The Book of Chloe by Chloe Harris

Some years I’m lucky enough to teach a course I’ve designed called Writing for Life. In it, I help students write personal statements for scholarships, internships, or professional and graduate schools. I also work with them as they write personal essays. My aim is to help students see that writing is inextricable from thinking, and, as such, that writing is an important part of a reflective life, no matter what one’s eventual life path.

All students have been affected by COVID-19. But I have particular sympathy for the students of the Class of 2020, who have been denied those important, bittersweet last moments of triumph, expectation, and longing that compose the final weeks of a college career.

As a small way of compensating some of those students–as well as to highlight some outstanding work from my class–I asked three students who wrote particularly excellent final essays if I could share their work here.

The final assignment was to write about an important object in their lives in a way that case light on the object, on the writer, and on some concept or idea that could only be reached by thinking about the relationship between writer and object.  This year, I gave students the choice of reflecting on their experience of the pandemic. I think it will be clear which direction each student chose. At the end of the essay, you can learn more about the writer.

Today’s essay is by Chloe Harris. It is titled The Book of Chloe. You can read the two earlier essays in this series here and here.

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The author’s mother showing off some of her crosses.

The Book of Chloe

I like to read. I used to love to read. My younger self dove into book after book, living vicariously through the main characters, losing all touch with reality while my eyes drank in the details. You would find me curled up on a bench during recess, sneaking to the bathroom during dinner or with a flashlight late at night, catching up with my favorite friends.

When my focus returned to the present, I was involved in a program called National Girls Ministries from Kindergarten to 8th grade. In the later years of the program, we were expected to read the bible every week and write about what we learned. My initial resentment of the assignment for taking me away from the mystical world of wizards and dragons wore away when I started reading more of this Good Book. War, love, sacrifice, betrayal – I couldn’t put it down, reading more than I was assigned every night. I read the entire collection cover to cover, rereading the books that interested me the most. I always skipped Numbers, but Exodus, Thessalonians, Ezekiel, Job and Revelations had pages nearly ripped at the spine from the many times I flipped back through the stories.

I was forging my own sermons by the time I was 11 and even wrote a song for the choir to sing during a Sunday morning service. For each resonating passage I found, I’d practice the way I’d interpret it in front of my mirror, throwing in phrases I’d heard in church and long pauses to build suspense. I suppose this is the first place I found my love for taking leadership, expressing my opinions, connecting with those around me. When I think about the bible, I often think about my father. We shared many moments discussing the verses and relating words written nearly 3000 years ago to twenty-first-century society. He taught me how to see beyond the words, finding meaning hidden in the verses. Our back-and-forth sharpened my mind, opening my eyes to perspectives I hadn’t considered in my initial readings of the captivating stories.

My relationship with religion, and with my father, was commensal. I was a remora fish suctioned on to the belly of large shark. I gained a lot from the shark when I was younger: Protection, nutrients, a great community. Eventually, though, I realized the shark was not gaining anything from me, ignoring my presence when I asked where we were going or suggested an alternate route. Something once so integral to my identity is now only a fading memory.

My parents had been divorced for many years, but my mother opened a new case for custody when I was in 8th grade. She won, and after moving out of my father’s home, I was able to start forming my own opinions. I started questioning the connections we drew from the scriptures more often during the weekends I spent with him. My father’s responses were condescending, rigid, and offered little for my understanding. The more I asked, the harsher his reactions became. A shark snapping at the small fish that swam too close to its snout.

“I don’t understand why God allowed Job to be tortured” My words tip-toed from my mouth as I skimmed over the pages of one of my favorite chapters.

“Mmm? Why’s that?” His eyes peered through his reading glasses as he sorted through papers scattered across the coffee table, too preoccupied to see my furrowed brow.

“Aren’t we supposed to resist Satan’s temptation? It seems like Satan was goading God and rather than ignoring it, God felt challenged and Job suffered for it.” I glanced up from the passage to see my father glaring at me, his glasses pulled away from his face as if to make sure the small windows weren’t impeding his anger. He regurgitated the lesson on how God will test us and the next day, our devotion was centered around what happens to those whose faith strays.

My questions soon turned into statements of disbelief and angry mutterings as my relationship with God became seemingly one-sided and futile. I was tired of hearing “read these verses and pray about it” when I wanted validation. I’m not sure when exactly it happened, but the book I used to love transformed into a tiresome riddle that I was weary of reading. Anger lingered around me for a long time. My anger grew when I couldn’t justify my faith any longer or discuss scripture with my youth group without a cynical shadow looming over the conversations. It exploded when my mom finally told me that the church had shunned her, the kindest woman I have ever known, even as the pastor preached acceptance and community in every sermon. It simmered when I realized the only connection I had with my father was our shared love of the bible and mine was dissipating. I was just angry, and all my rage was directed at God and everything about him.

My father and I never recovered our relationship after I rejected my faith. I haven’t seen him since the summer after my 9th grade year and reading the bible only opens a wound that isn’t fully healed. I stopped going to church services, removed myself from youth group chats and threw away the extensive scripture journal I kept, distancing myself from any reminders of religion. I became the shark, refusing to acknowledge any part of my past that remained attached to me. At least until my mom came home with an obsession with crosses.

My mom’s crazy addiction for the simple shape made seeing them bearable. The excitement and joy she radiated when a new cross settled into its space on the wall made it difficult to look at the shape with disdain. I found myself drawn to her reactions. All giggles and scrunched noses and happy dances while she hung the ones my brothers and I would give her. Mom’s joy was infectious. She was always 100% herself, with chaotic decorations, loud laughter, and random bursts of energy.

During my years in high school, I saw my momma cry for herself for the first time and many more times. Her post-partum depression deepened when we found out she needed surgery to remove a tumor from her cervix. Her hormonal instability worsened when menopause wreaked her endocrine system and she found out my little sister had sensory OCD. Her heart broke when her husband cheated on her and she was facing yet another divorce that she knew would be difficult for everyone involved. I watched her strain to maintain her happiness while the world continually threw shots at her, as if it were trying to find her breaking point. But she never broke. I think the crosses had something to do with it. Despite loving her reactions to them, I was not exactly thrilled about the dozens of crosses gracing the wall right across from our front door. They were obnoxious and loud, with giant gemstones, bright colors, and mismatched patterns painted on the limbs, but I think I think the crosses made her feel closer to God. They reminded her she could shift some of the weight of her burdens onto His shoulders and He would take them, the same way Jesus took them when He carried a cross through Jerusalem.

I started to appreciate God for helping my mom even if I could not bring myself to repair my relationship with Him. He was helping her be who she really was underneath the pain and those crosses reminded her of that. They reminded her of the love she was able to give. During my Pentecostal upbringing, countless sermons reminded me to let the Lord’s light shine from within us. “Show others the kindness and mercy of our savior, let Him lead them to the light through you.” I cannot think of a more light-filled person than mom. Working as a nurse for more than half her life, the patients my mom has taken care of remember her. The words “nurse Kristy” shout to her from across parking lots and in grocery stores when people recognize the woman who took the time to care about who they were rather than what they were diagnosed with. Visiting her at work and seeing the smiles she could bring to the faces of those riddled with cancer and losing hope fueled my determination to make a difference in the medical field – to have her light shining from within me. I strove for many years to shine the way she does, letting the love of God fill her so that when people are around her, they can feel the love too. Her selflessness, empathy, and wholehearted kindness leak from her as if she’s made of a porous material that cannot contain it all. She took a small, simple symbol, and shaped it into something that gave her strength, resilience, openness, and the ability to change.

The older I get, the more I see how much of my mother seeps out of me. I laugh while I’m crying when watching sappy movies, I jump up and down, singing out my words when I’m excited, I cry for my friends and dance to songs in my head when I’m bored. Though my interior design skills are far superior, I am so proud to be her mirror image. The first cross my mom bought was large, nearly 3 feet of bronze decorated with elegant twirls of metal, twisting in and out of large gaps found at the end of each limb. The middle of the cross was a raised hemisphere with small curled knobs circling it, once a dark brown, now shining with oil from the many times my mom rubbed it as she passed. A small gesture reminding her she was okay.

“What you don’t like this one? EEEEK I love it! Y’all know I have my special style!” I raised an eyebrow as mom threw up her arms and pretended to cock a shotgun holding the hot-pink trimmed zebra printed cross in her hands. Hiding my grin, I rolled my eyes and watched her struggle to find space for it on the crowded wall. My eyes skimmed over the bedazzled, glittering objects, falling on the Dallas Cowboys themed cross she was moving to the side and laughing as I cringed. She started humming some hymn I vaguely recognized from church. I felt my chest squeeze tight and the grin drop from my mouth as that familiar feeling of resentment settled over me.

Though my mother and I are so similar, I am sometimes lacking in her ability to let things go, change her thinking and move forward without burdens. My anger toward God fueled an ongoing battle between my past self and the person I was becoming. It took a lot of energy to house all that hatred, to blame a single entity for every negative aspect of my past and work to forget a lifetime of experiences. For a long time, I saw my religious past and the relationship I had with my father as something that needed to be cut off so that I could grow into who I was meant to be. I realize now that I did not lose a part of myself when my opinions and beliefs contradicted the rigid interpretations my father had laid out for me. I reshaped it. I reshaped it the way my mom is constantly reshaping herself so she is not consumed by morbid and harmful realities and can accept the world as it is.

My religious past gave me critical thinking skills. Sitting criss-cross applesauce at the end of my bed, my neck craned over the yellowing pages of a bible, I saw more than laws and stories. I found my opinions. I owned my voice. When reading essays and research articles, I appreciate their beauty and intelligence, but still critique and interpret their meanings.  The bible gave me a curious mind and a desire to understand the afflictions of those suffering. I am not easily satisfied with unanswered questions. I push and I speculate, and I can change my mind. My mom’s relationship with crosses reminded me of my ability to see things in different perspectives while respecting each one. She helped to put aside the pain I held onto. I am still a shark. Swimming along with my remora fish, no longer ignoring the suggestions and lessons they have, I use their guidance to build my own path. I do not have the same relationship with my father or God as I once did, but I am grateful for the things they taught me.

“This is great, Chloe Anne-Marie. You wrote this all by yourself?” I struggle to picture the blurry face of my father as he said these words the first time I brought him a sermon. Written in purple marker with small yellow flowers, orange fish and blue crosses decorating the borders, the paper filled me with pride. “You need to reference the bible more often though,” his cheery tone turned flat, “or these are just your words and not words that were given to you by God.” I watched as he stenciled in possible verses, slashing his black ball point pen through the words I had practiced a dozen times in the mirror. My eyes glued themselves to the wrinkles lining his forehead while my teeth dug into the soft flesh of my cheek. I wrote two sermons later that night. One was written in pen, with the addition of versus and quotes from the bible lying neatly on my father’s desk. The other, a replica of the original, hanging beside my bed, signed Chloe Harris.

Fin

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Born and raised in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Chloe Harris graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in biochemistry and molecular biology from Hendrix College. She will go on to work in a urology clinic during her gap year before attending medical school next fall. When she isn’t making detailed lists or talking off her friends’ ears, she’s covered in paint and hunched over a canvas. 

“Hidden Within the Darkest Part of Myself”: Malicroix, the Gothic, and the Experience of the Unknown by Nat Leach

As always, I’m delighted to post writing by my friend Nat Leach. Here Nat contextualizes Henri Bosco’s Malicroix (1948) twice over: by thinking about its uneasy relation to Gothic literature, and by comparing it to contemporary works by the theorists Maurice Blanchot and Emmanuel Levinas. The resulting essay made sense of much of the novel for me. Enjoy!

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Literature can create an experience that, illusory or not, appears as a means of discovery and an effort not to express what one knows but to experience what one does not know.

—Maurice Blanchot, The Work of Fire, 1949, trans. Charlotte Mandell.

Reading Henri Bosco’s Malicroix (originally published in 1948, and recently re-published by NYRB in a new translation by Joyce Zonana) put me in mind of the work of some of his contemporary French writers of the late 40’s, such as Blanchot and Emmanuel Levinas, and the above passage from Blanchot resonated very much with my experience of reading the book. Not only does the protagonist, alone on a strange island, reflect on his own strange experience, but readers are confronted with an unknown world that does not entirely correspond either with their sense of the real world or with their expectations of fiction. While Bosco employs conventions from genres such as the adventure novel and the Gothic novel, he takes them in unfamiliar directions.

The plot itself appears straightforward: the protagonist, Martial de Mégremut, inherits his uncle’s property on the condition that he not leave the remote island on which his house is located for a period of three months, and that he accomplish an as yet unspecified action after that period has expired. The inheritance is not particularly lucrative, but Martial’s determination (which surprises even himself) to remain on the island creates conflict with his uncle’s notary, Dromiols, who tries to induce him to leave. While this is the stuff of adventure novels, it’s also significant that the most dramatic encounter with this antagonist takes place about 2/3 of the way through the book. This underscores that the book is much more about Martial’s internal struggles, of which he himself is sometimes only dimly aware.

Bosco establishes the dominant conflict within his protagonist in the first few pages of the book. Martial belongs to the “gentle and patient” Mégremut family, which is characterized by its amiable sociability, but his uncle Cornélius, from whom he inherits, was, conversely, the last of the line of the Malicroix, a passionate and prideful lineage. Cornélius himself was a wild and anti-social being, and we soon learn that these characteristics were the product of an unhappy past linked to these negative qualities of his line.

