Monday, July 18, 2005

Night and Day by Virginia Woolf

I would like to do something a bit out of the ordinary this morning. My tendency is to review quite recent works, since I like to read people who are writing about the world that we are working in and worrying about right now. I don’t know about you, but I find the world to be not only huge and complex, but also dangerous and worrisome. I read novels as a way of trying to discover how to behave in this chancy and huge world. Certainly, Virginia Woolf is not talking about the modern world, nor does the pace of her novels have much to do with the break-neck speed of today’s world, but I hardly every read more than a page or two of her work without finding something that applies to my life here and now. Today I want to talk about one of her less well known works entitled Night and Day.

I often remind readers about how much more rewarding it is to read novels in a concentrated manner, preferably over a day or two, rather than a month or two in bedside bits. But I suppose I think Woolf is an exception to this rule. I quite intentionally chose this novel as a car-book, something that would always be with me just in case I found myself stranded in a doctor’s office or some such waiting area without my current book at hand. Unlike any other author I can think of, it amazes me how easy it is to pick up something Woolf has written and to re-enter the conversation almost as if one has just left it, although, in fact, it may have been a week or a month since the last session. I even found myself restricting this to car-book status, both because it lends itself to such piecemeal reading, and because I wanted to intentionally savor it. Indeed, it was with some reluctance that I forced myself to finish the last couple hundred pages of this book fairly quickly, so that I could talk about it today. This is not one of the books I refer to as quick-hitters, short books for busy city-folks; it needs and deserves a languorous reading.

A lot of my friends who are devoted, even compulsive, readers tell me that they cannot read Woolf, that her novels are too slow, with too little action, and too much psychologizing. Interestingly, they often lump together three of my favorite writers in this group of too-much-effort-for-the-reward: Henry James, Iris Murdoch, and Virginia Woolf. Ah, what wonderful company to be in! I am puzzled by the fact that some of these same readers will tell me how much they like (and are amused by) Woody Allen films in which he allows the viewer to hear both the actual conversations between people, and then the much richer, funnier, and fuller inner dialogue that accompanies the sparse public dialogue. But if they like this about Woody Allen, then how can they not love it about Woolf? The incredibly rich and absolutely convincing description of the inner dialogue of Woolf’s characters I find mesmerizing.

I don’t intend to tell you much about the plot of this novel, nor do I think the plot is very important to Woolf. While there are always plenty of side characters in any Woolf novel (and each described fully enough to become quite real and interesting in her/his own right), this is a story about a young woman, Katherine, her suitor William, and two mutual friends, Denham and Mary. Katherine is from a well to do and prestigious family, which includes a famous, though now deceased, poet in its ranks. Besides considerable wealth, we discover quite soon that Katherine is bright, beautiful, and much admired by almost all who know her. Her suitor, William, also of good family, is described as a serious young intellectual who, while not nearly as socially skilled as Katherine nor nearly as physically appealing, has the advantage of being, well, male, and thus as a person who can decide just how he wants to spend his life. Denham is a hardworking law clerk, whose family depends on his income, though he would much prefer to be a simple scholar. And Mary is a hardworking young woman, a village girl, who is now on her own in London working in a salaried position with a group of suffragettes. Again, I will not be giving way much of the plot if I tell you that both of the young men are in love with Katherine (or, at least, their own inner versions of who Katherine is), while Mary is in love with Denham (knowing it to be hopeless and unrequited), and Katherine in love with no one at all. For very good reason, Katherine admires Mary, who has serious work and a room of her own, and she envies the lives of both Denham and William, since both are allowed to take their own lives and their own intellectual pursuits seriously. Katherine is much admired by the other three because of her good sense and down-to-earth coping skills, as well as for her wealth and good looks. All three imagine that Katherine must be happy, self-possessed, and in confident control of her life and surroundings.

In my estimation, the novel is primarily about Katherine, and about the ways in which she is utterly bound by cultural and family traditions and the expectations of those around her. Although still quite young, she is in many ways in charge of the social life of her family, especially that of her mother. And her only escape from being the hub of that family will be to marry and become the hub of another. In secret, she harbors the desire to work with numbers, to do astronomy, to deal with abstract problems that can be ordered and that ultimately have answers, problems not nearly as complex as the problems of the social lives of humans.

