“Master of His Own Destiny”: Alaa Al Aswany, The Automobile Club of Egypt


A great leap forward was made by the American Henry Ford, who started mass-producing cars. His strategy was to reduce the profit margin but increase the volume of production and sales. This was based on a simple conviction — that the employees of his own factory should be able to afford an automobile. And so the automobile went from being a toy for the rich to an accessible means of transport that changed people’s lives and way of thinking completely. Great distances were no longer daunting. An automobile owner could work far away from home; he could take his family to the beach and have them home in the same day. The automobile established man’s sense of independence and individuality and confirmed him as master of his own destiny. . . .

When the administrative committee sat down to draw up the Club’s rules and bylaws, two problems arose. First, should the Club allow Egyptians to become members? This idea was rejected by a majority, led by the Englishman Mr. Wright. . . . The other issue was that of the staff. The committee members naturally hoped to employ Europeans. When they studied the matter, however, it became clear that the cost of employing foreign staff would be astronomical. Facing this insurmountable problem, some committee members suggested staffing the club with Egyptians.

I had a hard time getting started with The Automobile Club of Egypt. Part of the problem is that Al Aswany himself fumbles the opening, or at least that’s how it seems to me. The novel actually has two false starts, the first a metafictional chapter in which “the author” is mysteriously confronted with his two main characters, who have come to give him the full version of the story in his novel. Nothing at all is made of this for the rest of the book: I expected the frame to be completed in a final metafictional chapter, but it isn’t. Then the novel starts up again with an account of Karl Benz’s invention of the car. This chapter sets up the symbolic as well as literal importance of the automobile, with all its socially transformative potential — but it too has no real place in the novel that unfolds. In fact, cars themselves are barely present in the novel, though that, as is quickly apparent, is part of the novel’s underlying irony: the Automobile Club of Egypt is not a radical engine of social mobility but an elite institution dedicated to preserving the racial and political status quo.

Once you get past these odd faux-beginnings, The Automobile Club of Egypt still requires some patience, in very much the same way that The Yacoubian Building does. Al Aswany is brilliant at introducing a panoply of characters and gradually weaving their disparate stories into a web that is as intricate and complicated as the society they belong to. Though some (the offensive Englishman Mr. Wright, for example) are two-dimensional, most of them are highly individual, and the novel’s interest builds as their different hopes and efforts and failures coalesce around a larger idea, in this case the possibility that they might challenge, perhaps even overcome, the evils of the English occupation. You hardly even know how much you are coming to care, or worry about, or resent some of them — until you notice you are now anxiously turning the page to find out what happens to them.

autoclubAl Aswany avoids a simplistic “us vs. them” account: some of his English characters are intensely sympathetic to and involved in the nationalist movement, and some of the Egyptian staff at the Automobile Club collude in their own subjugation, partly through need and fear, but also partly through habits ingrained through a long cultural history of deference to authority. The cruelties of the Egyptian characters to each other is often more overt than the evils of colonialism, but it’s also always clear that the systemic injustice of occupation undermines all efforts for progress and moral improvement. Though the novel is pointedly political, it manages never to be didactic: instead, Al Aswany’s quietly persistent differentiation of his cast of characters just keeps undermining the insulting abstractions on which people’s prejudices depend.

I don’t know if there’s anything striking about Al Aswany’s style in Arabic. I would characterze the English translation as “prosaic”: there’s a flatness to it that I’ve noticed in other translations I’ve read recently, including Maurizio de Giovanni’s Bastards of Pizzofalcone books, and that I also found conspicuous and a bit tiresome in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. This has me wondering, of course, about the effect of translation on style: am I reacting to an inevitable dulling of musicality or idiosyncrasy, or to differences that can’t be resolved between meaning in one language and meaning in another? Or perhaps these are novelists who themselves write prose with little flourish or eloquence. At any rate, The Automobile Club of Egypt reads a little thumpingly, one thing after another. It succeeds as well as it does because it’s interesting: because of the drama it creates through its people, all in their own ways experiencing a time of transition in which their identities are being challenged and reshaped by the ways the world around them is changing.

By the end, it’s not clear that any of them have mastered their destinies, though, which is one reason I would have liked a return to that metafictional opening. What sense should we make of the liberty those characters have to confront their own author and insist on having all of their “thoughts and feelings” included? What, if any, implication does starting that way have for what follows? I really can’t figure it out.

The Myth and Mystery of Scholarly “Value”

bookI mentioned in my last post that I had recently read a new academic book that I ultimately decided not to review, partly because I didn’t want to scapegoat the author for my alienation from the genre it belongs to. I’m still not going to name it (and that’s my own book pictured at left, just so there’s no confusion), not just because I’ve made that ungenerous mistake before but because I have had the same question about a lot of academic books lately. This is just the most recent one to leave me wondering: what is this book worth?

That’s the kind of question that clearly requires better, more precise, framing to answer. Worth in what sense, and to whom? Forget financial considerations: I could look up its list price, but even to the author (perhaps especially to the author) a book of this kind is not a money-making venture, except indirectly in that it is almost certainly crucial to the author’s professional success. My guess is, in fact, that it is the author’s “tenure book,” so obviously that has significant economic implications, as well as a crucial payoff for the author’s career. For the author, this is a very valuable book, even if it generates no royalties at all.

For me, on the other hand, the book has no particular value. I don’t mean that unkindly: it’s just that it doesn’t change anything for me, even though it is a work of scholarship in my area of specialization. I suppose I could keep working with it until it does make a difference to me: I could wrestle with its fairly abstract vocabulary and arguments and then with its readings of its examples until my own account of the Victorian novels it addresses incorporates its insights. But there really is no need for me to do that: it’s not as if my own readings of those books have been rendered incorrect or even incomplete by the work done in this book. The book gives me something else I could think about while reading (some) 19th-century novels, but there’s no obligation for me to do so — there really can’t be, unless I’m obligated to do the same with the many, many other scholarly books coming out all the time, and the surfeit of material makes selectivity a principled, not just pragmatic, choice. If I decided to write a specialized paper on a topic that’s over in the author’s corner, I’d be remiss not to notice the book — but I mostly work in other corners, where other books are more pertinent, and that’s how we all get by, consulting other people’s scholarship on an occasional basis — that is, as the occasion arises, and even then with no expectation that our pool of references will be exhaustive.

victorianstudiesIf there were such an expectation and people routinely met it or else paid a professional price, my own monograph would be cited more often than it is! And yet I’ve peered in the bibliographies of enough books and articles on related topics to know that sometimes it comes up, and sometimes it doesn’t. The essay in Victorian Studies that became a chapter of that book gets more consistent attention, no doubt because of its greater discoverability, its online availability, and the tendency of things that get cited once to get cited again. It’s quite possible that, as a contribution to my discipline, the article is genuinely more valuable than the book — that it informed more people, generated more ideas, supported or contradicted more arguments. I wouldn’t actually argue very hard against the notion that the book’s value lies almost entirely in what it did for my career (first as a dissertation, then, revised and expanded, as my “tenure book”). I’m not saying it’s a bad or uninteresting book, and it certainly contains a lot more material than the article does, but on the whole it mostly wasn’t (isn’t) really necessary, except professionally. I wish more people would cite my chapter on needlework and Victorian historiography — or, for that matter, my concluding discussion about the contemporary resonance of some of the Victorian themes I studied — but that’s mostly my ego talking. I’m honestly not sure if that reflects badly on me, on the profession — or just on my book! But the truth is, if only pragmatically, that what is supposedly the real value of either my book or this other book — that it is a contribution to scholarship, that it advances our knowledge and understanding — is not self-evidently present, if it’s not much needed and won’t be much noticed.

