Category Archives: Literary thoughts

Passing: Jealousy and Envy

Cover of an omnibus edition of Quicksand and PassingTitle: Passing

Author: Nella Larsen

Year of Publication: 1928

LC Call Number: PS 3523 .A7225 .A6

Passing is the book I’d planned to read when I picked up this volume; I’d heard about it and was intrigued. It’s about the relationship between two light-skinned black women whose lives take two different paths; Irene marries a black man who is also an activist, while Clare marries a white man and moves into the upper echelons of society, passing as white the whole time.

The relationship between Irene and Clare is a strange one; they knew each other in high school, but at the narrative’s present, they are not close friends by any means.  Since the entire story is told from Irene’s point of view, the reader has little insight into Clare’s real attitude, but on Irene’s side there is a lot of irritation and resentment.  She remarks often on what she calls “Clare’s ‘having’ nature,” by which she means Clare’s apparently naive tendency to accept all gifts and invite herself into people’s lives. Clare does not show a great deal of self-awareness and takes all invitations at face value.  Failing to bow out gracefully, she writes to Irene without noticing Irene’s intention to cut off contact.  Then, too, Irene has a tendency to feel put upon in general; she has work to attend to and two children and a closer relationship with her husband than Clare has with hers.  Irene is working very hard to maintain herself as a respectable person and to feel as if she is in charge of her life, so she sees Clare as spoiled and childish; as she spends more time with Clare, her irritation increases.

For Clare’s part, it seems that she is lonely and longs for the company of other black women. Her husband is terrifying and openly, loudly racist; she passes not only in white society generally but also within her marriage.  When he was introduced, I feared for Clare.  Later in the novel, Irene speculates about the potential for divorce if Clare’s husband learned of her race, but she overlooks the possibility of violence, which did not to me appear out of the question.  Clare has one child, and tells Irene that she has not had any more because, throughout her pregnancy, she worried that the child would come out dark.  Her marriage is not seen in detail, but it sounds awful.  Is it worth it for Clare?  It doesn’t appear that she’s consciously evaluated this, actually. Tearfully, she tells Irene:

It’s just that I haven’t any proper morals or sense of duty, as you have, that makes me act as I do. … Can’t you realize I’m not like you a bit? Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really, ‘Rene, I’m not safe.”

Notably, this moment comes when Irene is encouraging Clare not to shirk her parental duties—that is, to go back to her own life and leave Irene alone.  So the question here is of whether it is worth it for her to take the risks of temporarily escaping from her “passing” life to spend time in Irene’s social circle.  This is a very relevant question in terms of the plot—the danger that Clare will be exposed is ever-present—but I think that it also explains her thought process in making the decisions that led to her marrying Bellew.

Irene is quite willing to shake her head at these decisions of Clare’s, with a feeling of superiority at her own life choices, which to her appear manifestly better. But the thing about Irene is that she is a hypocrite.  Although she doesn’t approve of Irene passing, the novel opens with Irene sitting in a presumably segregated rooftop restaurant because she, Irene, is herself able to pass, and she hopes not to be exposed because she is enjoying this restaurant and does not want to be kicked out and humiliated.  Later, she explains that she’s only ever used “passing” for petty things, not for anything important.

Furthermore, Clare disapproves of passing at least partly because she is invested in what she calls “the ties of the race,” which Clare has evaded and yet still  uses.  Irene, however, employs a maid named Zulena, who is constantly present throughout the novel but to whom Irene barely speaks.  Next to Zulena, though, Irene’s privilege stands out clearly.  Unlike Zulena, Irene’s name does not mark her as a black woman and she enjoys middle-class status. I cannot remember whether the shade of Zulena’s skin is mentioned, her presence points up the ways in which Irene is closer to attaining the status which Clare covets. There is little sign that Irene feels any such “ties” to Zulena.  Clare, on the other hand, sits and talks with Zulena—and Irene is irritated by this, finding it inappropriate, precisely because she feels that Clare would have been less friendly with white servants.

Thus, Larsen avoids setting up a contrast between duplicitous Clare and upright Irene; Irene isn’t so truthful as all that, especially not with herself, and Clare seems, in many ways, guileless.  Irene, however, does think of it this way and eventually becomes convinced that Clare is having an affair with Irene’s husband.   Interestingly, the narrative does not confirm or deny this.  Any evidence one way or the other is filtered through Irene’s perception, which makes it already suspect because this is what she wants to believe, in order to justify her frustration with both parties.  The introduction to this volume (by one Deborah McDowell) argues that this suspicion is Irene’s way of covering up her own attraction to Clare in her mind, and this is persuasive so far as Irene seems to have very strong feelings about Clare. She responds to Clare’s letters even when she does not intend to, thinks about her more than she would like, and often observes Clare’s beauty.  (Brian, Irene’s husband, on the other hand, declares Clare too light for his tastes.)  Casting Clare in the role of homewrecker allows Irene to project her own feelings onto her husband, to clarify her relationship to Clare, and to justify thinking about her constantly.  Still, I have another interpretation of Irene’s obsession; I wonder if what Irene feels toward her is not just sexual jealousy but also simple envy.  Clare’s carelessness, the ease with which she inserts herself into any situation, and her ability to inspire love and admiration in nearly everyone who sees her are all qualities which Irene does not want to envy. She’s invested in her idea of herself as a serious person who works hard and thinks of others instead of herself.  However, her constant exasperation with Clare’s determination to have pleasure in her life and her desire for Clare to be punished (in fact, she considers outing her to her husband) do suggest an envy to which she will not admit.  Reinterpreting it into jealousy allows Irene to feel more reasonable, even if it undermines her feelings of superiority about her own marriage versus Clare’s.

I think this explains a lot about the ending, too, but it was shocking enough that I don’t want to write about it here…


Leave a comment

Filed under Literary thoughts

Quicksand: Running out of Options

Cover of an omnibus edition of Quicksand and PassingTitle: Quicksand

Author: Nella Larsen

Year of Publication: 1928

LC Call Number: PS 3523 .A7225 .A6

(Well, not all my posts are about Fullmetal Alchemist!)

This book includes both Quicksand and Passing, both by Nella Larsen, but they’re two separate books, so I’m going to post about each individually.

