Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Recent Reading and Viewing (A Random and Seriously Incomplete Sample)

A brief memorial quotation in honour of Miss Jane Austen, who died 189 years ago today:

“Run mad as often as you chuse, but do not faint.”

Excellent advice from a delightfully over-the-top character: the wicked Lady Susan.

Antarctica, Kim Stanley Robinson. To my shame and sorrow, this is the first book of his I’ve read, although for years I’ve heard praise of The Years of Rice and Salt from people whose literary opinions I generally share. But I didn’t get lured in until I heard a few lines of his latest volume read aloud. “Hey, he’s good!” So Debbie Notkin found this for me. A canny choice on her part, assuming she wanted to get me addicted immediately.

It’s a novel of politics, of ideas, of place, of class, of action and suspense, all at the same time. Yet the characters are believable, unique, richly textured: The woman who guides tourists through Antarctic treks, the disgruntled low-end laborer seeking a home and a sense of control over his life, the Chinese poet who sees and broadcasts the world for his people back home, the Congressional aide working on treaty and ecological issues for his wildcat boss.

As Debbie said, I’d know his characters if I passed them on the street. I would also *like* most of them; they’re generally intelligent, if a little too heterosexual for me. In his endless fascination with sexual dimorphism, Robinson can forget that both nature and sociobiology require a certain number of individuals to be non-breeders. Or, to cast it in social terms, he just doesn’t seem to see or imagine himself into the life of someone who’s gay. I can live with that, since he does a good job of speaking in the voices of a worker on the lowest rung of the economic ladder and of people much higher on the scale of power and prestige. Anybody who doesn’t automatically discount the working class as a bunch of ignorant and stupid louts gets extra points in my book.

Moreover, the prose style is ravishing: transparent in scenes where elaborate words would obscure the point, dense and shimmering in the grand descriptions of the glaciers. Robinson never loses sight of the story when he indulges his taste for wordplay, and the great architectural descriptions are essential for making readers *see* Antarctica in all its grandeur.

The sense of place, of identification with a place, is very powerful in this book, and it’s one of the reasons I so enjoyed it. I’ll be buying my own copy—and underlining a lot of passages. My own fascination with Antarctica goes back to childhood, when I read Admiral Richard Byrd’s monumental Alone. Frankly, four months of total solitude, with a record player and some books and enough food sounded like sheer heaven to me then. It still sounds good.

Forty Signs of Rain, Kim Stanley Robinson. This is good but also clearly the beginning of a trilogy, so there are a lot of strings left hanging. That’s OK. I wish it were far-future SF instead of slightly prescient weather forecasting, though. It’s all about global warming, and it has the usual cast of strong and intelligent straight characters of both genders. I was glad to see Senator Phil Chase, maverick California politician, back in this book. (He was a minor but important character in Antarctica.) I’d vote for him for president any day.

Although it’s a solid, well-written book, I’m glad it wasn’t the first of his that I read. It would never have grabbed me the way Antarctica did. I’d have read other books by the author, but I wouldn’t have felt *seized* by his vision.

Peter Straub, In the Night Room. I confess that in the first few chapters I thought Straub had lost his mind, and was reminded of this:

“Poor Hoffman! This going mad of a friend comes straight home to any man who feels his soul within him. For in all of us lodges the same fuel to light the same fire. And he who never felt, momentarily, what madness is, has but a mouthful of brains.”—Herman Melville, quoted as an epigraph to Daniel Hoffman’s monumental Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, AKA Poe to the Seventh Power.

But I have a great deal of faith in Straub’s authorial skill, and I kept reading through the chaos of the early chapters—a chaos necessary to the ultimate success of the book.

I am not, in fact, sure of how successful the book was. I figured out the essential trope quite rapidly, but the quality of the prose, the intensity and delicacy of feeling expressed, made the book memorable. I’ll be rereading it soon and will report again on my reactions.

Great quotation: “I love my God. I just wish he didn’t need it quite so much.”

OTOH, the book infuriated me in one very specific way. Tim Underhill, who has appeared before in various Straub books (Koko, The Throat (one of my talismanic books, infinitely rereadable), Lost Boy Lost Girl), is gay. He has never so much as kissed any male onstage, so to speak, in any of these books, although it’s clear he has a romantic/sexual relationship with his friend Vinh and had in his youth visited male prostitutes in Vietnam. But he is shown in an intensely erotic and detailed sex scene with a female here.

And that infuriates me. Marge Piercy has often done the same, particularly in the pioneering, often admirable Small Changes and the bitter, vindictive Summer People. I get tired of the privileging of heterosexuality in everything from romance to sex scenes. I don’t expect Straub to be writing slash, but it truly bothers me that (presumably to spare some readers) he can’t show his hero making love the way he has done for his entire adult life.

And thus we come to Possession (the movie) and Possession (the book).

warning: spoilers ahead
I’ve loved the book since I first read it back in the late 1980s. Tender, suspenseful, replete with wonderful scholarly jokes and references, a richly satisfying book on both the emotional and intellectual levels. Yes, it bothered me that it shortchanged all the lesbian relationships—the 19th-century love between Christabel LaMotte and Blanche Glover, the 20th-century occasional fuck-buddy relationship between Maud Bailey and the grand, larger-than-life American scholar Leonora Stern (who never shows up in the movie at all). The severed relationship with Blanche never gets enough explanation or its due moral and emotional weight.