Circumstances had long forced her, as they forced most women in the flower of youth, to consider, painfully and minutely, all that part of life which is conspicuously without order; she had had to consider moods and wishes, degrees of liking or disliking, and their effect upon the destiny of people dear to her; she had been forced to deny herself any contemplation of that other part of life where thought constructs a destiny which is independent of human beings.
The particular genius of Woolf is to show us just how different peoples’ inner lives are from what can be observed from the outside, so that one simple conversation can, if fully analyzed, speak volumes about the people involved and the society from which they spring. It is this phenomenological detail that, I think, puts off many of my reader friends, and that I (on the contrary) find so wonderful and insightful. Perhaps I should give you just one quick example (though most examples take at least a few pages of intricate Woolf prose), and if you find the passage tedious, ah, then you might be one of those who will find Woolf tedious. If, instead, this one passage leaves you wanting more, then pick up a volume of Woolf, either this book or some other, and luxuriate in the richness of her understanding of all that it is to be human. Let me add a final comment, like Iris Murdoch, Woolf realizes that most of what we call communication is really miscommunication, that we so rarely say what we mean or what needs to be said. So much can be clarified in a simple few moments of honesty, and yet those moments happen so infrequently. In what follows, Katherine is trying to think of how to answer (or to avoid answering) William Rodney’s proposal of marriage.
She felt certain that she would marry Rodney. How could she avoid it? How could one find fault with it? Here she sighed, and, putting the thought of marriage away, fell into a dream state, in which she became another person, and the whole world seemed changed. Being a frequent visitor to that world, she could find her way there unhesitatingly. If she had tried to analyze her impressions, she would have said that there dwelt the realities of appearances which figure in our world; so direct, powerful, and unimpeded were her sensations there, compared with those called forth in actual life. There dwelt the things one might have felt, had there been cause; the perfect happiness of which here we taste the fragment; the beauty seen here in flying glimpses only. However the embellishment of this imaginary world might change, two qualities were constant in it. It was a place where feelings were liberated from the constraint which the real world puts upon them; and the process of awakenment was always marked by resignation and a kind of stoical acceptance of facts.
I invite you to plunge into the word-rich world of Virginia Woolf; I always find it a rewarding and enlightening swim.

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Hurricane Season by Rosemary Daniell

Good morning, I want to talk to you this morning about one of the most surprising, even shocking, books that I have ever read. The author’s name is Rosemary Daniell, and the very appropriate title is The Hurricane Season. Rita Mae Brown, herself a far from conventional writer, says of another of Daniell’s books, Fatal Flowers, that it “will induce cardiac arrest among proper Southern ladies ... Naturally, I relish the scandal.” Certainly, the same and more can be said of this storm of sex and drugs, abuse and addiction. But it is not the shock value that leads me to recommend it to you; indeed, there were many times as I was reading this book that I decided not to review it, not to recommend it, or, at the very least, to put a “Handle with caution!” label on it. I recommend it to you now because of its incredible honesty. Pat Conroy says “There has not been a more honest writer in America,” and I would certainly agree, but honesty is important only if the reader learns something important from the honesty, and in my estimation that is precisely what redeems this book.

The lead character’s name is Easter, and she begins to tell us about her life when she is thirty-nine, in 1977; thus, this is a novel about us-here-now. We know immediately that she is an artist of moderate fame, that she is the mother of three children, twice divorced, that she became pregnant with her first child when she was fourteen, the result of a not-quite-rape at the hands of man as brutal as her father. All of this she tells an interviewer (and us) in such matter of fact tones that we are to understand that she saw none of it as out of the ordinary. Easter sees the world in terms of color, especially the reds and pinks and magentas of blood and sex: the chicken running around the yard with its head chopped of, her mother crying and bloodied on the kitchen floor after a routine beating from her drunken husband. And were it not for her exceptional visual and artistic talents, we would never have heard from her at all. She would probably never have escaped the rural southern home and dirt poverty from which she came. But while it was her art that eventually led to her being important enough to interview, important enough to have us listen to her story, it was her prettiness and her girlish slim figure that got away from the farm and into the big city. Noticed at church by a visitor from the city who simply could not pass up such a pretty young thing, despite the baby on her hip, he claimed her as his own, a move her mother and sister saw as incredible good luck, to be saved by such a comparatively wealthy man.

