March 3, 2007

Stay With Me Traveling

When Out of Africa came out, I had a lot of friends who were forever imitating Meryl Streep’s heavily accented voiceover, “I had a farm in Africa once,” but the line that always stuck with me was her saying, “I am a mental traveler.”

Although I was just in New York (where I met alg, whose smell is only rivaled by her force of nature self, and saw sdn, who is as lovely as ever) and am soon heading to California, my travels have been, lately, more of the mental kind. I am, in other words, reading Henry James. Wings of the Dove, to be exact. This is my third attempt, but I think I’ll make it to the end this time. I’m on a schedule of five pages a day, which is just enough to get drawn into his dense forest of language, commas and elusive asides without getting lost in it. Or annoyed and confused, which is just as important to avoid.

So far, my greatest pleasure in this reading schedule has not come solely from Mr. James. On the train up to the city, I read my five pages. It all took place in an English home, with the characters standing in front of a Bronzino painting and talking of how much one of the characters looks like the portrait itself. What was really going on was that one character was asking another to accompany her to the doctor. But the part that was easy to understand was the Bronzino and the chit-chat about it resembling the character who has to go to the doctor.

Okay, so about seven hours later, I’m at the Frick collection, where I’d wasted hundreds of hours in high school. Because the central room with the fountain and marble benches is closed, I’m not taking my usual route through the mansion, and I pass by this golden, green painting of a pale young man. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I don’t remember it, and I glance down at the little description. It’s a Bronzino! The whole scene in Wings of the Dove changes. This is why everyone calls that character odd and queer. She looks like a Bronzino painting. And she has to go to the doctor and she is afraid, and she has asked a woman who is not odd (and who probably looks like this Whistler portrait) to go with her. And the Bronzino makes sense, and everything about the novel springs to life and I am standing in the Frick, but also in that English house, listening to these people talk and being totally, hopelessly, happily lost in Henry James.

I am so excited I almost tell the security guard. But, in addition to being the sort of person who needs a schedule to read the novel, I’m just this side of shy. So I simply stare at the painting before moving on.

On the train back home, I read about the Bronzino girl’s visit to the doctor. Because I saw the movie ages ago, I know she’s really sick and going to die. I might have known that from the actual pages, but I might not. I don’t think I’m reading James for the story so much as I am for the chance, however briefly, to go somewhere.

I would like to know who has been traveling. What kind of trips, where and why?

Published in: on March 3, 2007 at 5:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

February 18, 2007

Stay With Me What Appeals

Although I have several stacks of books lying around my study, all clamoring for attention, right now I am rereading A Room With A View. I will, no doubt have more to post about it, as it is the sort of novel that lends itself to a variety of thoughts. I returned to this novel after my father said, No, I was wrong, Somerset Maugham was not as good a writer as E.M. Forster. By the time I finished The Painted Veil I no longer liked Maugham at all (let this be a lesson to me, don’t talk about books with my father until done reading them!), but went off in search of my copy of A Room With A View. I had read this countless times some 20 years ago, after seeing the movie, unable to believe that this was the same Forster who had written the endless and dreary Passage to India.

This time, what has struck is how very coming-of-age A Room With A View is. I wouldn’t have thought so, given Forster’s gentle, mocking tone, but he himself spells it out, just after George Emerson catches Lucy Honeychurch in mid faint. They have both witnessed a murder and Forster writes, “It was not exactly that a man had died; something had happened to the living: they had come to a situation where character tells, and where Childhood enters upon the branching paths of Youth.”

I am interested in two things: 1. Why would we not immediately assume that this is a perfect book for teen-age girls? Is it because there is nothing in this book about which we can easily say: “Teens will relate!” (This is my least favorite expression, smacking as it does of arrogance and condescension)
2. Does anyone have a memory of when they saw character telling, or their childhood moving into youth?

For those of you who missed the film, or are simply in need of a beauty fix, here you go:

Published in: on February 18, 2007 at 1:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

February 9, 2007

Stay With Me Christo and The Shortest Month

Two years ago, at some point in February, I got on a train to NYC to see what Christo had down to my hometown. I took the 1 or the 9 up from Penn Station and walked into the Park on the west side. I looked left and right, and had two thoughts: One, the wide, empty boulevards surrounded by relentlessly uniform flag-type things had turned the park into an out-take of Triumph of the Will. Two, this was a lot of orange. I then immediately noted the lack of odd camera angles and stopped thinking of Nazis, and my inner gay man said, rather sternly, “Not orange. Saffron.”

I walked all through the park, becoming drunk on how all my familiar places looked silly and grand. The New Yorker had the best review even if I can’t remember what it said. Which is, I think, the point of Christo. The details escape you, but the silly, giddy, gee-wiz, he wrapped Pont Neuf feeling stays behind.

It was a nice day and it has been on my mind because I think February demands one really nice day, when you call in sick, go to a movie, haunt a museum or buy lavender coffee. I’m not going to have that day this year because I am trying to save a manuscript that’s due soon. I am looking at the possibility that, for the first time ever, I will miss a deadline. So I’ve been coasting on my memory of two years ago. If you were to take a day in February, what would you do? Also, just out of selfish curiosity, have you ever missed a deadline? If so, what happened? Enjoy all the orange!

