “consists of cutting or scraping away most of the connections to and from the prefrontal cortex, the anterior part of the frontal lobes of the brain” and was done to an estimated 20,000 people in the United States from the early 1940s to mid-1950s when chemical treatments put an effective end to it.

Janet Sternburg’s memoir White Matter is the story of the two members of her immediate family who were lobotomized or, as she says in the book’s first line “the story of a family who made mistakes.” The two were Sternburg’s mother’s siblings, an uncle and an aunt. In middle age the author goes looking for the answers of how and why her family made the decisions to lobotomize these two people and explores the consequences for the family’s next generation.

The legacy of lobotomy is one that’s close to my heart. I can imagine no greater violation  than a procedure that removes the self and leaves the body here, defenseless. And I can only imagine the suffering of the victims’ relatives when they discover that their loved one is there but absent, a ghost of their former self, just out of reach forever. It seems like the kind of thing that could not happen in any kind of civilized society, but it did.

So I had high hopes for this book. I wanted to gain insight into the horrors and venal bureaucracies of how this procedure came about. I wanted to read medical theory about how these operations worked, were believed to work, didn’t work, and understand what current science brings to light on the past.  I wanted names and numbers on the perpetrators. And most of all, I wanted some kind of homage paid to the victims. What were their capacities? Who were they as a population? How do we understand them as metaphor? As people we loved?

I didn’t find what I was looking for in Sternburg’s book, which is uninspired as a work of non-fiction and unilluminating as memoir. The medical and historical detail White Matter provides is a broad-strokes overview. It doesn’t seem like Sternburg did original research on either lobotomies in America or on her own family. I wanted documents, medical records, facts. She talks to her one aunt who is still alive and calls the son of the doctor who recommended the procedures (Abraham Myerson, a Boston-area physician of some note who later developed the first antidepressant). But in both cases she seems reluctant to ask hard questions and doesn’t follow up those she does ask. She recreates a fair amount of scenes from family history, but it’s never clear what her sources are, and there’s way too much imagining what might or must have happened. There’s even a scene where she hears an aunt’s voice in her head, explaining something, and dutifully transcribes it.

Worse was the feeling that Sternburg didn’t seem to know what to make of this odd fact of her family. Early on she explains that growing up with her lobotomized relatives “seemed an ordinary part of life,” and that she didn’t recognize until much later how unusual it was. She leaves home, puts the past behind her, and writes that “nothing they told me about the family ever touched me.” This emotional disconnection drains meaning from the story. To her question of How Did This Happen?, her best answer is banal: Her family had two difficult members—the uncle was mentally ill and violent; the aunt extremely depressed—and respect for medical authority, and they succumbed to the tides of their times. It’s a truth, but it doesn’t add much. Sternburg realizes the answer is inadequate and repeats the question “What was wrong with my family? … What was wrong with them?” twice on one page near the end. We don’t know. She doesn’t know. Eh.

It’s also worth noting that we don’t learn an awful lot about Sternburg as an adult, beyond that she finds this story important and puzzling and wants to pursue it. I am certain that she was affected, deeply, by her family’s medical history. In one of the scanty chapters about herself she describes how she left home and became “a girl of my times” who did “a number of wild and interesting things, all of which are sufficiently familiar to readers of sixties memoirs that they do not need to be repeated here.” She’s distancing, not self-revealing, dismissive. She tells us that she once plagiarized a paper in college, but she doesn’t connect the dots between her emotional detachment and that of her callous relatives who allowed not one but two of their loved ones to be irreparably damaged by lobotomy. She manages to write a whole book on this terrible, terrible story and not once show personal pain.

Actually, not everyone in White Matter was callous. The matriarch, Sternburg’s grandmother, whom she admits she didn’t like, was ferociously devoted to her mentally ill son. Despite the disadvantage of her sex and class status, she managed to keep Sternburg’s uncle out of institutions through sheer force of rage, and against determined opposition. She was not included in the decision to lobotomize him, and we don’t know what she felt about it, but after the surgery, she was able to keep him peacefully at home with her until the end of her life. That’s a lobotomy story too, a sad one, but worth hearing.