Quicksand is in some ways a character study of Helga Crane. Helga is the daughter of a Danish mother and an black American father; her father, however, is gone and her mother is dead.  She has a tendency to be dissatisfied and spends the book wandering from one place to another, in search of a place she can really live.  She lives in the South and works as a teacher at Naxos, a school dedicated to “racial uplift,” and then she lives in Harlem and participates in activism for racial justice, and then she lives in Denmark and  is paraded around as an exotic oddity. Ultimately, she ends up in living in a shack in the South as a preacher’s wife and losing herself in the birth of many children.  Although Helga is never satisfied with her life as it is, she is always optimistic about her life as it might be.  Every time she moves to a new stage of her life, she feels that this time, this will experience the fulfillment that was lacking from her prior life.  This time, she will be happy.

This becomes frustrating for the reader; after the first couple moves, it becomes clear that Helga’s problems will not be solved as she believes they will.  This frustration stopped her from being an especially sympathetic character for me, even if I understand, to some extent, the need to believe that changing one’s life will bring happiness.  At the end of the book, she seems to understand this:

 She couldn’t endure it.  Her suffocation and shrinking loathing were too great. Not to be borne. Again. For she had to admit that it wasn’t new, this feeling of dissatisfaction, of asphyxiation.  Something like it she had experienced before. In Naxos. In New York. In Copenhagen. This differed only in degree. And it was of the present and therefore seemingly more reasonable. The other revulsions were of the past, and now less explainable.

Although Helga seems to end up in the place which is least suitable for her, it doesn’t ultimately seem to matter; her discontentment is not a result of whatever life she is living but a facet of her character.  The feeling of suffocation is inevitable. And then again, she abandons whatever relationships she has acquired and whatever responsibilities she has taken on every time she leaves—students, roommates, fiances.

But this wandering shows us some of the possibilities for an educated, mixed-race black woman in the early twentieth century United States, and Larsen explodes each one. In each case, while the reader may not believe that any of this will help Helga, we can see that the problems she identifies are real.

There is the thing that I believe is analogous to what is today called respectability politics. Helga can teach at Naxos, but it is a petty and hierarchical world whose hypocrisy she cannot stand.  Larsen takes aim here at the notion of “racial uplift.”  The notes of the book suggest that the  name “Naxos” is chosen partly because, reversed, it is “Saxon” because the school worships whiteness. I don’t have enough knowledge to comment competently on that, but there is certainly an emphasis on coming from the “best” families and adhering to certain ideas of high-class behavior and avoiding vulgarity. Helga is told that dark-skinned people should not wear bright colors, but she loves beauty and color and good taste and resists the drab and joyless life that she is encouraged to lead. This need for for dullness and respectable virtue is maintained at Naxos by a steady undercurrent of gossip and jealousy.  There is a notion that it is the responsibility of the Naxos teachers to sacrifice to set an example for their students, or for “the race.”  When Helga tells her principal she is leaving, he attempts to persuade her to stay by telling her that she is needed to provide a “a sense of values” to Naxos.  Helga recognizes no such responsibility.

She attempts to seek help from her uncle, but he rejects her, hoping she will understand why he cannot offer her any aid.  She seeks other work, but her education fits her only for teaching; she hopes to work in a library, but is not qualified, and when she seeks other work from an employment agency, she is told that no work suitable for her in available.

She is happiest in Harlem, but she finds herself guilty of a different kind of hypocrisy. Harlem is in some ways the opposite of Naxos; the social scene in Harlem is about protest and what Larsen at one point terms “racial ardor.”  Helga’s roommate Anne, along with others in her social circle, are much concerned with issues of racism and the promotion of black culture.  Helga doesn’t believe that racism has much affect on Anne’s life, because she lives in Harlem and avoids all contact with white people, and she also considers Anne a hypocrite because she doesn’t, in fact, have a strong investment in black culture; her preferences are more canonically valued by the wider world. As Helga observes, Anne, “like the despised people of the white race…preferred Pavlova to Florence Mills, John McCormack to Taylor Gordon, Walter Hampden to Paul Robeson.”  From my perspective, Helga is a little unfair to Anne; one could argue that these preferences themselves are not wholly independent of exposure to racial prejudice (after all, how is the canon formed, and how is culture proliferated?), and in any case she does not know Anne well enough to make this evaluation.  There is, however, more to Helga’s discomfort than this; she finds herself a hypocrite as well because she is engaged with activism in which she does not truly believe.  It’s hard not to imagine that part of this has to do with her own mixed heritage, since she is advised to avoid telling anyone that some of her family is white.   In any case, this relationship to “the race question” (as it’s occasionally called in the text) doesn’t work for her.

So, she tries living in Copenhagen, where she has some relatives.  If, as I wrote above, she is testing every possible option for a woman in her position, Denmark doesn’t quite fit it because it is only due to her own family circumstances that she is able to move there—but we can make sense of it as a journey into an exclusively white space where she already has an in. She wants to be among “approving and admiring people, where she would be appreciated, and understood.” And, in Denmark, she does get attention. However, the attention she receives is really objectifying.  Her aunt dresses her up like a doll and shows her off to all her friends. She  “felt like nothing so much as some new and strange species of pet dog being proudly exhibited.”  A painter wants to paint her portrait.  People stop her in the street and question her about her race.  This is a way for her aunt and uncle to gain social status.  Helga doesn’t belong here either; what she really wants is agency. So she leaves Denmark.

Back in Harlem, she wanders into a church as she is having a breakdown, and it hits her at exactly her most vulnerable moment. She has a strange experience and is drawn into what appears to be some sort of religious fugue state; after this she forms a relationship with the reverend, marries him, and moves back to the South to play the role of his wife an a small, poor, black community.  This is striking because it is so obviously the opposite of everything that Helga has ever wanted, with her education and her love of beauty and ease and her quick wit and her impatience for everyone who does not appreciate her perspective.  Here she suffers poverty, as well as pain and illness that are a result of her quick succession of pregnancies. How does she end up in a place like this, the worst of all the options she has been shown? It almost feels as if, unsatisfied with each of them, she kept trying until she completely ran out of options. In any case, it’s discouraging.

So Helga drifts from one of the limited possibilities available to her to another.  One interesting facet of this drifting is that she always seems to be running away from a man. The introduction to the book insists that both this book and Passing are not about race but rather about the protagonists’ unacceptable desires.  I think race plays an important role in the book, as I’ve shown above, but it is true that Helga has a very difficult time managing her relationships with men.  James Vayle, to whom she is engaged in Naxos, and Axel Olsen, who attempts to marry her in Copenhagen, are really mere features of their localities, and not at all attractive to Helga (she notes that she does not love James Vayle but had expected to love him after they were married).  She wishes to escape from relationships with them; Olsen in particular seems too eager to own her. She is attracted to the principal of Naxos, but she also wishes to escape her attraction to him.  His appearance in Harlem is one of the things that drives her to leave, and fuels her resentment of Anne.  After he marries Anne, he kisses Helga; she is actually excited about this, but it is his subsequent apology for having behaved inappropriately that drives her to the church, where she apparently loses her power to make these decisions on her own.