Many of the characters, Martial himself included, question whether he is a “true” Malicroix, possessing as he does the “blood” but not the “name” of Malicroix. From the beginning, Martial acknowledges the presence of the Malicroix blood “hidden within the darkest part of myself” and this hidden force often seems to dictate his actions throughout the book, as when his conscious mind decides to leave the island even as he unconsciously determines to stay. The structure of the book suggests that Martial’s journey is a progression from Mégremut (the title of the book’s first section) to Malicroix (the title of its final section), but the ending actually complicates this opposition, showing the Mégremuts to have an unexpected toughness, while Cornélius’ final request has an unexpectedly redemptive quality to it. One significant question raised by the ending, then, is whether Martial’s actions succeed in harmonizing these two dimensions of his character, or whether he remains fundamentally split between them.

Another way of framing this opposition is that the Mégremuts represent sociability and communicability, or the beautiful as opposed to the obscurity and secrecy of the Malicroix sublime. Martial notes of his family: “We are not given to unvoiced sorrow or silent reproach. Faces and gestures speak; voices confirm. In this gentle family we love each other too much not to confess everything, especially the reproaches, the sorrow, the deep roots of tenderness.” Martial moves from the family hearth where everything is expressed directly on the surface to the mysterious island where nothing is clear. His solitude and the force of the elements (powerful winds and blinding snow) produce insomniac reveries and, eventually, feverish dreams as he falls ill after collapsing in the snow. At the height of his solitary anxiety, he observes that “I suspected that because my situation was not reasonable, it concerned my whole self, not just my reason. It was up to my soul to speak, but my soul was silent.” This sums up much about the book; it takes us beyond a merely rational apprehension of events towards their deeper, hidden meanings, which nevertheless remain mysterious. In other words, it reveals the Malicroix at the heart of every Mégremut.

This lesson is also suggestive of the book’s associations with the Gothic genre. On the surface, it is a very Gothic book indeed, with its solitary, foreboding house, mysterious will, passionate, anti-social ancestor with a traumatic past and even a woman with a strange ghost-like quality. The troubling of the distinction between Mégremut and Malicroix is also typical of the Gothic’s tendency to blur boundaries between the rational and the irrational, the human and the inhuman, communal order and individual desire. Categories that, on the surface, appear to be opposites are shown in fact to be intricately implicated with one another at a deeper, unconscious or secret level.

The book also Gothically hints at the possibility of supernatural agency, but these hints are neither confirmed nor rationalized away, leaving it in the category designated by Tzvetan Todorov as “the fantastic,” which constitutes a “hesitation” between the real and the imaginary. The action of the book thus takes on a dreamlike quality, resistant to the faculty of reason and consequently to the limiting logic of genre. For example, when Martial is rescued by a mysterious woman (who later gives her name as Anne-Madeleine, while insisting that this is just her “name of this earth”), we are made to wonder whether she is a supernatural figure come to nurse him back to health, a femme fatale come to deceive him, or just an ordinary woman who lives nearby. She functions in the narrative, variously, as all of these things, but in the end, there is no definitive answer, and only the rational mind would insist on one; it is Martial’s often indistinct perceptions of her that are most significant in this book.

In fact, this is a book full of ambiguous and shifting characters, which seem to correspond to some dimension of Martial’s psyche rather than following their own internal logic. Like Anne-Madeleine, Dromiols’ clerk, “Uncle Rat,” and the old shepherd Balandran veer abruptly between appearing as threats or helpers; for example, Balandran’s initial surliness, coupled with the fact that he stands to inherit if Martial defaults on the conditions of the will, lead us to expect him to become a significant obstacle in the narrative. Instead, he quite suddenly transfers his loyalty to Martial. Only Bréquillet, Balandran’s dog, is consistent in his character, one of steadfast canine loyalty.

Even Bosco’s brief “Notice” to the reader at the beginning of the book frames it as a Gothic text, explaining that some 40 pages that “form a separate, private account” have been removed and that “only someone truly qualified for such revelations might one day break the seal”. This minor detail already suggests the major themes of the book: its secrecy and the notion that there is a single “proper” reader of the secret, just as Martial is the single proper reader of the codicil to Cornelius’ will.

But this centrality of Martial—which is undeniable, as everything is focalized through him—is troubled the fact that his own sense of identity is uncertain and shifting. For example, before his final confrontation with Dromiols, he observes the face of his adversary, unperceived:

Into this mask had flowed a massive thought whose immobility revealed savagery, stubbornness. It fascinated me. For this thought was me, and most likely Dromiols was actually seeing me, inside himself. Troubling impression of presence. I was there. I was solely there. Did I have a life, a will, outside that savage head whose slow meditation revolved around my weak figure? I obsessed him; I was his anxiety, what haunted him.

Bosco goes beyond the convention of the Gothic double in which the antagonist mirrors the protagonist and represents his darker impulses; rather, the distinction between the two characters seems to collapse completely as Martial describes Dromiols by describing his perception of himself within Dromiols, while simultaneously demonstrating Dromiols’ power over him, as they mutually “obsess” and “fascinate” one another.

The “troubling impression of presence” described here characterizes much of the book, and suggests a more troubling experience of the unknown than is typically conveyed in the Gothic. Martial speaks of himself as inhabiting some level of being that goes beyond his experience of his own identity. It is in this respect that the book particularly made me think of Levinas and Blanchot, whose works of the late ‘40s (and beyond) articulate a sense of a self that is not an autonomous master of the world, but is inescapably chained to it. Levinas, for example, writes about what he calls the “there is,” the inescapable fact of being that eludes the rational mind’s attempt to reduce all phenomena to objects of knowledge. Martial is plagued by this kind of anxiety-inducing awareness of the world around him. Compare, for example, Martial’s reflections:

The sharpness of these sensations soon grew so strong I began to suffer from a kind of pure insomnia. Not a normal state of wakefulness, in which confusion alternates with mental effort and is prolonged. I felt as if I had fallen prey to a dry lucidity. A hypervigilance refused to surrender any shadow to self-forgetfulness, and I remained painfully aware of everything.

to Levinas’s:

Insomnia is constituted by the consciousness that it will never finish—that is, that there is no longer any way of withdrawing from the vigilance to which one is held. Vigilance without end (Time and the Other, 1948, Trans. Richard A. Cohen)

This experience of the anonymous, unshakeable awareness of “being” seems to be something more than the anti-social “blood” of the Malicroix talking, a more profound experience of the unknown than that associated with the Gothic.

This contrasts with the book’s ending, which is active as opposed to passive, and describes an action that can only be completed by one person: Martial. One might therefore be tempted to read this as a progression from Martial’s initial state of undifferentiated being on the island to his specialized status as the last of the Malicroix, but again, this seems too simple; the final action is less a resolution than a gesture in the direction of some kind of new order. The book ends without dispelling its profoundly unsettling apprehension of something not just unknown, but perhaps unknowable, because, as Martial says, it is not simply rational but concerns the “whole” silent, irrational “self”.

Split by Connor Onitsuka

Some years I’m lucky enough to teach a course I’ve designed called Writing for Life. In it, I help students write personal statements for scholarships, internships, or professional and graduate schools. I also work with them as they write personal essays. My aim is to help students see that writing is inextricable from thinking, and, as such, that writing is an important part of a reflective life, no matter what one’s eventual life path.

All students have been affected by COVID-19. But I have particular sympathy for the students of the Class of 2020, who have been denied those important, bittersweet last moments of triumph, expectation, and longing that compose the final weeks of a college career.

As a small way of compensating some of those students–as well as to highlight some outstanding work from my class–I asked three students who wrote particularly excellent final essays if I could share their work here.

The final assignment was to write about an important object in their lives in a way that case light on the object, on the writer, and on some concept or idea that could only be reached by thinking about the relationship between writer and object.  This year, I gave students the choice of reflecting on their experience of the pandemic. I think it will be clear which direction each student chose. At the end of the essay, you can learn more about the writer.

Today’s essay is by Connor Onitsuka. It is titled Split.

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The author’s bike, front left

Split

            It can’t be that hard, right? The thin tires on the 52-inch road bike stared me down as I hoisted myself over the seat. What are these things where the pedals should be? Setting my feet on the clip-on pedals, I rubbed around on the smooth, oval-shaped pedals to try to get a better grip. When I shifted my whopping 112 pounds of weight onto the cracked seat of the bike, the pale white frame creaked a little. I pushed off to a wobbling start, straining my hands on the short bullhorn handles, struggling to stay balanced. After a block, though, I was getting used to the thin tires. Faster. With each revolution of the wheel, I felt my anxieties whip away, my stressors left far behind. Before I knew it, my twists and turns around the block had taken me right back.

“How was it?” Mom asked. She told me she’d pay for half of a cheap road bike so I could shuttle myself to and from school, since she worked over forty minutes away.

“I think it’ll work.”

I spent my years of high school running. Not in the literal sense: I quit cross country my sophomore year. The competitive aspect of cross country, the meets, the expectation to improve, and the daily time commitment drove me away from it rather quickly. Instead, with my new-used bike, I pedalled away from everything I loathed, as fast and as often as I could.

For a beginner’s road bike, the vintage Bianchi I found on Craigslist in my sophomore year wasn’t all that bad. Mom and I took it to a bike shop after we bought it, where we were told that a few spokes on each wheel had cracked. It rode fine though. Mom paid for the tune up and every safety-related item imaginable: a helmet, 650 lumen light, Kryptonite U-lock, flat repair kit, and some shiny reflectors to tie around my ankles at night. The bill came out in the hundreds. Though expensive, it was not the last price Mom would pay after we bought the bike. Rather than simple, reliable transportation, she bought my liberation – from my responsibilities, from school, and tragically, from our relationship.

By high school, my near-perfect relationship with Mom had changed drastically. Throughout my parent’s divorce, I spent most of my time with Mom, who won primary custody over me and my sister. We preferred spending time with her anyway; Dad was an ass. Mom has always been caring and silly, and provided a solid foundation for us throughout a chaotic divorce. As my sense of humor and identity developed through elementary and middle school, she and I would banter about the girls I might or might not, but definitely didn’t like, or how my sister might never stop wearing striped skirts and checkered knee-highs. Unfortunately, the once playful banter between Mom and I became harsh and hurtful when I started high school.

Mom and I fought and bickered daily after the first semester of my freshman year. She questioned me about my choice in friends, my time spent playing video games each day, or why I was acting like I was high on a drug I’ve never done. We drove to school in a tan 1999 Camry that was sunbleached and crunchy, constantly requiring some kind of tune-up or replacement. The Camry was a replacement for Mom’s reliable Honda Odyssey that had been totaled in an unfortunate run-in with FedEx.

Unlike the Odyssey, riding in the Camry was a trap. Not so much because it was unreliable—although it was: the windows worked about half of the time, and the locks even less—but because when I was in the car with Mom, it was lecture time. On shorter drives, I would get a quick check in on my attendance or a comment about how Mom hadn’t slept well because I was up all night yelling at my video games. On the longer drives, quippy remarks would metamorphose into a full-fledged life lesson I’d heard four times before. I felt penned in by the Camry, and I figured that I could probably get to anything within the city faster on my little white bike.

It’s hard for me to tell whether getting a bike was ultimately beneficial. Aside from the obvious boon of physical exercise, it helped me find a new pastime after quitting soccer and cross country. It saved me from playing more than 8 hours of video games alone in my room, instead shuttling me to my friends’ houses, where we could play video games together in their rooms. At the same time, I hurt myself and my relationship with Mom by getting a bike. I crashed an absurd number of times, with permanent scars serving as ugly reminders. Out of all of the safety items Mom had bought, I used the light when night came, the U-lock, and sometimes the helmet. I remember sneaking home a bloody meat crayon, lucky to have avoided broken bones and brain damage, avoiding Mom’s concerned gaze as I scuttled up to my room.

By my senior year, my goal of being valedictorian had been downshifted to “show up today.” A combination of boredom and stressors from home and school made going to class feel suffocating. Ironically, Mom had helped me buy my bike, and in turn, she lost her son for the better portion of two years. It turns out my bike hadn’t just provided freedom, it also contributed towards a twisted retaliation against my wonderful mom.

This retaliation manifested itself in my school attendance. Due to a failure in my high school’s attendance policy, I could have as many absences or tardies as I wanted, as long as I showed up to class once every two weeks. Mom let me bike myself to school, so over my final semester in high school, I accrued ninety-eight absences and thirty-something tardies. Though I typically attended my difficult classes like AP physics and calculus, my grades and classroom relationships suffered. For the first twenty or so absences, Mom received a call from the school and begged me to get to school on time. After weeks of daily voicemails, she gave up. Liberated from her lectures attempting to make me go to class, I capitalized on my victory by continuing my rampant streak of delinquency, unaware of the stress Mom was shouldering on my behalf.

My relationship with Mom improved drastically after I left for college. College itself was another attempt at an escape, but when I came home for the longer breaks, things were as though the last few years had never happened. We were back to our usual banter, complaining about my sister’s messy room or how our evil cat wouldn’t let us pet her. I still went on bike rides, though they weren’t meant to escape so much as a means of simple transportation.

