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.

What I Read, April 2020

Ugh, April. A terrible month in my line of work at the best of times. Which this April, of course, was not. I was both busy—the last four weeks of the semester are always crunch time—but also, strangely, not. (No commute, far fewer admin obligations, the many office hour meetings vanished to almost nothing.) The month felt like a Zoom class that leaves exhausted but also unsatisfied. (God, I hate looking at myself so much.) Some days the pandemic routine was just fine, even enjoyable. Other days terror and depression pinched hard. On the plus side, we spent so much time together as a family. But on the downside, we spent so much time together as a family.

April is the best month of the year, weather wise, in Little Rock. And in that regard at least 2020 didn’t disappoint, so we were outside in the yard a lot. I fear what will happen when the hot weather sets in, in a couple of weeks or so. So I tried to read outside as much as I could. But what I mostly read this month was undergraduate prose—many, many essay drafts and short writing exercises. Some of that writing was excellent, some not. Either way, it took me away from books, plus I was working away at some chunksters. Thus this meager final tally:

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Philip Kerr, Greeks Bearing Gifts (2018)

Ingenious of Kerr to make his rumpled anti-hero Bernie Gunther an insurance adjuster in this last book of the series. (Kerr completed one more before he died, but it is set back in the 1920s, with Bernie a rookie beat cop.) Insurance is a great milieu for non-PI crime investigating, and I’m surprised more writers don’t take advantage of it. (Double Indemnity, of course, and Don Winslow’s California Fire and Life—can you think of others?) Here, Bernie is sent to Greece to investigate a suspicious claim. No surprise, what he finds relates to the Nazi occupation of the 1940s. What is a surprise is the ending, which offers a new, but quite fitting, direction for Bernie, serving an intriguing new set of masters. I would have loved to see Kerr develop these possibilities, but it’s satisfying as it is.

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove (1985)

A damn good book, which kept me company through the first confusing and anxious pandemic weeks, back when things felt both more terrifying and less depressing than now. In the 1870s, down by the Mexican border, a group of cowboys work the Hat Creek ranch under the direction of two former Texas Rangers. The return of an old comrade and a sense that life has become played out convince the men to drive a herd of cattle north to Montana, where they plan to set up the first ranch in the territory.

Lonesome Dove has an exciting plot (McMurtry is good with weather, and he sure knows how to create drama out of a river crossing), but what it really has is a set of great characters. (Be warned: the intersection of these qualities often takes the form of death. You’ll lose several people you’ve become quite attached to.) For me, the book is about the things other people can see about you that you yourself just can’t. (A theme abetted by the novel’s roving omniscience.) Lonesome Dove is about the limits of self-knowledge—limits that abet the uncaringness of the universe that everyone, we learn, runs aground against anyway. Most heartbreaking is the inability of the outfit’s stoic leader, Captain Woodrow Call, to acknowledge that he’s the father of one of its youngest members. (There’s a beautiful, moving, frustrating scene between them at the end: the book’s plenty sentimental, which I like.) Almost as heartbreaking is the story of Call’s partner, Captain Augustus McCrae, as excitable and gregarious as Call is reticent, who is felled not by reencountering the love of his life but by his own stubbornness and vanity.

The novel’s only weakness is that there are almost no women in, only three really, though to be fair they’re important, and McMurtry handles two of them well (especially McCrae’s old flame, Emily). The prostitute Lorena Wood is less successful: what might have seemed a sensitive portrait in the 1980s doesn’t work today. But the book has a sweep, a verve, a love of life (it’s often laugh-out-loud funny) that really captivated me, and I can imagine tit ending up on my end of the year list.

Georges Didi-Huberman, Bark (2011) Trans. Samuel Martin (2017)

I can’t be fussed to look back and see what I wrote when I first read this a couple of years ago. Pretty sure I liked it then; I like it a lot now. I’ve taught it twice, and it’s a keeper. Didi-Huberman—a French academic who has written a lot about photography—juxtaposes photographs he took on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau with little essayistic reflections on the experience. I now have a better handle on his argument, viz, we need to see without looking, which is to say, without being guided by preconceptions. Only self-awareness about the limitations of looking can let us do that. Students love the book—that came through even over our less-than-ideal video sessions. On my previous readings, I hadn’t picked up how much Didi-Huberman hates Claude Lanzmann, so that was a nice little bonus for me.

Henri Bosco, Malicroix (1948) Trans. Joyce Zonana (2020)

Strange and compelling, especially in its first half. A young man inherits a small house on a small island in the middle of the Rhone river—or he will if he satisfies the unusual requirements of the bequest. I will have more to say soon!

Sujata Massey, The Widows of Malabar Hill (2018)

First in a crime series set in 1920s Bombay (with detour to Calcutta). Parveen Mistry is the city’s first female solicitor (unlike her father, with whom she practices, she cannot argue in court) and a member of the city’s small but influential Parsi community. (She is modelled on the real-life Cornelia Sorabji.) When the firm is asked to execute the will of a longstanding Muslim client, Parveen’s gender turns into an asset, as the deceased three wives live in purdah. Her ability to speak to the widows directly becomes more pressing when a member of the household is found murdered. As I said about Greeks Bearing Gifts, I enjoy seeing how writers tackle the problems and opportunities offered by non-police or PI characters. It will be interesting to watch Massey deal with this constraint as the series goes forward. The crime takes a backseat to Parveen’s involved history—in this, as well as the period setting and the sensibilities of the main character, Widows reminded me of the first Maisie Dobbs novel; fans of that series will enjoy this one—but the story of her education and the unhappy events that led her to work with her father are compelling enough that I didn’t mind. I’ve already bought the second book, which, I gather, riffs on The Moonstone.

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May is shaping up to be a better reading month, once again with plenty of crime but other things too. Among other things I’ve been plugging away at Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. I’ve read 650 pp, and there are still 800 to go! Sometimes I just laugh at how big it is. Soothing, though. Tune in next time to see if I finish it.

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. 

 

“A Cemetery of Books”: David Fishman’s The Book Smugglers

Remember in 2001 when the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamyan, those giant statues in Afghanistan? Cue handwringing about the desecration of an important cultural treasure. I was in graduate school at the time and I remember one of my professors rejecting that response. People care more about those sculptures than they do other people, he said. Where’s the outcry about everyone the Taliban oppressed, violated, killed?

My tendency to please others, to see the point they’re making, especially in situations I perceive as confrontational, combined with the inescapable servility of grad students toward the professors who have such power over them made me accept this claim, even though there had in fact been plenty of horror at the Taliban’s human targets. And, after all, I could see the man’s point. It is easier to lament cultural rather than human destruction, cultural objects being less difficult than people. Paintings and buildings and books—they’re less annoying, insistent, demanding, less, you know, living than people. Silently, to myself, I worked myself into righteous indignation. Shouldn’t we care more about people than about the things they’ve made? Fuck everyone getting all weepy about, say, a manuscript while they’re resigned to torture or genital mutilation or mass rape. I resolved to take this line from then on, to harden my heart against the loss of “cultural treasures,” especially since this sort of dismay is usually accompanied by the idea that culture is morally improving, something I’ve never been able to stomach.

I maintained my people > objects stance even as, years later, I began to study the Holocaust seriously. But having done so I couldn’t maintain the belief for long. Not because people don’t matter. But because the differences between people and objects are less evident than my professor would have us believe. I’ve written before, for example, about how diaries, Holocaust diaries in particular, treat books as extensions of people. Not just that the book is a synecdoche for the person, but that diary and diarist become indistinguishable, an equation made by the writers themselves. Think of Chaim Kaplan, writing on August 2, 1942, amidst liquidation of Warsaw ghetto, in the last line of his last entry: “If my life ends—what will become of my diary?” Or of Hélène Berr, writing in October 1943: “It makes me happy to think that if I am taken, Andrée [the family’s cook] will have kept these pages, which are a piece of me, the most precious part, because no other material thing matters to me anymore.” Neither Berr nor Kaplan effaces themselves by valuing their writing. Rather, each pays tribute to the reality of experience by affirming its indirection: what’s real is what’s written.

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But maybe books—which I’ll use as a synonym for cultural artifacts generally: I mean representations—are different from other things. Do books have a special quality that is either the same as or, if different, then morally equivalent to the one that we rightly assign to people? These thoughts were prompted by my reading of David Fishman’s The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis, a book centered on events in Vilna, Lithuania, known for centuries “the Jerusalem of the North” because of its status as a center of Jewish learning and study.

Fishman’s story begins in the interwar years, when Vilna was part of Poland. (Before WWI, it had been ruled by Russia for 125 years; today, Vilnius is in Lithuania.) Almost 30% of its 193,000 inhabitants were Jewish, making it the fourth largest Jewish city in Poland. But its cultural weight was even greater. Its Great Synagogue, modest looking from the outside (by decree, synagogues had to be shorter than churches), astonished visitors, who descended a staircase and looked up at its marble columns and silver ornaments. Nearby was the home and synagogue of the Vilna Gaon (genius), Rabbi Elijah, an 18th century Talmudist, and spiritual head of the Misnagdim, the opponents of Hasidic Judaism.