And in fact, maybe we can combine these two factors; the problem all along is that Helga feels constrained, because specific standards of appropriate behavior are placed upon her without her consent.  She resists, but the more she resists, the more she is drawn in, until eventually she is left in a situation with stricter standards than any of the others.  This is, I am sure, the meaning of the title, Quicksand.  The more you struggle, the more quickly you sink.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literary thoughts

Kindred: Terrifying and Awkward Families

Cover of KindredTitle: Kindred

Author: Octavia Butler

Publication Date: 1979

LC Call Number: PS3552.U827

Kindred is a book I would have liked to spend more time mulling over, thinking about it carefully and teasing out the implications and writing a really thoughtful and interesting post, maybe a couple posts. It’s a great book.  But  it has a short loan period and, basically, circumstances prevent.  Let’s see what I can do here.

It’s a science fiction novel (Butler calls it “dark fantasy” but all the critics talk about it in terms of science fiction, so….) about involuntary time travel.  As she is moving into a new house with her husband in 1976, Dana is transported to another place where she must save a boy from drowning. That done, she returns, but she keeps being pulled back. Eventually, she realizes that he lives in the early nineteenth century, in Maryland, and is an ancestor of hers. This is terrifying, because she is a black woman.  Her task in being pulled back is always to save Rufus, the aforementioned white boy, which means that she returns to him at various points in his life, and we see how he’s shaped by his culture.  Dana, too, is changed by her contact with an earlier time, and is aware of herself becoming used to it in a way that disturbs her.

It’s certainly possible to read this as a way of using time travel to comment on the genre of the slave narrative, or the role of  history in making people who they are, but to me it seemed immediately to be about the conceit of time travel itself.  It’s an idea that has often been used for various purposes in science fiction; sometimes it’s enforced visits and sometimes merely time tourism, but the time traveler usually enjoys a certain sense of immunity which one doesn’t notice until reading something like this. Butler doesn’t mention that Dana is black until the point at which it becomes relevant, which makes it even more clear that time travel, like other kinds of travel, is often publicly imagined as facilitated by privilege, like other kinds of travel, I suppose.  Dana and her husband Kevin, a white man, discuss this obliquely.  Brought back with her to the nineteenth century, he laments:

“There are so many really fascinating times we could have gone back to visit.”
I laughed, without humor. “I can’t think of any time I’d like to go back to. But of all of them, this must be one of the most dangerous—for me anyway.”

In general, Kevin is more interested in history than Dana is, but it’s obviously more than that. This is a very understated acknowledgment that there isn’t, particularly, a golden age for black women, or even a time in which she would feel safe. I’ve seldom seen stories about time travel address the issue of travelers who visit a time of (greater than current) oppression for them personally, and so suddenly you are thinking about science fiction and fantasy and their assumptions about who can do what and go where.  Most stories avoid thinking about this sort of thing entirely by making their protagonists conveniently privileged.  Butler does not dodge in this way.

This isn’t good for Dana, of course.  She is brought face to face with the realities of slavery, first as a bystander, later as a more interested party, and eventually as a slave with ambiguous status.  She comes in as a person of modern sensibilities. Early in the book, she sees a man being whipped and is sickened and terrified, realizing that this is very different from the depictions she’s seen in movies. She’s shocked that people call her—well, what you’d think they’d call her—and it takes her a long time to realize that people are upset and confused about the fact that she wears pants.  Her education and the way that she speaks set her apart, but are no protection, and often a liability.  She addresses Rufus in a straightforward, direct way, and often gets away with it, because he understands (sort of) who she is, but she is quickly taught other ways, both by the slaves and the white people—to keep her eyes down and to speak respectfully.  Fitting in to the social milieu is a problem for her, and a problem with potentially violent consequences, but the social invalidation of her personhood is also a problem. One stems from the other, and while she can’t easily perform the social status expected of her, she also cannot reject it, because none of the things that make her different—her knowledge of medicine, her literacy, her strange appearances and disappearances, her link to Rufus—can permanently override her race.  Ultimately, she is disturbed to find out how easily she falls into this unfree life, and a little disgusted with herself and her own compliance with the slaveholders in many things, small and large.

To the other slaves, she is a stranger.  The knowledge I have just mentioned, which fails to save her from being assigned subhuman status, nevertheless separates her from all the other slaves, many of whom regard her with suspicion and resentment. They see her as too white, too complicit.  In her mind, Dana objects to this, noticing that they are all complicit, that there are many ways in which they avoid resistance in order to make their own lives easier.  However, she cannot truly have this conversation with them.  She understands their resentment and their rage, realizing that although she, like them, finds herself in bondage, she is still privileged relative to them, because she was not born here, and because she knows that she can go back. The social dynamics among the slaves are complicated and are complexly realized. Nigel, Sarah, Carrie, and Alice are all deep characters who have, at different times, different allegiances and attitudes, and their own ways of dealing with pain. They don’t always get along, even if they are united in their anger against the Weylins.  We can understand why each of them behaves the way they do, and even without extensive exposure to the life of the field hands, we can see the differences between the house life and the field life as well, and the divisions thus created.

Still, the differences between them and Dana are possibly smaller than one might expect. As Dana feels dismay at how much she has changed due to being treated like a slave, she does not become less angry or less certain of her own right to freedom. The difference isn’t in how she feels about herself but in the degree to which she has come to fear punishment.  And this is something worth looking at explicitly: all the slaves feel that way.  The condition of slavery as depicted in this novel is certainly not one of resignation or acceptance of that condition, but rather simmering resentment held in check only by the need for self-preservation (and not always even that).  Alice asks Dana whether she would submit to being raped by Rufus, as Alice has been forced to do, and when Dana says that she does not believe that she would, Alice asks, “Even though he’s just like your husband?”  Alice, formerly a free black woman, has been captured, made a slave, and seen her own husband sold away, and her rage at being forced to accept Rufus instead does not stop at Rufus.  She understands that everything Rufus does to her is enabled by his whiteness and, under the circumstances, it is difficult to condemn her assessment, even though we know Kevin to be a kind person who, while trapped in the nineteenth century, does what he can to help the slaves.  After all, we’ve seen Rufus grow up and change from a boy who is friends with both Alice and Nigel to a man like his father, who does not feel much compunction about keeping slaves in check.

