Monday, November 10, 1997

Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

I want to talk to you this morning about one of a number of wonderful writers who revealed the world to me this summer. But unlike almost all the books I have talked to you about before, this is a book about being a reader. The authors name is Lynne Sharon Schwartz; she so impressed me when I read her masterwork, Disturbances in the Field, that at first opportunity I bought all of her books, and then reading as she thinks we ought, greedily and isolated, one after the other, I read up her life’s work. But it is her last book, written in 1995 and not fiction at all, that I want to talk about today. Its title is Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books.

All of us are asked, too often, what it is that we do. When I am brave enough to answer honestly, I say that I am a reader—that I read. The reactions I get range from amused to perplexed to enraged. Tough enough for writers and artists to be taken seriously, but though it may seem sad to many that some people have such unprofitable addictions, still one can be a writer or artist—perhaps an ill-chosen life, but a real one. But to claim to be a reader! Might as well say time-waster, idler. “Come on, really, do you mean you are a teacher or aspiring writer?” Though I happen to be a teacher as well as a reader, I sometimes try to persevere. “No, I am a reader.”

No wonder when I ran across this little volume of autobiographical essay, I was instantly intrigued. Though I seldom aspire to being a writer (and am much more interested in what I can read than what I can write), here was a book that I wished I had written—one that I had thought of writing, though certainly not with the wit and skill that Schwartz has. Here is a reader who boldly announces her addiction to works of the imagination, and who admits, proclaims: “With barely a twinge of conscience, I hurl down what bores me or doesn’t give what I crave: ecstasy, transcendence, a thrill of mysterious connection.” Should one read in accordance with duty or want? And again, she answers as I have so often answered, ‘follow your wants.’

I noticed early on that when I had a piece of duty-reading (or writing) that stood between me and reading for pleasure, I often simply stopped reading! So, in graduate school, I made what I thought was a bold move; I would consider all reading good, all a part of my work. It worked like magic as my reading increased and increased in such a way that I even did more duty-reading almost as accident or afterthought. As Schwartz says, “There are after all so many delectable books in the world.”

But, you might be thinking (and we readers so often hear), reading is an escape from living. Her answer is bold: “It didn’t replace living; it infused it, till the two became inextricable, like molecules of hydrogen and oxygen in a bead of water.” And continuing, “How are we to spend our lives, anyway? That is the real question. We read to seek the answer, and the search itself, the task of a lifetime, becomes the answer.”

In only one way is her answer less radical than mine. Still, in spite of the fact that she writes for a living, that she must read in order to write, she cannot bring herself to read in the morning.
Never mornings—even to one so self-indulgent, it seems slightly sinful to wake up and immediately sit down with a book—afternoons only now and then. In daylight I would pay what I owed the world. Reading was the reward, a solitary, obscure, nocturnal reward. It was what I got everything else (living) out of the way in order to do.
Sinner that I am, I read first thing and all day, everyday (when I have the chance); I use my very best energy, morning energy, for what I consider my important vocation, and I urge my students to do the same (when schedule allows such a luxury). Read as if it is the most important thing you will do all day! As she says, “What I liked was having a book happen to me.” Yes, and the way to do that is to clear the decks, to see reading as self-justifying, as worthy.

I cant tell you how much I feel I have gotten from this author, about reading, about writing, about living. “...writing seems less a craft than a quality of mind and discernment, a rarefied focusing.” Yes, a focusing that allows some wonderfully gifted people to really see, to dis-cover, to bring out of concealment. Schwartz is like an american Iris Murdoch. To read what she has to say about whether it is best, finally, to read from duty or from want is to be at once amused and awakened. She is so wonderfully bright, so witty, her words so flowing and water-like, but always with a serious current.