In his inaugural post for The Valve, back in 2005, John Holbo raised some related questions about why we do what we do in the way that we do it:

How many members of the MLA? 30,000? That a nation can support a standing army of literary critics is a wondrous fact, and quite explicable with reference to the volume of freshman papers, etc. that must be marked. The number is inexplicable with reference to any critical project. Yes, we need new scholarship (don’t bother me with more false dichotomies, please.) The point is: no one has a clear (or even unclear) sense of what work in the humanities presently needs approximately 30,000 hands to complete. I don’t mean we should therefore hang our heads in shame, although being a member of a standing army of literary critics must be a semi-comic fate, at least on occasion. But the utter lack of any justification for 30,000 literary critics assiduously beavering away explicating, interpreting, erecting new frameworks, interrogating the boundaries, etc., has consequences. Notably, when a book or article is up for publication and the hurdle is set, ‘if it has real scholarly value’, we discover this condition is just not as intelligible as we would like, conditions being what they are. It isn’t true that literary scholars value the output of 30,000 other literary scholars. They just don’t, and that is quite sensible of them, really.

“If ‘scholarly value’ output can’t be optimally pegged to some sense of how much will be truly valued,” he continues,

(since patently the output of 30,000 is going to be on the heavy side), the level will be de facto set as some awkward equilibrium point between forces of economic and administrative necessity (budgeting and tenure). But this is no way to run the life of the mind. Neither economic nor administrative considerations should dictate the diameter of the sphere of scholarship.

Holbo is talking about all forms of scholarship, but the problems he’s thinking about are most conspicuous with books because they represent the largest investment of our time and resources. I’ve written before here about reasons to resist the assumption that books are always our best option, even for disseminating specialized scholarship to other scholars. Certainly “a book” should not be the default demand for any professional step: surely it would be better for all of us if we wrote books when the project demanded investigation and explanation on that scale, not because we “need a book to get tenure” or because “a second monograph is the usual standard” for promotion to Professor. The MLA has urged us to decenter the monograph and accept “multiple pathways” to tenure and promotion. This is right, because for pragmatic reasons scholars can’t publish books on demand, and for principled ones, they shouldn’t. But it also makes sense because there are so many other valuable — maybe more valuable — things we can do with our expertise. I actually applaud my own department, and my own Faculty, for developing tenure and promotion guidelines that recognize a wide range of legitimate “contributions to a discipline” as worthy of professional advancement. (Whether, in practice, our institutional culture has caught up with those forward-thinking guidelines is another question. Ahem.)

I would never dismiss the book I just read, never argue that it is not a legitimate scholarly contribution, just because I personally didn’t find any value in it. Who knows how many other scholars (or just other readers — though given the nature and style of the book, I can’t imagine it would engage very many of those) might find in it something truly exciting, paradigm-changing, or just useful? And as I’ve said before, though I often look an individual trees with puzzlement, I am a big believer in the overall value of the scholarly forest — precisely because things like value are so hard to measure, and because the kinds of transformations that we all eventually feel and react to in our work accumulate incrementally at first. Also, that we have trouble getting the most value out of our work is at least in part a systemic and logistical problem — not a reason to stop doing the work itself. But I do wish we would stop conflating value with form (as in “you need a book,” or “only peer-reviewed scholarly articles are valuable”), or pretending that it’s self-evident why some kinds of work are worth more than others, professionally or otherwise.

Recent Reading Roundup

The-Life-Writer-207x325It has been a while since I’ve posted, and also a while since I posted a reading roundup! The two things are related: because I haven’t been posting often, it might seem as if I haven’t been reading much, but I have — it’s just that much of my recent reading has been for reviews, which means it feels redundant to post about it, or else it has been light reading I don’t have much to say about. Or, in a couple of cases, it has been books that deserve more to say than I’ve got in me, or that I hoped to have a lot to say about but that came up short. These are the rare converging conditions that are just right for a roundup post!

Books that I’ve read for reviews include: David Constantine’s The Life-Writer and In Another Country, both exceptionally good (my review will be in The Quarterly Conversation in the fall); Ami McKay’s The Witches of New York, which I thought was just okay (my review will be in Quill & Quire in November); Yasmine el Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer, which is understated and thought-provoking (my review will be in The Kenyon Review Online at some future date); and Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, which I found fascinating, evocative, and just a bit odd (my review will be in the September issue of Open Letters). Today I’m settling in with Maurizio de Giovanni’s The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, which, along with its sequel, Darkness for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone, I’ll be writing about for 3:AM Magazine. (I also recently read an academic book with an eye to reviewing it for 3:AM but I decided in the end not to review it, because although it is almost certainly a good book of its kind, it turned out to be of a kind I have little tolerance for these days, and I didn’t want to take that somewhat personal frustration out on its author.)

knox-trulyMy light reading has included some good contemporary romances: Ruthie Knox’s Truly, which I really enjoyed, and two of Molly O’Keefe’s ‘Boys of Bishop’ novels — Between the Sheets and Never Been Kissed. O’Keefe’s are just a tiny bit too angst-ridden to become real favorites of mine: I like my romance with a bit more comedy and a lot less suffering. But both of these authors write well and create convincing characters, and Truly had some really excellent “neepery” about urban bee-keeping. I’ve started several historical romances but tired of them all before the half-way point — including Julia Quinn’s Because of Miss Bridgerton and a forthcoming Mary Balogh, Someone to Love. Not too long ago I read Sarah MacLean’s The Rogue Not Taken, and I did really like that; I think it’s just that for me right now, I’ve had enough of that particular flavor and none of the ones I tried seemed novel enough. I also just finished Sue Grafton’s X, which some of you may have seen me griping about on Twitter. When I say “finished” I mean that once I realized it wasn’t going to pick up, I skipped along hastily until I finally reached its big climactic scene, about 5 pages before the last of its nearly 500. Grafton assembles her pieces competently, and Kinsey’s still a pretty good character, but that book was way too long to be so completely lacking in interest or suspense.

mementoA book that deserves better than I can give it is Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which I finished without ever quite being converted to it. Another read, another time, and probably my experience of it will be different. It was interesting to me, though, that I began it with much higher expectations than I began Moby-Dick, but it was Moby-Dick I found thrilling. Maybe I’m not quite the reader (or the person) that I thought I was. And a book I hoped to love and have a lot to say about was Christy Ann Conlin’s The Memento. It looked perfect for me, and individual moments or sentences often struck me as really good, but as a whole the book never quite grabbed me — not the way a ghost story, especially, really ought to.