Petty crime had been steadily rising in Portland while I was away for school, according to Mom. My now rickety old white bike, despite no longer looking like something remotely worth stealing, disappeared one afternoon. The U-lock was left cracked and discarded a few feet from the bike stand. For the rest of the summer, I opted to take rides with Mom in her old Camry that had just crested 200,000 miles. What once guaranteed long lectures with no escape became another place Mom and I could make up for lost time – I was happy to ask for rides, or drive when she didn’t want to.

The bike had been stolen once before, too. During my junior year, my attendance began wavering, especially for classes scheduled earlier in the mornings. Shortly after winter break, I woke up to the sound of my laptop playing YouTube videos, still running by autoplay from the night before. It was already 10:00. At this point in my high school career, I still felt remorseful for missing class. I was at school by 10:30, my hair greasy and clothes soaked by the perpetual Portland drizzle. In my haste I managed to forget the U-lock, but I couldn’t afford to miss another class to go get it. Doing my best to conceal the lack of a lock, I rested the contraption between a few other dingy-looking bicycles.

Inevitably, the bike was stolen during class and I was left stranded at school. Mom was strangely understanding on the phone, rushing home from work to pick me up. We spent hours searching the school and surrounding park for signs of the bike. Miraculously, we found it and two other bikes locked to the railings at the parking lot furthest away from the school buildings. Mom suggested I lock my bike to the railing with my own U-lock she had brought from home, and come back in the morning. My bike made it through the night, and the next day, the foreign lock had disappeared, along with the two other bikes.

To this day, I don’t understand why Mom worked so hard to save my bike. She knew it granted me the freedom to be absent from the house and from school. Maybe she assumed I’d find another way to escape anyway. I’m afraid to ask, mostly because I feel ashamed that I used the freedom she offered to hurt her. Though I haven’t voiced it – I don’t know why, either – I’ve been doing my best to make amends. The second time the bike was stolen provided a perfect opportunity to assure Mom I no longer felt the need to escape.

I didn’t consider it much of a loss when my bike was gone for good. Financially, the bike was probably worth less than the steel it was made of. Emotionally, I blamed the bike for the time I lost that I could’ve spent with Mom. Despite my unfair assessment, the bike was dead to me. I was happy to drive around with Mom, who had just started working from home. We took the Camry, still chugging along, to go bowling after dinner, to bubble tea shops and cafes, and sometimes nowhere, just to chat. High school-me would have immediately gone out to get another bike. In fact, Mom offered to help me find another. I declined under the reasoning that I would only be there for the summer anyway, leaving unvoiced the excitement of more rides in the Camry.

Last summer, my sister finally nabbed a driver’s license and utilized Mom’s Camry to its fullest extent. Out of necessity, I searched Craigslist for another road bike, and once again, Mom offered to split the cost. My new bike, a beautifully marbled black racing bike, took me to and from work downtown. It didn’t see much use outside of exercise and transportation, though. When the Camry was free to use, Mom and I would head out to the store to find ingredients for a new recipe to test, or to a bar, where we drank BFK’s (coffee mixed with Bailey’s, Frangelico, and Kahlua) to gab and gossip. After college, I’m sure we’ll take the old, reliable Camry out to keep making up for lost time.

I’ve been trying to train up to a marathon. When I first mentioned the idea to Mom, she was hesitant but supportive. Over winter break, we drove from store to store, comparing different running shoes that could live up to the arduous 26.2-mile task.  I found a pair of shoes I liked, and took them for a test run around the block. Taking off down the street, I felt comfortable knowing that my feet weren’t whisking me away from anywhere or anything in particular. At the end of the test run, I was happy to find myself back where I started, with Mom.

“How are they?” She asked. Once again, she offered to split the cost.

“I think they’ll work.”

We had a nice drive home.

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Connor Onitsuka, who is from Portland, Oregon, double majored in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (BCMB) and Neuroscience at Hendrix college. He’ll be taking a gap year to shadow and work as a scribe in Portland, while also spending time with his cat and drinking bubble tea.

Six Feet Apart by Chelbi Gilmore

Some years I’m lucky enough to teach a course I’ve designed called Writing for Life. In it, I help students write personal statements for scholarships, internships, or professional and graduate schools. I also work with them as they write personal essays. My aim is to help students see that writing is inextricable from thinking, and, as such, that writing is an important part of a reflective life, no matter what one’s eventual life path.

All students have been affected by COVID-19. But I have particular sympathy for the students of the Class of 2020, who have been denied those important, bittersweet last moments of triumph, expectation, and longing that compose the final weeks of a college career.

As a small way of compensating some of those students–as well as to highlight some outstanding work from my class–I asked three students who wrote particularly excellent final essays if I could share their work here.

The final assignment was to write about an important object in their lives in a way that case light on the object, on the writer, and on some concept or idea that could only be reached by thinking about the relationship between writer and object.  This year, I gave students the choice of reflecting on their experience of the pandemic. I think it will be clear which direction each student chose. At the end of the essay, you can learn more about the writer.

Today’s essay is by Chelbi Gilmore. It is titled Six Feet Apart.

Chelbi Treehouse

A treehouse the author’s father built for her and her sister. (Since lowered and used for storage.)

Six Feet Apart

   I sit on my bed, attempting to do homework, while my parents and sister argue about Easter plans in the living room. I try to tune them out and focus on what I’m working on, but this quickly proves to be impossible. I dread walking in there and being dragged into another hour-long conversation that ultimately ends without resolution.

This is how our nights are spent now, arguing about how we should respond to the current global COVID-19 pandemic. Tonight, they’re discussing whether we should participate in our normal Easter routine: attending church and having an egg hunt for the kids. My dad leads a house church, which means that 6-7 families meet in someone’s home each week and he gives a short sermon. It’s not traditional, but we love the close bond that has formed among all the members. He has continued to hold a house church service every Sunday during the coronavirus outbreak. My mom and I have abstained from attending, which has caused dissent in my family. We believe that having 25 people in a confined space during this time is socially irresponsible, but my dad doesn’t see the problem.

“I just wish you guys would stay home more,” I hear my mom say.

“We’re not together even when we are here!” my sister yells back.

She’s not wrong. Even when we’re all home, we watch TV and work in separate rooms, only gathering for dinner. When we’re all together, we feel the tension that the outbreak has caused our family. I know inevitably I will be dragged into the dispute, so I finally decide to leave the comfort of my room and join the rest of my feuding family. I walk into the living room and sit next to my mom on our couch, which is facing my dad and sister standing on the opposite side of the room. We’re six feet apart, even in our own home.

When the outbreak started making headlines, I didn’t anticipate people would have such mixed reactions to it. I assumed everyone would do everything the CDC recommends and self-isolate inside their homes to avoid unknowingly spreading the disease. However, in my family of four I’ve seen firsthand how much dissent these recommendations have caused. My mom and I have taken the federal and state directives, like staying six feet apart from people in public, seriously and refuse to leave our house except for essential reasons. My dad, on the other hand, believes that everyone’s overreacting about the virus. Other than washing his hands more frequently, he has made few changes in his life to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Every day, around five o’clock, my dad comes home from work, changes clothes, and leaves again to go to our local park to play disc golf with his friends. I haven’t seen any of my friends in person for almost two months now, but my dad continues to hang out with his every single day and risks exposing them or us to the virus. After arguing about this irresponsible practice repeatedly, my mom and I eventually grew too exhausted to continue trying to change his mind.

It seemed fitting that on Friday the 13th we received the email informing us we would not be returning to college after that weekend. At first, I only felt bummed to be missing out on the last two months of time with the friends that I had spent almost every day with for four years. At this point, I didn’t comprehend what the full impact of the COVID-19 outbreak would be. I thought I was simply going to move back into my parent’s house and spend my days in front of my computer, bored, as I log into this new virtual version of school. I couldn’t have foreseen the stress that would come with moving back home.

Well, perhaps I could have. My dad and I have always disagreed about politics, but we’re able to have (mostly) calm conversations explaining our beliefs. After Donald Trump was elected president, we began to have these disputes more frequently. The night of November 8, 2016, I remember sitting for hours with many of my peers at Hendrix, watching the election polls. We continued watching way after we realized that there was no chance Hillary Clinton would win. It’s like we couldn’t bear to look away from the disaster that was unfolding before us. People cried as we walked back to our rooms in the early hours of the next morning, grieving the livelihoods of everyone that would be affected by Trump’s horrible policies. My dad, on the other hand, was rejoicing 120 miles away in my childhood home. Ever since Trump began campaigning for the presidency, my dad has supported him. He claims that it’s refreshing to see a president who doesn’t act as a politician, but rather says exactly what he thinks. He argues that Trump is an advocate for “working class people” and can’t see that he alienates many people, some who would even fall into the “working class” category. I point out to my dad the reason Trump doesn’t act like a politician is because he has absolutely no idea how to run our country. In the past few years, we’ve had numerous debates about abortion, immigration, healthcare policies, etc. Neither of us are willing to completely compromise, but we’re always willing to listen to each other.

For the first time, I feel like my dad isn’t responsive to my point of view at all. In the past, he’s always been willing to listen to the reasons for my beliefs. His opinion didn’t feel as rigid as his opinions about COVID-19 feel. I think this is because with most issues he doesn’t completely disagree with me, but rather, he prioritizes something else. For example, during our many disputes about President Trump’s immigration policies, I always point out that some people who immigrate to the United States do so because they feel like they have no other choice. Many people that Trump is trying to keep out of this country are seeking refuge from terrible situations. My dad does not argue with this fact; however, he says that immigrants are “taking jobs from American people”. He agrees that these people need help, but he prioritizes the U.S. economy over this need. So, while he mostly disagrees with me, he acknowledges that I am right in some respects. In contrast, we both see our argument regarding social distancing as purely black and white. There is no movement towards agreement; we’re in a stalemate.

Now, I don’t mean to make my dad seem like a terrible person. He’s one of my favorite people and has always supported me in my endeavors. For example, he wanted me to completely focus on my schoolwork in college, so he supported me financially, even though my parents didn’t have the excess money to give. He sacrifices everything for not only myself, but the rest of my family too. In our family, he’s the guy who will always help you out, no matter what you’re asking of him. There have been many times when he would get a call from one of his cousins who were in trouble because they’d spent all their money on drugs. He loans them money that he knows he’ll never get back. My dad always helps the people around him, even if they continually ask for his help and give nothing in return. He owns a small construction company and makes a point to hire people who can’t find a job anywhere else. My dad not only supplies them a job, but also truly cares for them. Recently, one of his guys decided to separate from his wife, so he needed somewhere to live. My dad let him stay in my late grandma’s house for free until he could afford to pay rent. He lets friends borrow his truck, lawn mower, construction equipment, and tools whenever they may need. He does all this for the people in his life, so why does he not care about those affected by COVID-19 or Trump’s administration?

I think many of our differences can be attributed to what we’ve been exposed to in our lives. My dad went to work at his family’s construction company straight out of high school. Shortly after this, he met my mom and they were engaged nine months later. They built the house that I grew up in together, which means that he moved directly from his parents’ house in with my mom. She has a similar story. She was raised one town over from my dad and married him within a year of graduating high school. I cherish their small-town love story, but it means that they haven’t experienced much outside of the place they’ve lived their whole lives. For me, there were many positives to growing up in a small town. For example, it was easy to make friends because I saw the same people every day in school for 13 years. However, there are downsides to this kind of community too. I was never exposed to people from a different background than me, so I didn’t truly value a diverse community until I came to college. My parents have always lived in the same area with an overwhelming number of white, southern, traditional people, so I think they struggle to sympathize with those who are different than them. For them, voting for Trump is the most natural thing to do because everyone around them supports him too. I wish that my parents could experience what life is like for those discriminated against by the Trump administration, even just for one day.

While my sister and I grew up in the same geographical area as my parents, we were also raised in a time when everyone is connected online. We were exposed to different perspectives simply by being on social media. I think that the media I consumed played a huge role in my acceptance of people who are different than me. Of course, there are still many ways that TV shows and movies could be more inclusive, but as the shows I watched become more accepting of people’s experiences, so did I. When I began college, I was surrounded by people who valued diversity. Now, I almost forget that other people in my life don’t think the same as me.

Even though my sister also grew up in the “digital age”, she has still chosen to align herself with my dad in this heated debate about COVID-19. I don’t think her experience with diversity in media has influenced her feelings about the pandemic. The only reason she “agrees” with my dad is so she can continue hanging out with her few friends still willing to socialize. She’s always been eager to soak up whatever the people around her think, especially my parents. She is a “people pleaser”, so she thinks like the people she wants to please. It’s simply easier to regurgitate what my dad shouts at the news every night. So, when my family started arguing about how we should respond to the coronavirus outbreak, she chose the side that would allow her to continue doing what she wanted to do. I’m not saying that my sister doesn’t have any individuality, but she does tend to accept the information that my parents tell her without researching to decide what she believes.

Despite our differences, my family has always been close. We’ve never been this divided over an issue, or at least we’ve never acknowledged it. Maybe I didn’t allow myself to dwell on the problems I have with my parents’ beliefs. Until now, I’ve always been able to escape conflict by going back to my friends at Hendrix. It’s difficult for me to reconcile my love for my family and the frustration I feel towards them for their beliefs. To me, it seems so clear that we must do everything we can to “flatten the curve” and keep others healthy. However, my dad has a completely different perspective. He believes that the media is causing panic among the American people, so we don’t need to change our daily habits to stop the spread of the virus. No matter how hard my dad and I try, we can’t see why the other person thinks the way that they do.