Let me touch on just a couple more themes she raises and that I have thought of so often in my life as a reader. Why, I have often asked myself, am I so compelled to read living authors, so convinced that the academic preference for (usually dead) white males is such a profound mistake. Is it just a taste for the new, the modern? No, says Schwartz.
The pressure to read the living is moral as well as social. We must know our own times, understand what is happening around us. The more purposeful a writer is, the more her work defines a particular connection to her time and surroundings. Or, if defines sounds a bit deadly, lets say shows, for no writer consciously set out to do it (or does so at her peril). The connection is evident in the writing to the degree that it is strong in the writer. If she does not feel context—time, place, spirt—pressing in on her like humidity, the work will be ephemeral and self-reverential, brittle as a fallen leaf.
Schwartz takes up another of my favorite claims: good reading is not necessarily fast reading. Indeed, it may be true that the better the book, the slower it needs to be read. Reading is not, if you are a real reader, killing time. Indeed, “Killing time is to living what Woods speed-reading is to reading.” And speed reading is not reading at all, but eye exercises! It is a blasphemous way to read. And for all those who reject books because they are too serious, even depressing, not happy, Schwartz has little patience. One who cannot be deeply pleased by reading a depressing book is not a reader at all, he/she might as well turn to television, which Schwartz refers to as “one of the devils ploys to buy our souls.” The desire to read, really read, must also be the desire to have the world revealed to us, and the world is not a happy place.

Reading is, indeed, as I have always thought, one of the genuine entrances into the larger world, the social world, the political world—away from the merely conventional and conservative, and its thrust is finally away from self (no matter how selfish it may seem to be curled up with a book).

Monday, September 08, 1997

Jasmine Nights by S.P. Somtow

It is not surprising that I want to talk to you again this morning about a coming of age novel, but it is surprising that this one was written by a man. Generally, I find an almost unbelievable emotional flatness in men’s accounts of their growing up. Indeed, I was amazed at the stir caused by Tobias Wolfe’s This Boy’s Life, and though I agreed that it was much better than most autobiographical accounts of young men coming of age, meaning that it did have some attempt at emotional introspection and honesty, it seemed emotionally monotone; there have been dozens of much more emotionally intelligent coming of age novels written by women.

At any rate, today I want to talk to you about a wonderfully rich and entertaining novel by a man whom I am almost sure most of you will not have heard of; his name is S.P. Somtow, and the book to which I am referring is Jasmine Nights. One reviewer called Somtow the J.D. Salinger of Siam, but in my opinion Catcher in the Rye is a pale reflection of the honesty and intelligence displayed in this book. The book is about a twelve year old Thai boy, but one who has had a most unusual past. Though the book takes up with him in Thailand, in the care of three aunts, a great-great-grandmother and an old uncle, he speaks no Thai and at least pretends not to understand a word of his ‘native’ tongue. One has to read deep into the book to discover that his parents, either official or unofficial diplomats, have raised him in England and are now mysteriously abroad. The boy lives on a large and deteriorating estate surrounded by servants and his incredibly lazy aunts. Let me have him introduce himself:

It is January of the year 1963 and I am a creature of two worlds. In one of these worlds I am a child. The world is circumscribed by high stucco walls topped with broken glass. By day the sun streams down and the mangoes glisten in the orchard behind the blue Gothic mansion with its faux Corinthian columns, the houses of my three grandmothers and of our familial patriarch. Evenings, the jasmine bushes bloom, and the night air sweats the choking sensuality of their fragrance. Three other houses stand on the estate: my bachelor uncle’s, uncompromisingly Californian in its split-level ranch style and adobe brick walls; the wooden house of my three maiden aunts, whom I call the three Fates, with its pointed eaves, backing out on to a pavilion above the pond, where I live among intimate strangers; and last, the ruined house, which is the entrance to my other world.

In my other world I am not a child. I am what I choose to be. I speak the language of the wind. I have synthesized this world out of images in history books and story books and books of poetry and from half-remembered scenes of England. There is a room with as many books as there are stars. There is an attic where I have fought the Trojan War a thousand times over, fine-tuning the outcome with my fellow Olympians. There are more rooms in the ruined house than I have ever counted. I have lived inside the walled universe for almost three years. Travel in and out of the universe is accomplished by means of a silver-green Studebaker driven by a man in a khaki uniform, whose name I have still not learned. I am an alien here. I sweat like a pig all the time. I forget to bathe. I have never uttered a word of the language; my tongue will not form the words, even though over the years I have begun to grasp their meaning. My numerous relations do not know I understand them, and they address me in a stilted Victorian English which I refer to as ‘eaughing’, since it so frequently makes use of the phoneme ‘eaugh’. Some of the servants have begun to realize I am not deaf; they regard my refusal to speak Thai as an eccentricity, one of the many inscrutabilities of the privileged. They call me Master Little Frog.