I think that about catches me up, on my reading at least. Usually another regular feature here is more discussion of teaching-related business, but of course classes aren’t in session right now, and the work-related business I’ve been preoccupied with is my promotion application, which I can’t really talk about in any detail. Last week I did, however, finish what is almost certainly the very last written submission I will make about it (and that’s another 6000 words I’ve labored over in the last little while!). My fall course outlines are drafted, though, and it won’t be long now before “This Week In My Classes” begins its exciting 10th season. :-)

P.S. If that David Constantine cover looks familiar, it’s because its design is basically the same as the cover for Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.

“Glad to Be Alive”: May Sarton, At Seventy: A Journal


Such a peaceful, windless morning here for my seventieth birthday–the sea is pale blue, and although the field is still brown, it is dotted with daffodils at last. It has seemed an endless winter. But now at night the peepers are in full fettle, peeping away. And I was awakened by the cardinal, who is back again with his two wives, and the raucous cries of the male pheasant. I lay there, breathing in spring, listening to the faint susurration of the waves and awfully glad to be alive.

I really enjoyed puttering through May Sarton’s At Seventy: A Journal. It is much less artful than Plant Dreaming Deep or Journal of a Solitude — more simply a diary, recording the minutiae of her life, from gardening to poetry readings. She’s both thoughtful and observant, though, and along with her accounts of day-to-day events we also get her reflections on current events (she’s not a fan of Reagan’s America), on history (she’s especially preoccupied with the Holocaust), on aging and mortality, on friendships and lovers, on poetry and Virginia Woolf and her own novels and the selfishness of the writer’s life.

Sarton would have known (I assume) that the journal would eventually be published, so there are traces of self-consciousness sometimes, and there are also some hints of reticence about details that would be intensely personal. Overall, though, reading At Seventy feels a lot like hanging out with her for a year, through some tough times, some petty annoyances, and a lot of pleasures and even joys that make her “glad to be alive.” “The autumn of life,” she says on September 25, contemplating autumn’s coming “glory of crimson and orange and yellow overhead”

is also a matter of saying farewell, but the strange thing is that I do not feel it is autumn. Life is so rich and full these days. There is so much to look forward to, so much here and now, and also ahead, as I dream of getting back to the novel about Anne Thorp [The Magnificent Spinster] and to good silent days here when the hubbub of this summer dies down. And right now there are hundreds of good letters to answer and hundreds of bulbs to plant. I do not feel I am saying farewell yet but only beginning again, as it used to be when school started.

Once again I found myself fascinated with Sarton’s solitary life. She didn’t always live by herself, but it’s pretty clear by this point that she prefers, needs, solitude — not every moment (and she actually has a lot of visitors to her house in Maine, and does a lot of visiting and traveling herself) but as the default. After particularly busy periods, she’s always immensely relieved to be free just to live on her own terms, and to breathe, mentally, without the psychological distractions of other people’s company. I don’t know how she was able to live on her own, and on her own terms, for so long: can she have made enough money from her writing, and then from related speaking engagements, for the luxury of so much space and independence and autonomy, or did she inherit or otherwise come by the funds to support it? I haven’t read an actual biography of her, so there’s a lot about the concrete circumstances of her life that I don’t know. At any rate, there’s something really inviting about her descriptions of having her house all to herself, setting her own pace for meals and walks and work and reading and just being.

journalsolitudeOf course, I’m not sure I would like that much solitude in practice (any more than Sarton’s friend Carolyn Heilbrun did), and I’m also aware how much it is Sarton’s writing that makes her life sound spacious and colorful and inviting. She writes beautifully about her house and her garden, with a poet’s attention to the rhythm of her words as well as to the shapes, sounds, and sights around her:

Nothing can change the happiness I felt when I went down this morning to get my breakfast at five and saw the marvelous light, as the sun, not yet risen, flooded the rooms with a kind of pale green, touching the paper-white narcissus and every chair and table with its blessing. This house becomes then a great shell filled with the incessant rumor of the past and I wander through its rooms, enchanted.

“I want to pause here,” she says at another point,

to celebrate asters, the low pale-lavender ones that dot the field now, starry among the long pale-gold grasses, the tall white ones that line the road in the woods, the deep-purple ones I found here in the picking garden, and the cultivated Michaelmas daisies, as they are called in England, that I have planted over the years in the border below the terrace. Some of these are almost a true blue. One of my favorites (Frikartii) is bright lavender with large flowers. They come when the phlox is over and always seem like a special gift of autumn. Rare in color at this season, they light up the garden and make a splash with the oranges and yellows of zinnias and calendulas in vases in the house, a new spectrum for me, and delightful.

Remembering the “bleak rented rooms” she lived in years ago in London, she thinks of how

by arranging books on the desk, buying a few daffodils from a cart in the street, putting up postcard reproductions of paintings I loved and a photograph or two, by leaving a brilliant scarf on the bureau, the room became my room and I began to live in it, to live my real life there, to know who May Sarton was and hoped to become.

At Seventy seems like the journal of someone who knows just who she is and is living her “real life.” Her appreciation of what a lucky and beautiful life that is seems well-earned, and probably the most inspiring thing about this unpretentious and often rather artless book is her own self-consciousness about that, and her determination to live up to what she has found for herself:

To live in eternity means to live in the moment, the moment unalloyed–to allow feeling to the limit of what can be felt, to hold nothing back, and at the same time to ask nothing and hope for nothing more than the amazing gift of poems. A love affair at this point is not in the cards, but poetry is here, and that is all that matters.

Reading this made me feel uncomfortable that I have never been moved by any of her poetry. And The Magnificent Spinster, into which she is putting a great deal of herself over the year this journal covers, is the one of her novels so far that I put aside unfinished. (I’ve only read two others, The Small Room and The Education of Harriet Hatfield.) Maybe it’s time to give it another try, if only to honor her effort and thank her for the other happy reading she’s given me.

Time Passes

lighthouseoupI’m reading To the Lighthouse for the first time. I know, I know. I also know that I should love it, because it is beautiful and moving and brilliant and original — and I sort of do, so far, except when I don’t. I am not a particularly good reader of Woolf’s fiction: it was only a few years ago that I finally read Mrs Dalloway, and I “succeeded” in that only when I stopped working so hard and let myself “fall under the spell of the language, which is beautiful and languorous but shot through with moments of startling clarity and, sometimes, brutality,” as I said at the time. The same is true of the language of To the Lighthouse, though at this point in my reading it’s that very languorous beauty that’s interfering, perhaps paradoxically, with my pleasure in the novel. It is making me impatient, faintly fretful, with its self-conscious artistry. The novel is not opaque, the way late Henry James novels are, but for all its meticulous attention to the mundane, such that everything everyday becomes somehow transcendent, it feels strangely detached from the reality it explores with such nuance.

These are just early impressions, and of a first reading, at that — and I’m also not finished the novel. So don’t think the worst of me! I will learn more as I read on, and more still as I reflect and reread. It’s a good thing, really, to read a novel that doesn’t fit easily into the grooves of my mind. It’s good for my mind, I mean. Already, To the Lighthouse has me thinking — not just about what I want from my reading and why, but about fiction and realism, about mothers and children, about husbands and wives, about lighthouses visited and not, literal as well as metaphorical.