He always tells me that my “bleeding heart” will get me in trouble. He says I think about others too much and should think more practically about how the economy is negatively impacted when the U.S. government helps others. It seems so strange to me that he says this when he has a “bleeding heart” for everyone he knows. It’s easy for him to prioritize economic gain over a human life when it isn’t directly in front of him. However, if the issue is off in the distance, he separates his feelings and refuses to care about people he doesn’t personally know.

In my living room, the night before Easter, my mom and I are stationed on one side of the room opposite of my dad and sister. My sister and I mostly let our parents do the arguing. I interject a few times when it seems I might explode if I don’t let my thoughts out. One time, I tell my dad how I can’t bear the thought of accidentally passing the coronavirus to an elderly couple in our church.

“See, I don’t think like that,” my dad replies. “I don’t live my life in fear of what might happen!”

My mom and I try to convince him that we aren’t fearful, but cautious of how our actions affect others. I’m not afraid for my life, however, I don’t want to jeopardize the lives of others. My dad thinks we’re silly for thinking this way, but I don’t care. Even if my mom and I are completely wrong about COVID-19 and the disease isn’t as infectious as the CDC says, I would rather be on the side of caution than in my dad and sister’s position.

“I just want us all to be together on Easter,” my mom says, implying that she wants my dad and sister not to participate in the festivities tomorrow. My dad concedes and decides to stay home the next day. This is not a permanent solution. Next week, they will be right back to their regular scheduled outings each Sunday. We will continue to isolate ourselves in our rooms to avoid this repeated conflict, wishing for the eventual day when the COVID-19 pandemic ends. Hopefully, at that point the divide in our family won’t be so deep that it’s irreparable and we’ll be able to close the six-foot gap between us.

Chelbi

Chelbi Gilmore is from the small town of Alma, Arkansas and recently graduated from Hendrix College. She will start working as a medical scribe in central Arkansas this summer and plans to apply to medical school in the fall. 

 

Nat Leach’s 2019 Year in Reading

I invited my friend and sometime EMJ contributor, Nat Leach, to write about the highlights of his year in reading. Not only did he write about his favourites, he also described his idiosyncratic reading project. Enjoy! (I couldn’t help but add a few editorial comments along the way.)

When Dorian suggested that I consider writing a review post on my reading for the year, I was keen to share some of my thoughts, but also felt the need to preface it with a confession of sorts, so here goes:

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I have never been the sort of person who could read just one book at a time. When I was an undergraduate student, I kept a pile of books beside my bed. I would read a chapter from the top book, place it in a new pile beside the first one and repeat until the pile was empty. Then, I would repeat the same process in reverse. This had the benefit of keeping my reading fresh, never getting bogged down in one thing, and allowing me to continually be surprised. It took me a little longer to finish books, but I quite enjoyed this too; when I really liked them, I wanted to savour them, and when I didn’t like them, I was soon able to switch to something else.

The problem came when I entered graduate school, moved to a city with excellent used book stores (London, Ontario) [have to say, this does not correlate to my memory of London! – DS] and started to become more broadly curious about literature, theory, philosophy, and just about everything else, than I ever had been before. One pile became two, then three, and eventually I had a long coffee table covered with nothing but book piles. My system became more sophisticated, but the basic principle of moving from one book to the next did not change. Over the years, I made compromises (my wife insisted on bookshelves to replace that coffee table, for example) but I never changed my ways. I continued to enjoy picking up books with no preconceived decision-making process in mind. Thomas de Quincey’s excellent essay on sortilege and astrology influenced my thinking on this point; he accepts that connections exist between things that cannot be rationally understood, so sees value in allowing chance to bring them to light. And indeed, I have often felt that I was reading just the right book at just the right time, some kind of synchronicity between my reading and my life, or between two books I happened to be reading at the same time.

It wasn’t until I joined Twitter two years ago that I began to take stock of my reading life. For one thing, I joined Twitter to participate in the great book conversations that I discovered there, but it’s hard to join in conversations when you have only read parts of so many books. How many times can you say “Oh yeah, I read the first quarter of that book! It’s really good!”? For another thing, I realized that I’m not as young as I used to be, and in the face of inevitable mortality, I’d rather die having finished a few good books as opposed to having started a whole bunch.

It was at this point that I realized that the only way to overcome the negative effects of an absurd and ill-advised reading strategy, I was going to need another absurd and ill-advised reading strategy. I hit on the idea of methodically working my way through all of those never-completed books one at a time from A to Z (from Achebe to Zola, if you will). I already tended to arrange my reading alphabetically, so this simply built in the requirement that I had to finish a book before moving on to the next one.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I now read only one book at a time. But at least I’m now cycling between 20-30 books rather than hundreds, and focusing primarily on a single book. Nor does it mean that I am entirely rigid in my system; it initially intended to involve only books that I had already started, but gradually I have allowed alluring new books to slip into their place in the alphabetical queue. I have also made exceptions for borrowed/library books and communal Twitter events, all of which slow my progress somewhat, but since the pleasure is in the journey, I also enjoy these diversions and side-trips.

All of which is to explain why most of my reading for the year falls within a fairly small alphabetical range. In 2018, I got through A, B and most of C. This year, I finished C and got through D, E and most of F. If I keep this pace of almost 3 letters per year, I’ll be done this project by 2027 (and then I’ll probably just start again). Statistically speaking, I completed 39 books last year and 31 this year; not huge totals, but since I hadn’t even cracked 30 since 2000, I think I can say my new system is showing progress. Also, 9 of the 31 were over 500 pages, which partly accounts for the slower pace. These 31 books were written by authors from 15 different countries, which I thought was a pretty remarkable ratio considering the arbitrariness of my system, although this diversity primarily comes from various countries in Europe; I may need to work on exploring other continents. I read 18 books by men and 13 by women.

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Having said all that, I present thumbnail sketches of my 2019 reading:

Couperus, Louis- Eline Vere

Technically, my last book of 2018, but I finished it on January 3, and it’s so good, I’m including it. It’s a book with a personal connection for me, since my Dutch grandmother had numerous figurines of the title character around her house in The Hague; she explained that because this book was so famous, Eline had become a sort of figure of pride for the city. Once I finished the book, this puzzled me a little, since Eline is not exactly the heroic sort of character one would expect to be commemorated in this way, but the book is fantastic in its depiction both of its social world and Eline’s disaffection and alienation from it. [I really love this book too, and wish it were better known! — DS]

Crummey, Michael- Galore

A magical realist novel set in Newfoundland (think One Hundred Years of Solitude but with a whole lot more ice). Crummey incorporates the folklore and history of the island into a compelling and fantastical multi-generational narrative (this is one of those novels where you are very grateful that there is a family tree included at the beginning of the book). It also features that rarest of things, an ending that is totally unexpected and yet a perfectly appropriate way of resolving the narrative.

Dante- The Divine Comedy

There’s not much new that I can say about Dante, but I do think that reading this book is an experience that everyone should have at least once in their life. Even a lapsed Unitarian like me has to appreciate the thoroughness of his cosmology, even if I’d be very afraid of someone who actually believed all of it. It does inevitably suffer from Milton’s problem, that what happens in Hell is so much more interesting than what happens in Heaven.

David, Filip- The House of Remembering and Forgetting

I had high hopes for this book after reading some early reviews, but in the end was disappointed with it. There are some powerful moments, but it ultimately reads as an awkward mishmash of Holocaust narrative and mysticism (two things that, frankly, do not go together). [Might explain why I never finished this book. — DS]

DeLillo, Don- Falling Man

I count White Noise among my favourite novels of all time, and it didn’t seem surprising that the author of a book that depicts mundane American life being punctured by disaster would choose to write a novel about 9/11. DeLillo represents the traumatic aftermath of the event on one man and his family in a thoughtful and nuanced way. This narrative is juxtaposed with a number of scenes focalized through one of the hijackers which seem to offer a broader perspective, though these segments seem rather under-developed compared to the main plot. I enjoyed the book, although in the end, I found myself wondering if it had really gone anywhere (but maybe I shouldn’t have expected it to?)

Dickens, Charles- Hard Times

This is a book that my younger self didn’t get on with very well because of its overt didacticism, but this time I enjoyed it a great deal, having a better sense of its context. Still not my favourite Dickens, but that’s not really a criticism.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor- Crime and Punishment

Another literary experience that I think everyone should undergo, harrowing though it is. I was already about halfway through the book, having read the crime and was awaiting the punishment. I was somewhat surprised by how long I had to wait, as the book seems quite digressive, but that may also be the point, that the consequences of the crime infiltrate every aspect of Raskolnikov’s life.

Drndic, Dasa- Belladonna

Another book I was very much looking forward to, and this one did not disappoint; it’s fiercely written and utterly compelling. Andreas Ban’s body is deteriorating in a way that mirrors the corruption he sees in his country, Croatia, and his memories and experiences frame the book’s reflections on history, politics, theory, and culture. Much of the book recounts Nazi and Ustase persecution of Jews in WWII and condemns the post-independence government of Croatia for its complicity in rehabilitating war criminals (both from WWII and from the Balkan genocides). Its attacks include a lengthy screed that will cure you of ever wanting to read Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones. [I’m a big fan of Littel’s novel, so now I’ve got to read this. — DS]

Du Maurier, Daphne- My Cousin Rachel

This is a perfect book of its kind. Is Rachel a kindly relative or a cynical gold-digger? Is Philip a paranoid misogynist or a potential victim? Du Maurier keeps the pendulum swinging between these options, building suspense and cultivating uncertainty so that we’re never entirely sure of the truth, but compelled to keep reading. So good it sent me on a Du Maurier book-buying binge after finishing it. [And rightly so! I too loved this one. — DS]

Duncan, Sara Jeanette- The Imperialist

This Canadian classic from 1904 begins as a domestic drama about the Murchison family in a small town in Ontario, but widens into tackling broader economic and political issues. The family’s eldest son, Lorne, becomes an advocate for a preferential trade agreement with Great Britain, and runs for political office on that platform. The novel does get a bit bogged down in economic minutiae of a past era, but its concerns with British isolationism, election fraud, and the exploitation of Canada’s Indigenous people all seem disturbingly current.

Duncker, Patricia- Hallucinating Foucault

In the 1990’s, I think this was an obligatory book for theory-heads like me, but despite touching on Foucaultian themes such as madness and incarceration, it doesn’t really have much to do with him. The book starts with an interesting academic mystery, a graduate student searching for a French author with an oblique connection to Foucault, but fizzles out once he actually finds him. It just feels like the book tries too hard, culminating with an overtly symbolic character death that I couldn’t help laughing at. [Wow, now I need to re-read it. I loved it when I read it as the theory-head graduate student Nat describes, and have always wondered what happened to Duncker. Could I have been so wrong? (Yes.) — DS]

Edgeworth, Maria- Ormond

Edgeworth was much admired by Jane Austen, but her books have not achieved as wide a readership as Austen’s. The perceived regionalism of her Irish settings is no doubt one cause, but this book is at its strongest in its early scenes depicting the tension between Irish and Anglo-Irish ways of life. This novel begins in a picaresque mode, with Harry Ormond sent to live with an Irish relative after nearly killing a man in a quarrel and aspiring to become “an Irish Tom Jones”.  Ormond does improve morally, and the narrative loses some of its energy in the later scenes in Paris which demonstrate his reformed character. Perhaps this didacticism is another reason for Edgeworth’s neglect, but it does not negate this book’s many charms.

Eliot, George- Daniel Deronda

This one was quite a commitment, but was definitely the best book I read all year. From its in medias res opening that takes hundreds of pages to untangle to its swerve in the second half of the book away from concerns with individual relationships towards larger cultural, religious and moral issues, I found it thoroughly compelling both in narrative terms and in ethical ones.

Esquivel, Laura- Like Water for Chocolate

This is as close to light vacation reading as I get; magic realism with a feminist kick. Tita is expected by family tradition to remain unmarried in order to take care of her mother until her death, and the narrative is about overcoming the weight of these expectations. Tita’s creative energies are channeled into cooking, and a recipe accompanies each chapter, making this a potentially very tasty read (although most of them seemed too advanced for my culinary abilities).

Fallada, Hans- Every Man Dies Alone

This book about one couple’s small acts of resistance against Nazism drew me in from the very start and the ensuing cat and mouse narrative raises ethical questions about the obligation and the capacity to resist injustice. These questions become more ponderous as the book goes on, and the stakes are raised, but we never lose sight of the message that each individual must make these choices in ways both big and small. [So, so good! — DS]

Farrell, M.J. (Molly Keane)- Young Entry

I didn’t know whether to file this under F (for the author’s pen name) or K (for her real name), but chose the former simply because I was keen to read it. One of my favourites of the year for sheer reading pleasure; much as the plot about teenage girls coming of age against the backdrop of hunting culture in early 20th century Ireland sometimes bewildered me as I lack the vocabulary for hunting, horse riding and ladies’ underthings, the writing is so sharp and witty, I just went along for the ride. There are, for example, some wonderful passages presented from the point of view of the dog, or take this description of a runaway bicycle: “As the slope grew steeper, and consequently their progress faster, Prudence made the interesting discovery that Mr. Bennet’s bicycle entirely lacked brakes.”