But by the 20th century much of Vilna’s Jewish life was secular. The most famous Yiddish play, S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk, was first performed there in 1921. The Strashun Library, “the intellectual hub of Jewish Vilna” contained 40,000 volumes and was open even on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. A Jewish gymnasium (academic high school) taught modern chemistry and physics in Yiddish. Publishing companies and newspapers pumped out Jewish books and reported on Jewish life. Most importantly, Vilna was home to the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO), “a modern research academy that employed the methods of the humanities and social sciences to study Jewish life.” Founded in 1925, by the 1930s YIVO had branches in Berlin, Paris, and New York (the latter is still around). Befitting its status as what Fishman calls “the national academy of a stateless people, the Jews of Eastern Europe,” YIVO held a vast archive of all things related to Jewish life: religious texts, but also folksongs, playbills, posters, you name it. YIVO housed scholars but also offered wide-ranging educational programming for general audiences.

Having introduced the setting, Fishman turns to some of the key players (helpfully introduced in a Dramatis Personae). They include:

Shmerke Kaczerginski (1908—1954), known as the heart of the “Young Vilna” literary group. This poet and sing-songwriter had been orphaned at a young age and educated at night school. After the invasion of Vilna in 1941 he spent seven months roaming the countryside disguised as a Polish deaf-mute, but voluntarily slipped into the ghetto in 1942 where he and Avrom Sutzkever (see below) became inseparable. He participated in the failed ghetto uprising and escaped to the forest where he joined a band of partisans. After the war, Kaczerginski set up the Vilna Jewish museum, the first post-Holocaust Jewish museum. He clashed repeatedly with Soviet authorities, however, and, after ensuring that many of the documents that survived the war were shipped to YIVO in New York, he left Vilna, first for Lodz, then Paris and, in 1950, Argentina, where he died a few years later in a plane crash.

Zelig Kalmanovitch (1885—1944), who held a doctorate from university in Königsberg, became co-director of YIVO in 1928. In midlife, he was increasingly religious and Zionist. Known as “the prophet of the ghetto” for urging those imprisoned to maintain their dignity.

Rachela Krinsky (1910—2002) was a historian and high school teacher whose (first) husband died weeks after the German invasion of Vilna, leaving her with a small child. Krinsky later gave her daughter up to the girl’s Polish nanny in hopes she might survive outside the ghetto. The girl did, and the two were later reunited.

Herman Kruk (1897—1944) had been the director of the largest Jewish library in Warsaw, an ardent Bundist who believed books were central to Jewish flourishing. Kruk fled Warsaw for Vilna after the German invasion of Poland in 1939. He turned down the chance to emigrate to the US in 1940 because he hoped to track down his wife and child, who were trapped in Warsaw. (They perished.) In occupied Vilna, Kruk became the director of the ghetto library, an enormously popular and life-affirming institution. He kept a diary of his experiences in the ghetto and beyond, after he was deported to various labour camps. Miraculously, this document survived, though Kruk did not. (It’s available in English, but it’s very expensive!)

Abraham (Avrom) Sutzkever (1913-2010) is the most famous person in this story: the poet laureate of Young Vilna, and probably the greatest Yiddish poet of the 20th Century (Jakob Glatshteyn would seem to be his main competitor). Sutzkever escaped death many times, first in the ghetto and later with the partisans in the forests of Lithuania. (His infant son, murdered in 1942, was not so lucky.) From there, Sutzkever was brought by special plane to Moscow (the Soviets plucked him out of the forest), but he returned to Vilna at end of war. Sutzkever later testified at Nuremberg trials, made his way to Paris, and eventually settled in Mandate Palestine, later Israel.

All these principals were members of the paper brigade, a work detail founded in February 1942 to sort through Jewish documents for the Nazis. The brigade was founded at the insistence of Johannes Pohl, a former Catholic priest turned Nazi orientalist who worked for the Einsatz Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), the agency in charge of looting cultural treasures in occupied Europe. Much of that plunder was Jewish; Pohl, who had lived and studied in Jerusalem, was appointed a Judaica expert. Soon after, he was named chief librarian at the Institute for Investigation of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt. (The Nazis planned to commemorate the people they had exterminated.)

Pohl had first arrived in Vilna in July 1941, just weeks after the German invasion. At that time, he arranged for a mass of Jewish material to be shipped to Frankfurt. But the YIVO archives were so big a dedicated work detail was needed to sift through the materials. Thus the “paper brigade,” which gave surprising shelter to the intellectuals and artists named above. The brigade was unusual in that it was one of the only all-Jewish work details (no non-Jewish overseers) and that its work took place outside the ghetto, as that’s where the YIVO building was located. As a result, the brigade was a peaceful place to work, with plenty of chances to snatch a cigarette and to hide valuable documents on one’s person for smuggling back into the ghetto. As you can imagine, such smuggling was dangerous; Fishman dramatizes various near catastrophes when workers were searched at the gates. For most of the Jews imprisoned in the ghetto, however, the paper brigade was not a desirable work assignment. Not so much because of their lack of interest in smuggling paper, or their fear of being caught if they did, but because opportunities for the most valuable kind of graft were almost nonexistent. You couldn’t find or trade any food while toiling in the YIVO archives.

Food, of course, was all-important. As was true in all the ghettos the Nazis set up across Eastern Europe, life in the Vilna ghetto was terrible: overcrowding, hunger, and despair were rife; these conditions led to widespread disease. Yet the Jews of Vilna also made heroic efforts at maintaining more than mere life. (That was true in other ghettos as well; Fishman sometimes implies that Vilna was unique in this respect, though I think that implication stems more from his focus: this isn’t a comparative work.)  A distinguishing feature of the Vilna ghetto was its lending library, composed of 45,000 titles, which was extraordinary well used. Fifteen months after its inauguration in September 1941, over 100,000 books had been checked out. Because the director, Kruk, kept detailed statistics, Fishman is able to show what kinds of people used the library and what kind of books they checked out. Users were mostly young, they mostly read novels, and most of those novels were what Fishman dubiously calls “pulp fiction” (Margaret Mitchell and Vicki Baum were especially popular). “Socially mature readers” gravitated to books that resonated with their own wartime experience. Favourite titles included War and Peace, All Quiet on the Western Front and, especially (heartbreakingly, all too pertinently) Franz Werfel’s novel of the Armenian genocide, Forty Days of Musa Dagh.

Kruk hung two signs near the circulation desk. One was prosaic:

Keep the books clean and intact; do not read while eating. Do not write in books; do not dampen them; do not fold pages or break bindings. If a reader has been ill with a contagious disease, he must notify the librarian upon returning the book.

The other exhortatory:

Books are our only comfort in the ghetto!

Books can help you forget your sad reality.

Books can transport you to worlds far away from the ghetto.

Books can still your hunger when you have nothing to eat.

Books have remained true to you, be true to the books.

Preserve our spiritual treasures—books!

Reading these words now, I’m filled with respect for this commitment to literature in the face of suffering. But I’m also filled with doubt—are these sentiments accurate or advisable? Kruk was aware that books in the ghetto were a narcotic, with all the double-edged qualities we might associate with the term. “It often seems to the ghetto librarian that he is a drug pusher,” he wrote, adding that it sometimes seemed what he saw in patrons was not so much reading as “self-intoxication.”

We often find references to fantasy in Holocaust literature: day-dreaming, sleeping, reveries, memories are regularly described as ways to help manage the situations victims found themselves in. It makes sense that books would do so too. But every description of a strategy for removing one’s self from current reality is immediately qualified: fantasy is as dangerous as it is helpful.

Similar ambivalence haunted the members of the paper brigade. “Kalmanovitch and I don’t know if we are gravediggers or saviors,” Kruk confided to his diary. Despite the relatively benign working conditions, workers were often in tears at what they were asked to do. Fishman compellingly shows how the protagonists of his tale regularly compared the fate of the cultural objects they were helping the Nazis spirit away and/or destroy to the fate of the Jewish people. When the brigade was first sent to the YIVO headquarters to begin their mission they found the place a ruin (it had been briefly used as a barracks), which papers piled a meter high in the basement: “It looked like after a real pogrom,” wrote one member. Kruk was even more explicit: “like everything here, [YIVO] dies in a mass grave, along with scores and scores of others … The mass grave, ‘the trash paper,’ grows bigger every minute.” Zelig Kalmanovitch—former YIVO co-director—wrote similarly in his diary. In an entry dated August 26, 1943 he notes:

I sorted books all week. I sent several thousand books to their destruction with my own hands. A mound of books is lying on the floor of the YIVO reading room. A cemetery of books. A mass grave. Books that are victims of the War of Gog and Magog, along with their owners.

Once again we see books equated to people. Both are vulnerable. Both can be murdered. (Even, as was true so often during the Holocaust, by their own—Kalmanovitch speaks of sending books to destruction in the same way members of the Sonderkommandos, for example, spoke or sending people to death.) There is a strong sense that people and books need each other. The paper brigade workers often used their lunch hour to read some of the books they were surrounded by, not idly but desperately. Rachela Krinsky later wrote of this intense experience: “Who knows? These might be the last books we ever read. And the books were also, like us, in mortal danger. For many of them, we were their last readers.”