The part I’ve liked least so far is Part II, “Time Passes.” But even though I found it excessively mannered, with its calculated parentheticals, it does wonderfully evoke both the long sweep of time and specific moments and details of change that seize our particular attention:

The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sand-hill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed. The saucepan had rusted and the mat decayed. Toads had nosed their way in. Idly, aimlessly, the swaying shawl swung to and fro. A thistle thrust itself between the tiles in the larder. The swallows nested in the drawing-room; the floor was strewn with straw; the plaster fell in shovelfuls; rafters were laid bare; rats carried off this and that to gnaw behind the wainscots.

Oxford“Time passes.” It’s such a neutral-sounding phrase, almost like a stage direction, one that requires all the director’s ingenuity to show us its truth without taking us through the whole chronology. It’s an obvious truth, one we’re all perfectly well aware of, but we feel it deeply only during what George Eliot calls “one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace,”

which is as different from what we call knowing it, as the vision of waters upon the earth is different from the delirious vision of the water which cannot be had to cool the burning tongue.

The immediate context of that quotation is Mr Casaubon’s confrontation with the reality of death in the great 42nd chapter of Middlemarch, but that isn’t all that different, when you think about it, from our confrontation with the reality that time passes. You can’t stop it. It’s inexorable! It stops, for each of us, only with death, which is thus rightly pervasive in the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse.

Funny little things can really bring home the reality that time passes. I don’t mean just obvious chronological markers like birthdays. They do remind us, but they don’t surprise us: they just keep coming round again on their predictable dates. I’m thinking more about things like my embroidered series of Henry VIII and his wives. And if that seems like an unlikely connection, that’s exactly my point: when it occurred to me that it might be nice to do some work on these cross-stitched portraits again, I didn’t expect to end up contemplating either the relentless passage of time or my own mortality, but that’s what happened.

newstitches9You see, I’ve been working on these off and on since 1993. I was newly married then and still not quite accustomed to the amount of golf my husband likes to watch on TV every weekend. Since it was hard to get away from the TV in our small apartment, and it didn’t seem very friendly (or very practical) to absent myself from home altogether, I decided to take up some hobbies that would keep my hands busy and give me a sense of accomplishment while I watched golf with him. A long-time reader of Tudor fiction, I was also working on a dissertation about Victorian historical writing, including Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England— one way or another, Henry VIII and his wives had been in my life a long time. My thesis also included a chapter on the symbolic significance of needlework in Victorian historiography! So I was pretty excited when I chanced on a pattern in New Stitches magazine for Katherine Howard (wife #5, beheaded, in case you can’t keep them all straight). and even more excited when I realized it was part of a series and I could order the back issues, which I did. Over the next few years I completed four of the queens (Katherine Howard, Anne of Cleves, Katherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn). Just two wives were left, plus Henry himself.

After we had children, though, I found it almost impossible to work on these patterns, which are quite fussy and require both close attention and a minimum of interruptions if you’re not going to lose your place. Also, embroidering on white fabric means keeping your work area, your hands, and anything that might touch the work very clean: you can’t just put your hoop down any old place and grab it up again when you’re back. Even when it started to seem possible in theory to go back to these patterns in the evenings, I discovered that multi-tasking at the necessary level had become much harder: keeping track of the pattern and of the plot in a gripping HBO drama, for instance, was too much for me. The long and short of it is that poor Katherine Parr has been malingering in the drawer, barely half-finished, for years now.

IMG_0910What inspired me to take her out? Mostly that I’ve been experimenting with audio books for a while and though I do enjoy coloring as I listen, I thought I might get more satisfaction out of doing something with more tangible results, and especially out of finishing this series. I hoped that my current audio book (Eloisa James’s Three Weeks with Lady X) would entertain me without overtaxing my poor brain while I followed the design. And in fact it seems just right as a combination of activities — except that I couldn’t help noticing that since the last time I worked with the pattern, it has somehow shrunk so that it’s much harder to see! (Well, OK, actually my eyes have gotten weaker.) Also, the needles: were they always so hard to thread? So those were two blunt reminders that time had passed. And they got me thinking about how much harder this kind of finicky work is going to get as I keep aging, which got me thinking that I’d better not wait another decade before starting (or finishing) Henry and Jane Seymour, because even if I am very lucky and stay healthy and safe from accident or catastrophe — even then, who knows how much more time I’ve got to work on them?

Suddenly, I feel the truth of a commonplace indeed: time passes.


Update: Lest y’all doubt my Woolf credentials, here’s a link to one of the bravest (for me) pieces I’ve written for OLM – a literary essay in appreciation of one of the great literary essayists. Or you could check out the entries in the ‘Woolf, Virginia’ category. I think she’s a genius. It just occasionally occurs to me that she’s not my genius.

“The End of a Long Song”: Ian Rankin, Even Dogs in the Wild

“But you’re making progress, showing the youngsters a thing or two.”

“It feels like the end of a long song, though — men like Cafferty and Joe Stark . . . and me too, come to that . . . we’re on our last legs. Our way of doing things seems . . . I don’t know.”

“Last century?”

“Aye, maybe.”

As he takes Rebus (and thus his readers) through various phases of the old curmudgeon’s on-again off-again retirement, Ian Rankin seems to me to be inventing a new subgenre — call it, maybe, elegiac crime fiction. There’s something odd about it, because the pervasive nostalgia is not just about (though it’s closely tied to) Rebus’s consciousness of aging, and of being gradually displaced by a younger generation that does things differently and isn’t much interested in old methods or old stories. In Even Dogs in the Wild, it’s also about an older generation of criminals, particularly Rebus’s old nemesis “Big Ger” Cafferty, who is being similarly edged out by new kids on the block who are as indifferent to his authority and as keen to usurp his status as any of the young cops around Rebus.

Some of this is standard passing of the torch stuff, the old order fading and yielding place to new. Having been with Rebus and Cafferty so long, though, and because a lot of the novel is told from their point of view, we inclined to sympathize with them, despite their many past transgressions. This is right and proper enough with Rebus, but it’s a bit disconcerting to realize you are rooting for Cafferty to survive, even if he does declare himself ready to apologize and even make amends for some of the things he’s done. Between them, he and Rebus repeatedly suggest that however nasty things got in the old days, still, there was something about that old way of being a cop and being a criminal that had more dignity to it than the new ways offer. In a strange way, they share a set of values, although they embody its flip sides, and that’s what enables them, particularly in these later books, to work as allies.

I don’t have a lot else to say about Even Dogs in the Wild. Rankin knows what he’s doing: the book is characteristically well written, its plot is cleverly built up, and the pieces of it fall into place with expert pacing from the novel’s gripping start to its epilogue. Malcolm Fox is well integrated into the Rebus books now; his relationships with both Siobhan and Rebus are both plausible, and the three of them continue to develop as characters, though I don’t think there’s much here specifically to learn about our oldest two friends in the series. I appreciate the way Rankin weaves past and present together in the cases here; it suits the book’s emphasis on changing times and serves his ongoing interest in the ways contemporary Edinburgh carries traces of the city’s history.