We also get a good look at slavery as a domestic circumstance.  In a way, it is the ultimate awkward social situation; this is especially clear with Dana because she is able to have some conversations on a level with Rufus, but he can suddenly turn around and reassert his power over all of them. He and the other Weylins will converse with the slaves one minute and treat them as furniture the next.  Over the course of the novel, it begins to seem that without the well-rehearsed social expectations of dehumanization, this situation simply could not exist.  And then again, there are also very clear parallels drawn between slavery and domestic abuse.  Rufus is a frightening person precisely because he doles out punishment, then begs forgiveness, then expects submission, and then comes back around to punishment again.  He flips between charming and terrifying in classic abuser fashion, and while I don’t think anyone would deny that slavery is in fact abusive, this specific abuser behavior really points that up.

So Dana moves back and forth between a past in which she is regarded as chattel and a present in which she is a writer working on a novel, but that doesn’t mean that Butler lets 1976 off the hook, either.  Instead, she’s careful to point out the conflict in South Africa (“Tom Weylin would feel right at home,” Dana reflects), not to mention the rejection of their marriage by Kevin’s sister and the reluctant acceptance of Dana’s parents.  It’s still a struggle.  Butler is obviously cognizant that the social situation of 1976 is far preferable, but explicitly refutes the notion that the mores of the nineteenth century have vanished.

Kindred is a difficult book to read, at times.  Knowing that doesn’t make it any easier, any more than the revelation at the beginning of the book about what will happen to Dana prevents the reader from horrified cringing when it does happen.  But it is brilliant.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literary thoughts

The Locked Room: Meaning It This Time

New York TrilogyTitle: The Locked Room (Book Three of the New York Trilogy)

Author: Paul Auster

Year of Publication: 1984

LC Call Number: PS 3551 .U77 N49

Okay, so I’ve fallen way behind here, but I think it would be a good idea to finish up with the New York Trilogy so I can move on with my life, yes? I have plenty of other books waiting for their posts.

So. The third book in the trilogy is The Locked Room.  I’m still not sure of the reason for the title.  The plot shouldn’t surprise anybody who has read the first two books in the trilogy, but it manifests itself a little differently here.  A nameless, first-persoon narrator is asked to act as the literary executive of Fanshawe, who is his vanished childhood friend, and whom he hadn’t spoken to in many years.  Fanshawe’s wife presents him with this decision and ultimately, for some reason, falls in love with him.  So this sounds like a very different setup from the weird surveillance/detective stuff of the other two books, but it really isn’t.  The narrator is the bewildered detective, tailing Fanshawe and using his writing and everything he’s left to try to come to a better understanding of him. Fanshawe, like Black/White in Ghosts is actually watching the narrator and has set up this weird constructed situation in which the narrator is forced to live.  The real difference between this book and the other two is that it’s more detailed and more—maybe not more realistic but more twentieth-century novel realistic.  If you know what I mean.  The characters in this book are people with pasts rather than ciphers representing the idea of a character and the position that character is in.  They still don’t have futures, really, but, you know, one thing at a time.

Despite having a slightly better-defined personality, the narrator of The Locked Room  is just like the protagonists in the other two books in that he comes to identify with Fanshawe, to be overshadowed by his presence, and to resent both that overshadowing and the way that Fanshawe’s existence seems to determine his, the narrator’s, possible actions.  Just like the other two protagonists, he insists on a final confrontation, which results in destruction.

So this book is where the things that seem mysterious in the other books are somewhat explained.  It almost feels as if the first two books were written by the narrator of this one, as drafts for this book in which he was not yet able to articulate the entire story.  Finally, in this book, he is somewhat more explicit.  That is not to say that this is the book in which characters (or readers) break free of their existence as text-bound beings. When the narrator picks up Fanshawe’s manuscripts to examine them for potential publication, he has the strange impression that he is, in fact, carrying Fanshawe’s corpse: “I hauled the two suitcases slowly down the stairs and onto the street.  Together, they were as heavy as a man.”   He is to evaluate whether the work is worth publishing, and to destroy it if it is not.  Because he identifies Fanshaw with his work, he is uneasy about the latter possibility:

There was no difference in my mind between giving the order to destroy Fanshawe’s work and killing him with my own hands. I had been given the power to obliterate, to steal a body from its grave and tear it to pieces.

If they narrator, who knew Fanshawe before he had begun writing anything, cannot draw this distinction between author and work, then the public, who is also the fictive audience for this work, is certainly not able to do so. Because Fanshawe’s work only comes to light when his body has vanished, he cannot be known other than as the author of these works.  The narrator is careful to push us into this position, alluding repeatedly to our supposed familiarity with Fanshawe’s imaginary oeuvre.  (“Everyone knows what Fanshawe’s work is like.”)  Even Fanshawe’s wife/supposed widow, Sophie, who was never allowed to read the work prior to his disappearance, realizes that the pile of papers in the closet represents him and feels that it is interfering with her relationship with the narrator.

If Fanshawe is explicitly text, so is the narrator; the book we are reading is presumably the book that he writes about throughout, the biography of Fanshawe. So he’s not just a text, he’s a derivative text.  And of course, there’s the same identification with his target that we saw in the two other books of this trilogy.  Ultimately, the narrator publishes Fanshawe’s books, marries Fanshawe’s wife, parents Fanshawe’s child, lives on Fanshawe’s money, and is known for his relationship with Fanshawe.  And, just as in the other books, he develops a resentment toward his doppelganger that can only be resolved in seemingly arbitrary violence.  There is physical violence carried out against someone who is not actually Fanshawe but, you know, good enough, and there’s the violence of the destruction of a text, the very text which appears to hold the answers.

But there are differences between this and the other two works.