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Sorting through material at YIVO, April 1943

Fishman makes his story accessible without sacrificing nuance. Sometimes that informality misfires, as in a present tense reconstruction of smuggling scene at the beginning of the book, or a tour of pre-war Vilna, imaged to be given by Kaczerginski. But the book gets better as it goes along. Readers whose knowledge of the Holocaust is limited might find the topic a bit niche, yet they are exactly who I most wish would read The Book Smugglers. It’s important to understand that resistance took many forms in this period (knowledge that might help us imagine similar forms of resistance in our own, increasingly authoritarian times). It’s important to recognize that Jews suffered under both the Nazis and, after the war, the Soviets (not in the same way, to be sure, but neither regime was interested in enabling Jewish life). It’s important to see how Jewishness remained a problem in a post-war world still defined in nationalist terms, a problem that persists to this day. (A problem that, in a different world, could be taken as an opportunity.) And, finally, it’s important to think, pace my grad school professor, about how the objects we live among, perhaps especially those we use to tell the story of ourselves, are versions of ourselves. We shouldn’t mourn the lost manuscripts of Vilna—or the Buddhas of Bamyan—more than the death of the people who made, read, or otherwise appreciated them. But we shouldn’t disparage that mourning either. The destruction of the one is so tightly connected to the murder of the other.

(I was recently introduced to this footage of Avrom Sutzkever testifying at the Nuremberg trials–in Russian rather than Yiddish, as he desired, because, perversely, Yiddish was not a recognized official language of the trials. Anyway, he’s much more dashing than I expected!)

On D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love

I wrote this essay in 2016–O brave old world!–for Open Letters Monthly (of blessed memory–how I miss it). You can still find it in the OLM archives, but when I heard that Karen and Simon had chosen 1920 for their latest Reading Club project, I thought I’d dust it off. Women in Love is my favourite book, and I never miss a chance to talk it up. Thanks to Karen & Simon for their indefatigable hosting of these events. And thanks to the old gang at Open Letters: Sam Sacks, John Cotter, Steve Donoghue, Greg Waldmann, and, especially, Rohan Maitzen. They made this piece better.

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D. H. Lawrence’s masterpiece, Women in Love (1920), is one of the great novels of the twentieth century. It’s also intense and uncompromising, to the point that it daunted even its author. To one of his most supportive friends, the Scottish writer Catherine Carswell, Lawrence admitted, “The book frightens me: it is so end-of-the-world.” Indeed, its working title was Dies Irae (Day of Wrath). Yet the book isn’t apocalyptic. Its grim fascination with endings is balanced by a joyful appreciation of beginnings. The letter to Carswell continues, “But it is, it must be, the beginning of a new world too.” Perhaps that’s why my students love the novel so much. After all, it’s about young, intelligent, talented people figuring out how they want to live in the world, and what they will have to change to make that happen. But you don’t have to be a student to enjoy Women in Love. There’s nothing dutiful or high-minded about it. You’ll race through it, I promise, caught up in its passion, its intensity, its extraordinary prose. Reading it, you’ll feel alive.

That aliveness might be a reaction against the terrible war during which it was written. Although the novel is set in the English Midlands in an unspecified year before WWI and so doesn’t concern the war itself, Lawrence wished “the time to remain unfixed, so that the bitterness of the war may be taken for granted in the characters.” That’s a strange thing to say: it only makes sense if war — or at least its emotional effects, like bitterness — is a natural state of affairs. And that’s in fact true of this novel. The characters might not actually be at war with each other, but they are always at loggerheads. The novel thrives on these arguments: disagreement is a moral force in Women in Love, its highest value.

At the center of those disagreements are two sisters, Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen, a teacher and an artist, respectively. Early in the book, they meet two men who are close friends: Rupert Birkin, an inspector of schools, and Gerald Crich, an “industrial magnate,” heir to a large mining company. As the novel begins, Rupert is extricating himself from a relationship with Hermione Roddice, an avowedly modern and progressive Baronet’s daughter. Eventually Birkin leaves Hermione for Ursula, and Gerald and Gudrun get together. The foursome, sick of England, travel to a snowy valley in the Tyrolean Alps. In this “cradle of snow,” ominously described as “the navel of the world, where the earth belonged to the skies, pure, unapproachable, impassable,” their relationships end badly.

Although the ending is quite dramatic, Lawrence is not much interested in plot. Instead he cares about ideas, specifically, ideas about human relationships. What does it mean to be involved with another person? What characteristics would an ideal relationship have? How do individual relationships combine to create society?

The novel launches us into these considerations from its first sentence: “Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen sat one morning in the window-bay of their father’s house in Beldover, working and talking.” Whereas Lawrence’s earlier novels (The White Peacock and Sons & Lovers) emphasize work, this one emphasizes talk. And talk isn’t just a way of passing time while the day’s work gets done. It’s the main attraction — and a lot rides on it. In this first conversation the sisters consider marriage: is it something they want? Is it anything they could even imagine for themselves? Is there any way for them to avoid it? What begins as speculation rapidly dissolves into enmity and resentment. Marriage, children, managing a household: these conventional female roles seem absurd. But their absence is frightening. The sisters find themselves “confronted by a void, a terrifying chasm, as if they had looked over the edge.” The impasse is only surmounted, ironically, by their decision to watch the guests arriving for a nearby wedding. Standing in the throng outside the church, the sisters catch their first glimpses of Rupert, Gerald, and Hermione. The wedding symbolizes the social norms the characters reject but are nonetheless drawn to. They want to be modern, but they can’t just ignore the past. The uncertainty of their position — knowing that established ways of living are impossible yet not knowing what to replace them with — is what Gudrun responds to when she cries in frustration, “Don’t you find, that things fail to materialize? Nothing materialises! Everything withers in the bud.”

We soon learn that for things to blossom they must be subject to conflict. Despite its title, Women in Love is characterized more by anger, even hatred, than love. It might not be surprising that these self-styled modern women loathe the provincialism of the Midlands, the violent bluster of their father’s patriarchal values, and the contempt they feel emanating from the local miners and their families. But a lot of the time they also hate each other. Even though Gudrun is the one who proposed looking at the wedding as a way to ease the tensions between them, she feels “a friction of dislike” when Ursula readily agrees. The novel captures this ambivalence through competing similes: “The two sisters were like a pair of scissors, snipping off everything that came athwart them; or like a knife and a whetstone, the one sharpened against the other.” In the first, the sisters are a team; in the second they are at odds. Yet in both the relationship is antagonistic, whether they’re fighting the world or each other.

Every important relationship in Women in Love is like this, equal parts attraction and repulsion. These conflicting emotions are invariably expressed violently. Consider a famously tempestuous scene between Hermione and Birkin in which she comes across him in her boudoir, absorbed in a book. Realizing that he is as shut off from her as he is in his reading, Hermione is overcome with rage:

A terrible voluptuous thrill ran down her arms — she was going to know her voluptuous consummation. Her arms quavered and were strong, immeasurably and irresistibly strong. What delight, what delight in strength, what delirium of pleasure! She was going to have her consummation of voluptuous ecstasy at last. It was coming! In utmost terror and agony, she knew it was upon her now, in extremity of bliss. Her hand closed on a blue, beautiful ball of lapis lazuli that stood on her desk for a paper-weight. She rolled it around in her hand as she rose silently. Her heart was a pure flame in her breast, she was purely unconscious in ecstasy. She moved towards him and stood behind him for a moment in ecstasy. He, closed within the spell, remained motionless and unconscious. Then swiftly, in a flame that drenched down her body like fluid lightning, and gave her a perfect, unutterable consummation, unutterable satisfaction, she brought down the ball of jewel stone with all her force, crash on his head.

Hermione wants to be recognized by Birkin as his intellectual equal but the harder she tries the more he disparages her. Their relationship is excruciating. He doesn’t know how to escape her smothering attentions except by retreating into cold detachment. She exasperates him, and everyone else, by always having to know better, but she also suffers cruelly from his disdain and unwillingness to make a clean break. No wonder she is reduced to a desperate, literal attempt at cracking his exterior. No matter how sensual this moment — “the flame that drench[s] down her body like fluid lightning” is obviously orgasmic — what Hermione really wants is to get inside Birkin’s head. The crash of paperweight against skull is really a clash of ideas. Hermione and Birkin’s psychosexual troubles stem from their competing world-views. They are not alone in subordinating sex to philosophy. Everybody in the novel upholds an ideal way of being in the world. Hermione has her need to know and grasp everything; Gerald his love of domination and the will-to-power; Gudrun her elitism; Ursula her ironic deflating of any self-satisfied philosophizing; and Birkin his misanthropic insistence that the human species is at best a nuisance and at worst a menace to be exterminated. In Birkin’s view, the only hope for humanity lies in relationships of tense equilibrium between like-minded souls, like the one he offers Ursula and which he calls “a perfect union” and “a sort of ultimate marriage.”