This remarkable boy narrates his own story in a high-blown British English that is sophisticated and erudite almost beyond belief, and yet he is very believable. In an incredibly clever manner, Somtow allows us as readers to discover along with this boy the horrible injustices of class and the laughable incompetence of those served compared to those who serve them. The only good and enlightened character among this useless aristocracy is his ancient great-great-grandmother, and though she is almost always offstage, it is through her skillful maneuvering that the boy comes to see his own privilege and the damage it can (and does) do to those around him. First, she engineers a meeting with a black american boy who is trespassing on the estate and who has befriended Piak, a lowly servant boy who acts essentially as footstool to Master Little Frog. Justin, Little Frog, discovers that in order to be friends with this mysterious “colored” boy, Virgil, (the first black person he has seen) he must befriend and treat as an equal Piak also. Virgil, whose father (like Justin’s parents) is always mysteriously away, a high-ranking military officer off on a secret mission—this Virgil insists on educating Justin to the racism he has learned at home in the U.S., and to point out unfailingly just how Justin’s supercilious treatment of Piak is an instance of a classism intimately related to racism. And indeed, even a minor altercation between Piak and Justin leads to the firing not only of poor Piak, but of his father as well while all Justin can do is watch in horror the consequences of his own actions. Virgil’s mother, an educated and wise social scientist, extends Justin’s education, but in a much kinder and more tolerant manner than her angry and resentful son. And Virgil’s sister, older than the boys by a few years, begins to educate him also to the sweet labyrinths of sexuality.

The three boys together go through a set of deliciously wonderful and forbidden adventures, allowing Justin to see the dark side of his city, to see the poverty that is the flip-side of his privilege, and to catch glimpses of the powers of the local Shaman. I think that we as a culture, alarmed at the way that young people are often victims of adult sexuality, tend in reaction to deny the sexuality of the young. This book, on the contrary, is a richly sensuous and amusing glimpse at just how powerful and mysterious sex is for adolescents. Not only did I love reading it, but I was reminded again and again of my own growing up and of the innocent but richly exciting intimations of sexuality that adolescence can hold.

I will not be giving away too much if I tell you that Virgil’s absent military father and Justin’s absent diplomat parents are both caught up in the early stages of the Vietnam War, perhaps I should say in the American intrusion into a colonial war that had been waged for some time before America’s brutal and fiery intervention. Always, however, even in the discussion of Virgil’s father’s advisory status in Vietnam, Somtow manages to view everything through the eyes of the twelve year old Justin—who is both incredibly sophisticated for his age and laughably naive.

I found this book to be one of the most delightful I read last summer, and by far the best of its kind written by a man that I have read in a decade or more. The book’s cover tells us that this book is a radical departure for Somtow whose previous work has included avant-garde musical compositions and genre novels, along with a punk version of A Midsummer NIght’s Dream. It is as fine a dance between two cultures and as insightful and subtle a condemnation of racism and classism as I have read. I recommend it to you wholeheartedly. I must add that although only published in ‘95, this book may be out of print. Look for it at Powell’s, and/or complain to St. Martin’s Press. [Amazon Link] [Alibris Link]

Monday, June 09, 1997

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase

This is a sad time for leftists in Portland; one of our brightest lights, Joannie Bohorfoush, has died. I had intended to talk to you this morning about two novels exploring religious fundamentalism, The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds, and The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton. I know Joannie would have approved since she, herself, grew up in a fundamentalist environment and understood very well the dangers of religious authoritarianism. However, I think I will save those two books for another time and talk today about a wonderful little book written by Joan Chase, entitled During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. It is not a new book; in fact, it was written in 1983 and I have used it since then in several classes, but as I was thinking of Joannie and her sisters, all bright and passionate and articulate women, I was reminded of this book, thinking about how it might have been to grow up in a household of strong, lucid girls.

Rather than critical commentary, I prefer this morning simply to read you a few passages from this fine book as I think of Joannie and of all that I owe, all that we owe, to strong and compassionate feminists. The book is about four young girls, cousins, and the five women who are their mothers and aunts, all of whom live (at one time or another) on a farm owned and presided over by their grandmother, the Queen of Persia. It is a small but wonderful matriarchy surrounded by the larger patriarchy of society. Until his death, there is also an estranged and bitter old grandfather, “who did not talk to women or to girls. Unless he was fighting with Gram—then he yelled,” and the father of two of the girls, Dan, who even the grandmother concedes “is all right for a man.”