But what her mother sees as salvation, her clean little house in the suburbs, a husband who is a college man, his daddy owning a car dealership, for some reason seems not quite enough to Easter, though she feels a deep sense of shame even to admit it to herself. And a new layer of guilt, this thinking that what she has is somehow not enough, is added to the layer of guilt towards her now disabled mother whom she has abandoned. Easter does her best simply to be the wonderful little housewife she thinks she should be, copying the menus out of the magazines, cooking something new every meal, and letting her always hungry man crawl over her at night.
So I tried to remember to smile even when I didn’t feel like it. I knew that while it was okay for Bobby to dump his bad feelings on me, it was not okay for me to tell him mine—as the magazines instructed me that it was my duty to protect his fragile male ego, and any indication that I was less than happy would make him feel like less of a man. Even though Bobby seemed interested—obsessively interested—in my body, my appearance, he didn’t listen for very long if I talked. And when he did listen—impatiently, for just a minute or two—he would quickly come up with a solution to what he considered my small problems; after all, he provided everything I really needed, didn’t he?
This story of a young woman, ashamed by her own desires to become herself, to act on the kernel of unease inside her, would be an interesting one even had Easter simply moved away, gotten a job and a life of her own. But this is a woman who was, in her words, “intrigued by people who transformed themselves,” and it is her incredible transformation that fascinated (and frightened) me as a reader. Although it takes two more children and several more years of sexual servitude for Easter to make her break and begin her transformation, she lives just across the river from the French Quarter, and she knows almost from the moment her husband takes her there to view the wild, strange people that that is home.

It seems during much of the middle sections of this book that the author is trying to remind her readers that while both sex and drugs can become addictions, they can also be liberatory, and to some extent, both are liberatory for Easter. As I read these sections, I was reminded of Jane Lazarre’s wonderful and brave book, On Loving Men. Lazarre, although a staunch feminist and political leftist, dared to talk about her early introductions to men and to sex, and dared to speak of the liberatory aspects of sex, dared to talk of her love of men. Her honesty and bravery enthralled me, and I was similarly impressed (at least at first) with Daniell’s honesty. In fact, much of the middle and end of this longish book is a wrenching tale of the horrors of addiction, the travesty of the methadone addiction that has been visited upon so many people struggling to get off of heroine. Easter has to watch her much loved son become as mean and cold as her father had been, coming to fear him even more than she had her abusive father. She watches a beautiful and talented daughter go through a long series of men, spiraling deeper and deeper into drug addiction, depression, and suicide attempts.

What I admire about Daniell is that she does not let herself rest with any of the easy answers. Escaping the sexual tyranny of Bobby and acting on her own deep sexual desires with men and women in the French Quarter is both liberating and addicting, both a movement towards self-actualization and a descent into a kind of perverse hell. And if the conflicted sense of liberation and damnation of self is not enough, she also watches as her daughter plays with sexual power only to become a slave to a lifestyle of men and drugs.

I have said nothing so far about the incredible insights Easter has about politics and poverty, about all the (I think) insightful comments she makes about the famous artists and people in power whom she encounters in New York City as well as the French Quarter. Nor have I talked about what she has to say about art, about color, about the way in which at least some artists are compelled to do art as expression of their inner anguish is fascinating to me, as are her asides about the ways in which male artists are pampered and protected by their women, while women artists are vilified for the same inner compulsion that is praised in men. Picasso and Rodin and Pollack go through women like water, are not even expected to pay attention to their children, but a women artist must be a wife and mother first or they will be seen as selfish, unnatural, unwomanly.

Finally, I must say that it would be hard to believe that his novel is not in a deep sense autobiographical. Daniell says in the forward, “Though addiction and madness saturate my family history—my father was an alcoholic, my mother died a suicide—what follows is a work of fiction.” Yes, and perhaps it is mostly that, but it is fiction that carries with it the authority of one who knows the lives she describes, has lived the horrors and the ecstasies and has emerged to tell of the cave.