It is hard not to wonder how much longer Rebus can go on. For all his involvement in the case this time, he’s a civilian now. His identity has always been so bound up in his work, though, that given Rankin’s commitment to letting him age naturally, and the increasing oddity (or so I imagine) of a retired cop being active in current investigations, at some point presumably he really does have to retire — or die, which might seem like a better end for him than seeing him malinger in a “care home” like the one Malcolm Fox’s father has been in, or where he visits one if the witnesses in the case. At any rate, in Even Dogs in the Wild he’s clearly in the mood to take stock, and one reason he does keep at it is because, for him, the underlying principle of the work is the most important thing. “What did it matter,” he wonders, contemplating the possibility that the suspect in a string of murders, who has a damn good motive for them, might not be stopped or caught? But “somehow it did”:

it did matter. Always had, always would. Not because of any of the victims or perpetrators, but for Rebus himself. Because if none of it mattered, than neither did he.

Ian Rankin explains that the title is taken from this song, which is suitably bleak and haunting for a book that, like all of Rankin’s, takes us imaginatively to grim places we’d rather avoid.

“What I Am Is What I Do”: Robert B. Parker, Promised Land


“The kind of man I am is not a suitable topic, you know. It’s not what one talks about.”


“Because it’s not.”

“The code? A man doesn’t succumb to self-analysis? It’s weak? It’s womanish?”

“It’s pointless. What I am is what I do. Finding the right words for it is no improvement. It isn’t important whether I’m scared or excited. It’s important whether or not I do it.”

I came across Robert B. Parker’s Promised Land in the library the other day and puzzled over it: was it possible I had never read this early volume in the Spenser series? Promised Land, which is the fourth Spenser novel, dates from 1976 and won an Edgar in 1977. But though I have been reading and rereading these books since some time in the 1980s, it didn’t look at all familiar, and now that I’ve read it, I feel pretty certain this was my first time.

The reason I think so is that though Promised Land is not a great Spenser novel — by which I mean, it is not much like the Spenser novels I like best — it does some really important work for the series, particularly in terms of Spenser and Susan’s relationship. It also introduces us to Hawk. So surely if I’d read it before, I would have remembered it! But maybe not.

In any case, I’ve read it (or possibly reread it) now, and though I didn’t really like it that much, I was fascinated by it. One way in which it differs from the later Spensers I am more familiar with is that it is way more wordy. I don’t really mean the exposition, though this too I think gets more spare as Parker’s formula develops. But by the last dozen or so titles, Parker’s characters are so well-defined they barely need to speak to each other in full sentences. Their cryptic utterances sometimes border on self-parody, but at other times there’s a beautiful ease to it: you know these people already, so you know what they mean and what they stand for — even, to some extent, what they will do — without their needing to explain it, to each other or to you. Thus Parker is liberated from the expository burden dialogue in novels sometimes carries and can just serve up the situation and let them volley words back and forth, witty and bracing and in some strange way pure.

promisedland1It’s an aesthetic effect that, when it works, perfectly suits the kind of man Spenser is: a man whose actions, as he says to Susan in Promised Land, speak for themselves. This doesn’t mean he isn’t introspective or capable of nuanced insight. He’d just rather act on what he discerns than spell it out. It’s primarily Susan who encourages him to articulate his life, which I’ve always thought was her primary role in the series — that and providing psychological and emotional support to people caught up in Spenser’s cases who aren’t well served, or sufficiently served, by his decisive but often unconsoling minimalism.

Even with Susan, though, there’s often not a lot of talking, or at least not that’s reproduced for us, which is why Promised Land is so interesting, because it’s early enough in their relationship that its terms haven’t yet been established. In fact (and this is the main bit I think I’d have remembered, if I’d read it before) in this novel they go through a crisis precipitated by the cliched scenario of her telling him she loves him and him shying away from what he thinks are the implications:

“Are you saying we should get married?”

“At the moment I’m saying I love you and I’m waiting for a response.”

“It’s not that simple, Suze.”

“And I believe I’ve gotten the response.” She got up from the bar and walked out.

If you know Susan and Spenser from the later novels, you’ll know them as one of literature’s most rock-solid couples, thoroughly devoted to each other but also leading lives of scrupulous independence, with their own homes, for example, without marriage, and only eventually with a shared dependent (Pearl the Wonder Dog!). Though I know some people can’t abide Susan, and I admit I sometimes find her too impeccable to bear (especially her oft-remarked habit of eating and drinking only the most microscopic portions at a time), I have always thought their partnership was exemplary for its balance of love and autonomy. They are two people who have somehow, miraculously (unrealistically?) learned simply to accept each other the way they are. Susan in particular has come to terms with the man Spenser is, from his unyielding (if largely unarticulated) code of honor to his capacity for violence. He reciprocates with unstinting admiration and respect for her. Once in a while the unusual form of their commitment is tested, but they always pass the test, in defiance of the literary and social norms it upsets. (It’s worth knowing that Parker and his wife Joan also had a somewhat unconventional union.)

What’s so interesting (well, to me — sorry if this is just so much insider baseball to you non-Spenser-fans out there) is that it turns out to be in Promised Land that Spenser and Susan first hammer out the terms that will define their relationship for the rest of the series. Not completely, but pretty clearly. The context in which they do this is also interesting, because it sheds some light on the way Parker was trying to sort out the ideology of the series, which can probably be summed up — a bit paradoxically — as a highly progressive form of rugged individualism.

promisedland3The case Spenser is involved with here involves a woman, Pamela Sheppard, who leaves her husband for no stronger reason than general dissatisfaction with her marriage. (There turns out to be more awry with her husband than that he doesn’t really see her for who she is, but that’s where she starts.) She ends up falling in with a group of women keen to start a revolution against the patriarchy, and as a result she ends up an unwilling participant in a bank robbery that goes horribly wrong. Spenser is entirely unmoved by her distress:

“You want me to bring you flowers for being a goddamn thief and a murderer? Sweets for the sweet, my love. Hope the old guy didn’t have an old wife who can’t get along without him. Once you all get guns you can liberate her too.”

Susan said, “Spenser,” quite sharply. “She feels bad enough.”

“No she doesn’t,” I said. “She doesn’t feel anywhere near bad enough. Neither do you. You’re so goddamned empathetic you’ve jumped into her frame. ‘And you felt you had to stand by them. Anyone would.’ Balls. Anyone wouldn’t. You wouldn’t.”

I didn’t like Spenser here at all (even though I don’t disagree with him about the poor bank guard). For one thing, he’s not helping — either Pamela personally, or his own work. More generally, he’s unmoved by arguments in the abstract or in principle, including, in this book, feminist arguments. When Pamela suggests he probably believes in “the sanctity of marriage,” he replies “Sanctity of marriage is an abstraction. . . . I don’t deal in those. I deal in what it is fashionable to call people. Bodies. Your basic human being.” He is impatient throughout the book with what today we would call “systemic” analyses, which is not to say he denies that women are positioned differently and often disadvantageously in society, but that he insists on addressing only the particulars he sees right in front of him.