Findley, Timothy- Headhunter

I remember wanting to read this book when it was first published (1993) because I had just read Heart of Darkness and was intrigued by the book’s initial premise, that Mr. Kurtz escapes from the pages of the book and terrorizes Toronto. That is quickly revealed as the delusion of a mentally ill character (Kurtz and Marlow are, coincidentally, the names of two psychologists), however, and what is depicted in this book is actually more horrifying (as readers of Findley might well expect.) Exploitation of the mentally ill, a child pornography ring, graphic violence against humans and animals: it’s not a book for the squeamish. In the end, I’m not sure it really holds together, as it tries to do way too much (and is already over 600 pages), but it sure is prescient on topics such as fake news and climate change denial.

Fink, Ida- A Scrap of Time

I read this book on Dorian’s recommendation, and he’s much better equipped than I am to explain the brilliance of these Holocaust stories. What impresses me most about them is the way that Fink dramatizes the complex dimensions of impossible moral situations. By showing, for example, a father remembering his attempt to hide while his children are being taken away (“Crazy”), or a woman being asked to suppress her past in order to keep a new lover (“Night of Surrender”), Fink makes us see the horrifying ways in which the persecutions of the Holocaust are perpetuated and internalized by survivors. [Yes, these stories are indispensable. — DS]

Flaubert, Gustave- Sentimental Education

When I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading this book, I got about as wide a range of responses as possible; some people love the book, others hate it, and some feel completely indifferent about it. Upon reading it, I can understand all those responses; it’s a chaotic novel that challenges readerly expectations in ways that might seem exhilarating, annoying, or tedious depending on the reader. I liked the book for the most part; even though the protagonist, Frédéric is often quite obnoxious, and his desire for the unattainable Madame Arnoux so excessive, I was still interested in him as a somewhat exaggerated exemplar of the human condition. His single-minded commitment to the object of his passion and his vacillation on every other desire seem painful, but typical human weaknesses. [Oh man, do I have mixed feelings about this one. — DS]

Fleming, Ian- You Only Live Twice

This was the first Bond novel I had ever read, and was not at all what I expected; the first half reads as a travelogue of Japan, and only in the second half do we get into some (fairly tame) spy stuff. The villain’s diabolical plan is somewhat limited in scope, but his “suicide garden” of toxic plants is evocative and terrifying. I liked it much better than the film, which used almost no material from the book, aside from some character names.

Gaskell, Elizabeth- Cranford

I must confess that I read this one out of order because it was the next book up on my e-reader while I was on vacation. I already knew that I loved Gaskell’s writing, her perceptive analysis of human character and her ability to produce powerfully emotional scenes. What I learned from this book is that she can also be laugh-out-loud funny. These vignettes about women in an English village are sweet, heartbreaking, and humourous by turns; my favourite moment is when a rather hyperbolic panic caused by a suspected wave of break-ins sweeps the town.

Best of the rest:

Levi, Primo- The Monkey’s Wrench

I re-read (and wrote about) The Periodic Table in commemoration of Levi’s centenary, and had intended to write about it in conjunction with The Monkey’s Wrench, but realized it would have been too much. The two books have much in common, including Levi’s characteristically keen eye for the nuances of human character, and a belief in the ennobling power of work. Where The Periodic Table celebrates the chemist’s ability to solve mental challenges, The Monkey’s Wrench often celebrates the more physical aspects of work in stories told by Libertino Faussone, a fictional character whom Levi identifies as a composite of many real men, and the narrator, a version of Levi himself. The most interesting parts of the book, though, are the many places where this manual labour is compared to, and aligned with, the act of story-telling itself.

Pontoppidan, Henrik- Lucky Per

This book intrigued me and frustrated me by turns, but it certainly did make me think. Most of my frustrations came from the book’s seeming uncertainty about how it felt about the protagonist. I enjoyed the beginning of the book, in which Per is a rebel against the soul-destroying form of Christianity practiced by his family, but as Per’s behaviour becomes more reprehensible, the book seems to lack a critical distance from him so that it’s not clear how we are supposed to react to his egotism. This book inspired me to re-read Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, a favourite of mine which seemed a clear model for this novel, although the possibility of redemption is handled very differently in the two works. Despite my frustrations, this is a book that has stuck with me.

Vermette, Katerina- The Break

I read this fantastic, troubling book because Dorian told me to and you should too!

“Antidote to Fascism”: Primo Levi, Chemist and Writer (Guest Post, Nathaniel Leach)

“Ah, yes, you’re the fellow who wrote a book,” a customer tells Primo Levi in The Periodic Table, Levi’s third memoir, a book about his first career, chemistry. Levi stifles his annoyance at this comment under his professional exterior in a way that reminds us that Levi, too, sees his career as a writer as secondary, a historical accident that sometimes either interferes with or assists his professional endeavours. Despite these occasional self-deprecatory references, The Periodic Table invites us to see connections between his two “careers,” both of which require careful observation and an inquiring mind that is willing to revise its initial hypotheses about the world.

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Of course, the book being referred to is his first memoir, Se questo è un uomo, notoriously translated in the U.S. as Survival in Auschwitz, but literally If this is a Man. Levi notes that if it had not been for his deportation to Auschwitz, he may never have become a writer in the first place, but the book’s careful descriptions, thoughtful analyses and avoidance of simplistic explanations or judgments anticipate a long writing career that would only gradually start to supplant his life as a chemist. The title of this first book, in fact, provides an appropriate orientation towards The Periodic Table; the question posed by Auschwitz, Levi suggests, is whether its victims (or its perpetrators) have been completely dehumanized, reduced to the level of mere physical matter, or whether something ennobling or redeeming persists in the midst of such horror. In The Periodic Table, this question is taken up in its descriptions of the human attempt to come to terms with the materiality of the world.

In each chapter of The Periodic Table Levi presents this struggle via an anecdote related to one of the elements of the periodic table. The chapters are arranged in a loose chronological order, starting with Argon, the “inert” or “noble” gas used as a metaphor for Levi’s Jewish-Italian ancestors and ending with Carbon, a seemingly whimsical “micro-history” of an atom of carbon. In between, most chapters are autobiographical, describing an incident in the life of Levi, the chemist, although he includes two short stories written in his youth and two brief stories in which Levi does not appear (and which therefore seem to be fictional). In describing these experiences, Levi suggests resonances between the rulebound world of chemical interactions and the less predictable world of human interactions. At the heart of these parallels lies the question of Levi’s earlier book, the question of humanity; are human beings simply physical matter composed of the chemical elements discussed in the book, or something more? And in what might that something more consist?

It is characteristic of Levi that there are no simple answers offered; from the outset of the book, he calls attention to the complexity of the “human condition, since man is a centaur, a tangle of flesh and mind, divine inspiration and dust”. Chemistry itself becomes emblematic of this division, as Levi’s chapters illustrate both the human desire for scientific knowledge, mastery and overcoming of the physical world and the recalcitrance of matter to even the most inspired human stratagems. As an example of the former, the chapter on “Chromium” is structured much like a detective story in which a problem (the production of faulty paint) presents itself and Levi must use his powers of deduction to solve it. In this case, Levi does indeed come up with an ingenious solution, but many other chapters describe dismal failures—explosions, escaped rabbits, chicken shit that refuses to give up its valuable chemicals, to name a few—that remind us of the limits of human science.

While Levi describes his younger self’s attraction to chemistry as idealistic (if confused), the book’s seemingly disconnected chapters illustrate many different perspectives on this science. His initial attraction to chemistry, Levi says, came from a sense “That the nobility of Man, acquired in a hundred centuries of trial and error, lay in making himself the conqueror of matter, and that I had enrolled in chemistry because I wanted to remain faithful to this nobility. That conquering matter is to understand it, and understanding matter is necessary to understanding the universe and ourselves…” And later, in the “Chromium” chapter, he asks: “It is the spirit that dominates matter, is that not so? Was it not this that they had hammered into my head in the Fascist and Gentile liceo? I threw myself into the work with the same intensity that, at not so distant a period, we had attacked a rock wall; and the adversary was still the same, the not-I, the Button-Molder, the hyle: stupid matter, slothfully hostile as human stupidity is hostile, and like it strong because of its obtuse passivity.”

Levi himself points out the fascist undertones of this rhetoric of conquering and domination, which is perhaps softened by his equation of “conquering” with “understanding,” but the book raises the question of whether understanding can take place in a way that does not equate to such a violent metaphor. As his schooling progresses, he changes his position: “Matter was our ally precisely because the Spirit, dear to Fascism, was our enemy; but, having reached the fourth year of Pure Chemistry, I could no longer ignore the fact that chemistry itself, or at least that which we were being administered, did not answer my questions.” Levi criticizes the apparent alliance between the fascist and the scientific spirit, but also holds out hope that science may be thought of in other terms by noting that it is “that which we were being administered” that is harmful, not chemistry in itself. Indeed, Levi’s book presents the sciences as tentative, speculative pursuits, often quixotic in their aims, and alternately satisfying and disappointing.

In fact, one of the dominant threads that can be traced through this book is the idea that chemistry is fundamentally anti-fascist both in its humbling of the human spirit and in its illumination of the disproof the material world offers to fascist rhetoric. He notes that the sciences may be seen as an “antidote to Fascism… because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness, like the radio and newspapers”. Chemistry, above all, is not “fake news”; its results will always reveal truth at an elemental level, even if this truth is not the desired result.

But Levi values chemistry for reasons beyond its factuality; in an early passage describing his study of chemistry in fascist Italy, he suggests that the lesson we can learn from chemistry is that the natural world itself resists the simplistic, uniform ideals that fascism stands for: “In order for the wheel to turn, for life to be lived, impurities are needed… Dissension, diversity, the grain of salt and mustard are needed: Fascism does not want them, forbids them, and that’s why you’re not a Fascist; it wants everybody to be the same, and you are not. But immaculate virtue does not exist either, or if it exists it is detestable.” Levi uses chemistry to form a positive metaphor for “impurity”; rather than the Nazi metaphors drawn from the field of biology that compared Jews to a virus or to vermin, he identifies his own otherness with the catalysts in a chemical reaction. In this metaphor, difference and diversity are needed in order to propel progress forward.

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Levi (foreground, right) during his study of chemistry at the university in Turin, 1940

From this point of view, then, perhaps it is most useful to see The Periodic Table as the place where Levi’s two careers collide, and produce something original. Levi describes his early, idealistic self as feeling that “Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, which just during those weeks we were laboriously learning to unravel, was poetry, loftier and more solemn than all the poetry we had swallowed down in liceo; and come to think of it, it even rhymed! That if one looked for the bridge, the missing link, between the world of words and the world of things, one did not have to look far: it was there in our Autenrieth [textbook], in our smoke-filled labs, and in our future trade.” Chemistry, like writing, Levi suggests, is the transformation of the material world into a communicable form, a means of making some kind of harmony or understanding out of the raw “world of things”. In The Periodic Table, Levi is both a chemist who writes, as in “Chromium,” and a writer who uses chemistry as a metaphor, as in “Argon,” or to examine minutely the nature of the world, as in “Carbon,” which ends the book on a point that quite literally fuses the fields of chemistry and writing.

Or, as in the case of “Vanadium,” the penultimate chapter, to explore the complex relationships between Levi’s lives as professional chemist and author, and between his present and his past. Levi’s professional activities bring him into contact with a Dr. Müller, whom he confirms that he met in Auschwitz. Levi assesses him with his characteristic clarity of vision: “Neither infamous nor a hero: after filtering off the rhetoric and the lies in good or bad faith there remained a typically gray human specimen, one of the not so few one-eyed men in the kingdom of the blind.” Levi is reluctantly drawn into a personal correspondence while trying to resolve a professional problem, and the chapter suggests both the power and the limitations of writing as a means of making human connections and resolving the issues of the past. As with chemistry, so with human relations; imperfections and failed connections are an inherent part of the process.

Levi suggests towards the end of the book that “matter is matter, neither noble nor vile, infinitely transformable, and its proximate origin is of no importance whatever.” This is what much of the book, and especially the final chapter on “Carbon” seems to suggest; the power of the chemist, like that of the writer, is to transform things, change them from one state to another without ascribing to them a single stable value. This, perhaps, is the great skill exhibited by Levi in both his careers: the power to transform matter into meaning without the hubris of claiming to have ever spoken the final word.

“Humanity on its Last Legs”: Morley Callaghan’s The Loved and the Lost (Guest post: Nathaniel Leach)

Pleased to have another post from now-somewhat-regular contributor Nathaniel Leach. Here he is on a classic yet underappreciated Canadian novel. Its interest in race, sexuality, oppression, and what we might today call intersectionality are as relevant now as they were nearly 70 years ago.

I first started reading Morley Callaghan’s The Loved and the Lost (1951) twenty years ago on a trip from Toronto to Englehart, Ontario. It was a long trip (check the map if you don’t believe me), but I only got through about a third of the book. It was enjoyable enough, but it seemed fairly conventional and didn’t really stand out as something special. I picked it up again this year as I attempt to clear my shelves of the many such books that I have left in states of semi-completion, and this time, when I did finish it, it really surprised me. It struck me as a tragically beautiful, well written book that powerfully challenges the prejudices of its time. This left me with a number of questions. Had my perspective changed, or did the book just start slow and pick up speed? Had I missed something when I first started reading it, or had I built it up in my mind because it wasn’t quite what I expected? I suspect that each of these possibilities is a little bit true.