First, there’s Sophie. She’s not actually unprecedented, but there are differences.  The closest character is Virginia in City of Glass, who is married to the younger Peter Stillman but does not have sex with him. She does, however, kiss Quinn.  If we consider Peter as one of Quinn’s many doubles, then there’s a similar dynamic—becoming the romantic rival of someone that one almost is.  In this book, of course, it goes further.  The narrator immediately falls into a relationship with Sophie and marries her, at about the same time that he assumes all other parts of Fanshawe’s life.  The book strongly implies that this is intentional on Fanshawe’s part—that, in essence, he has made the narrator a gift of her.  There is an anecdote early on in this book in which Fanshawe, the narrator, and Dennis, a boy from a poor family attend a birthday party. Dennis has not been able to bring a present, so Fanshawe gives Dennis his present to give to the birthday boy.  In the end, of course, this result is the same.  This is presented as the key to Fanshawe’s personality.  There’s an uncomfortable—no, an outright creepy—resonance between that moment and the way that Sophie is handed off.  She’s not the only sexual connection between them—there’s also a scene in which they take turns with the same woman in a brothel, and a throwaway moment in which, as children, they want to spend so much time together that they ask if it is possible for them to be married when they grow up (is this the transitive property of Sophie?).  The thing is, Sophie is a character with at least a little personality of her own, less flat than most in this series, but she’s still a pawn in the larger game.  This bothered me, and it’s my least favorite part of this series.

Then, there’s the appearance of characters with the same name as the characters in the prior works. Sophie’s grandfather is Paul—is that Paul Auster, or just a coincidence?The detective hired to track Fanshawe is Quinn, and he suffers a similar fate as the Quinn of City of Glass, disappearing.  Later, when the narrator is in search of Fanshawe, he ends up tracking a man named Peter Stillman, having decided that Stillman is in fact Fanshawe.  When he catches up with Stillman, he  tells him that he, Stillman, is actually Fanshawe and that names don’t matter, and proceeds to attack him (the narrator loses this fight).  So Stillman has a similar bundle of functions to those seen in City of Glass; he represents a blurring of identities among people outside the narrator’s consciousness, and the arbitrariness of language to separate these identities, but he nonetheless continues to insist that he is not Fanshawe.  That these characters turn up again is significant mostly insofar as it helps to create the feeling I referenced above, that The Locked Room can be read as the narrator’s final draft of the story told in the other two books, the one in which he is finally able to bring himself to tell this story in a less abstract way.  So the odd role that Stillman played in the earlier novel, for instance, can be attributed to his experience with the narrator here, and many of the other things and people that continue to appear can be understood in that way.

And then there’s the ending.  In City of Glass and in Ghosts, the protagonist seeks a truth which, in true postmodern fashion, he is not able to reach.  In The Locked Room, the answer to his questions is in a notebook (a red notebook, of course) which is is given at the end of the book. Perhaps, then, in this more realistic setting, the answer can be found and revealed! It’s here before him! But no. He destroys it.  So the reader is of course denied the answer as usual, but for a different reason. Here, it’s not because the answer doesn’t exist but because the narrator does not want the reader to know.  So we end, not with the sense that we are lost in an unresolvable world of words, but with this rather violent reminder that the narrator (or the author?) is all-powerful and decides exactly what we see.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literary thoughts

Ghosts: Try It Again, with Less Reality

New York TrilogyTitle: Ghosts (Book Two of the New York Trilogy)

Author: Paul Auster

Year of Publication: 1982

LC Call Number: PS 3551 .U77 N49

Ghosts is the second book of the New York Trilogy, and at around seventy pages, it’s the shortest of the three.  In many ways, it resembles City of Glass.  Each book has as its protagonist a detective/writer who is assigned to follow another man, whom he does not understand.  In each case, those who assign the case are shadowy and impossible to contact, and in each case, this task of watching someone else ends up being the protagonist’s undoing.

Ghosts has a somewhat different denouement, but the most obvious difference between the two works is really stylistic.  City of Glass featured a set of characters whose names change hands  over the course of the novel and don’t clearly belong to anyone. The characters in Ghosts get to keep their names (with a few exceptions), but the names they are given are somewhat interchangeable.  The detective protagonist, Blue, is observing a man named Black on the orders of the mysterious White.  Blue was trained by Brown, who is now retired, and has come to this point in his career after capturing the embezzler Redman, and solving a case involving the amnesiac Gray, who after losing his memory took on the name of Green and remarried his original wife, who also changed her name from Mrs. Gray to Mrs. Green. Blue would like to be more like Gold, who has pursued the case of a mysterious dead child for years, even after his own retirement, but is instead stuck tailing Black on this meaningless mission he has been given.

What is this, I said to myself, a game of Clue?

Well… not exactly, because after all a game has an unambiguous ending with clear winners and losers, and yet it does almost feel like a game.  Auster does make more of colors than simply using them in the names, pointing them out at odd moments that made me wonder whether it was specific to this work or whether colors are always mentioned in this way but I am simply more sensitive to them because the naming scheme is so odd.  But, maybe because I spend, ahem, a non-trivial amount of time playing and thinking about board games, it was difficult for me to stop thinking of it in this way once I had begun. It’s fairly common when discussing sessions of games to refer to players by their player color, especially when one does not know them well or is not interested in them as people so much as a series of moves on a board.  As far as this goes, it is a somewhat reasonable way of considering the relationship between the reader and the characters in this book.  Of course, if you think about it carefully, all fictional characters consist of a series of actions performed in a space with clear boundaries, but the naming conventions of Ghosts underlines this reality. We have insight into only one position, Blue’s; that is the one which we are, figuratively, “playing.” We get to know Blue fairly well, because we live in his head, but our main concern for him isn’t exactly his fragile psyche so much as  what he should do next.  All around him are characters who take certain actions which he needs to predict so that he can react properly, but he’s rather bad at that.  To be fair, of course, some of them behave in ways that are also surprising to the reader. There are no clear victory conditions that we can understand, so of course their actions remain obscure to us. What is clear, however, is that Blue does not win.

Of course, there are some limitations to this reading. The characters are not competing for the same goals but all seem to have distinct victory conditions.  Some are allotted more moves than others, and some seem already to have left the game.  Blue appeals to Brown for assistance, but is refused because Brown will  no longer participate.  Gold has decided on his own that he only cares for this one case.  And by the end of the game, we learn that there is collusion between two of the players, or rather, that one player is controlling two “pieces.”

Still, if that doesn’t quite work, it does point out the reader’s distance from the story. City of Glass gave us a protagonist whose psychology we could consider, even if we didn’t fully understand it. It felt like something that, strange as it was, was happening to people in the world.  Ghosts takes almost the same story, with some trivial differences (Blue is a detective turned writer rather than a writer turned detective, the ending is different and more detective-y, etc.), but removes some of the plot complexity, turns the characters into ciphers, and generally flattens it out into an  example of the genre. Meanwhile, the story adds things like Blue’s reflection on the meanings of colors.  So, although the earlier story was already fairly unsettling, this one makes it even more so by stepping back. The relationship to other texts is still there, but now it’s all about Walden.  Blue’s character arc is at least partially about learning to read Thoreau.  I haven’t read Walden, so it’s difficult for me to comment on the work it’s doing in this text, but… certainly it can be said to simplify?