Published in: on February 9, 2007 at 9:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

February 6, 2007

Stay With Me Well, I’ve found something that perfectly captures why it’s great to work at home. And it’s not sitting around in your pajamas, an idea so revolting I have no idea why anyone would do it. So, click, enjoy and think about a way to start working from the desk in your guest room.

Published in: on February 6, 2007 at 8:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

February 3, 2007

Stay With Me That First Fling with Desire

My mother used to say that if a mid-life crisis was the fall-out from realizing that your dreams and talents were, in fact, finite, then what men have at 40, women are forced to face at 12 or 13. A girl of that age confronts a body that makes her (or fails to make her) an object of desire. At the same time, she starts navigating through a society that treats her as a woman, as well as a child. The wide-open world she used to live in suddenly narrows. A boy of 12 or 13 is rarely—if ever—looked at, judged, or desired the way his female counterpart is. It’s not until he is forty that a man’s ideas of boundless opportunity shuts down somewhat. Thus the crisis, as reality hits dreams. A woman of forty has long put this painful collision behind her.

I always liked this theory, but only gave it passing thought when I heard of a friend leaving his wife for a secretary or of another one taking up flying lessons when his second child was born. However, two new novels have made me revisit not just how gender will shape a mid-life crisis, but how it informs desire. André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name and The Law of Dreams by Peter Behrens are very different novels, but each is riveting, haunting, and beautifully written.

The Law of Dreams follows the fortunes of young Fergus as he learns to survive in the aftermath of the Irish potato famine. Call Me By Your Name limns how an affair between 17-year-old Elio and 24-year-old Oliver forever shadows Elio, even as it lights the path to his future. The writing style of each novel helps weave the story. Behrens favors a sparseness that eloquently mirrors how empty life becomes when survival depends on leaving behind everyone and everything one has ever known. Aciman, well known as an essayist and critic, allows his sentences to unfold and double back upon themselves, full of insight, regret, and nostalgia for the very moment being described.

But it struck me that both books share a depiction of how a man’s life and character are often formed by his first brush with passion or desire. The Aciman is, in fact, almost entirely preoccupied with this, but the Behrens also touches on how Fergus’ inability to have or to hold his objects of desire reflects his tenuous grasp on life.

Fergus’ first glimmer of passion is for Phoebe Carmichael, whose father owns the land on which Fergus and his family are tenants. He’s known her all his life, calls her miss and, over the years, “Phoebe became an ember in his mind, burning down through his thoughts, glowing.” In the early months of the famine, the chasm between Fergus and his passion becomes wider, impossible to cross. “She knew she was going to live a long time, marry a farmer’s son, have sons of her own. Fergus was going to die soon, and that was the difference between them.”

In fact, Phoebe doesn’t live quite as long as that, and his date with death keeps being postponed. But how Fergus first experiences desire—for a woman forever out of reach—is how he will go after life. A life that most hope to take for granted, one that is full of food, work, love and friends, is more than Fergus even knows to envision. First his potato crop fails (“purple balls of poison,”) and then his family dies of hunger, typhus and poverty. Fergus does, in fits and starts, find food and work. From time to time, friends and love come his way, but holding them is beyond what he can manage. He ends the novel with money, a career and a hired companion. But he has seen countless friends die and his one, fully-realized love is a woman whom he abandons after they make the crossing from England to Canada. “Longing burns down fear, consumes hesitation, ignores danger. You would die for a passion, easy—for a scented, gluey c**t—but you want something more from a girl, and can’t name what it is.” Fergus’ hunt for all that is elusive in both life and love gives the novel its shape.

In Call Me by Your Name, Elio’s object of desire is well within his reach. Oliver is a graduate student, who has come to Italy to help Elio’s father, who is a literature professor. Every year, the family hosts a student at their idyllic summer home. At first, Elio sums up and dismisses Oliver as, “This summer’s houseguest. Another bore.” Then Elio notices the bits of Oliver’s skin “which hadn’t really been exposed to much sun. Almost a light pink, as glistening and smooth as the underside of a lizard’s belly. Private, chaste, unfledged, like a blush on an athlete’s face or an instance of dawn on a stormy night. It told me things about him I never knew to ask.”

The courtship between the young men is at first unspoken, but fiercely analyzed by Elio. “I had wanted other men my age before and had slept with women. But before he’d stepped out of the cab and walked into our home, it would never have seemed remotely possible that someone so thoroughly okay with himself might want me to share his body as much as I ached to yield up mine.” They swim, jog, and study at a table by the pool where they discuss, among other things, “Athanasius Kircher, Giuseppe Belli, and Paul Celan.” It is the easy way that Oliver wears his Judaism which most thrills Elio. “But it was the gold necklace and the Star of David with a golden mezuzah on his neck that told me here was something more compelling than anything I wanted from him, for it bound us and reminded me that, while everything else conspired to make us the two most dissimilar beings, this at least transcended all differences.”