Indeed, there is much that seems very conventional about the book, as it combines familiar narrative elements in its story of an ambitious social climber caught in a love triangle dividing him between high and low society. Jim McAlpine, an erstwhile History professor at the University of Toronto is invited to Montreal by Joseph Carver, owner of The Sun newspaper, who, having seen an article of McAlpine’s, offers him a regular column (oh, for the days when academics were seen as so widely employable!). McAlpine welcomes this opportunity, and begins spending time with Carver’s divorced daughter, Catherine, who likes him, and promises to be a match well-suited to advance McAlpine’s social and professional aspirations. He, however, becomes more intrigued by Peggy Sanderson, an independent working woman who rejects social convention, frequenting jazz clubs and befriending many of the black musicians who play there.

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The book’s focus on race makes it impossible to ignore how much of its time and place it is: the time is 1950 (contemporary with Callaghan’s writing of it) and the place is Montreal, the city where, just a few years before, Jackie Robinson had played before breaking the colour barrier in the major leagues. One character points out that the Brooklyn Dodgers chose Montreal because of its reputation as a tolerant city, but the book clearly documents the limits of this tolerance; Peggy’s black friends are accepted within their home district of St. Antoine, but trouble arises when she treats them as equals in other parts of the city. While it is heartening to read a book from 1950 that challenges racism as strongly as this one does, it also shows its age in many ways; for example, Peggy is impressed when Jim talks about “Negro writers” instead of using a different word that starts with “N” (which is, indeed, preferred by many of the other characters in the book).

This strong sense of time and place left me feeling that I would appreciate the book more if I knew Montreal better; it’s a city I’ve visited a few times, but have spent the last few years avoiding (as anyone who drives regularly from the Maritimes to Ontario will understand). This is unequivocally a Montreal book (somewhat ironically, since Callaghan is unequivocally a Toronto author). The geography of the city informs everything. On the first page, we are told: “Those who wanted things to remain as they were liked the mountain. Those who wanted a change preferred the broad flowing river. But no one could forget either of them.” The geography of the city becomes a blunt metaphor for class divisions, although throughout the book, many characters sing the praises of Montreal’s inclusivity and the opportunities it offers. The importance of place is developed through to the very last page where Montreal’s mystifying topography becomes a heartbreakingly perfect metaphor for the tragically divided worlds of the characters.

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What interested me most, though, were the places where Callaghan defies not just social convention but also literary convention. The love triangle actually peters out fairly quickly and is replaced by a more nuanced exploration of race, sexuality and the limits of humanity. Moreover, we sympathize less and less with Jim as he attempts to change Peggy, while still cultivating Catherine’s friendship. Jim becomes obsessed with Peggy and determined to rescue her, while she welcomes his friendship but resists his attempts to encroach on her independence. Peggy rejects Jim’s sexual advances, but her sexual relations are speculated about extensively, although not conclusively. She is rumoured to have slept with many of her musician friends, although it is significant that she never confirms or denies such rumours, always dismissing them as irrelevant. By refusing Jim’s attempts to sexualize her, Peggy resists the conventional role of the heroine by refusing to play a part in the stories that men, and especially Jim, project onto her.

What is particularly remarkable about the book, then, is its refusal of simplistic narratives about race and sex, and its exploration of the psychological nuances of prejudice and desire. This is illustrated through two intriguing episodes from the latter half of the book, which both mark Jim’s progress towards the realization that his desire for Peggy and his desire for social acceptance can never be reconciled. The first of these is an encounter that Jim has with a Polish Jew named Wolgast who is the co-owner of a bar that Jim and his friends frequent. After Peggy brings a black man to his bar, Wolgast searches for her with seemingly violent intent, but when he runs into Jim instead, he is mollified and explains his anger over coffee. He tells Jim about his father, a serf in Poland who, on market days, would take him to town on a white horse, instilling both father and son with a sense of pride. When the landowner forces Wolgast’s father to sell the horse, he becomes despondent and dies shortly afterwards, exhorting his son with his dying words: “try and own a white horse of your own someday, son.” The white horse thus becomes a fairly obvious symbol for social acceptance that Callaghan uses throughout the final chapters of the book.

More complex are Wolgast’s motivations for his anger with Peggy; on the one hand, Callaghan makes a point of emphasizing that Wolgast is not troubled by the anti-Semitism that surrounds him: “Nor had French Canadian hostility to the Jews disturbed him. It only made him smile complacently… everybody knew the French Canadians were hostile out of envy; it was a mark of respect.” On the other hand, Peggy’s actions trigger a defensive reaction in Wolgast: “no one who couldn’t go anywhere else had felt free to come into his bar just because he was a Jew. No one had ever shown that much contempt for him, he told himself—until today.” He believes Peggy has brought a black man into his bar because she assumes that, since he is Jewish, he would tolerate her wish, and it is this assumption that outrages him, as if it degraded him back to the outsider status he has fought so hard to escape. He justifies this attitude further by his love of Montreal; having worked numerous dodgy jobs from Brooklyn to Buffalo, Wolgast credits Montreal with giving him the chance to own something legitimate (his “white horse”), and therefore wants “everything to stay the way it is,” and worries that his bar will lose its reputation. Callaghan thus suggests how victims of prejudice can be induced to transmit this prejudice to others so as to preserve their own precarious place within the social order. While Jim tries to show Wolgast that Peggy did not mean to insult him and instead was paying tribute to his lack of prejudice, even he criticizes Peggy’s “lack of prudence” which “always brings out the worst instincts in us, the stuff we try and hide, the stuff that’s inhuman.” Like Wolgast, Jim blames Peggy for bringing inhumanity to light rather than criticizing and confronting the inhuman behaviour itself.

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Jim is finally forced to face this inhumanity when he takes Catherine to a hockey game between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadians [sic- one of the few things that drove me nuts about this book]. The scene is particularly brilliant in the way that Jim’s reflections on society’s treatment of Peggy are interwoven with what is going on both on the ice and in the crowd. The situation reaches its climax when a Ranger viciously slashes a Montreal player, leading to a brawl on the ice, and, when the instigator escapes receiving a penalty, causing the crowd to erupt in rage at the referee. Jim, coming to the realization that most of the crowd would react the same way to him and Peggy if they knew about her views, is shocked by the violence of the “crazy, howling mob.” Despite the friendly conversations he has with members of the home crowd, he reflects increasingly on their unspoken attitudes and begins to feel like an outsider. This scene leads Jim to imagine himself as the potential victim of violence, and prefigures a scene of actual violence, a fight in a nightclub, in which Jim finds himself powerless to help Peggy. Jim’s trajectory from prospective social insider to powerless outsider is almost complete as he becomes increasingly confronted with the “worst instincts” and “inhumanity” of those around him, a trajectory that is completed with an even more extreme act of violence at the book’s end.

Again, this may not be an incredibly original narrative, but for me, what makes this book more than what I first thought it was is the way it communicates a human perspective without falling back on an over-simplified humanism. Even if there is a human essence that transcends skin colour, Callaghan suggests, there is a great deal of ugliness within this shared nature, as members of various races, classes, and genders contribute to the victimization of Peggy in order, like Wolgast, to advance their own interests. Even Jim, the figure we most identify with, proves to be morally weak and physically powerless to intervene in the cruelty she suffers. In the end, Callaghan shows us a world inhabited, like Wolgast’s bar, by “humanity on its last legs” and in need of a redemption that is always out of reach.

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors: Émile Zola’s The Kill (Guest Post, Keith Bresnahan)

Keith and I continue to make our way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series. Here is his take on the second volume, The Kill. Mine is here.

Toronto, where I live, was recently named the fifth-most expensive city in the world adjusted for income. The house my spouse and I bought a decade ago, for a sum that at the time stretched the upper limits of plausibility, is now, at least on paper, worth three times what we paid for it. Local media outlets frequently cover stories of families cashing in on the boom and moving out of the city, and of a younger generation priced out of home-ownership — along with an accompanying rental crisis, skyrocketing rents, and new condo developments crowding out the city’s waterfront. All this was on my mind this week as I read The Kill, Émile Zola’s 1872 novel of greed, sensuality, and corruption, set against the backdrop of real-estate speculation and urban renewal in 1850s Paris.

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The Kill takes up the story of Aristide Rougon, son of Pierre and Félicité, who in The Fortune of the Rougons had abandoned his Republican ideals in the immediate aftermath of Louis-Napoléon’s coup d’état of 1851, to side with his parents’ Bonapartist politics.
One of the first things we learn here about Aristide, who has moved to Paris in the wake of the coup, is that he has changed his surname, to Saccard. This is at the request of his elder brother Eugène, a power-broker in the new Imperial government (so they don’t ‘get in each other’s way,’ Eugène says), though the choice of name is Aristide’s. A derivation of his first wife’s family name, Sicardot, this new moniker evokes money (sacs d’écus), and the sacking of cities (saccager), as translator Brian Nelson notes in his helpful introduction to this volume. For Saccard’s younger second wife, Renée, the ‘dry syllables’ of this name “reverberated in her ears like two rakes gathering up gold,” while Aristide himself reflects that “there’s money in that name; it sounds as if you’re counting five-franc pieces.” To which Eugène sardonically responds that it will either make Aristide a crook or a millionaire. Both, as it turns out.

In Fortune Aristide, in whom the “coarse, greedy” appetites of the Rougons had “matured too quickly,” was an indolent but greedy sensualist who dreams of becoming rich as rapidly as possible, “building castles in the air.” (Eugène, for his part, dreamt of “bending people to his will,” which I’m sure we’ll see more of when we get to His Excellency Eugène Rougon). In the present novel, Aristide sees these dreams realized, rising quickly through the city’s social ranks as he takes advantage of the opportunities afforded by the massive urban renewal of Paris to turn incredible profits on land speculation:

he knew that the shower of gold beating down upon the walls would fall more heavily every day. Smart people had merely to open their pockets. He had joined the clever ones by reading the future in the offices of the Hôtel de Ville. His duties had taught him what can be stolen in the buying and selling of houses and land…. he knew how you sell for a million what has cost you a hundred thousand francs; how you acquire the right to rifle the treasury of the state, which smiles and closes its eyes; how, when throwing a boulevard across the belly of an old neighbourhood, you juggle with six-storeyed houses to the unanimous applause of your dupes.

Aristide’s employment at city hall gives him insider knowledge of Baron Haussmann’s plans for the redevelopment of Paris, which he exploits by purchasing properties slated for future demolition, ‘renting’ them to fictitious tenants at inflated prices and thus artificially driving up their assumed value for the compensation monies given to landlords holding expropriated properties. It’s a lucrative game, though not without its risks — Aristide gains a fortune of millions, but finds himself both blackmailed and blackmailer of colleagues who could expose him, and anxiously teetering on the verge of financial ruin as projects threaten to fall through.

After our first two Zolas, the fantastic Belly of Paris and the so-so Fortune of the Rougons, I’m glad to say I found The Kill a great read, especially the second time through. In this second book of the series, Zola already seems to have found his voice, settling into the stylistic marks and themes that will characterize the other books. It’s also nice to be back in Paris; having already started on our next book, The Conquest of Plassans, it seems to me that there’s a marked difference between those novels set in the bustling capital and those set in that sleepy southern city — where the latter are suffused with the heavy slowness of summer days in a small town, the former, and this was true too of The Kill, seem to be impelled forward with the motive force of great cities. It’ll be interesting to see if this holds true through the rest of the novels, as we work through them.

Early on in The Kill, Aristide prophecies the future transformation of Paris, hints of which he has gleaned through attentively watching and listening at work. Eating dinner with his first wife Angèle on the Buttes Montmartre, looking out over the city laid out before them, they see a ray of sunlight illuminate the houses below, which “seemed to catch fire and melt like an ingot of gold in a crucible.” Saccard jokes that it’s raining twenty-franc pieces, while his wife comments that they are not easy to pick up. But Aristide is already off and running, demonstrating with outswept arms the great cuts that will be made in the city in the coming years:

a cut there, another further on, cuts everywhere, Paris slashed with sabre cuts, its veins opened, providing a living for a hundred thousand navvies and bricklayers, traversed by splendid military roads….

Angèle, frightened, sees Saccard himself as this knife, the movements of his hand mercilessly slicing up the city. When, later in the novel, Aristide glances at Haussmann’s famous map of Paris, he sees that the Prefect’s “blood-red pen-strokes cut even deeper gashes” than he had. It’s the bleeding of the city that will yield gold, for the man who knows how to play the system: “There lay his fortune, in the cuts that his hand had made in the heart of Paris, and he had resolved to keep his plans to himself, knowing very well that when the spoils were divided there would be enough crows hovering over the disembowelled city.”

This trope of hunting runs throughout the novel, and gives meaning to its title, which is a little misleading in English; the original French title, La curée, refers not to a ‘kill’ as such but to that part of the killed animal given to the hounds as a reward for running it to ground (the spoils, maybe?). There’s a great passage here where Zola has Aristide smelling out the traces of his prey:

[it was a] breath, vague as yet, that rose from the great city, the breath of the budding Empire, laden already with the odours of alcoves and financial deals, with the warm smell of sensuality. The faint traces that reached him told him that he was on the right scent, that the prey was scudding before him, that the great Imperial hunt, the hunt for adventure, women, and fortunes, was about to begin. His nostrils quivered, his instinct, the instinct of a starving animal, seized unerringly on the slightest indications of the division of the spoil of which the city was to be the arena.