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As this catalogue suggests, the novel offers a bewildering set of arguments about how to live. But if we think that our job as readers is to choose the best one — that is, if we think we’re supposed to side with one character over another — we’re missing the point. Women in Love is dialogic. What matters is not that one set of beliefs triumphs over another but that these beliefs continually do battle. The novel’s highest value is contestation itself. That’s why it’s filled with so many fights. Characters are always being roused to sudden passions. Nothing is worse than indifference. Reading Women in Love you need to be prepared for wild swings of emotion. Birkin will interrupt a seemingly friendly conversation with Gerald to proclaim, “I rather hate you.” A pages-long bare-knuckle argument with Ursula end abruptly when Birkin, who has been fulminating against the idea that love is a kind of fusion, accepts a flower from Ursula: “It was peace at last. The old, detestable world of tension… passed away at last… they were at peace with each other.” “Peace at last… they were at peace with each other.” Like so many other, this passage demonstrates the novel’s most obvious and contentious stylistic trait: repetition. Remember how often “consummation” and “voluptuous” and “ecstasy” appeared in the paperweight passage. Fittingly, Lawrence’s repetition has incited strong reactions. In her memoirs, Ottoline Morrell — who had been a friend and patron of Lawrence’s before a bitter quarrel ended their relationship permanently — recalls reading the manuscript of Lawrence’s previous novel, The Rainbow:

I was shocked in reading it by what then seemed to me to be the slapdash amateurish style in which it was written, and the habit he then began of repeating the same word about ten times in a paragraph … reading very loose sloppy writing gives me always a feeling of great discomfort, almost shame.

Her reaction to the manuscript of Women in Love was even stronger. “Lawrence has sent me his awful book,” she wrote to the philosopher Bertrand Russell. “It is so loathsome one cannot get clean after it.” Morrell’s forceful response — her shock, her discomfort, her almost-shame, her feeling of having been dirtied — is even more over the top than Lawrence’s prose. (It didn’t help that Lawrence based the character of Hermione on her, a fact she noticed immediately.) What Lawrence wrote in a short Foreword attached to the first edition of Women in Love might have been written in response to criticisms like Morrell’s:

In point of style, fault is often found with the continual, slightly modified repetition. The only answer is that it is natural to the author: and that every natural crisis in emotion or passion or understanding comes from this pulsing, frictional to-and-fro, which works up to culmination.

It’s characteristic that even when he’s writing about his sentences Lawrence seems to be writing about sex. But that’s not because he’s obsessed with sex, as his frankness and impatience with prudishness has sometimes led him to be described. It’s not that everything in Lawrence is about sex; it’s that even sex in Lawrence is about arguing. The “pulsing, frictional to-and-fro which works up to culmination” describes the principle of contestation that characterizes every meaningful relationship in the novel.I believe that Lawrence’s repetition enacts his theory of relationships. In the scene with Hermione and her paperweight, for example, almost every word is repeated, but these repetitions don’t simply reiterate. Instead, they introduce variation. “Voluptuous,” for example, modifies first “thrill,” then “consummation,” then “ecstasy”; the metaphor of flame shifts, first describing Hermione’s heart (“her heart was a pure flame in her breast”), then something more general that it is hard to name — perhaps her way of bringing the paperweight down on his head, or perhaps her entire mode of being (“in a flame that drenched down her body like fluid lightning”). Repetition is Lawrence’s way of dramatizing shifting emotional responses, of making us feel the uncertain, unfinished, even self-contradictory qualities of his characters. That’s because repetition always appears in the guise of continual refinement or qualification. Something has to be said but there is no definitive way of saying it.

Seen in this light Lawrence’s style offers an extraordinary balance between artlessness and carefulness. The former risks clumsiness, the latter artificiality. Some of Lawrence’s contemporaries — James, Joyce, Woolf — are heirs to Flaubert. They strive for the perfection of le mot juste. Lawrence is not like that, and indeed formal perfection of all kinds is suspect in this novel. Birkin describes the neoclassicism of Hermione’s country house as “a snare and a delusion… a horrible dead prison.” Artlessness keeps things alive, ensures emotional truth. But artlessness that doesn’t attend to form at all is simply shapelessness. Too many of Lawrence’s readers have failed to see that attention and thereby missed Lawrence’s interest in structure. Earlier I quoted Morrell’s criticism of Lawrence’s style, her rejection of what she called “very loose sloppy writing.” To my mind this description reads as an unacknowledged expression of her own anxiety: the only reason you might feel shame over what appears to be loose and sloppy writing would be if you were frightened by its vulnerability, its willingness not to conform to accepted standards of literary decorum. Lawrence is loose, yes, out of a belief that truth is only caught on the wing, that imperfection keeps things alive, but he isn’t sloppy. Even his critics admit that his writing can have electrifying power. Morrell, for example, was also alive to its pleasures. Lawrence’s writing, she admitted, contains “passages of such intensity and such passionate beauty that they never leave one’s memory.” Women in Love is filled with such passages. Here’s one I love. It’s the opening of a chapter called “Diver”:

The week passed away. On the Saturday it rained, a soft, drizzling rain that held off at times. In one of the intervals Gudrun and Ursula set out for a walk, going towards Willey Water. The atmosphere was grey and translucent, the birds sang sharply on the young twigs, the earth would be quickening and hastening in growth. The two girls walked swiftly, gladly, because of the soft, subtle rush of morning that filled the wet haze. By the road the blackthorn was in blossom, white and wet, its tiny amber grains burning faintly in the white smoke of blossom. Purple twigs were darkly luminous in the grey air, high hedges glowed like living shadows, hovering nearer, coming into creation. The morning was full of a new creation. When the sisters came to Willey Water, the lake lay all grey and visionary, stretching into the moist, translucent vista of trees and meadow. Fine electric activity in sound came from the dumbles below the road, the birds piping one against the other, and water mysteriously plashing, issuing from the lake.

In his appreciation of Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, the essayist Geoff Dyer says that Lawrence was the kind of person who knows the name of every flower, every tree. We see that knowledge here, the sense of being rooted in a particular place (for example, in the reference to dumbles, Midlands idiom for a little valley with a stream). But Lawrence, who spent the last decade of his life restlessly travelling through Australia, Ceylon, Mexico, and the American Southwest, doesn’t simply chronicle provincial English life. Nor does he unthinkingly extol nature against the depredations of modernity. Lawrence doesn’t love birds and flowers more than mines and dams, and in fact he uses the language of the second to describe the first: recall the “fine electric activity” of the dumbles. What he admires is nature’s ceaseless change, all those high hedges “glow[ing]” and “hovering” and “coming into creation.” The incessant coming into being of new life is the reason the passage’s phrase “a new creation” isn’t a solecism. Purple twigs notwithstanding, this isn’t a purple passage, though one thing we might say about Lawrence’s writing is that you have to risk some purple passages to write ones that shimmer with the intensity of the ones I’ve quoted here. “Darkly luminous”: this isn’t just a paradox, but rather an example of what the critic James Wood calls Lawrence’s “anti-pictorial” style. Yes, the scene is vivid, glowing even. We can just picture it. But Lawrence’s language is as antagonistic to simple depiction as his quarrelling characters are to each other. In phrases like “darkly luminous” Lawrence shows us, says Wood, that language “at its densest becomes its own medium, like night. At such moments one feels language’s lack of transparency as a new kind of visibility; and this also enables us to see the old transparency as a new kind of obstruction.”

In its preoccupation with the new, Lawrence’s novel shares something with the literary modernism with which he is sometimes aligned. Lawrence is an uneasy modernist, however. He is less concerned with sensation and perception than writers like Woolf and Mansfield, more invested than they in a tradition of literary realism he nonetheless contests. The works of Lawrence’s contemporaries, no matter how brilliant, sometimes feel to me like period pieces. But Lawrence feels vital, relevant, not just modern but contemporary, and in Women in Love most of all.Nowhere is this more evident than in its preoccupation with forms of life. By that I mean both the biological quiddity shared by all living beings and the structures that make up human society. The first is evident in the novel’s vivid descriptions of something like a life force, as when a rabbit resisting capture is described as a “black-and-white tempest,” “lunging wildly, its body flying like a spring coiled and released, as it lashed out.” The second is evident in the array of possible permutations for human relationships. Just when we’ve convinced ourselves that Birkin and Ursula’s relationship is the best because it’s the most balanced, if not the most harmonious, we’re forced to revise our ideas completely. In the novel’s final pages, Birkin realizes that his “sheer intimacy” with Ursula needs “an eternal union with a man, too: another kind of love.” Ursula rejects this claim, saying. “You can’t have two kinds of love” and the novel finishes with one of the great unresolved endings in fiction, another version of the “terrifying chasm” that Ursula and Gudrun faced in the opening scene. Women in Love, then, is a queer novel, not just in the sense Lawrence’s contemporaries would have used it (strange, odd) but in our own. It refuses normative sexual relationships and personal identities, whether through the same-sex love Birkin evinces for Gerald, or Ursula’s tortured relationship with her sister, or Gudrun’s eventual refusal to enter into any kind of relationship at all. How to live, how to be alive; who can you love, what makes something living: these are Lawrence’s great concerns, and in this age of same-sex marriage and animal rights activism they feel like our own.