The story is written with the voice and through the eyes of the four girls, but as if they are one—so much so that we never know which girl is narrating, nor do we quite know who is a mother and who an aunt. Let me have them speak for themselves:

There were the four of us then, two his own daughters, two his nieces, all of us born within two years of each other. Uncle Dan treated the four of us the very same and sometimes we thought we were the same—same blood, same rights of inheritance. Some part of each year, mostly summers, all four of us lived with Uncle Dan, or rather with Gram, for he lived with her too. Gram was the queen bee—that was what Uncle Dan called her. That, or the Queen of Persia, the Empress herself. Or just Queenie for short. Our pony was Queenie too. Uncle Dan said they had a lot in common, and although he didn’t say exactly what, we knew Queenie was nearly impossible to catch, had thrown every one of us, racing for the barn. We knew she had what was called a high head.
The four girls live together, sleep together, fight and play and learn together. “One thing was forbidden. Any fighting among ourselves was punished consistently and severely—no listening to ‘She did this,’ or that. We were to protect each other, they seemed to say, for who else would? So we bit and scratched each other at night in bed under the covers, hiding the marks from our mothers.”

And even when the oldest of the four, Celia, blossoms into young womanhood while the other three remain scruffy and dirty, they watch her with an interest and possessiveness that borders on voyeurism. Celia is theirs, her beauty and allure are theirs; it goes without question that they will spy on her (on themselves?) when she is with a boy.

We needed no words. We moved to the grass to quiet our walking. Through the gap in the honeysuckle we sneaked and climbed over the railing and stood to one side of the window, where we could see at an angle past the half-drawn drapes. At first we could scarcely make them out where they were on the floor, bound in one shape. We licked our ice cream and carefully, silently dissolved the cones, tasting nothing as it melted away down inside us. Tasting instead Corley’s mouth on ours, its burning wild lathering sweetness. In the shaft of light we saw them pressed together, rolling in each other’s arms, Celia’s flowery skirt pulled up around her thighs. His hand moving there. Then she pushed him away, very tenderly, went to sit back on the couch while Corley turned his back and combed his hair. He turned and started toward her, tucking his shirt in. We stared at the unsearchable smile that lifted from Celia’s face like a veil and revealed another self, as she began to unbutton her blouse, undressing herself until she sat there in the half-dark, bare to the waist, bare to the moon which had come up over the trees behind us. She drew Corley to her, his face after he’d turned around never losing its calm, kissed him forever, it seemed, as long as she wanted to. Then she guided his mouth to press into first one and then the other cone-crested breast, her own face lake-calm under the moon. Then she dressed again. Our hearts plunged and thudded. At that moment we were freed from Aunt Libby. We didn’t care what it was called or the price to be paid; someday we would have it.

‘Marry a man who loves you more than you love him’—that summed it up. And we thought of Uncle Dan down at the market, coming out of the food locker with a slab of meat over his shoulder, his eyes fathomless, glimmering under the bare bulb, inside him a heart raw with love for Aunt Libby.
Aunt Libby, the mother of two of the girls, is their almost constant companion and teacher, telling them more than they want to know about the world of men, their fickleness, their narrowness of interest, their unreliability.
For Aunt LIbby it was a matter of outrage and contest. She spoke incessantly of love. Endless betrayal, maidens forsaken, drowned or turned slut, or engulfed by madness. Most chilling were the innocent babes—stabbed with scissors and stuffed into garbage cans, aborted with knitting needles. In all this, love was a blind for something else. For sex. Sex was trouble and when a girl was in trouble, sex was the trouble. Nor would Aunt LIbby allow us the miscalculation that marriage put an end to trouble. Men were only after what they could get. When they got it they didn’t want it anymore. Or wanted what someone else had. The same as the cars they bought and used. It was their nature. Some got nasty about it. That she attributed mostly to liquor—which men turned to out of self-pity and petty vengeance.
And while Libby often tells them more than they want to hear, warning them off of trouble before they can even find out how delicious it is, the reader can feel them listening and learning. Libby, as powerful as her mother, the Queen of Persia, will not let the girls fall prey to the capricious foolishness of men.
’Love,’ she spit out. ‘Sex is what it was and is and will be.’ The way she said ‘sex,’ we knew it was something wonderfully powerful, rising with a naturalness like the deep cold suck of water at the barnyard spring on a hot day. Love, on the other hand, she told us, was something you had to learn. ‘Love takes time. You learn it over a long time of being with a good man.’ It sounded like hard work and cold potatoes.