This is what I mean when I say you can tell, if you’ve read the later books, that Promised Land shows the series was still, politically, a work in progress, or perhaps the right way to put it is that Parker himself was still figuring out how to define, or demonstrate, his own feminist politics. Because I would say, based on the other books I’ve read, that the Spenser series is quite emphatically a feminist series, or at least that it becomes so, and that one sign of that is how often Spenser actually talks about systemic problems — about gender and also, not at all incidentally, about race, though that’s not what Promised Land particularly highlights. Still, throughout the books there is always some tension between understanding that there are problems that exceed individual agency, on the one hand, and Spenser’s highly individualistic code of honor and principle, on the other. Maybe it’s a tension that’s inevitable to the form of the hard-boiled detective novel: Spenser is one man committed to doing everything he can for a particular case; it does him no good as a detective or a modernized knight errant to fixate on systemic injustices — the effect might be paralyzing. I think Parker is also just a bit too much in love with some tendencies of the hard-boiled genre (objectifying beautiful women, for instance) to entirely counteract his more deliberate investment in creating women characters who don’t need any rescuing at all, thank you very much.

At any rate, Promised Land made me uneasy in its resistance to feminism in a way that later books don’t. At the same time I appreciated that Parker makes this unease an explicit part of the book. Spenser wants Mrs. Sheppard to go back to her husband and try again, not because he believes in “the sanctity of marriage” as an absolute but because he thinks maybe if they both let go of their defined roles (his as provider and protector, hers as help-meet and accessory) they might be able to redefine their relationship. Spenser’s conversations with Susan about marriage are clearly affected by their dual (but not identical) concerns about how male and female roles are defined and are changing. When he does eventually propose, Susan, in her turn, backs away: now she isn’t sure what they should do, only that “it’s the kind of thing we need to think on.” That, I do like.

“All of a Doo-Dah”: Dorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase


“Well, really, don’t you know.” Wimsey screwed his monocle more firmly into his eye. “Really, old fellow, you make me feel all of a doo-dah, what?”

Do you have books you reach for when you’re feeling low, books you just know will cheer you up? For me, Have His Carcase is a sure thing when I need a reading tonic — even though (or is it, possibly, precisely because?) it is a completely ridiculous book.

Not everything about it is ridiculous, of course. Still, its plot is unlikely and convoluted enough to deserve the kind of scorn Raymond Chandler heaped on Busman’s Honeymoon:

There is one of Dorothy Sayers’ in which a man is murdered alone at night in his house by a mechanically released weight which works because he always turns the radio on at just such a moment, always stands in just such a position in front of it, and always bends over just so far. A couple of inches either way and the customers would get a rain check. This is what is vulgarly known as having God sit in your lap; a murderer who needs that much help from Providence must be in the wrong business.

Busman’s Honeymoon (which, as I’ve said here at length, I both adore and kind of despise) is just one of many examples Chandler is using to debunk what today we might call the Golden Age puzzle mystery or cozy. He isn’t altogether wrong that this is a subgenre of crime fiction that puts clever conundrums ahead of either believable characters or social realism, never mind more probing philosophical themes. For that reason, they aren’t the kind of mysteries I like best. I hardly even read them. I’ve read maybe four Agatha Christie novels all the way through. They just don’t engage me. I’ve read quite a bit about them, as prep for my mystery fiction class, but my own taste runs more to Ian Rankin or Tana French or Arnaldur Indriðason.

I have always made an exception for Sayers, though — or, more accurately, for the Harriet Vane novels (Strong PoisonHave His CarcaseGaudy Night, and Busman’s Honeymoon). I also admire The NineTailors and find Murder Must Advertise fascinating, but the Harriet Quartet is special. Sayers herself said that once she’d invented Harriet, she needed to transform Peter from a caricature into a man worthy of her. He’s a long way off in Strong Poison; he’s fully evolved in Gaudy Night. He’s about half way there, as you’d expect from the sequence, in Have His Carcase. And that, for me, is where the joy of the novel lies: reading it is like tuning in half way through a championship to root for your favorite, who’s in the lead. Now, when I reread it, I skip, or at least skip around in, a lot of the development of the case itself, focusing in only on the scenes between Peter and Harriet.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. I do absolutely delight in sequences such as their search for clues along the beach (presented as a play, for no reason except why not, I suppose):

PETER: I just wanted to ask whether you’d given any further thought to that suggestion about marrying me.

HARRIET (sarcastically): I suppose you were thinking how delightful it would be to go through life like this together?

PETER: Well, not quite like this. Hand in hand was more my idea.

HARRIET: What is that in your hand?

PETER: A dead starfish.

HARRIET: Poor fish!

PETER: No ill-feeling, I trust.

HARRIET: Oh, dear no.

carcase3And it is fascinating to watch Sayers build layers into their relationship in order to move it out of the awkward spot she’d started it in in Strong Poison. By the end of the novel they are speaking quite differently to each other than they were at the beginning. All of that is great (and so much more interesting, to me at least, than the timetables and tides and encrypted letters on which the actual murder mystery turns). It’s not just Harriet with Peter that’s such a happy feature of the novel, though. Peter shows up in the book, but from the very beginning it is Harriet’s story overall. So we’re always approaching both the case and the relationship from her perspective, with a focus on what events mean to her. The novel even opens with one of the great literary declarations of female independence:

The best remedy for a bruised heart is not, as so many people seem to think, repose upon a manly bosom. Much more efficacious are honest work, physical activity, and the sudden acquisition of wealth. After being acquitted of murdering her lover and, indeed, in consequence of that acquittal, Harriet Vane found all three specifics abundantly at her disposal; and although Lord Peter Wimsey, with a touching faith in tradition, persisted day in and day out in presenting the bosom for her approval, she showed no inclination to recline upon it.

Fond as I am of Lord Peter, I am always just a bit sorry, on every reread, when Harriet’s walking tour is so rudely interrupted by Paul Alexis’s body, so that instead of being a novel about a happy, self-sufficient career woman on a well-earned solo vacation, Have His Carcase gets coopted by both murder and romance.

But then I come around, because the two of them are so much crackling, prickly fun together, and I admire Sayers so much for fighting with the conventions of romantic stories and making both her hero and her heroine wrestle with them too, until by the end of Gaudy Night they have achieved the miraculous: love with neither subordination or compromise. That could never happen without the process ongoing in Have His Carcase, by which the Lord Peter who really is an aristocratic stock figure becomes one who plays that role with theatrical flourish. It makes me feel all of a doo-dah, what? :-) Just writing about it cheers me up all over again.

“A Mighty Theme”: Moby-Dick Is About Whales


Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.

We all probably know the Woody Allen joke about speed-reading War and Peace: “It’s about Russia.” It seems just as comical to say that Moby-Dick is about whales. Obviously, it’s about so much more than that: the whales themselves, especially the White Whale, are wrapped in as much symbolism as blubber, and Ahab’s quest, along with the whole voyage of the Pequod from Nantucket to its final moments, is subject to probably illimitable interpretations.