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It’s easy to speak of writers as rebels or misfits. But Lawrence truly was out of step with his time. That was especially true during the war. Just weeks after its publication in September 1915, his previous novel, The Rainbow, which he rightly considered the pinnacle of his career to that point, was banned for obscenity. This was the great trauma of Lawrence’s life. All copies were pulped, and for the next five years Lawrence, whose poor health precluded him from regular work, who had no inherited wealth to rely on, who lived only on the income brought in by his writing, who owned almost nothing, not even any copies of his own books, couldn’t find anyone willing to publish him. He and his wife, Frieda, a German national — a woman who left her respectable husband to be with him at the price of never seeing her children again — were suspected of being spies by British authorities. He was at odds with the jingoistic nationalism of the time. And his masterpiece, which he recognized Women in Love to be, languished in obscurity, not published until 1920 and even then only in the US and only in a private, limited edition. Yet he knew what he had done in writing it and took great joy in it. “It is the book of my free soul,” he told a friend. To read it is to experience that freedom. In its time this extraordinary work went through extraordinary difficulties. But perhaps its true time has finally come. What Gudrun fears — that things wither in the bud — is certainly not true of this brilliant bloom of a book.

 

Malicroix Readalong

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A nice young man, of stolidly unimaginative, good bourgeois stock, is surprised to inherit a house on an island in the Rhône, in the famously desolate and untamed region of the Camargue. The terms of his great-uncle’s will are even more surprising: the young man must take up solitary residence in the house for a full three months before he will be permitted to take possession of it. With only a taciturn shepherd and his dog for occasional company, he finds himself surrounded by the huge and turbulent river (always threatening to flood the island and surrounding countryside) and the wind, battering at his all-too-fragile house, shrieking from on high. And there is another condition of the will, a challenging task he must perform, even as others scheme to make his house their own. Only under threat can the young man come to terms with both his strange inheritance and himself.

That’s how the good people at NYRB Classics summarize Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, first published in 1948 and now available in English in a translation by Joyce Zonana. Bosco (1888—1976) was born in Provence but spent much of his life abroad, teaching in Algeria, Italy, and Morocco. Maybe all that moving around is why he’s known as a great writer of place.

Bosco is sometimes thought of as kin to his near contemporary Jean Giono, who grew up just a bit to the north. A few years ago, several bloggers and I read and wrote about Giono’s Hill, a wonderful novel (also published by NYRB). Doubtless that’s why the publisher reached out to us to encourage us to read Malicroix. Most of us didn’t need much convincing: after all, what could be more relevant than a novel about isolation? Yet the novel also gives us a taste of what so many of us are missing these days: freedom. Like Malicroix’s first-person narrator, our lives have been suddenly upended, but unlike for him the upheaval hasn’t been of our choosing. If the first ten pages are any indication, the novel is both exciting and philosophical. The perfect book for a time when so many of us are thinking a lot about place.

Frances of Nonsuchbook, Meredith of Dolce Bellezza, Grant of 1streading, Nat Leach (@gnatleech), and Scott of seraillon will join me in blogging about the novel in the second half of April. We encourage you to join us: either at your own blog or by writing a guest post here at mine. We’re using the hashtag #malicroix2020 on Twitter if you prefer to participate that way. We hope to arrange some other Malicroix-inspired material, perhaps an interview with translator Zonana. Stay tuned, and drop me a note in the comments if you’d like to join our little group!

What I read, March 2020

The month began in full mid-semester throttle. I taught a colleague’s class at a university at the other end of the State—preparing for that was a lot of work. Then I organized a visit to campus from a friend who presented on his work in progress. And almost the minute I dropped him at the airport, things started being canceled: our daughter’s school; then mine; then we were hunkering down for the foreseeable. And the month kept on going, stretching out endlessly, a disorienting expanse of fear and stress and, strangely, intimacy and, oh I don’t know, not languor or relaxation, but time. (To be able to experience is a sign of our privilege.) During all of it, I was reading, I hear a lot about people being unable to read at the moment. I get that, but since reading, for me, is a way to keep the world at bay I’ve been struggling with the opposite problem. I need reading even more than usual, but life (switching to remote teaching, figuring out how to handle our daughter’s homeschooling) is making that harder. Still, my family and I are safe, we’re mostly enjoying our time together, our dogs think this is the best thing that’s ever happened.

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Louise Erdrich, The Round House (2012)

The narrator of Erdrich’s novel, thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts, lives on a rez in North Dakota in the late 80s. At the beginning of the summer during which the book is set, Joe’s mother is violently attacked and raped, plunging the family into a tailspin from which it recovers only at great cost. Frustrated at the lack of progress in finding and arresting the perpetrator—a frustration that has much to do with the disparity between Federal and Tribal law, and the insufficiencies of the latter as enshrined by the callousness of the former: a frustration felt even more strongly by Joe’s father, a judge on the rez—Joe and his best friends try to solve the crime. That could sound cute, but although often funny and filled with a large and sometimes larger than life cast of characters, the novel is sorrowful, especially when two more instances of unexpected violence bring matters to a chastened conclusion. I was surprised at Erdrich’s decision to narrate this story of violence against indigenous women from the point of view of a teenage boy, but one of her points, I think, is that such violence is everyone’s problem. I listened to the audiobook—the last of this semester’s commuting, as it turned out—and another pleasure was the actor Gary Farmer’s reading: I loved his cadence and emphases. My first Erdrich, but not my last.

Paulette Jiles, Enemy Women (2002)

You may remember me rhapsodizing over Jiles’s News of the World. I didn’t quite like this earlier novel as much, but I still liked it a lot. I’m so ignorant about the Civil War (I’m Canadian, sue me), but I bet even many American readers might not know that women from Confederate families (or even families who supported neither side) were jailed for (supposedly) abetting the enemy. Enemy Women is set in Missouri, especially the hills between Rolla and the Bootheel, land I’ve driven through plenty of times on my way from Little Rock to St. Louis, which I’ll now never think of in the same way. (Usually I try not to think of it, finding it incredibly dull. It certainly wasn’t in the 1860s.) Missouri wasn’t just swept across by the Union and Confederate Armies; it was also ravaged by militia on both sides. The women of Jiles’s title were mostly arrested by the Missouri Union Militia. As The New York Times reviewer resonantly put it, “the Ozarks became a wilderness of free-floating entrepreneurs of violence.” 18-year-old Adair Colley is arrested and sent to a jail in St. Louis after her family’s farm is burned, her father taken away, and her siblings scattered. In prison Adair draws the attention of her interrogator, Major William Neumann. The two begin a romance but are soon separated: Neumann is reassigned to Alabama while Adair escapes and tries to return to what’s left of her farm. Jiles switches between the storylines: Neumann is interesting, but Adair is the star. I found the first part of the novel slow, but I read the last third in a long rush that left me tired (but unrepentant!) the next morning. (There’s a bit in which she shakes off a dangerous pursuer that’s real heart-in-the-throat stuff.) This was Jiles’s first novel (she had published several books of poetry before that) and she’s certainly improved a lot since then. Even so Enemy Women is definitely worth your time.

Rennie Airth, The Decent Inn of Death (2020)

Latest installment of a crime series that (a) does not have too many books in it and (b) is worth reading even though later books don’t reach the heights of the first ones. Interestingly, Airth has let the characters age: their inabilities are central to this case, which riffs on the classic country-house murder.

Friedrich Gorenstein, Redemption (1967) Trans. Andrew Bromfield (2018)

The last text I taught in person before we switched to remote learning. A few months ago, I worried students might find this novel of postwar Russia difficult and off-putting. Proving once again that even twenty years into the gig I know nothing about teaching, they loved it. Many said it was their favourite text so far. (And we’d read Ruth Kluger and Art Spiegelman!) Students were rightly fascinated by Gorenstein’s ambivalent portrayal of his teenage protagonist, Sashenka, who veers between cruelty and kindness and isn’t sure what she wants, just that she feels everything a lot. (The word the book most often uses about her is “spite.”) Gorenstein veers between realism and religious/philosophical abstraction; to me, he’s more compelling when writing in the former mode. What’s hard to figure out is how Gorenstein would have us reconcile psychology with sociology. His presentation of the Holocaust is strikingly non-ideological. On the one hand, he acknowledges the murder of Jews (rare in Soviet literature); on the other, he presents those murders as personal and local rather than systematic and genocidal. He’s good, though, on the terrible intimacy and physicality of such killing.

Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird (2017)

Set on and around Highway 59 in east Texas—the very route we were planning to take on a canceled Spring Break trip to Houston—the first in a new series for Locke is atmospheric and interesting. (She’s writing about Texas, but it could easily be Arkansas. Normally I’m allergic to all things Southern/Arkansan, even though I’ve landed here; that Locke kept me engaged with this material says something.) Darren Mathews, her hero, is a black Texas Ranger who grew up in east Texas, left as soon as he could, but was drawn home again. He’s got a complicated family background that Locke uses to good effect and a predictably failing marriage that is less interesting. The book is best on race relations in the South (less straightforward than many non-Southerners like to imagine). It is weakest in hewing to conventions of the procedural (renegade cop, troubles with alcohol). According to her bio, Locke has been writing for TV a lot. More power to her—it’s where the money is—but the book manifests a certain sheen or glibness, an unwillingness to let scenes linger, that smacks of the more disappointing qualities of television pacing. I found Steph Cha’s recent take on how to write crime fiction that challenges the institutional racism of policing more compelling.