‘Don’t let it fool you—sweet looks and sweet talk.’ What were we to do, desiring desire more and more as she paraded it before us in all its allurements; even her warnings were tempting.
I don’t know that I have chosen passages that display the wonderful wit and charm of this little novel, the ineffable joy of growing up a girl among girls in a family of powerful women. Each time I read this book, I am enchanted again. And though we learn of the difficult past of the grandmother, the abuse and heartache suffered at the hands of the stern grandfather, what shines out mostly is, as in Alice Munro’s book The Lives of Girls and Women. Let me end with a final quote, the voice of the four girls as they spy on the lives of five women who are their mothers and aunts:
We kept absolutely silent so they wouldn’t ask us to take sides or send us out, for what we knew about the family was disclosed to us by our being there to see it happen. We had to remain as inarticulate as the mantling walls, silent and watchful—outside the action. The five sisters had guarded their secrets from us, as though we were strangers, as if their loyalty was only to each other and their mother; if further divided, it would dissolve.

Monday, April 28, 1997

Iris Murdoch 1919 - 1999

In the past couple of weeks three artists who have been important to me have died. Laura Nyro, one of a very few genuine poet song-writers who sang her poetry in a haunting, high voice died in her early fifties. Michael Dorris, best known for his work on children with fetal alcohol syndrome, but important to me as the writer of Yellow Raft on Blue Water also died quite young. And a person whom I think is one of the really great philosophers and thinkers of the 20th century, Iris Murdoch, died at the age of 80. In Murdoch’s case, though I feel her death as a personal loss, perhaps her death was opportune. Her long-time husband and companion, John Bayley, lately revealed that Murdoch was suffering from altzeimers; her long writing career was over. I cannot imagine any sort of life for Murdoch that did not include writing and reading. She published twenty-six novels (starting in 1954), five plays, five volumes of philosophy, and a book of poetry. Every novel she published was a serious and sustained attempt to lay out her ethical theory, and as a philosopher who has spent most of my adult life studying ethics, no one has influenced me more than she. Today, in a necessarily brief piece, I want to say just why I think Murdoch is such an important philosopher and intellectual historian.

Unlike almost all of her British and American counterparts, Murdoch read continental philosophers, especially the existentialists and phenomenologists (Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger), with a sympathetic eye. She wrote a book in the 50’s entitled Sartre: Romantic Rationalist that is one of the best critiques of his work that I have read. (Had American philosophers actually read that book, it would not have taken another twenty years for the synthesis between continental and analytic philosophy to occur as it seems to be occurring today.) Although (and for very good reasons) she is driven to reject Sartre’s theory of value (the view that all value is literally created by choice), Murdoch understands what drives Sartre and she is sympathetic to his motives. Sartre, like Murdoch, wanted to try to make people better; he wanted people to take responsibility for their actions and to really believe that human history is in human hands.

Like most of the existentialists (as well as Marx and Freud), Murdoch was convinced that most of us most of the time want to view the world through some softening veil of illusion. We want to believe in some external telos some human independent purpose for human existence. Such teleological stories both soften (or deny) the reality of death and down-play personal responsibility. But all such teleological stories are simply falsifying veils. To quote Murdoch, “I assume that human beings are naturally selfish and that human life has no external point or telos.”