It is impossible to read any of this and not think that Aciman is interested in exploring what happens when you unleash the ideal of platonic love (chaste, but passionate love meant to heighten both beauty and wisdom) on real people. Or, at least, on men. After all, platonic love was thought up by men to describe the purest of love available to men.

Elio and Oliver do, finally, leave their books and hesitations behind and their physical coupling takes Elio “to a realm I never shared with anyone in my life before, or since.” They spend a few days in Rome and during an embrace on a city street, Elio muses, “I thought of coming back here in the weeks or months to come—for this was our spot.” Before the affair has ended, Elio is hurtling forward so that he can look back.

In fact, Elio grows up to be a man incapable of experiencing the present without intrusions from the past and the future. “Twenty years was yesterday, and yesterday was just earlier this morning, and morning seemed light-years away.” His first real desire was found in the perfect balance of body and brain. It was more than ideal—it was an ideal. And it is never found again.

The reader suspects that the failure of any subsequent lover to compete with this gleaming memory defines who Elio becomes. “Over the years I’d lodged him in the permanent past, my pluperfect lover, put him on ice, stuffed him with memories and mothballs like a hunted ornament confabulating with the ghost of all my evenings.” Who needs to settle for building a life on mundane love when one has that kind of memory? A memory of a love that was almost a memory even before it began.

There are rich rewards for any reader who follows the journeys (one literal and one emotional) of two different men and the desires which chart each man’s course.

A woman, I realized, after reading these novels, rarely has her initial experience of desire defined by what she covets. Instead, she first meets desire when she is the object of it—far before she knows to have her own. While she may be at her own mid-life point before she grasps that she was introduced to passion through someone else’s eyes, it won’t cause a crisis. Oh, she might think. And then go on to learn, with great interest, from both André Aciman and Peter Behrens what life is like when you are allowed to learn desire from what you see through your own eyes.

Published in: on February 3, 2007 at 12:51 pm  Leave a Comment  

January 29, 2007

Stay With Me Although it made me feel a bit like one of those people Tom Lehrer rightly mocked in The Folk Song Army, I went to the Peace march in DC on the 27th. I don’t know that I’m for a complete pull-out of US troops, but after reading Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book on the execution of American policy in Iraq, I’m against allowing this administration to risk more lives.
It was a nice day in DC — mid 40s and sunny. Other people have written about the march itself, and it’s not the march that made an impression on me. It was the diverse group of signs. “Support Our Troops, Bring them Home,” said one. “Bombing to Establish Peace is like Drinking to Stay Sober,” said another. My favorite was being held by a woman with long, red nails and such impeccable make-up, I have no idea how old she was. Her handwritten sign said, “History hasn’t been forgotten and it is repeating itself. Vietnam War 1959 – 1973 Iraq War 2003 – you decide.”
The Vietnam parallel is tricky and doesn’t always work with Iraq. But it brought to mind the way time vanishes. And without leaving anything but ghosts behind. The New Yorker recently ran a letter from Tom Bloom responding to an Adam Gopnik piece on how the city has changed. “New York has become a memory,” Mr. Bloom wrote.
Now, New Yorkers being New Yorkers, they think this only happens to them. (See, for example, the opening lines in Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York). But I’d like to know about other cities, other places, other times. Are history and cities forgotten or repeated? How has where you live become as ghostly as a memory?

Published in: on January 29, 2007 at 9:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

January 27, 2007

Stay With Me If you are a writer, there are many good reasons not to keep a blog. It wastes both time and material. If I am going to sit down at my desk, I should be working. And, if I’m lucky enough to have an interesting thought, I should save it for a character or a plot or an image. Writing, if you are an old fashioned true believer, is not done lightly or in a casual manner. And yet, Leila Abranel, the narrator of my most recent novel, Stay With Me, found a warm and thoughtful welcome in many, many blogs. Which means, of course, that I met a lot of my readers in a medium I had vowed to keep myself out of. Let other writers blog about their favorite tv shows, their tour schedules and their families. I would be old-fashioned and old-school and keep my writing where it belongs: in books.
Except. But. Well.
So many people keep blogs that are worth both the time and the material they use. There is the sharp edged humor of sdn, the focused drive of Dawn Emerman, the quirky brilliance of Sara Ryan, the elegance of Little Willow and the glittery grandeur of alg. There are others, equally riveting, but you get the point. I don’t think I will learn to write a blog as distinctive as those I’ve mentioned, but I hope I can learn to keep one that isn’t a mind-numbing bore.
I have had an lj for about a year. sdn opened it for me so I could read her protected posts. She was, for a while, my editor, and I wonder if she didn’t open it for me so that I would one day attempt a style of writing for which I may be ill-suited. To push a writer away from her comfort zone is something good editors do. A writer lucky enough to have a smart editor in her life, listens. I’ll see if I can live here, in the outside. If only for just a while.

Published in: on January 26, 2007 at 4:37 am  Comments (2)