Between 1853 and 1870, Haussmann cut vast swaths through Paris, displacing some 350,000 residents from the city center, most of them the urban poor, while building new apartments, parks, and boulevards that reconstituted central Paris as a leisure-ground for the bourgeoisie. We don’t see much of the actual demolition here, or the displaced poor (though I think we’ll see them soon enough in the series); Zola’s concern is rather with the speculators, city-planners and bureaucrats who profited from the opportunities provided by urban renewal on a grand scale. For these, it is a hunt: the city becomes a forest, filled with “the rush for spoils…with the yelping of hounds, the cracking of whips, the flaring of torches… The appetites let loose were satisfied at last, shamelessly, amid the sound of crumbling neighbourhoods and fortunes made in six months.”

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It’s not only gold that is opened up in this orgy of speculation; vice, too, “flowed through the gutters, spread out over the ornamental waters, shot up in the fountains of the public gardens, and fell on the roofs as fine rain”:

At night, when people crossed the bridges, it seemed as if the Seine drew along with it, through the sleeping city, all the refuse of the streets, crumbs fallen from tables, bows of lace left on the couches, false hair forgotten in cabs, banknotes that had slipped out of bodices, everything thrown out of the window by the brutality of desire and the immediate satisfaction of appetites…the voluptuous nightmare of a city obsessed with gold and flesh.

This voluptuous nightmare is embodied in the novel by Saccard’s second wife Renée and his son Maxime (Renée’s stepson), who embark on an incestuous affair. Maxime and Renée adore the new Paris, riding through the Bois de Boulogne, strolling along its boulevards, admiring the uniform façades of the new apartments, the shops and cafés, then returning home to Saccard’s mansion near the Parc Monceau, “the flower-bed of this new Paris.”

The city is made for them, encouraging their crime. Renée too senses an exhaled message emanating from the city’s streets, but it is different from Saccard’s: “The shamefulness that had lingered there—momentary lust, whispered offers, prepaid nights of pleasure—was evaporating, floating in a heavy mist dissipated by the breath of morning. Leaning out into the darkness, she inhaled the quivering darkness, the alcove-like fragrance, as an assurance of shame shared and accepted by a complicitous city.”

Zola’s mania for description, which was largely absent from The Fortune of the Rougons, is given full rein here, particularly in pages filled with architectural detail — much of it provided by Saccard’s mansion, whose ornamental excesses satirize the eclectic and gaudy interiors of the nouveaux-riches of the Second Empire:

balconies shaped like baskets full of blossoms, and supported by tall, naked women with wide hips and jutting breasts…[and] escutcheons, clusters of fruit, roses, every flower it is possible for stone or marble to represent…Roses and dazzling garlands encircled the arch; fillets of gold, like threads of molten metal, ran round the walls, framing the panels, which were hung with red silk; festoons of roses, topped with tufts of full-blown blossoms, hung down along the sides of the mirrors. An Aubusson carpet spread its purple flowers over the polished floor. The furniture of red silk damask, the door-hangings and window-curtains of the same material, the huge ormolu clock on the mantel-piece, the porcelain vases standing on the consoles, the legs of the two long tables inlaid with Florentine mosaic, the very flower-stands placed in the window recesses, oozed and sweated with gold.

Here, the dominant note is struck by gold; in Renée’s private apartments, it is flesh and carnality that reign:

The bed seemed to stretch out till the whole room became one immense bed, with its carpets, its bearskin rugs, its padded seats, its stuffed hangings, which continued the softness of the floor along the walls and up to the ceiling. As in a bed, Renée left upon all these things the imprint, the warmth and perfume of her body… still warm and moist, where one found on the fine linen the adorable shape, the slumber, and the dreams of a thirty-year-old Parisian woman…. The pink bath, the pink slabs and basins, the muslin of the walls and ceiling, under which pink blood seemed to course, had the curves of flesh, the curves of shoulders and breasts; and, according to the time of day, one would have imagined the snowy skin of a child or the warm skin of a woman. It was redolent of nudity. When Renée emerged from it, her fair-skinned body added a little more pink to the pink flesh of the room.

These rooms also exert an influence on the characters, various décors leading Renée to assume a different aspect of sensuality: now ‘dainty and pretty,’ now ‘a capricious, carnal courtesan,’ now a ‘goddess’ assuming ‘chaste postures…revealing noble outlines of antique grace.” There’s another place, however, the bizarre, dark center of this affair, the mansion’s hothouse, where the idea for the affair first clearly comes to Renée, and to which she ‘drags’ Maxime “on bad days, when she needed a more acrid form of intoxication… It was there that they tasted incest.”

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Zola calls Renée “the most complex of women,” which may be true; for me she was the only sympathetic character here: sad, manipulated by various men, while continually reverting to her memories of innocent childhood games. The daughter of a wealthy old bourgeois family, made pregnant at 19 by a rape and married off to Aristide, who saves her honor in return for a couple hundred thousand francs of start-up capital, she is world-weary at 30, pursuing an affair with her stepson without really knowing why — to experience “something different” but also following a path of vice she feels, since her violation, to be intrinsic to her being. Maxime, for his part, is a dissipated and effeminate child of the Second Empire, in whom vice is “a natural, external growth. It waved over his fair hair, smiled upon his lips, dressed him in his clothes,” and was reflected in his ‘whorish’ blue eyes that “were never lowered: they roamed in search of pleasure, a pleasure that comes without effort, that is summoned, then enjoyed.” He neither desires nor pursues the affair, but simply takes it as it comes, and is seemingly unperturbed by its end.

That end, when it comes, is crushing in its abandonment of Renée: Saccard discovers her in an embrace with Maxime (she is trying to convince him to run away with her) when his eyes fall on the long-sought deed to Renée’s property, which she has just signed. His anger immediately abates. He takes the deed in hand, amicably guiding Maxime downstairs, and leaving Renée alone in her apartments:

So the drama was ended! Her crime, the kisses on the great grey-and-pink bed, the wild nights in the hothouse, the forbidden love that had consumed her for months, had culminated in this cheap, banal ending. Her husband knew everything and did not even strike her. … She looked down, and when she saw herself in her tights, and in her light gauze blouse, she gazed at herself with lowered eyes and sudden blushes. Who had stripped her naked? What was she doing there, bare-breasted, like a prostitute displaying herself almost to the waist? She no longer knew…. She was ashamed of herself, and contempt for her body filled her with mute anger at those who had left her like this.

It is, of course, Saccard and Maxime who have stripped her, left her as a blank figure of exchangeability, her husband using her “like a stake, like an investment… an asset in [his] portfolio.” She is part of that ‘band of illustrious prostitutes,’ “creatures who let their lovers pay for their luxuries, and who were quoted in fashionable society as shares are quoted on the Bourse [stock-exchange].”

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The novel ends as it began: with a ride in the Bois de Boulogne, where ‘tout Paris’ goes to see and be seen. In the first, Renée and Maxime are not yet lovers, dreaming of something to shake them from their lethargy, while in the second, at the novel’s end, Renée is alone. She has just spied a reconciled Aristide and Maxime, walking together on the side of the path — Aristide is encouraging his son to invest in his newest business venture — when, suddenly, the Emperor rides by: Aristide calls out a cry of support, and is briefly acknowledged with a glance. The cruel symmetry of these bookends, which highlights Renée’s suffering (what was it all for, in the end, if nothing changed?), also shows up the real point of all this activity, this frenzy of destruction and speculation: it is precisely to make sure that nothing changes, to safeguard the city as a pleasure-park for the wealthy, where all sins, even incest, can be waved away if there’s profit in it. Reading it, I heard an echo of another fictional depiction of 19th-century bourgeois revolution, Giuseppe Lampedusa’s The Leopard, with its cutting justification for Garibaldi’s unification of Italy: “everything must change, so that everything can stay the same.”

The Example of Zannovich: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (Guest Post by Nathaniel Leach)

Even if you got your fill of Döblin in my post, I urge you to read Nat’s shorter and smarter post on the same novel.

My excitement about Michael Hoffmann’s new translation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz can be traced to my very first day of graduate school. In a course on the fundamentals of critical theory, we were shown one of the opening scenes of Fassbinder’s adaptation, in which the protagonist, Franz Biberkopf is lying on the ground, being told a story. It seemed like a strange choice for a course where we would be going on to read Kant, Hegel, Levinas and many other heavyweight philosophers, and I remember being puzzled about how this guy lying on the floor connected with the history of Western philosophy. It took some time for me to get over my bewilderment and realize that my resistances were coming from the excessive rationalism of my undergraduate self. In time, the professor of this course became my supervisor and mentor, and perhaps the most important lesson I learned from her was that the oblique, hidden, and seemingly chance connections between things are often more significant than relationships dictated by rationality and causality.

Not coincidentally, I’m sure, this is one of the lessons of Berlin Alexanderplatz too; although its main plot can be summed up fairly simply—Franz Biberkopf is released from prison, tries to go straight, but suffers a series of increasingly disastrous misfortunes—this narrative is continually interrupted by digressions that detail seemingly insignificant events taking place in Berlin at the same time, or that re-tell versions of biblical stories and other prominent narratives of Western culture. These narrative interpolations demand that we read Franz Biberkopf’s story within a very broad cultural context, but at the same time, the narrative mostly refrains from making any direct connections between the stories; we are never told exactly how we should read these digressions as bearing on Franz’s story, and they are in fact often highly ambiguous. For example, Döblin’s insertion of the story of Job invites us to think of Franz’s sufferings as being like those of Job, but we also can’t avoid reflecting on the fact that he is to some degree deserving of his sufferings, or that he completely lacks Job’s patience and religious perspective.

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All of this is perhaps a long-winded way of explaining why, upon reading the book, I was inclined to attribute a particular significance to the story told to Franz in Chapter 1, even though I was also not surprised to find that it raised more questions than answers. Disoriented after his release from prison, Franz is helped by Eliser, a Jewish man who brings him into his house. Franz lapses into an almost catatonic state, and Eliser tells him the story of Stefan Zannovich, the son of an Albanian peddler, who launches an impressive career of social climbing by brazenly impersonating European nobility. Eliser concludes that “what you can learn from Stefan Zannovich is that he knew himself and he knew people”. This story thus seems to be a fable about autonomy, suggesting to Franz that he can control his own fate, and it is indeed instrumental in getting Franz back on his feet (literally, as he has been lying on the floor throughout).

It is not quite so simple, however; Eliser’s brother-in-law, Nahum, arrives during the telling of the story and insists that Eliser tell the end of the story, which is that Zannovich pushed his fraud too far, was found out, and eventually killed himself. For Nahum, the moral of the story is simply that “sometimes you can’t do everything you’d like to, sometimes things get fouled up”. Franz seems to hear Eliser’s message of hopeful autonomy and ignores Nahum’s warning, demonstrating both the power of stories and the danger of selective reading. But this is a highly ambiguous moment; it is not clear which of the brothers-in-law’s interpretations should be trusted, or indeed, if both are flawed. Nor is it clear whether Franz misreads Eliser’s intentions in telling him the story, or whether the story in fact has the desired effect. Nahum calls Eliser a “bad man” for telling the story, but Eliser’s intentions seem to be benevolent, even though Franz’s revival is somewhat questionable.

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While the meaning of the story of Zannovich is ambiguous, what does seem clear, however, is that Franz has failed to understand it fully, and that if he has learned anything from it, the lesson is painfully incomplete. The narrator continually reminds us that Franz has greater punishments in store for him, suggesting, at the very least, that this story has not fixed what was wrong with Franz. Moreover, while Franz is grateful for the help, he also diminishes its significance: “these Jews helped me, just by telling me stories. They talked to me, they were decent people who didn’t know me from Adam, and they told me about this Polack, and it was just a story, but it was very good just the same, and it was very instructive for me in my position. I thought: a glass of cognac might have set me to rights just as well”. Not only does he call it “just a story”, he judges it by its results, which he deems could have been achieved by other means anyway.

Ultimately, as Eliser’s interpretation suggests, the point of the story seems to be to signal that this book is about the knowledge (or lack thereof) of self and others. But what exactly does it mean to “know oneself and know others”? Are these two different things, or are they connected? Is such knowledge to be understood as a philosophical ideal or is it merely instrumental and pragmatic? Is it significant that “self” is listed first, before “others”? Zannovich “knows others” in the sense that he knows how to manipulate them, while Franz’s understanding of others is almost always superficial and naïve. After being revived, he falls back on an overweening belief in himself that either exploits others, as in his string of relationships with women, or fatally misunderstands them, as in his toxic friendship with the womanizer and petty crook, Reinhold.

This lack of knowledge is apparent in Franz’s decision, immediately after his revival, to sell nationalist newspapers, “not that he’s got anything against the Jews, but he is a supporter of order”. While the book is not highly political, aside from a few pointed sections, I found it hard not to read Franz’s lack of self-knowledge in conjunction with the rise of National Socialism. Döblin, writing in 1928, is diagnosing the ills of a society about to be swallowed up by fascism, and one of these ills is the ugly and violent form of self-reliance embodied by Franz Biberkopf, whose lack of political conviction belies his philosophical kinship to fascism at this point in the book.