Attica Locke, Heaven, My Home (2019)

Sequel to Bluebird (they could be read as a single novel). Competent, but I’m not convinced Locke has yet figured out what she wants to do with the series. Most interesting when it addresses how quickly life changed for minorities—including those in the police—after Trump got elected.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust (1975)

Cool, even icy, novel about a woman who travels to India to learn about her grandfather’s first wife, who left him for an Indian prince in the 1920s. I didn’t care for it, but Tom’s review made me appreciate it more. He really helped me think about the novel’s narration. The 1970s material takes the form of the narrator’s diary; the 1920s material is in third person. Where’s it coming from? Is the narrator writing it? If so, why/how does it include material the narrator surely couldn’t have known? Or is it omniscient? If so, what’s the relationship between the two timelines? What information should we trust? Is the narrator any different than the hippies surging through India on the hunt for spiritual enlightenment? Is she any different than her not-quite grandmother? What does it mean that her life begins to imitate her ancestor’s? These are interesting questions, but they’re more interesting than the novel itself. You certainly can’t accuse it of romanticizing India. If anything, it dislikes the place. In that sense, it’s still a colonial text—India observed from the outside. And I found the willingness of both female characters to have sex with men despite having no real interest in doing so troubling. (Quite a strange aspect of the novel: sex isn’t about liberation or pleasure or, conversely, violence or trauma. It’s a blank.) In the end, Heat and Dust gave off more dust than heat—I like my fiction warmer. But those with different tastes might feel differently. Not sure I’d try any of Prawer Jhabvala’s other novels. Are they all like this?

Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing (2019)

I loved this essay collection, which Stephen Sparks of Point Reyes Books, who sold it to me, said is not even her best. (Naturally, I ordered her first two from him immediately.) I read most of it outside on the back porch in those days after face-to-face teaching stopped and before remote learning started—a dead, anxious, weird time that happened to coincide with that short time in Arkansas when the weather is gorgeous, the humidity low, and the mosquitoes not yet swarming. With less traffic on the roads (but not that much less: shamefully, Arkansas still does not have a Stay at Home order), the birds were louder and more frolicsome than usual. The azaleas in full bloom, the irises coming out, the redbuds just moving from that gorgeous pink blossom to their ordinary ugly leaves. I mention all this because Jamie is so attuned to place; reading her essays helped me be more so too. What made this an especially good book to read now is that many of its essays are about sojourns Jamie made to remote, isolated places that are nonetheless characterized by strong senses of community. We see that in a remembrance of travelling to the Chinese border with Tibet during the time of Tiananmen, a three-part piece on the excavation of a Neolithic settlement in the Orkneys, and, especially, in a long, magnificent essay about a summer spent in a Yup’ik village on the Alaskan coast, where the thawing tundra is bringing forth revelations about the area’s ancient hunter gatherer culture. (I am a sucker for all things northern, dream of traveling north of 60, so this essay was Extremely My Shit, but I also think it’s just objectively gorgeous and moving.) In all cases, Jamie shows that for things to surface, change has to happen, and that change isn’t always good. In the case of climate change, it’s terrifying. But these are hopeful, not hopeless essays. Not naïve, but sustaining. And boy that is what I need right now.

Sarah Kofman, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (1994) Trans. Ann Smock (1996)

A book I’ve read many times. Even though I stand by most of the things I say here, my sense of the memoir has evolved over the years. And it changed yet again this month: students always like it, but this was the best experience I’d had with it, all the more astonishing because we studied it together remotely. This group helped me see how obviously Rue Ordener is a traumatized text, so different, for example, from self-reflective Holocaust texts like Kluger’s Still Alive or Spiegelman’s Maus. Kofman forgoes retrospection, making it hard to decide how she feels about her experiences, especially what it was like to be torn between her mother and the casually antisemitic Frenchwoman who hid her in occupied Paris. Yet as a student pointed out the very raw, unprocessed, or traumatized quality of the text might itself be an illusion, a stealth way of exerting control by challenging us not to interpret. Highly recommended.

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Surfacing was my book of the month, followed by Enemy Women and The Round House. Rue Ordener I know so well I can’t even rank it here. Maybe I’ll read a little more in April. Or maybe not. At any rate, I’ve finished a very long cowboy novel that’s been keeping me entertained. Let me know what you’ve been reading during the pandemic, if you’ve been reading at all. And most importantly stay well, friends.

What I Read, February 2020

February. When was that? Oh yeah, when we were stressed and run into the ground by daily cares. Part of me wants that life back so much. But part of me thinks the world that generated those cares wasn’t all that great. I swing between terror (about illness and death, about financial and economic collapse, about those lines around the block at the gun shop) and hope (maybe things could be different on the other side of this). Mostly I feel paralyzed, with many things to do but little incentive to do them.

So what was happening in that long-ago time? The treadmill of the semester, mostly. Rumblings of the disease. (Would my students and I be able to take our trip to Europe? Long since canceled, of course.) The hockey playoffs drawing ever nearer. (Amazing how much time I spent on that stuff.) And, of course, some reading. To wit:

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Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001) One of thegreatest Holocaust memoirs, no, a fucking great book, period. Ruth Kluger is one of the original badasses. Unlike many Holocaust memoirs, Still Alive (even the title is a spit in the face of her persecutors) focuses as much on postwar as prewar and wartime life. Kluger’s persecutors are legion: the Nazis, of course, and all the silent Germans who acquiesced to them. But also all those who insist on minimizing or relativizing her experiences. And then there are the oppressive systems she’s had to live under, not least racism and patriarchy. (Kluger was one of the first to insist that the experience of the Holocaust was thoroughly gendered.) And, most painfully, the people closest to her: her first husband; an old friend (the well-known German writer Martin Walser); a great-aunt who, in prewar Vienna, took away Kluger’s streetcar ticket collection from her, deeming it dirty and vulgar; the distant familial connections in America who wanted little to do with her when she and her mother landed there in the late 1940s. (Kluger is a great hater and knows how to hold a grudge.) But of all these persecutors the greatest is her mother, the woman with whom she experienced the Anschluss, the depredations and degradations of Nazi Vienna, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Christianstadt, a death march, the DP camps, and finally postwar life in America. A woman who saved her and protected her, yet also tormented her, dismissed her, ignored her, even, it’s fair to say, hated her.

The more times I read Still Alive the more towering I find its achievement. I think this might be the fourth time I’ve taught it. Plus, I did the best job I’ve done with it yet, which was satisfying and solidified my love for the book. I sense readers are catching up to it. In the past, students have felt intimidated by it, even a little shocked. The new generation, angrier, eats it up.

Paulette Jiles, News of the World (2016) Charming without being cloying. News of the World is one of my finds of the year, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be on my end-of-year list. (Look at me with the optimism.) I’d never read Jiles before, only vaguely been aware of her, but now I’m making my way through the backlist.

 News of the World centers on one Captain Jefferson Kidd, who travels through post-Civil War Texas offering readings from a collection of newspapers that he periodically replenishes whenever he reaches a larger town. (Audience members drop their dimes into an old paint can.) He’s a performer, knowing just how much political news he can offer before tempers flare (Texas in these days is roiled by animosity between those supporting the current governor and those opposed) and offering enough news of far-off explorers and technological inventions to soothe, even entrance the crowds. At one such gig near the Oklahoma border an old friend begs him to take charge of a ten-year-old girl who had been stolen from her family by the Kiowa four years earlier and has now been retaken by the US Army. Kidd is prevailed upon to take the girl to her nearest relations, in the country near San Antonio, four hundred dangerous miles south.

Johanna has forgotten English, has no memory of her parents, is devastated by the loss of her Kiowa family and its culture. The novel considers such matters as cultural difference (which it is much more sensitive about than most of the Westerns I’ve been reading lately) and U.S. history (the Captain has fought in three wars, going back to the war of 1812—he’s in his 70s and his great age is part of the story’s poignancy) and the question of whether law can take root in the wake of years of lawlessness. It’s an adventure story and a guide to the Texas landscape. But mostly it’s the story of the bond that arises between the old man and the young girl. And all of this in less than 250 pages. The Captain becomes ever fonder of the child (not in a creepy way, it’s totally above board in that regard), but the feeling hurts him. He senses nothing but heartbreak can come of the situation, and his heart doesn’t feel up to it. I was moved and delighted and recommend it without reservation—could be just the ticket when you’re stuck inside feeling anxious.

Apparently they’ve made a movie and it stars Tom Hanks and probably everyone’s going to love it but I bet it’ll be as saccharine as shit.

Philip Kerr, Prussian Blue (2017) Regular readers know I’m marching though Kerr’s series. This one is especially despairing and cynical, which for this series is saying something. Moving between 1938 and 1956, it finds Bernie Guenther on the run and reminded of an old case in which he was dragooned into finding out who shot a flunky on the balcony of Hitler’s retreat at Bechtesgaden. Set as they are amid the Third Reich, all of these novels are about corruption, but the stink is especially pervasive here. Not the series’ best, though as always Kerr is great at dramatizing history: in this case he particularly nails the Nazi reliance on amphetamines.