In any case, there’s a refusal to get under the surface of the characters.  As Blue doggedly tries to plumb the depths of Black’s character, he spends most of his time watching Black reading, and reflects that this is essentially the same as doing nothing, until eventually he begins reading himself.  In a way, watching someone read is the ultimate experience of alterity; the person that you are observing is having an experience of which you absolutely can know nothing. Strangely, and much like Quinn in City of Glass, Blue is for some reason unable to simply give up and go home.  There is no obvious reason he should stay; he’s getting paid, but he could just as easily get paid for doing the type of work he prefers. There’s no coercion, either. Instead, he stays at his post, long after he’s realized that he is the victim here.  He comes to identify with Black, because he is trying so hard to get inside his mind, by doing the same reading and by watching him, and finally, by breaking in and reading the notebook in which Black has been writing with a red pen (there must always be a red notebook of one type or another). In the end, all he really learns is that Black and White are the same. He’ll never understand either one of them, and his only recourse is to violence. Even reading the notebook doesn’t help—he recognizes that he already knows what it contains.

At the end, the story dissolves, and the narrator simply shrugs: “I like to think of Blue booking passage on some ship and sailing to China. Let it be China, then, and we’ll leave it at that.”

To like or dislike such a book really seems beside the point; the most I can really say about it is that it adds something to the possible readings of City of Glass.  How separate are the three books of this trilogy?


Filed under Literary thoughts

City of Glass: Not My Real Name

New York TrilogyTitle: City of Glass (Book One of the New York Trilogy)

Author: Paul Auster

Year of Publication: 1982

LC Call Number: PS 3551 .U77 N49

“My name is Paul Auster. That is not my real name.”

Oh, postmodernism, you are so simultaneously inarticulate and hyperarticulate.

City of Glass is the first book of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which seem to be concerned with postmodernism and mysteries; I’ll be writing about the other two shortly.  The story is told from the point of view of Daniel Quinn, a mystery writer who decides to try his hand at actual detective work (no, this is not a good idea). The book really is about Quinn, whose identity is strange and confusing, and about how it intersects with language and writing and his interpretation of the world.

Quinn is unusual in a few ways. First, he lives in a state of almost complete isolation. The book mentions early on that his wife and son have died. This fact is not fully addressed, even though allusions to in surface at unexpected moments throughout the text, and it seems to profoundly influence Quinn’s behavior in ways that are not analyzed or acknowledged.  His total willingness to give up on everything in his life, as well as his reaction to the families he encounters in the book, can be read as the manifestations of grief, but this is never made explicit.  But his isolation goes beyond the loss of his family. He has cut off contact with all his friends, abandoned his initial aspirations of writing poetry and essays, and instead writes mystery novels under a pseudonym which is arranged in such a way that he does not need to have any contact with his publisher.  He lives, therefore, under conditions of almost complete anonymity. He has no connection to any human being nor to the place where he lives.  He lives in New York and goes out to walk in the city in order to empty his mind: “By wandering aimlessly, all places became equal, and it no longer mattered where he was. On his best walks, he was able to feel that he was nowhere.  And this, finally, was all he ever asked of things: to be nowhere.”  Oddly, the geography of the book is actually quite specific; the thing that makes it nowhere is just Quinn’s perception that it does not really matter where it is.  The same thing applies to people, however—it does not matter who anyone is, including Quinn himself.  This becomes clear when one considers his relationship to his many pseudonyms.

This is the second, and perhaps the most important, notable characteristic of Quinn.  He experiments with pseudonyms as if they were drugs.  He writes mystery novels under the name of William Wilson, with a hero named Max Work, and early on, the novel plays a little bit with Quinn’s relationship with these two characters.  He believes that he does not closely identify with either of them; he regards Wilson “with deference, at times even admiration” while not getting to close to him.  Work, on the other hand, seems to be in some ways a replacement for Quinn.  He is the one who actually interacts with the world, while Quinn withdraws further and further into his solitude. He sees Work in some ways as an avatar: “It was not precisely that Quinn wanted to be Work, or even to be like him, but it reassured him to pretend to be Work as he was writing his books, to know he had it in him to be Work if he ever chose to be, even if only in his mind.”  At the beginning of the book, Quinn seems on an explicit level to understand that he is not either of these people, but as the narrative progresses, he becomes very angry with a woman who feels indifferent toward one of the mystery novels with Wilson’s name on the cover.  In the meantime, he is taking the activity of pretending to be Work to an entirely new level by going so far as to take on a case.

But these are not his only pseudonyms. Rather, as the book goes on, he takes on more and more.  Above, I compared the pseudonyms to drugs; this is becomes the effect of each one on his consciousness is described, and they seem to influence his admittedly bizarre behavior. One of the first to appear is Paul Auster.

…okay, yes, this is very strange.  It’s pretty common to think about the character as a stand-in for the author (just as Work seems to be), but for a character to pretend to be the author by falsely assuming his name is strange and somewhat unsettling.  This gets even stranger, as a character named Paul Auster actually does exist in this novel, and is probably distinct from Paul Auster the novelist. I think.

Anyway, Paul Auster is a pseudonym which Quinn has thrust upon him; he receives several phone calls for a detective by that name and eventually agrees to take on the case.  (Strangely, the Paul Auster who appears in the novel turns out not to be a detective at all; this is part of the novel’s refusal to answer any questions about what is really going on in the plot.)  Quinn feels that he gets to know the Paul Auster that he is more as time goes on; he notes early on that he does not know who Paul Auster is, but after the appointment with people who expect him to be Paul Auster, he begins to recognize the effects of this name upon him: “The effect of being Paul Auster, he had begun to learn, was not altogether unpleasant.  … he no longer had to walk around with the burden of his own consciousness. By a simple trick of the intelligence, a deft little twist of naming, he felt incomparably lighter and freer.”  Assuming a different identity with different expectations attached to to is very freeing for Quinn—this is not surprising, but it seems that what he is trying to escape is not necessarily the painful identity of Daniel Quinn, widower, but the very fact of stable identity in the first place. He assumes more pseudonyms later in the book. In the later chapters, he sits down to talk to the elder Peter Stillman and uses a different name each time. In the first encounter, he uses his actual name of Quinn, which is reduced to a rhyming game.  Later, he calls himself Henry Dark, which is the name of a fictitious source Stillman fabricated for the purposes of his academic writing (!), and finally, he uses Stillman’s own name, or perhaps his son’s. Of course, since both Stillman and his son are named Peter Stillman, this is ambiguous, but Henry Dark is also ambiguous—Quinn suggests that he might be a different Henry Dark, other than the one who does not exist.