Instead, says Murdoch, “We are what we seem to be, transient mortal creatures subject to necessity and chance.” We are selfish by nature, but that does not entail (as psychological egoists have claimed) that we are selfish necessarily. Indeed, says Murdoch, the essence of morality is the attempt to pay attention to others, to loosen the hold of selfish cares and concerns and to really see the other person. To the ordinary person in the street, this claim that morality is really about paying attention to others may seem quite simply true, but Murdoch is actually taking on many or most moral philosophers in both the Anglo-American (analytic) tradition and those in the existentialist camp. In her distinctly philosophical essays The Sovereignty of Good and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Murdoch takes great pains to demonstrate that thinkers as diverse as Immanuel Kant and Jean Paul Sartre have made human will pivotal to morality. This stress on the individual who rises heroically to do his duty puts the stress in ethics on free will and on the concepts of right and duty. As women ethicists like Sisyla Bok, Carol Gilligan, and Nell Nodding have pointed out in the past decade, all of these models that stress duty and free will are male models; they tend to see morality as being rigorously rule-bound and deductive, and often enough to see women’s ways of making moral decisions as murky, illogical, and immature. Murdoch (who in very many ways anticipates the critiques of these later feminists) insists that genuine morality is more a matter of paying attention and slowly cultivating good (i.e., unselfish) habits than in heroic acts—actions which appear to be sudden breaks from the past, non-habitual, even supererogatory acts.

Murdoch thinks that doing good art or good science is the best sort of analogy for what it is to do good acts. The real artist concentrates so hard on the world outside of herself as she does her art that she forgets self at least momentarily. The scientist too who is really locked onto the world out there is able for at least short periods of time to put aside the falsifying veil of her own cares and concerns. In Murdoch’s words, “It is a task to see the world as it is.” Only if and when we can see the world as it is, specifically see other people as they are, see their cares and concerns not filtered through our own selfish concerns, are we able to act well towards them. In her language, it is through such slow and incremental cultivation of habits of attending that enables us to do good. If we slowly and over time get in the habit of paying attention to others (in the way that a good parent really pays attention to her/his child), then we begin to develop habits of acting in the light of that attention. There is a kind of unselfing that occurs—but again, slowly and over time. If, on the other hand, we as a matter of course act in our ordinary (and falsifying) ways, paying little attention to the world outside of our immediate cares and concerns, supposing that at the critical moment we will be able to step out of character to (heroically) do our duty, the chances are small that we will, in fact, do good. We may realize that some act would be good were we to do it, but unless we are in the habit of actually acting on such attention, it is more than likely that we will simply continue in our selfish ways.

The missing ingredient in what I have been saying above is that I have laid this out essentially in essay form. Murdoch believes that what she calls discursive essay (essay that lays out arguments for positions) has its place in ethics (and she has written some first-rate discursive essay), but it is not nearly as important as stories. Murdoch does ethics via the novel not simply because she likes to write novels, but because she thinks that some tasks literally require art. Murdoch is convinced that finally, and despite the best efforts of about three centuries of analytic philosophy, the concept of good defies analysis. Good (unlike the concepts of truth or knowledge) simply cannot be reduced to constituent necessary and sufficient components. Knowledge is justified, true belief, but when we attempt to render the concept good in such neat, reduced terms, we invariably fail. The best we can do when we are in pursuit of good is to talk in metaphors (as Plato did in his allegory of the cave). Likewise, when we want to say what the good life is, we will do best to describe some good, lived life, and the best way to do that will be in the form of a play or novel. Human life is murky and muddled and ridden with moral dilemmas, and the only ‘true’ way of rendering such complexity is in fiction. In novels we can show that,
We are anxiety-ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world. Good art shows us how difficult it is to be objective by showing us how differently the world looks to an objective vision.
In her many novels, Murdoch loves to tease the reader by showing just how many kinds of inattention there are. We can be self-absorbed in the usual ways, our big egos simply determining our actions, but grief and rage and sorrow and fear are also powerful motives that return the gaze to the self. There are so many ways of being absorbed by self other than that of what we usually call selfishness. Even what we usually call love is most often a rigidly selfish preoccupation with self. Murdoch shows us in novel after novel how romantic love leads to horrible and laughable disregard of the the loved. Still, “The love which brings the right answer is an exercise of justice and realism and really looking.”

In the end, morality requires humility, but humility “is not a peculiar habit of self-effacement, ... it is selfless respect for reality and one of the most difficult and central of all virtues.”

I have not done justice to Murdoch here, but then one could never do justice to her work by writing essay. I urge you to read her novels, any of them. If you read them knowing that she wants to make us better, I think the novels will seem less daunting, less confusing. She says of Sartre that “A driving force in all his writing is his serious desire to change the life of the reader.” Certainly, this is true of her; she is convinced that if we try hard enough, there can be a “disciplined overcoming of self,” which is the very essence of moral conduct.