But! As I was reading the second half of the novel over the last couple of days, what I found most astonishing about it was not so much those metaphorical layers but the sheer inexhaustible virtuosity of its literal content. It really is about whales, after all, and about whaling, and many, many chapters of the novel are pretty spectacular just taken at face value. Take the chapters that describe how something is done, for instance — Chapter 78, for example, “Cistern and Buckets.” It’s not easy (or so I imagine, never having tried it myself) to explain a technical process — one likely to be unfamiliar to most of your readers in every respect — in a way that is at once accurate and artful, but sequences of that kind abound in Moby-Dick and they are all splendid. If you’re reading for plot, of course, they won’t seem to add much, but then, if you’re reading Moby-Dick for the plot, you’ve probably given up long before Chapter 78! In fact, while the writing itself is often memorable in these sections, what I especially like about them is what they implicitly presume about the novel’s readers — that we are capable of being interested, that we can get caught up in Melville’s own delight in digging right in to the nitty-gritty of every process, every routine, every role on board the Pequod.


And the chapters minutely dissecting and describing the whales: how fantastic are they! Sure, nothing happens in most of them, but isn’t that actually a kind of category mistake? They are what happens, the descriptions themselves are what happens, the attention they insist we give to every inch of these gargantuan creatures is what happens. There’s just something so breathtakingly daring and unlikely about them all. Here’s the beginning of Chapter 80, “The Nut,” for example:

If the Sperm Whale be physiognomically a Sphinx, to the phrenologist his brain seems that geometrical circle which it is impossible to square.

In the full-grown creature the skull will measure at least twenty feet in length. Unhinge the lower jaw, and the side view of this skull is as the side view of a moderately inclined plane resting throughout on a level base. But in life–as we have elsewhere seen–this inclined plane is angularly filled up, and almost squared by the enormous superincumbent mass of the junk and sperm. At the high end the skull forms a crater to bed that part of the mass; while under the long floor of this crater–in another cavity seldom exceeding ten inches in length and as many in depth–reposes the mere handful of this monster’s brain. The brain is at least twenty feet from his apparent forehead in life; it is hidden away behind its vast outworks, like the innermost citadel within the amplified fortifications of Quebec.

There’s really no genre of fiction in which this degree of detail about a whale skull is really justified, is there? It serves no purpose whatsoever except to tell us about the whale. There’s a whole chapter — one of my favorites from this second half — about the sperm whale’s tail:

The entire member seems a dense webbed bed of welded sinews; but cut into it, and you find that three distinct strata compose it:–upper, middle, and lower. The fibres in the upper and lower layers, are long and horizontal; those of the middle one, very short, and running crosswise between the outside layers. This triune structure, as much as anything else, imparts power to the tail. To the student of old Roman walls, the middle layer will furnish a curious parallel to the thin course of tiles always alternating with the stone in those wonderful relics of the antique, and which undoubtedly contribute so much to the great strength of the masonry.

It goes on for four more pages! Again, there’s really no excuse — except that it tells us about the whale.

moby-dick-penguin-2That’s not right, though. The excuse (as if any is needed) for all of this stuff about whales is the writing. The fortifications of Quebec! Old Roman walls! The alliteration in “a dense webbed bed of welded sinews”! In my first post about Moby-Dick I talked about how much I was enjoying its prophetic style, so reminiscent of Carlyle. I continued to relish the many passages that leap from the literal to the metaphorical or philosophical:

Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.

Even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve around me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.

Oh! my friends, but this is man-killing! Yet this is life. For hardly have we mortals by long toilings extracted from this world’s vast bulk its small but valuable sperm; and then, with weary patience, cleansed ourselves from its defilements, and learned to live here in clean tabernacles of the soul; hardly is this done, when–There she blows!–the ghost is spouted up, and away we sail to fight some other world, and go through young life’s old routine again.

I love all of that: it too is daring and inspiring and really quite inexcusable. There’s just as much pleasure to be had in how Melville just writes about actual whales, though. And maybe even Melville wouldn’t be able to get away with so much rhetorical flamboyance if so much of Moby-Dick weren’t really, quite literally, about actual whales, so that his wildest flights of fancy, his deepest dives for profundity, remain anchored in reality.

My book club meets Monday night to talk about the second half of the novel. Once again I look forward to all the different perspectives I’ll hear.

From the Archives: T. H. White, The Once and Future King

the-once-and-future-kingIt comes back to the geese, in the end. I hoped it would, because of all the marvellous episodes in Wart’s education (the tyrannical pike, the totalitarian ants, the philosophical badger), his time with the geese is the most sublime. It’s beautifully written, for one thing, detailed and evocative, freely fanciful:

The sun, as it rose, tinged the quick-silver of the creeks and the gleaming slime itself with flame. The curlew, who had been piping their mournful plaints since long before the light, flew now from weed-bank to weed-bank. The widgeon, who had slept on water, came whistling their double notes, like whistles from a Christmas cracker. The mallard toiled from land, against the wind. The redshanks scuttled and prodded like mice. A cloud of tiny dunlin, more compact than starlings, turned in the air with the noise of a train. The black-guard of crows rose from the pine trees on the dune with merry cheers. Shore birds of every sort populated the tide line, filling it with business and beauty.

The dawn, the sea-dawn and the mastery of ordered flight, were of such intense beauty that the boy was moved to sing. He wanted to cry a chorus to life, and, since a thousand geese were on the wing about him, he had not long to wait. The lines of these creatures, wavering like smoke upon the sky as they breasted the sunrise, were all at once in music and in laughter. Each squadron of them was in different voice, some larking, some triumphant, some in sentiment or glee.

Like the lengthy excursus on the Middle Ages much later on in the book, these expeditions into natural history speak above all of the writer’s joy in his subject–and what writing is more delightful, more uplifting, to read than joyful writing?

But the flight of the geese is not just natural history: it’s also, like Merlyn’s other lessons (like the whole novel), an embodied class in political theory. “Are we at war,” asks Wart. The goose Lyo-lyok does not understand the question. “There are no boundaries among the geese,” she eventually explains to him. “How can you have boundaries if you fly? Those ants of yours–and the humans too–would have to stop fighting in the end, if they took to the air.” “I like fighting,” replies Wart. “It is knightly.” “Because you are a baby,” replies Lyo-Lyok.

At the end of The Once and Future King, Wart is no longer a baby. Now he’s an old, exhausted king staring in near despair on the failure of his experiment to reconcile might and right. Why do men fight, he wonders? “Suspicion and fear: possessiveness and greed: resentment for ancestral wrong: all these seemed to be a part of it”:

Yet they were not the solution. He could not see the real solution. He was too old and tired and miserable to think constructively. He was only a man who had meant well, who had been spurred along that course of thinking by an eccentric necromancer with a weakness for humanity. Justice had been his last attempt–to do nothing which was not just. But it had ended in failure. To do at all had proved too difficult. He was done himself.