And the movie just made that a thousand times more visible, valuing the fleeting four-week affair Christabel had with fellow poet Randolph Ash far more than the years of love with Blanche. I can’t fault the film for not saying what the book also didn’t say, but it was so obvious and so fucking painful for me that I couldn’t finish watching the movie. I started crying and couldn’t stop. I know what it is to fall in love with a straight woman, and it hurts like hell to lose a woman to a man. I am not in the mood for *any* artwork that unthinkingly glorifies Twue (Het) Wuv, even tragic, doomed, brief True Het Mating Instinct, over the ongoing love and passion and companionship of same-sex relationships.

Nevertheless, what I saw of the film looked good. Very different from the book, but also charming, witty, fun. Jennifer Ehle is an audacious and self-possessed Christabel with a lurking twinkle in her eyes; Gwynneth Paltrow is a believable Maud Bailey. Aaron Eckhart has his charms, but he couldn’t be less like the Roland Michell of the book. Jeremy Northam, on the other hand, makes a fine Victorian poet, passionate yet correct.

Zorba the Greek doesn’t discount same-sex relationships, though they are neither overtly sexual nor overtly romantic. People speak of it always as a warm, life-affirming film in which Basil, a rigid Englishman (played by the young Alan Bates, who was already a fine actor), gets warmed up by contact with an earthy Greek peasant Zorba (played con brio by Anthony Quinn). Well. Not really.

Alan Bostick’s one-word review: “Vile.”

My review: “Misogyny, irresponsibility, deceit, and denial masquerading as freedom and joy and love .”

warning: spoilers ahead for Zorba and Lonesome Dove

Zorba has an affair with an older Frenchwoman, a retired prostitute, whom he secretly despises. (He calls her an old bitch while she sleeps, and he goes off to fool around with a much younger whore.) His lies beguile her, but he can’t really love her; he treats her and speaks to her with too much open contempt. When she dies, the old village women come in and strip her home of everything, leaving her corpse lying alone in bed. She won’t even be buried because she isn’t Greek Orthodox. What happens to her body isn’t revealed. Maybe stray dogs ate her, a suitable ending for Jezebel.

Zorba also advises young Basil to sleep with the gorgeous young widow (Irene Pappas, looking luminous) who has made herself unpopular with the local peasants by refusing to marry one of the young village heroes. Eventually, Basil loosens up enough to do so.

I bet you can’t guess what happens next. Do they find love and friendship? Get married, have a baby, raise some goats and olives? Part in heartbreak with a tender self-sacrificing Casablanca-style scene? No. First the village hero drowns himself in despair. Then the widow, attempting to go to the funeral, is hunted down and murdered in a scene so viciously brutal it left me totally triggered. Zorba made a feeble attempt to save her. Basil just stood there.

Does this tragedy make him re-examine his life? Nope. He takes no responsibility. Zorba asks, “Why do young people have to die?” Well, I’ll tell you why this woman died. She slept with your friend. Against all the rules of that society, and he stood by and let her die, and you did too. But hey, at least he doesn’t have to worry about having to look her in the eye the next day!

The world was very different in 1964. Routine misogyny was omnipresent and invisible, like a specialized carbon monoxide lethal only to women. This movie is a fairy tale of sorts about a young man’s growth; most fairy tales don’t give full emotional and moral weight to the deaths of characters. And because the deaths of both women don’t affect the characters much, they’re readily forgotten by viewers. The friend who recommended the movie to me (who had last seen it 30-odd years ago) had completely forgotten the young widow’s desperate attempts to escape from the murderous villagers with their stones and knives, or her final agonizing moments.

Zorba’s brave laughter in the face of his own failures, his willingness to dance when things go wrong that cannot be fixed, is something I do admire—and in fact something I’m pretty good at. As my grandmother said at the funeral of her much-loved mother-in-law, “We can make a picnic out of anything.” But sometimes denial is dangerous to yourself and other people, and sometimes tragedies have to be faced and felt. But this film fits into a whole series of “don’t look back” movies that came out after World War II and Korea. It’s one way to deal with PTSD.

I prefer the approach of Gus McCrae, one of the two shadow-heroes of Lonesome Dove (another longtime favorite, which I just reread). He says, "The earth is nothing but a boneyard. But pretty in the sunlight." Nevertheless, he doesn't scant or ignore real feeling, and his care of a captive who had been brutalized is both brave and tender.

When I say shadow-heroes, I mean that he and Woodrow Call, his partner in the Texas Rangers and on the cattle drive, are each other's shadows. I suspect that's also happening in Zorba the Greek.

Lonesome Dove is also a fairy tale, but so densely imagined, so beautifully populated with strong characters, history, animals, landscapes, that it works also as a novel. It plays out the ongoing rivalry between civilization and wilderness, the campfire and the hearth, the rough-and-tumble of male companionship and the pleasures and dangers of a life with women. One of the epigraphs says, "What we live, they dreamed. What they lived, we dream."

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