This resonance was developed for me by one of those oblique connections I mentioned earlier; while reading this book, I happened also to be reading Victor Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich, in which Klemperer poignantly describes the increasing circumscription of his rights as a Jew living in Germany, and his increasing immersion in his academic work to avoid the reality of Nazism: “why should I sour my life still further by reading Nazi publications when it was already being ruined by what was happening around me? If by chance or mistake a Nazi book fell into my hands I would cast it aside after the first paragraph. If the voice of the Fuhrer or his Propaganda Minister was blaring out of a loudspeaker on the street I would give it a wide berth, and when reading the newspaper I desperately tried to fish out the naked facts- forlorn enough in their nakedness- from the repulsive morass of speeches, commentaries and articles”. While I identified strongly with this as a reader in 2018 trying to avoid depressing news without entirely burying my head in the sand, it also made me think of Franz Biberkopf; if Klemperer, one of the most sensitive observers of pre-WWII Germany, can reproach himself with allowing himself to become too self-involved and overwhelmed by the media, how much more does Biberkopf in Döblin’s chaotic world embody this flaw? The polar opposite of Klemperer, Franz does not question himself, and when he does dabble in politics, selling newspapers or, later, agitating with his anarchist friend, Willi, he believes he knows all the answers. He is by no means inherently fascist, but he embodies a lack of understanding or caring about others that is easily manipulated by the much more frightening Reinhold.

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The “example of Zannovich” (as the section heading calls it), then, is a negative one, deceiving Franz into believing that he is at the centre of the world, and enabling him to subordinate otherness to his will with a fascistic autonomy. (This is also pretty much the history of Western philosophy according to Emmanuel Levinas, so maybe that grad course really was on to something). Questions still abound, of course; for one, why does Eliser tell the story? Is he deceitful, or does he (like the narrator) foresee the necessary process that Franz must go through? If the novel diagnoses the ills of its society, it does so in order to suggest a solution of sorts, one that revises Eliser’s formula and makes the understanding of self and others inextricably linked.

A Risky Game: Émile Zola’s The Fortune of the Rougons (Guest Post, Keith Bresnahan)

Keith & I are making our way through Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. My take on the first book is here. Keith’s follows below:

Beginnings. They’re difficult. On the one hand, total freedom to establish characters, contexts, motivations; on the other — and particularly in the first of a projected series of works building on the same characters (or family) — there’s the burden of having to establish all these things, loading the origin with the necessary elements for everything yet to come. So, first installments can often feel weighed down by the historical heavy-lifting they have to do, establishing not just a particular context but a legacy framing the importance of the origin for future developments (if you don’t believe me, watch any of the recent spate of superhero films and see if you don’t agree).

For a project like Zola’s, which seeks “to discover and trace the thread that leads mathematically from one person to another,” to show the ‘laws’ of heredity that bind members of a family together through generations, this origin is especially important. Physiologically, Zola tells us in his famous Preface, the Rougon-Macquarts:

illustrate the gradual sequence of nervous and sanguine accidents that befall a race after a first organic lesion and, according to environment, determine in each individual member of the race those feeling, desires, and passions — in sum, all the natural and instinctive manifestations of humanity – whose outcomes are conventionally described in terms of ‘virtue’ or ‘vice’.

Moreover, these accidents will, over a series of 20 novels, tell the story of the Second Empire — that “strange period of human folly and shame,” in which the “ravenous appetites” of this family matches “the great upsurge of our age as it rushes to satisfy those appetites.”

In the Fortune of the Rougons (1871), the first novel in this monumental social and family saga, Zola takes on not one but two ‘tainted’ origins — that of the Rougon-Macquart family, and that of the Second Empire itself, in the coup d’état of Louis-Napoléon on 2 December 1851. Both the family and the historical era they embody are marked by this origin, and by the taint that follows them through decades. The action of the novel concerns the brief period following the coup, as it plays out among the members of this family in the fictional southern town of Plassans and its environs.

Pierre Rougon and his wife Félicité, frustrated and envious, take the opportunity provided by the coup to improve their social and economic standing in the town, while Pierre’s half-brother Antoine Macquart means to use the coup to get back at Pierre and Félicité for past slights against him. The matriarch Adélaïde Fouque, crippled and isolated by a nervous disorder, and pained by confused memories of the past, dies during these same few days, distraught at the fate of her grandson Silvère, who’s taken up arms (specifically, the gun owned by Adélaïde’s former lover Macquart) against the coup.

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Like Dorian, I didn’t love this book, and found it difficult to write about, especially at a distance of a couple months. As Dorian notes, it’s got a convoluted plot, and is surprisingly staid for Zola — one really misses those intense descriptive passages that, in Dorian’s great phrase, “wriggle free” of authorial intent. I’d agree that if you’re thinking of getting into Zola, you should definitely not start with this one. The good news, is that things do get almost immediately better: The Kill, also next on our list, is an absorbing (if imperfect) book, and in just the next book in the series Zola gives it its first bona fide masterpiece: Belly of Paris, which we wrote about here and here.

Fortune would seem to have it all: family drama, insanity, young love, revolution, death. But I found it all a little too airless, insubstantial even. It never really felt dangerous, or surprising, as everything moved to its inexorable conclusions. The weird trajectories I look for in Zola, where the narrative escapes its bounds and gets twisted in its own descriptive convolutions, or characters are consumed by their inner compulsions, were never as weird or sustained as I wanted. They’re not totally absent – Dorian’s already noted Vuillet’s perverse diddling of the mail-bags, and the Rougons’ bloody dream. I just wanted more of them.

I want to try to address some of the very interesting points Dorian made in his post, about realism vs. naturalism. On the one hand, I think it’s true that the determinism Zola wants to assert here, i.e. the ways in which characters are conditioned by these dual forces of heredity and environment, doesn’t really work – those moments where he inserts observations about this inheritance feel pretty strained (he works this out in the later novels). As Dorian notes, Pierre and Félicité scheme, manipulate, and act, in ways that don’t seem particularly determined by either hereditary or environmental factors.

In some ways, it’s their self-directed activities that bring out most clearly where conditioning and determinism do and don’t reside in this book. At bottom, Zola asserts, “all the members of the family had the same brutish appetites” (all, perhaps, save ­ Pascal Rougon, an oddity seemingly free of any genetic inheritance from either his mother or his father). The Rougons are greedy, frustrated, and envious, scheming to capitalize on opportunity; Macquart is indolent, alcoholic, envious, and greedy, with a self-serving sense of social injustice (It’s his descendants, via the fearsome Josephine ‘Fine’ Gavaudan – of whom we see all-too little here – who furnish the series with its best-known novels: Belly, Germinal, L’Assommoir, Nana, La bête humaine)

Ok, so if this is true, if these appetites are inherited and handed-out through all parts of this ‘wolf-litter’ of a family (the description is Adélaïde’s), then what’s surely important are the differences in how these appetites are worked out, the objects they take, and so on. And here, I would suggest, it’s class, not heredity, that makes the difference. Antoine, every bit the lumpenproletariat, seeks immediate satisfaction of his desires; Pierre, who is just as greedy, and more callous, wants to feel his appetites satisfied within a framework of cultivated taste and social respectability—which is to say, he is bourgeois. And even the objects of his desire are different: not wine, or sex, or even money as such, but a provincial government post: receiver of taxes. I guess my argument would be that these characters, and the narrative as a whole, are still naturalist, in that ways-in-which-people-are-conditioned-to-experience-things way, but that the powerful determinants of character and action here, rather than heredity and environment, are history and class.

Which brings us, I suppose, to Marx. After I first read Fortune a couple months ago, it occurred to me to go back to Marx’s well-known 1852 essay on the coup, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis-Napoléon (I granted Dorian a reprieve from this particular reading assignment!). I hadn’t looked at it since my grad-school days, and was hoping that it might give me a better purchase on the context of the coup as background to the novel; but I was surprised to see how much of it resonated with the rest of Fortune, as well.

(I don’t know whether Zola knew this text first-hand, or any Marx for that matter, despite an apparent acquaintance with his ideas – which this article from the Guardian gives some sense of.)

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The title of Marx’s pamphlet already throws considerable shade on Louis-Napoléon; as every French schoolchild would know, the Eighteenth Brumaire was the date of the coup that brought the first Napoléon to power in November 1799— an event whose conjunction here with the name of his nephew’s less-than-heroic coup sets the slightly mocking tone. And introduces Marx’s great theme here: the 1851 coup d’état, and the Empire it ushers in, are so many reiterations of earlier historical events, which become farce in the replaying. Both Marx and Zola share a sense, I think, not only of the farcical aspect of this political power-play-cum-historical theatre, but also of the way that this moment is overdetermined by a particular relationship to history. As Marx writes at the outset of this text,

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

Louis-Napoléon is clearly no Napoléon I, but it’s his more famous uncle, and the dream of restoring the Empire, that conditions the fantasies and actions of the characters here — even as they also rehearse other by now well-established revolutionary roles. As Marx sees it, the old names, the old figures, the old dates, the old chronology, all the tropes of a ‘defunct epoch’ rise up again in the midst of revolutions, and it makes for bad theatre.

 Fortune is similarly rife with images of history coming to haunt the present moment: there’s the old cemetery, where the young lovers Silvère and Miette meet, where bodies used to feed twisted and monstrous pear-trees, and today, though the skeletal remains have long-since been exhumed, the ‘warm breath’ of the dead continues to fuel their incipient passions (creepy!). “Nowadays, nobody thinks of the bodies that once lay there,” Zola says, but by the novel’s end there will be at least one more body stretched out on these stones: Silvère, executed for his part in the failed rebellion against the far-away coup.

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Or consider the Napoleonic prints adorning the Rougon’s yellow drawing-room, center of the town’s Bonapartist reaction; it is the old dream of empire, of Napoléon I, which feeds its impoverished repetition in 1851. And when Pierre and his ramshackle troops spend a panicked night in a nobleman’s garden, on the lookout for rebel armies and their campfires across the landscape, we might hear echoes of the ‘Grande Peur’ of 1789, when rumor and panic of noble plots swept across France. But the most pointed similarities between Zola’s and Marx’s accounts come in the farcical repetitions of historical drama enacted by the figures of Louis-Napoléon and Pierre, his Plassans counterpart.

Marx’s concern, he explained, was to present the “circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity [i.e., Louis-Napoléon] to play a hero’s part.” And here’s Zola, on the middle-aged olive-oil salesman Pierre Rougon: “this grotesque individual, this pale, portly bourgeois, [who] became, in one night, a fearsome gentleman whom nobody dared to ridicule anymore.” Pierre’s new status rests on his having saved the town of Plassans twice in as many days: first, during a minor skirmish with the peasant rebels crossing through the Var, during which he places his half-brother Macquart under house arrest, and then (to cement his reputation amid doubts about this first act of heroism) during a second attack on the town hall orchestrated and directed by Félicité and starring Macquart, whom she has freed and promised payment.

Pierre is no great leader, his ‘troops’ a “band of reactionaries” in whom “cowardice and brutality were mingled with stupidity.” His sought-after prize? A coveted small-town sinecure. Such are the origins of the family’s fortune – and they are also, as Marx and Zola both show us, the origins of the Second Empire. The coup, Zola tells us, “laid the foundations of the Rougons’ fortune. After being mixed up with various phases of the crisis, they rose to eminence on the ruins of liberty. Like bandits, they lay in wait to rob the Republic; as soon as its throat was cut, they helped to plunder it.” With a few modifications, this could be Marx, writing of Louis-Napoléon, and the clergy, nobility, and haute-bourgeois citizens who invest little hope in this Bonaparte — but whom, once the coup takes place, heartily accept him as the hero they’ve got, if not the one they wanted.

In the same vein, Zola gives us their counterparts in Plassans, gathered in the Rougons’ yellow drawing-room, happy to let the uninspiring Pierre suffer potential repercussions for being the face of opposition to the Republic:

The game was too risky. There was no one among the bourgeoisie of Plassans who would play it except the Rougons, whose unsatisfied appetites drove them to extreme measures.

When the game comes off, Zola makes sure we don’t miss the connection between this farcical small-town figure and that of his doppelgänger in Paris: alone in the mayor’s office the morning after the first skirmish, “leaning back in the mayor’s armchair, steeped in the atmosphere of officialdom that pervaded the room, he bowed to right and left, like a pretender to the throne whom a coup d’état is about to transform into an emperor.”

The Rougons are opportunists, taking any chance to move up in the world; this is not about political commitment, but about playing the game well, making the right moves, capitalizing on situations, even if a little fraud or subterfuge is required, and a few bodies pile up along the way. This is the story, for both Marx and Zola, of the Second Empire: it is a revolution made for capital and speculation, for bourgeois striving, for those who can take advantage, to do so. Félicité upbraids her son Pascal for his naïveté, his failure to capitalize on his opportunities, as a particular moral failing. It’s a lesson not needed for Aristide Rougon, who in The Kill embodies precisely the kind of ruthless opportunism encouraged by the Second Empire (when being cuckolded by one’s own son is just one more chance to make a deal). When a noble friend tells Félicité that ‘blood makes good manure’ for a family fortune, or an Empire, she shudders. But does not reject it. And, in her dreams, fueled by petty resentment and a desire to bring the entire town under her heel, blood becomes gold.

One of the things the novel does really well, I think, is depict the inertia of life in a small city, and the smallness of political ambition among its residents. Plassans may sleep while Paris fights, as Zola writes; but its intrigues take place in the drawing-rooms rather than the streets, and the point of all the revolt and counter-reaction here, which parallel the larger events playing out in the capital, ultimately only serve to secure the petty bourgeois ambitions of Pierre and Félicité for themselves and their sons. This doesn’t seem to make the Parisian events or their subsequent legacy grand history, though: for Zola, as for Marx, it’s farce—and tragedy—all the way down.