But he isn’t quite done: there’s a bit of thinking in him yet, not to mention “something invincible in his heart, a tincture of grandness in simplicity,” and he uses his last bit of hope and strength to tell his story to young Tom (“his surcoat, with the Malory bearings, looking absurdly new”), and then “to think again,” and what he thinks of is Lyo-lyok–and there it is, “the problem before him as plain as a map”:

The fantastic thing about war was that it was fought about nothing–literally nothing. Frontiers were imaginary lines. There was no visible line between Scotland and England, although Flodden and Bannockburn had been fought about it. It was geography which was the cause, political geography. It was nothing else. . . . The imaginary lines on the earth’s surface only needed to be unimagined. The airborne birds skipped them by nature. How mad the frontiers had seemed to Lyo-lyok, and would to Man if he could learn to fly.

Imagine there’s no countries…it isn’t hard to imagine it. But to realize it? The Once and Future King isn’t that kind of fantasy. Ideas are only as good, as strong, as tenable as principles, as the people who try to live up to them, or to subvert or destroy them. And people, the novel shows over and over, are mixed, complicated, contradictory, creatures.

There’s Arthur himself, for instance. He’s such an ordinary fellow for a legendary hero! As the Orkneys gather to force Arthur’s hand with an open accusation against Lancelot and Guenever, Gareth sees him “as he was … a plain man who had done his best–not a leader of chivalry, but the pupil who had tried to be faithful to his curious master, the magician, by thinking all the time–not Arthur of England, but a lonely old gentleman who had worn his crown for half a lifetime in the teeth of fate.” Because we first meet him as Wart, we carry with us throughout the novel a sense of his childish innocence and his simple desire to do his best. “He was sadly unfitted for hating his best friend or for torturing his wife,” says the narrator; “He had been given too much love and trust to be good at these things.” Such innocence and simplicity should surely be strengths, but for Arthur they are weaknesses. If he were more suspicious, more wily, less scrupulously loyal and just, he would not have been there in that room, “hoist,” as the vengeful Agravaine exults, “with his own petard”–“trapped by his enemies into crushing his friends,” as Steve Donoghue nicely puts it, “using the very structure of law and order he worked so hard to champion.”  But “it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough.”

Lancelot and Guenever, too, are painfully ordinary, which is not to say that they are dull or commonplace but that they are flawed and mistaken and loving and loyal and treacherous all at the same time. If they were worse people than they are, they could have simplified the situation, as we would handle it today “when everybody is so free from superstitions and prejudice that it is only necessary for all of us to do as we please.” But they have other values, and they love Arthur as well as each other. Their love (the love of all three of them for the others) is a beautiful, fragile thing, more so as they get older and become “seasoned people, who knew what they were about.” Here they are late in the story, poised on the very threshold of disaster:

The room glowed into colour round the lovers, who had released each other quickly. It began to show the splendour of its hangings as the boy put fire to the wicks. The flower meads and bird-fruitful spinneys of the Arras teemed and rippled over the four walls. The door curtain lifted again, and the King was in the room.

He looked old, older than either of them. But it was the noble oldness of self-respect. Sometimes even nowadays you can meet a man of sixty or more who holds himself as straight as a rush, and whose hair is black. They were in that class. Lancelot, now that you could see him clearly, was an erect refinement of humanity–a fanatic for human responsibility. Guenever, and this might have been surprising to a person who had known her in her days of tempest, looked sweet and pretty. You could almost have protected her. But Arthur was the touching one of the three. He was so plainly dressed, so gentle and patient of his simple things. Often, when the Queen was entertaining distinguished company under the flambeaux of the Great Hall, Lancelot had found him sitting by himself in a small room, mending stockings. Now, in his homely blue gown…he paused on the threshold of the gleaming room, and smiled.

‘Well, Lance. Well, Gwen.’

Such a homely greeting, from this simple man to the two people he loves most in the world. Doesn’t this scene make you yearn for their safety? It’s terrible watching the calamity descend on them that you know all along is coming–for inevitably, the novel is governed by dramatic irony, not just for us, who can’t help but know the story already, but for Arthur too, who is warned at the outset by Merlyn. If only, if only, if only… but there’s no way out for any of us: “before she was quite certain of what had happened, Guenever was laughing or weeping, unfaithful to her husband, as she had always known she would be.” And the rest, after that, is as foreseen and foretold.

For such a tragic story, the telling is surprisingly lighthearted–or light, at least. I was equal parts enchanted and puzzled by the novel’s tone. How can something so sad also be so funny? How can something so elevated also be so colloquial? If it’s not that serious, why am I crying? In the end, though, what I came to see was that the sadness lay precisely in the lightness of it all, in the way the joyousness I already remarked–the bursting excitement about nature and creativity, about “the age of fullness, the age of wading into everything up to the neck”–is undermined so steadily by the awareness of its eventual destructionThe story would not be so sad, also, if it were kept at more of a distance from us. The novel’s most ridiculous, delicious flights of fancy (the thwarted romance of the Questing Beast, for instance) are narrated in the same down-to-earth way as the most extreme moments of betrayal or grief or psychic torment (“Do you think it would be fine to be the best knight in the world? Think, then, also, how you would have to defend the title. Think of the tests, such repeated, remorseless, scandal-breathing tests, which day after day would be applied to you–until the last and certain day, when you would fail.”) and so we experience them both as part of the same world of people who may transform into animals, trap unicorns, and perform miracles, but are somehow, bizarrely, wonderfully, just like us. White’s casual references to Malory and Tennyson, rather than making his version seem coolly metafictional or presciently postmodern, make it seem natural, real, sincere: “Tennyson and the Pre-Raphaelites would have found it difficult to recognize this rather sullen and unsatisfactory child, with the ugly face,” he says of Lancelot; “An observer of the present day, who knew the Arthurian legend only from Tennyson and people of that sort, would have been startled to see that the famous lovers were past their prime.”

It’s sad because even though it’s a myth, it’s also a true story, one that ought to be told in as direct and simple a way as possible so that we’ll understand it. It’s a sad story because it’s the story of our failure, of our inability to solve King Arthur’s dilemma: to build a just world in which such joy can flourish. Merlyn’s lessons were based on the premise “that man was perfectible: that he was on the whole more decent than beastly.” At the end of his reign, Arthur finds this “central tenet of his heart” undone, “ravaged.” If anything, man is worse than beastly–Mordred’s scheming, the blood feuds, the fatal seductions are all calculated and so beyond the capacity of animals. “What creature could be so low,” wonders Lyo-lyok, “as to go about in bands, to murder others of its own blood?” Taught by Merlyn, Arthur had dreamed of a world in which these evils could come to an end. To read The Once and Future King is both to participate in his dream (just as he hopes young Tom will “tell everybody who would listen about this ancient idea, which both of them had once thought good”) and to experience its failure. Can we, perhaps, create the future he dreams of, a day ready for his return? “The hope of making it would lie in culture,” he thinks:

If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason.

That must have seemed like a pretty slim chance when the novel was first published in 1939. It still seems like something only a dreamer would imagine.

Sometimes I like to highlight a favorite post from my blog archives, both to share it with readers who might have missed it the first time and, as in this case, to remind myself of the pleasure I have found in writing here about my reading. This post was originally published June 27, 2012.

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