But in fact, all names are ambiguous.  Quinn’s encounter with Peter, the younger Stillman, is disturbing partly because Quinn’s dead son had been named Peter.  Peter tells him that he is the last of the Stillmans, but also insists repeatedly that, “I am Peter Stillman. That is not my real name.”  As it turns out, though, nobody has a real name.  Names and identities are exposed as completely arbitrary because they are interchangeable from one character to another.  Ultimately, Quinn sheds all names and all public recognition of his identity to live in an alley. Ostensibly, this is because he is not getting a response from Peter and Peter’s wife/guardian Virginia, but his response seems totally disproportionate to his experiences.  He does not actually pay attention to the building which he is theoretically staking out; instead, he focuses on other matters, like the color of the sky, or his need to train himself to live without eating.  This is where Quinn’s identity totally dissolves.  He cannot reclaim his apartment, he cannot cash his check, and eventually he simply disappears, just as Peter and Virginia Stillman have before him.

So experimentation with alternate identities and different names seems to be a destructive life choice. But it’s not only Quinn’s name.  Nobody, as I mentioned above, has a real name.  The production of Henry Dark has already been discussed, but this idea shows up in the book in several other ways. Because Stillman apparently locked Peter up in the dark as a child, in order to see whether he would develop some kind of natural, human language, there are many references to wild children, and to the Tower of Babel, which was the subject of conspiracy theories by the fictitious Dark. Note that this means that Stillman invented Dark as a writer, so that he could put forth some conspiracy theories without claiming to believe them or taking responsibility for them in any way.  This gets tangled up with his theory about Don Quixote, who he claims was actually the author of his own story, but who behaved bizarrely in order to convince other people to write it down and promote it.  Oh, and of course Humpty Dumpty, that emblem of the arbitrary nature of language also shows up.

So what does this all add up to? Well, in good old postmodern fashion, it’s difficult to make it add up to anything.  It’s very clear that names do not identify nor do they distinguish people, which suggests that language is a muddle.  The Tower of Babel part of this is a desperate attempt to make language mean something and is shown to have a really high human cost.  The argument here isn’t so much that language is confusing and ultimately just a toy, but rather that language is very dangerous and if you mess around with it, you might lose your ability to interact with reality.

If you think about it, this is an odd argument for a book to make, but City of Glass is very conscious of this.  The Quixote matter shows this. The most important artifact in the book is Quinn’s red notebook, in which he records his observations. At the end of the book, the notebook is revealed to be the source of the narrative, but by bringing up this conspiracy theory about Don Quixote, the narrative induces the reader to be suspicious about such claims.  Who is the narrator? There is a narrator, who is separate from Quinn, and actually reveals him(?)self at the end in a conversation with Auster-the-character, in which the latter’s failure to take action on Quinn’s behalf is condemned.  “He will be with me always,” remarks this narrator.  This is a curious outcome in a story in which Auster-the-character looks a lot like a less tragic version of Quinn, with a surviving wife and son and an ability to resist getting sucked into these strange experiences, especially where characters and authors are both conflated and kept separate in such a strange way.

What does it all mean? Nobody knows, nobody can knows, and those who try to find out are punished.


Filed under Literary thoughts

The Sketch Book: Literary Tourism

Cover of The Sketch BookTitle: The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.

Author: Washington Irving

Date of Publication:1820

LC Call Number: PS 2060 .S54

A warning—this post is about as personal as I intend to get on this blog. That doesn’t mean it’s incredibly personal; maybe slightly more so than my post on American Gods, but just—well, as Neil Gaiman would say, contains me.

So this is the kind of person that I am—I planned a trip up into the Catskills, which by the way are beautiful and totally worth visiting—and I decided to prepare for this trip by reading some Washington Irving, because what or who is more closely associated with the Catskills than Irving is?

So, I picked up The Sketch Book, which I’d actually read twice before, so I should have known that this was a slightly silly thing to do, because most of the stories are about Irving’s travels (or his narrator, who perhaps isn’t exactly Irving) through England. Still, it includes Irving’s most famous stories, “Rip Van Winkle”  and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” both of which are pretty firmly rooted in the Catskills, along with a couple of others that take place in a very American, very East Coast setting.

As a descriptive work giving me access to the landscape from another viewpoint at the same time, this (or at least, the American parts of it) is very effective. I hiked along the escarpment until I got to the site of an old hotel, gone now, overlooking a grand valley, full of trees of every color, through which the Hudson flowed and the shadows of clouds floated, a favorite vista of the Hudson River School of painters, and I read from “Rip Van Winkle”

Panting and fatigued, he threw himself, late in the afternoon, on a green knoll, covered with mountain herbage, that crowned the brow of a precipice.  From an opening between the trees, he could overlook all the lower country for many a mile of rich woodland.  He saw at a distance the lordly Hudson, far, far below him, moving on its silent but majestic course, with the  reflection of a purple cloud, or the sail of a lagging bark, here and there sleeping on its glassy bosom, and at last losing itself in the blue highlands. On the other side he looked down into a deep mountain glen, wild, lonely and shagged, the bottom filled with fragments from the  impending cliffs, and scarcely lighted by the reflected rays of the setting sun.

This is a little later in the afternoon than it was for me, but still—it looked almost exactly like that, and that’s an astonishing feeling for someone who comes from a region which most of the books are not about. It’s even more amazing when you consider that Irving refers to the Catskills as “these fairy mountains,” precisely because “every change of season, every change of weather, indeed, every hour of the day, produces some change in the magical hues and shapes of these mountains,” and yet, these changes are predictable enough that we were able to go there and catch them.  Reading about a landscape, and then hiking through it, is a pretty remarkable experience for me—it makes both the landscape and the story more real, as if I were able to have the same experience or at least perceive the same things as another person.  (Generally, my outlook tends to be more Blakean: “The fool sees not the same tree that the wise man sees.”)