The mothers of the lobotomized have probably mostly passed away now, as have most of the procedure’s victims, a footnote of medical history whose stories we’ll mostly never know. Ghosts. Dear, innocent ghosts, some of them.  They deserve more, then and now.

 

 

 

Wilberforce, by H.S. Cross

19 Jan

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In the antique and innocent 1980s, a girl could make it all the way through high school without ever seeing a pornographic magazine—at least this girl did—which left movies and books as the source of erotic information. And the movies that had interesting sexual content, like, 9 1/2 Weeks, A Room With A View and Purple Rain—were legendary. One of the strangest and most magical entries in this canon, for me, was Another Country, the story of two boys’ affair at an English boarding school, with the boys played by Rupert Everett and Cary Elwes. (Everett already being a source of obsession from the Judith Krantz miniseries, Princess Daisy, but I digress).  The combination of gorgeous boys, forbidden love and the English pastoral setting has left me with a soft-spot for English boarding-school romance, which is how I picked up Wilberforce, by H.S. Cross, a flawed but wonderful novel from FSG, published in 2015.

Wilberforce is the story of a 17-year-old attending a third rate English boarding school in 1926, who is plagued by sexuality, loneliness and the half-formed urges to be a good man. He seems mostly ordinary, somewhat athletic, handsome enough, considered bright but lazy by his teachers, but as the novel progresses his situation becomes more precarious. His mother has died, his father retreats into grief, the school itself with its old-fashioned codes of honor and behavior has been undermined by the cynicism following the first World War (and presumably by the loss of a generation of men to be masters; most of the teachers are ancient). Tragedy, by the time it strikes, seems inevitable.

A well-written, high-stakes world of caning, gay sex, boarding-school hideouts and rugby drama is my cup of tea. The first older-boy sadist/villain is named Silk Bradley (!), and Wilberforce’s obsession with the older, magnetic Spaulding is the stuff of legends. But, though I’m focusing on the fun bits here, the author is aiming for high literature, more The Secret History than Princess Daisy. Wilberforce is haunted by tides of emotion, premonitions of darkness, has beautifully detailed memories and flashbacks. His perspective is rich and sometimes intensely overblown in a teenage way, but I liked that. Here’s a passage after he’s deliberately tackled Spaulding in rugby (the reader doesn’t know yet why), that displays some of the drama and pleasure of Cross’s prose:

Now in his mouth the aftertaste of blood, in his chest the dread of life turned ill, and in his bones the shock of impact—savage, fatal—with Spaulding.

Or, here’s a memory, richly detailed:

His mother never made him drink foul things. She always put in honey so being ill didn’t have to be worse than it was, she said. When he couldn’t keep things down, she gave him boiled sweets and ice, hammered to shards in a tea towel.

I also thought the novel’s qualities as a historical fiction were pretty good. The characters’ psychology didn’t feel modern, nor did the dialog. The writing had a kind of dry humor on topics like boarding-school discipline and Victorian pornography that worked well as a historical voice.

And as the action amps up in the first half of the book, Wilberforce becomes a page-turner.

So, then, I was puzzled-baffled-disappointed by what went wrong in the second half. After a school holiday the previous threads are largely dropped, a major character disappears and another appears to fulfill his narrative functions, and some annoying conceits arise, like a chapter where Wilberforce literally sees and talks to two versions of himself, one bad, one good. What I really wanted to know was, How did this book get bought by FSG in this shape? Could it possibly have been bought on a proposal? Why didn’t it get a much better edit? Was the writer difficult to work with? Did people run out of time? All of the above?

There are the bones of a great story in here…. there is a great story in here. But [spoilers, sorry] after the boy Wilberforce madly loves dies in front of him, he returns to school and starts flirting with a bar-maid? Right away?  His sexuality which has basically seemed sympathetic and reasonable until this point suddenly becomes pathological? It’s all a muddle. I understand that he wants spiritual redemption, but not the sense that the narration thinks he needs it badly enough to bring in a Bishop, as Cross does.

It seems like at some point a decision was made that the story is the redemption of a character gone totally off the rails, when the story I thought I was reading was about a lonely kid trying to survive an insane boarding school.

So, I liked a lot of things about the writing, but for me this book didn’t work.