Sarah Gailey, Upright Women Wanted (2020) “Are you a coward or are you a librarian?” Tell me you don’t want to read the book that accompanies this tagline. Yet the problem is that the former seems the product of the latter instead of the other way around. Gailey’s novel of a future run on Handmaid’s Tale lines is engaging but slight. Gailey doesn’t much go in for world-building: it’s unclear what happened to make the former western US states technologically poor, violently misogynistic, hardscrabble and suspicious (not really a stretch). Instead, she focuses on the role of the librarians who make their way by wagon-train through the western desert, officially bringing state-sanctioned propaganda to fortified settlements but unofficially acting as couriers for a fledgling resistance. The librarians are women who get to shoot and ride and swear and live, enticing exceptions to the rigidly prescribed gender roles of the times. Upright Women Wanted is a queer western that includes a non-binary character; its most lasting legacy might be its contribution to normalizing they/them/their pronouns. In the end it was too casual/slapdash for me, but I enjoyed reading it well enough for the hour or two it demanded of me.

Eric Ambler, Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Apparently the amateur who falls into an espionage plot is Ambler’s stock in trade. I’ve actually read one or two of his books, but so long ago that I’d forgotten this description, if I ever knew it. Anyway, the machinery of this formula hums along at high efficiency in this finely executed story of a schoolteacher who gets mistaken for a spy and then has only days to find out who among the guests at his Mediterranean pension is the real culprit. The way states use the precariousness of statelessness (the fate of many of the book’s characters) remains painfully timely. For more, read Jacqui’s review. (I know other bloggers have reviewed this too. Please tag yourself in the comments.)

Magda Szabó, Abigail (1970) Trans. Len Rix (2020) The back cover of this new translation of Hungarian writer Szabó’s most popular novel hits the Jane Austen comparisons hard. At first I found this idea both implausible and annoying (it used to be that publishers and reviewers compared books to Austen when they meant “this is set in the 19th century and includes a love plot” but now it seems to have expanded to mean “this book is by a woman”), but as I read on I started to see the point. For Abigail, like Emma, is focalized through a young woman who thinks she knows more than she does. Yet where Austen’s protagonist misunderstands love, Szabó’s misunderstands politics. Gina is the willful teenage daughter of a general in the Hungarian Army during WWII. She is baffled and hurt when her father abruptly sends her to a convent school far from Budapest. The first half of the book is classic boarding school story—Gina is a haughty outsider, she alienates the other girls, she struggles to become part of their cliques—but, after a failed escape attempt, as the political situation in Hungary changes drastically (the Germans take over their client state in early 1944; Adolf Eichmann is sent to Budapest to oversee the deportation of what was at that point the largest intact Jewish community in Europe), Gina learns how much more is at stake than her personal happiness. That realization is marked in her changed understanding of the book’s titular character, which is, in fact, not a person but a statue on the school grounds with whom the girls leave notes asking for help or advice. Eventually it becomes clear that Abigail—the person who answers those notes—is a member of the resistance, and in real danger. But who is it? Throughout Szabó juxtaposes our knowledge with her heroine’s ignorance—in the end, the effect is like that of her countryman Imre Kertesz’s in his masterpiece Fatelessness. Both novels challenge our reliance on what psychologists call “hindsight bias” (reading the past in light of the future).

Téa Obrecht, Inland (2019) Another one for my little project of westerns written by women (specifically, ones I can get on audiobook from my library). Like a lot of literary fiction today Obrecht’s novel goes all in on voice. She alternates between two first person narrators. Lurie, the son of a Muslim immigrant from the Ottoman Empire, ends up after a picaresque childhood on the lam and is rescued from lawlessness by joining the United States camel corps (a failed but surprisingly long-lasting attempt to use camels as pack animals in the American west). Nora, a homesteader in the Arizona Territory whose husband has gone missing when he went in search of a delayed water delivery, teeters on the verge of succumbing to thirst-induced delirium exacerbated by her guilt over the death of a daughter, some years before, from heat exhaustion. Lurie tells his story to Burke, and it takes a long time before we figure out that Burke is his camel. (I confirmed with some other readers that this wasn’t just an effect of my listening to the audiobook, which, I find, makes it easy to miss important details.) Nora tells her story ostensibly to herself but really to the ghost of her daughter. So the stories—which of course ultimately intersect in a surprising way—are similarly structured as confessions. Nora’s is the more successful—her combination of intelligence and wit and hurt and delusion comes through powerfully. She’s just a great character. Lurie has his moments, too, especially near the end, but I was always a little disappointed when we left Nora for him. The book has a hallucinatory quality—in this it reminded me a bit of Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful film Dead Man—that works the hysterical realism angle more successfully than most. I don’t regret listening to the book and by the end I was pretty moved by it, but I also found it too long and too unsure of itself. In her excellent piece, Rohan really gets the book’s betwixt and betweenness. But boy if you want to feel anxious and thirsty, Obrecht is your woman. Never has the watery juice of a can of tomatoes seemed such a horrible relief.

Vivian Gornick, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader (2020) In this short book about re-reading, Gornick presents re-reading as a way of thinking about our self over time. Unfinished Business begins with an autobiographical chapter about Gornick’s life as a reader, which riffs on and is itself an example of the distinction between situation and story she articulated in a brilliant book of that title several years ago (situation is something like experience, the raw material of our lives; story is the way we articulate that experience, the way we transform it through reflection/writing: I use this distinction in my writing classes all the time). The book then offers several case studies of writers who have meant a lot to Gornick. I found the chapters on D. H. Lawrence and Elizabeth Bowen especially good; not coincidentally these are writers I’ve very familiar with (which bodes well for her readings of writers I don’t know, like Colette and Natalia Ginzburg). Gornick combines the history of her own reading (what she first loved in Sons and Lovers only later to disavow as misguided, what she emphasized in her second reading, and so on) with succinct summaries of what makes each writer tick.

Here she is, having re-read Adrienne Rich’s conclusion about Dickinson—that extreme psychological states can be put into language, but only language that has been forged, never in the words that first come to us—thinking about Bowen:

She had created stories and novels meant to acquaint the reader with the power of the one thing—the extreme psychological state—that she deeply understood: namely, that fear of feeling that makes us inflict on one another the little murders of the soul that anesthetize the spirit and shrivel the heart; stifle desire and humiliate sentiment; make war electrifying and peace dreary.

On Duras:

For years this [buried events, hidden feelings] was Duras’s mesmerizing subject, inscribed repeatedly in those small, tight abstractions she called novels, and written in an associative prose that knifed steadily down through the outer layers of being to the part of oneself forever intent on animal retreat into the primal, where the desire to be at once overtaken by and freed of formative memory is all-enveloping; in fact, etherizing.

On Ginzburg:

Ginzburg’s abiding concern, like that of any serious writer, has always been with identifying the conflicts within us that keep us from acting decently toward one another.

If what Gornick calls the Freudian century is not for you, then give this book a pass. But if the idea that the self we so identify with is only a small part of what we are rings true to you, you’ll find Gornick’s readings sympathetic. I loved the short final chapter describing her shame and bewilderment, on taking up a favourite (unnamed) book, at the passages she had marked in earlier readings. How could that have interested her? Didn’t she see how obvious or trite or embarrassing this aspect of the text was? But then: “My eyes drifted to a sentence on the page opposite where nothing was underlined, and I thought, Now here’s something really interesting, how come this didn’t attract your attention all those years ago.”

May such a life of reading be given to us all.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013) A book about reciprocity and solidarity; a book for every time, but especially this time.

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In sum, a good month: Kluger, Jiles, Szabó, Gornick, and Kimmerer all excellent. Which is good because so far, social distancing is not given me the promised bump in reading time. Until next time I send you all strength, health, and courage in our new times.

“All Flourishing is Mutual”: Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass

“All flourishing is mutual.”

I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants last month for a faculty, student, and staff reading group organized by one of my colleagues in the Biology department.

That was in the middle of a wave of protests across Canada regarding indigenous rights (more specifically, their absence), prompted by an RCMP raid against the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, who along with their allies are seeking to prevent a pipeline from being built across their unceded territory. To me the Wet’suwet’en protests felt like such an important moment in Canadian political life. Unfortunately, it seemed that the unwillingness of settler Canadians to acknowledge their status as such would once again win the day, but I was heartened by the wide-ranging solidarity shown the protesters.

Now, only a few weeks later, when I’m finally making the time to set down my thoughts about Kimmerer’s remarkable book, that moment seems a lifetime ago. Life has been overturned by COVID-19, and it feels as though we will be lucky if that upheaval lasts only into the medium term.

Yet perhaps even more now than last month, Kimmerer’s teachings feel timely, even urgent. “All flourishing is mutual”: what else are we learning now, unless it is the opposite—when we fail to be mutual we cannot flourish. We are only as vibrant, healthy, and alive as the most vulnerable among us. We see that now, clearly. But can we be wise enough to live that truth?

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For an example of mutual flourishing, Kimmerer considers mycorrhizae, fungal strands that inhabit tree roots. They connect the trees in a forest, distributing carbohydrates among them: “they weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking. In this way, the trees all act as one because the fungi have connected them.”

The particular context of Kimmerer’s conclusion is a discussion of mast fruiting (i.e. nut production). It takes a lot of energy to make nuts, much more than berries or seeds. Mast fruiting trees spend years making sugar, hoarding it in the form of starch in their roots. Only when their stores of carbohydrates overflow do nuts appear. And when one tree in a forest produces nuts they all do—the trees act collectively, never individually.