Of course, what’s curious about this is that it seems to be almost exactly the opposite of the effect intended.  Irving calls his book The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, rather than his own name, a decision which tends to disclaim the stories included therein, and the two stories which are the most concerned with this area have another layer of distance added to them, as they are instead attributed to the fictitious Diedrich Knickerbocker, who seems himself to have been something of a folklorist and picked them up from the people around him.  Surely there is a little irony in the fact that Irving’s most famous works are these two stories for which he went to such trouble to avoid taking responsibility, stacking them under layers of pseudonyms.

I will note, however, that the presence of a supernatural or apparently supernatural element seems to trigger this desire—“The Spectre Bridegroom” also invokes the possibility of the supernatural, and is attributed to a traveler Irving meets in an inn. This is the case even though in both “The Spectre Bridegroom” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” the spooky occurrences are logically explained by the end of the story. In “The Mutability of Literature,” our narrator has a long conversation with a cranky old book, without resorting to such stratagems, but it it is made clear that this is a dream.  The rest of the stories have no supernatural element.

In any case, it is quite clear that Irving is very interested in America and how it is perceived, so that although “The Voyage,” which comes early in the book and describes his journey to England, claims that by traveling over the Atlantic by ship is sufficient to erase all ties with the United States and give Irving a “state of mind peculiarly fitted to receive new and vivid impressions,” he includes some American stories and is, in fact, constantly referring back to his native country.  One of the first essays in the book is “English Writers on America,” in which he laments the lack of good writing which would, in his view, properly represent the United States to the British.  This essay is almost the definition of American exceptionalism, even while it, somewhat hilariously, claims that the US is or can become free of national prejudices (and this claim follows on the heels of Irving’s complaint that British scholars ought to study important things, like American society, rather than unimportant things, like the history and society of countries in Africa and Asia.  This is pretty racist, right? I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is pretty racist.).  In any case, his American perspective shows up elsewhere: in “The Angler,” he remembers his somewhat hilarious attempt to follow Izaak Walton’s fishing advice in incompatible American streams, when he meets up with a Welsh fisherman who reminds him strongly of the philosophy of The Compleat Angler.  And of course, as I’ve noted before, the two most famous stories of this collection, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” are very strongly rooted in a very specific region of the American countryside.  Well, I haven’t quite discussed “Sleepy Hollow” as much as “Rip Van Winkle,” but it is similar in that respect, although it’s not quite as close to where I was!

There are two more pieces in this book about America—specifically, they are two interlinked pieces about Native Americans.  The first is called “Traits of Indian Character” and  is an essay, while the second, “Philip of Pokanoket” is the story of that particular individual (probably known to my fellow board gamers because of the existence of a somewhat controversial wargame titled King Philip’s War).  These  two pieces are a curious blend of racism and anti-racism.  Irving buys into several stereotypes and Eurocentric assumptions about Native Americans, starting out by describing “the North American savage” as “ stern, simple and enduring; fitted to grapple with difficulties, and to support privations.” Irving certainly isn’t free of the temptation to paint romantic pictures of The Noble Savage, and he really lets the US government off the hook, but at the same time, he also advocates for their better treatment and astutely points out that they have been described “by bigoted and interested writers” and that these prejudiced accounts had done a great deal of harm in the lives of the Native Americans: “The colonist has often treated them like beasts of the forest; and the author has endeavored to justify him in his outrages.”  Irving goes on to argue that the white colonists have not respected the rights of the Native Americans, that the vices often ascribed to them are in fact those created by their status in white society (or lack thereof), that their reaction to adversity is critiqued not because of how they react but because of who they are, and that to criticize Native Americans for reneging on treaties is in fact the height of hypocrisy.  He gives a sympathetic account of King Philip in which he deplores the bloodshed perpetrated by the white colonists.  Now, while doing all this, he certainly doesn’t express himself in a way that a social justice advocate would find free of error, and he reveals his biases when he talks about “civilization,” and when he treats them, essentially, like Tolkien’s elves at the end of both pieces—noble beings who will soon, alas, be gone from the world.  That part isn’t great. But it’s still remarkable to find such a sympathetic treatment and such awareness of the damage done by racism in a book published in 1820.

Irving also writes quite a bit about what he thinks of British character (“John Bull” is interesting and I truly don’t know what to make of it), and especially about traditional British Christmas, which seems to really fascinate him.  I suspect him of fabricating some characters for convenience when he writes about this, but that is neither here nor there. What is interesting is that Irving’s tourism, too, seems largely informed by his reading.  He writes about visiting libraries and looking at books in “The Art of Book-Making” and “The Mutability of Literature.” This is a way for him to think about literature in general. I was amused to find that the latter includes moment in which Irving laments the proliferation of writers brought about by improvements in technology:

Formerly there were some restraints on this excessive multiplication. …  Authorship was a limited and unprofitable craft, pursued chiefly by monks in the leisure and solitude of their cloisters.  The accumulation of manuscripts was slow and costly, and confined almost entirely to     monasteries. To these circumstances it may, in some measure, be owing that we have not been inundated by the intellect of antiquity; that the fountains of thought have not been broken up, and modern genius drowned in the deluge.  But the inventions of paper and the press have put an end to all these restraints.  They have made everyone a writer, and enabled every mind to pour itself into print, and diffuse itself over the whole intellectual world. The consequences are alarming. The stream of literature has swollen into a torrent—augmented into a river— expanded into a sea.

This is an argument familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to the debates over e-books and self publishing.  Obviously, it’s older than that.

However, Irving’s interest isn’t limited to general observations about literature.  Instead, he engages in an early form of fan tourism, looking for a landscape that is familiar to him from literature; specifically, he wants to hunt down scenes from Shakespeare. He spends some time in London looking for the Boar’s Head Tavern and is delighted to find a painting of it.  He visits Stratford and tries to believe everything that people tell him about their connections to the life of Shakespeare and the relics that are there.  His interest in Shakespeare is certainly different from mine—he’s really interested in Falstaff and puts a lot of stock in the deer-poaching story—but it’s clear that this is an author who means a lot to him and who has provided at least some of his reason to travel, and that he sees scenes from Shakespeare and from descriptions of Shakespeare’s life as he visits these places.

There is something nicely symmetrical about this—me, reading The Sketch Book to enhance my travels in the Catskills, while The Sketch Book details the relationship between Irving’s reading and his writing. While it’s true that Irving will never mean as much to me as Shakespeare obviously does to him (sorry, WI), I enjoy this additional similarity between my reading and my experience.

Leave a comment

Filed under Literary thoughts