For Kimmerer, mast fruiting is a metaphor for how to live. As she says, in a phrase that ought to ring out in our current moment, “We make a grave error if we try to separate individual well-being from the health of the whole.”

One name Kimmerer gives to the way of thinking that considers the health of the collective is indigeneity. For me, this is a generous, even awe-inspiring definition. It transcends ethnicity or history and allows all of us to think of ourselves as indigenous, as long as we value the long-term well-being of the collective. “For all of us,” Kimmerer writes, “becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.” Or, similarly, “The more something is shared, the greater its value becomes.” This statement is true both biologically and culturally. The pejorative term “Indian giver” arises, Kimmerer suggests, from a terrible and consequential misunderstanding between an indigenous culture centered on a gift economy and a colonial culture based on the concept of private property. In indigenous cultures, gifts are to be shared, passed around. (Thus it is offensive to keep something you have been given without passing it to others in some form.) But those same cultures insist that gifts aren’t free: they come attached with responsibilities. (She compares these to rights in a property economy.)

The question for me, then, is whether in a market economy we can behave as if the earth were a gift. Reading Braiding Sweetgrass was almost painfully poignant; I couldn’t reconcile what I experienced as the rightness of Kimmerer’s claims with the lived experience of late capitalism. (Someone on Twitter joked recently how touchingly naïve that “late” is.) I just can’t figure out how to get from here (our ravaged planet, our unbridled consumption) to there. Yes, it’s true, Kimmerer offers examples, not least in a chapter in which her students brainstorm ways each of them can give back to the swamp they’ve been on a research field trip to. The people in my reading group pointed out that change has to be local, that we can’t be responsible for the big picture, that we need to avoid paralysis. True enough. But the genuine hopefulness of Kimmerer’s words sometimes had the contradictory effect of making me feel despair.

It is true, though, that Kimmerer offers some practical advice for how to return our world to a gift economy. She urges us to name people, places, and things (especially the things of the natural world), as if they had the same importance. To consider the significance of nonhuman people. To speak of Rock or Pine or Maple as we might of Rachel, Leah, and Sarah. She suggests we emphasize ways to develop ceremonies in our daily lives, for these create belonging. (This could be a moment of meditation in the morning, or a shared weekly meal, or the injunction, as pertained in her family, to never leave a campsite without piling up firewood for the next guests.) In this way we might live in gratitude for the world, and the opportunity we have to contribute to its flourishing. Kimmerer asks that we join in her mindset: “My natural inclination,” she writes in a moment of characteristically lucid self-description, “was to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide.”

I fear I have not given a good sense of this book. Its essays cover all sorts of topics: from reports of maple sugar seasoning (Kimmerer is from upstate New York) to instructions for how to clear a pond of algae to descriptions of her field studies to meditations on lichen. I particularly love the moments, like her description of mast fruiting, when she teaches us about the natural world. As she says, “sometimes a fact alone is a poem.” (But she also says “that metaphor is a way of telling truth far greater than scientific data.”) Kimmerer is a scientist, a poet, an activist, a lover of the world. She seems fun, if a bit dauntingly competent. She challenges the idea of (scientific) detachment: “For what good is knowing, unless it is coupled with caring?” (I will say, she likes rhetorical questions too much for my taste.)

The book concludes with a meditation on the windigo, the man-eating monstrous spirit from Algonquin mythology. Kimmerer suggests that the windigo rests potentially in all of us, less a monster than an aspect of human being. That aspect can only be thwarted or defeated by a purgation: rather than hoard we must give (back). The world is not inexhaustible; it is finite. But the braiding of reciprocity is a powerful tool that nature and culture alike has given us to stave off that finitude.

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I do have quibbles with Braiding Sweetgrass: it’s too long, too diffuse. It’s hard to figure out why it takes the form that it does. I liked that its structure is not chronological or geographical or even cyclical/seasonal. But, reading, I sometimes found myself adrift. We could say that the book moves loosely from theory to action (towards the end, there are a couple of chapters offering what might be called specific case studies—how people have responded to particular ecosystems). It’s possible the book has some more complicated structure—like that of the rhizome perhaps, the forkings of those mycorrhizae invisibly linking tree to tree—that I can’t see. But I found myself, after finishing the book, having a hard time remembering individual essays. The whole matters more than the parts, I think, even though Kimmerer is a good essayist, deft at performing the braiding of ideas demanded by the form.

More significantly, I am not sure how to reconcile Kimmerer’s claim about indigeneity—that it is a way of being in the world that speaks to our actions and dispositions, and not to ethnicity or history—with her more straightforward, and understandable, avowal of her indigenous background. (She is a member of the Potawatomi people and writes movingly about her efforts to learn Anishinaabe.) What, I’m left wondering, is the relationship for her between becoming indigenous and being indigenous? The former seems like a metaphor; the latter an embodied reality. Sometimes Kimmerer opens indigenous ways of being to everybody; more often, though, she limits them to Native people. I’m unconvinced this is an insuperable difference, but it’s not one Kimmerer resolves, or, as best I can tell, even sees.

Yet I’m left convinced, after spending several hundred pages in the company of her authorial persona, that Kimmerer would be more than happy to talk through my confusion, perhaps even be able to show me that what I perceive as a problem might in fact be the way to a solution. So powerful is the sensation of good will and generosity given off by this book. Although the settler in me worries it is grandiose to say so, perhaps my thoughts in this post, however meager, can be taken as my way of giving something back for the gifts Kimmerer has given me. May you accept them as such.

Do I Read Enough Great Books?

One of the highlights of last year was getting to meet Tom (aka Amateur Reader) of the titanic lit blog Wuthering Expectations in person. He and his wife, a great reader in her own right, actually came through Little Rock (no one does that), and we had them over for brunch. Tom is as funny in real life as he is in writing. He will also drink wine at lunchtime, which is a valuable quality in a person.

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Candida Höfer, Trinity College Library, Dublin

I mention all this because Tom recently wrote about end of year lists and the kinds of reading that many bloggers do. What does it mean, he wondered, to speak of “the best book he read all year” when he reads mostly classics? What’s going to be better than the Iliad? (To which I would say the Odyssey, but that’s not the point.) Although I’m sure it’s the last thing he intended, Tom’s post sent me into something of a tailspin. I keep thinking about it, worrying over it. It’s brought out some longstanding readerly insecurities. Am I reading what I should be reading? What the hell does “should” mean there anyway? Well, am I reading enough important books? Meaning? Books that are worth my time? I’ve no interest here in making an argument for “the canon”: as one of my mentors, Molly Hite, used to say, canons are inescapable, but we shouldn’t be rigid about them, after all they’re going to change. Canons, not the canon. In a comment (it might actually be on another of Tom’s posts, I’m having trouble finding it at the moment) Stephen Dodson, of another titanic blog, Languagehat, used the term “memorable books,” which I seized on gratefully in my deliberations, as it shifts the terms away from value. [Note: Tom tells me the term comes from Necromancy Jeanne, who expanded it into a little essay. My apologies!]

Which is to say, my title is falsely provocative/click-bait-y, sorry. It should be, Do I Read Enough Memorable Books? Over the course of my reading life I’ve read plenty of memorable books. It’s also true that most books are not that awesome, just like anything else: you have to read plenty of mediocre stuff to find something memorable. And I also pride myself (and the fact that I feel this way implies part of me must feel there’s something wrongheaded, even disreputable, about that response) on reading a reasonably wide variety of books: different genres, different writers, different concerns, though it’s true I mostly read books from about 1890 to the present, and mostly prose fiction, and mostly ones from/about European/Jewish writers and topics.

But I worry that a diet of crime fiction and novels plucked from the new arrivals shelf of the library (combined these sorts of books make up a fair chunk of my annual reading) is neither the most satisfying nor the most meaningful use of my finite reading time. (“Meaningful” here meaning, likely to generate memorable reading experiences.) I’m curious about a lot of things, and I’m interested in what’s going on in kids’ books and science fiction and biographies and essays and comics, although in the end I only dabble in those areas. Sometimes my reading from these genres does generate memorable experiences. But for me it is most often the case that difficult books are more likely to do so: difficult not as in esoteric or experimental, necessarily, but as in syntactically and linguistically and formally challenging.

I teach reading and writing for a living, and at the end of the day, when I’ve finished that work (inasmuch as it ever ends) I’m often tired. Many of the books I suspect might be memorable (and here I know I’m shading into a more conventional use of “literary classics”: maybe this whole post is just a convoluted way of writing about old-fashioned “great books”) are hard to read. Or hard-ish anyway. They demand more attention than the shiny new book from the library, attention I don’t always have in the half hour before sleep.

A big part of me thinks that people should read whatever they feel like reading. The point of reading is to read, and all kinds of books can be enjoyable and, yes, memorable. I’m quite skilled at finding so many ways to torture myself, why do I need to bring that same fault-finding to reading, which is supposedly the thing I love to do more than anything? Part of me thinks this whole post is wrong-headed and foolish. But part of me doesn’t. Why is there part of me that can’t help but think I’m doing this reading thing as well as I might?

Do any of you ever feel this way?